Sunday, 12 April 2015

Easter 2: The Innkeeper’s gift – a Sicilian folk tale

There was once an innkeeper in Galilee, and he was the meanest innkeeper you are ever likely to meet. There were no free little pots of peanuts on the bar in his inn. Anything you wanted you had to pay for – even a glass of cold water.
The innkeeper had started to hear stories about a travelling preacher and teacher from the neighbouring town of Nazareth. This man – Jesus – spoke about the generosity of God, how he gave life in all its fullness to anyone who wanted it, free of charge, overflowing. At first the innkeeper was very sceptical. He heard how Jesus had given 5000 people a free meal of loaves and fishes. What was all that about? Jesus had missed a trick there – he could have made a fortune. But for all his disapproval, this preacher’s message stirred something deep in the innkeeper’s heart. In the small hours of the night he would find himself wondering what the world would be like if everyone lived with this sort of generosity, and thinking that it might just be rather good. It was as if a little doorway had opened up in his heart, just a chink, but enough to let the light in.

One morning the innkeeper heard that Jesus and his disciples were on their way into his village, and he thought to himself, “perhaps, just perhaps, today I might try out this generosity the preacher talks about – just for the one day, mind!” So he put a board outside his inn saying “Free food and drink for all!” Everyone in the village was astonished, and none more so than Thomas when he arrived with Jesus and the rest of the disciples. Thomas knew this innkeeper from of old, and he knew how mean he was. What could he possibly be up to? “I won’t believe in this free food and drink” said Thomas, “until I see the plate full in front of me and drink the wine with my own mouth!”
But Jesus said nothing. He just went inside with the others. They sat down at the table and, sure enough, the innkeeper brought them food and drink, the best he had, and plenty of it. Jesus and the rest of the disiples tucked in and enjoyed it, but Thomas ate suspiciously, still convinced that there must be a catch somewhere. At the end of the meal he sidled up to the innkeeper. “I don’t know what you’re up to,” he said, “ but I don’t believe for one moment that you intend us all to eat for free – it’s not in your nature. You must want something from Jesus in return. It just wouldn’t be like you not to.”
The innkeeper was hurt – just for once he had wanted to be generous, to try out this way of life Jesus talked about. He had enjoyed seeing Jesus and his friends eat their meals. He had enjoyed the feeling that he was helping them. But it seemed that even Jesus’ own disciples didn’t really believe in this generosity Jesus talked about, if Thomas couldn’t believe that he could change and be different.
So that little doorway in the innkeepers heart slammed shut.

“Well, if that’s what you think, then I suppose it must be so!” he said to Thomas, and he went over to Jesus and said to him “your friend over there thinks I should ask you for something in return for your meals, so, Jesus, I’d like to ask you a favour.”
“I would have given it to you anyway,” said Jesus, “but ask away!”

“I have a fine fig tree outside the inn, but I never get any figs on it, because as soon as they ripen the village children come and climb the tree and steal them. I want you to curse the fig tree so that anyone who touches it sticks fast to it until I tell them they can go!”

So Jesus did what he asked, and went on his way with Thomas and the rest of the disciples.

The next day when the village children came to raid the fig tree, they found that as soon as they put their hands on it, they were stuck fast, just as the innkeeper had asked. They couldn’t get free, no matter how they twisted and turned, until he gave the word. The message soon got round and after that no one dared try to steal his figs, which was just as well, because the innkeeper, having tried that generosity business once, wasn’t going to try it again. He went right back to his old ways. No one was getting anything free from him again.

Years passed. Jesus was crucified and his friends scattered, but the innkeeper just went on as before. In time, the fig tree grew old and died a natural death, but so that he wouldn’t lose it completely, the innkeeper had its wood made into a little wooden bottle, which he kept his best wine in.
Eventually the innkeeper grew old too, and one day Death came knocking on his door. “Come along with me, old man,” said Death. “You’ve had your time…”
The innkeeper thought fast. He had no intention of giving up his life so easily – he didn’t give anything else away so why should he give this most important thing?
“Of course I will come along with you” he said to Death, “but before I do, I’d like to have just one last drink of my finest wine. Come along in for a minute, while I fetch a glass – perhaps you’d like some too.” Death came in and sat down at the table, while the innkeeper fetched down the little bottle made out of the wood of the fig tree. “The only thing is, “said the innkeeper” that I know a little wasp flew into the bottle and drowned there, and I haven’t been able to get it out. I wonder whether you, being very clever, and I am sure able to get bigger or smaller as you wish, would mind just shrinking yourself down for a minute and hopping into the bottle to fish it out for me?”
Death thought this was a very odd request, but he couldn’t see what the problem might be with it, so he did as the innkeeper asked. But of course, having got into the bottle, he couldn’t get out again, because the wood of that fig tree still had the power to make anyone who touched it stuck fast, even Death. The innkeeper put the stopper back in the bottle, quick as you like, and there was Death. Stuck! And if Death was stuck, no one could die!

Now this might sound like a good thing – the innkeeper thought it was anyway – but actually it wasn’t so simple. Without death, people starting living on and on, even if they were very ill, even if they really didn’t want to and had been looking forward to being with God in heaven. After a while the world was full of people who were really ready to die, but couldn’t.

Up in heaven, St Peter was starting to get worried. No one was coming to the pearly gates at all. He went and spoke to God about it, and God decided he had better get this sorted out. So he sent the Archangel Michael down to see the innkeeper to ask him to let Death go.
The innkeeper by this stage could see that there was, indeed, a bit of a problem, but he wasn’t going to let go without a struggle. “If I let Death out of the bottle I know that I will be one of those he wants to take along with him, and I’m a little worried about that. What if God doesn’t let me into paradise? What if he decides that I have been too mean to deserve a place?” “ I’m sure that won’t be so, “ said Michael, “God is far more generous than we can ask or imagine, but if you want a promise, then God has given me authority to give it to you.”
So the innkeeper let Death out of the bottle and promptly died.

Up went the innkeeper to the gates of heaven, in a great crowd of people all of whom had been waiting to die. It was so busy at the pearly gates that St Peter couldn’t keep up with the rush, so he asked St Thomas to come and give him a hand.

That is how it came to be that the innkeeper found himself once again face to face with Thomas. Thomas looked him up and down and exclaimed “You! – surely you can’t think you could come in here to heaven, not after the life you’ve led and all the trouble you’ve caused”. The innkeeper said that he’d been promised entry by an archangel. But Thomas wouldn’t believe it, so he went himself to speak to God. “Can it really be true that you would let a mean man like that innkeeper into paradise, a man who has never given anything away in his life.” “Now Thomas, actually that isn’t quite true is it,” said God. “There was that day that he fed my Son and all of you for nothing”. “Yes, but he wasn’t really being generous. He was up to something. I knew it. I just couldn’t work out what it was. And look – he went straight back to being mean afterwards. Anyway, look at all the trouble he’s caused!”

But God looked Thomas in the eye. “No Thomas, it is you who has caused the trouble. Because you couldn’t believe that the innkeeper could change, because you couldn’t be generous in spirit to him and give him the chance he needed, the door in his heart slammed shut, and the little bit of light he’d seen and might have shared was snuffed out. Perhaps before you accuse someone else of being ungenerous you might look at yourself in the mirror first? Believing in the resurrection doesn’t just mean believing that I raised my Son from death; it also means believing that I can raise anyone to new life and change them. ”

And God went to the gates of heaven and welcomed the innkeeper himself into paradise, where there is life and love freely given in abundance to all who want it.

*This story is my own version of this story, drawn from sources including Italo Calvino and Robert Bela Wilhelm, among others.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Easter Evening: Known and loved

Easter Evening 2015

The encounter between Mary and the Jesus in the garden where he was raised from death is one of the most famous of all Jesus’ resurrection experiences, and one of the most beautiful.

Mary comes to the garden to find that the stone has been rolled away and the tomb is empty. She breaks down in tears. Bad enough that Jesus is dead, but to find his body stolen is too much. Angry and bewildered she begs the man she takes for the gardener to tell her where the body is.
But the man calls her by name, and suddenly she knows it is Jesus.

We don’t know much about Mary Magdalene, and much of what we think we know is really just speculation. The Gospels simply say that Jesus cast seven demons out of her and that she then followed him right up to his death and, as we see here, beyond it. We also know that Jesus trusted her to take the news of his resurrection back to the other disciples, who were still in hiding after his crucifixion. That’s why she’s sometimes called the Apostle to the Apostles, the one who is sent to those who will themselves be sent out to carry the news of the resurrection to the world. But that is about all we know.

We don’t know how old she was. Painters always paint her as young, but she could have been old enough to be Jesus’ grandma. Nor do we know what she looked like though every painter depicts her as beautiful. We don’t know that she was a prostitute either; the assumption of generations of Christians that this was so probably says more about them than about her! Then there are all the wilder speculations of the conspiracy theorists – that she and Jesus were secretly married and that she bore his child for example. Needless to say there is even less evidence for these than there is for any of those other guesses – no evidence at all actually.  What is obvious, though, is that Jesus mattered to her, and that she mattered to him too.

So we might wonder why, if Jesus is so important to her, she doesn’t recognise him straight away when she meets him in the garden.  Of course, she’s not expecting to see him, but isn’t this a face she would know anywhere?

Apparently not, and she’s not alone. Other disciples fail to recognise Jesus too. He walks seven miles to the village of Emmaus with a pair of them before they twig who he is. Either they were blinded by their assumption that it couldn’t be him, or he somehow, subtly, looked different.

But eventually Mary catches on, and it is the moment when he calls her name that breaks through whatever it is that is clouding her sight.

He calls her name. He knows who she is. And that is what convinces her.

This is a story all about knowing and being known. She recognises Jesus because he has recognised her not just superficially, but deep down.

Malcolm Guite’s poem assumes that she is the unnamed sinner who anoints Jesus with oil from an alabaster jar when he is at dinner in the house of a prominent Pharisee (Luke 7.36-50). Everyone else there is scandalised. Surely Jesus should know what sort of woman she is. But that doesn’t matter to him. What does matter is that she is there, and that she wants his help. “One man knew and loved you to the core” he says, while all the others “burden [her] with their own weight of sin”. Whether Mary Magdalene was that woman or not, in that society any woman who stepped out of her allotted role was likely to find herself treated like a loose woman  “no better than she ought to be”, so it is quite reasonable to assume that Mary Magdalene had carried the same sort of stigma. Being treated like that is likely to leave you feeling grubby and devalued, even if your life is actually beyond reproach. If enough people tell you that you are worthless, you’ll eventually feel that way. But Jesus had proclaimed the opposite, not just to Mary, but to all who came to him. He had seen beneath the surface of people’s lives, and it changed them forever.

When this stranger in the garden calls her by name, it all comes flooding back. This is a man who knows her, and knowing her, loves her too. It doesn’t matter what his face looks like, any more than it matters what hers was like – young or old, beautiful or scarred by the life she’d led. There is a knowledge we can all have of one another that is far more than skin deep, and it is very precious when we find it. It is especially precious when we discover that God knows and loves us like that. As St Paul put it in our first reading, “now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part, but then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

That kind of love, love born of true and deep knowledge, can’t die. It can’t be lost. And it can change the world.
This is the love we celebrate on this Easter Day, the love of God which knows us through and through, and can raise us to new life, just as it raised Jesus.

Easter Sunday: The Kingdom of God and the Promised Land

This year Easter coincides with the Jewish feast of Passover.  It doesn’t always, which might seem strange, because the Gospels tell us that that was when Jesus was crucified, but over the centuries Christians and Jews have developed different ways of organising their calendars, and that means the two feasts can fall several weeks apart now.
Here’s how it works…because I’m sure you’ve always wanted to know…

Easter Sunday is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring equinox – got that? - which means that the date can vary by anything up to a month.
If you think that’s complicated wait till you hear about  Passover. Passover starts on the 15th day of the month in the Jewish calendar called Nisan, so you’d think it would stay in the same place every year. But it doesn’t, because the Hebrew calendar is made up of 12 lunar months of about 29 days. 12 times 29 doesn’t add up to 365, so gradually the Jewish year slips backwards through the seasons. To correct it, every now and then they add in a whole extra month and have a year of 13 months.

Confused? Yes, so am I. But the upshot of it all is that Easter and Passover both move backwards and forwards , but under different systems, so they aren’t moving in tandem.

But this year they come together – Passover started on Friday night. So it seemed as good a year as any to think about what these two feasts have to do with each other, and why it might matter that Jesus died and rose when he did.   

Passover celebrates the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, parting the waters of the Red Sea to escape from the Egyptian army.  It celebrates their deliverance from that terrible final plague that fell on the Egyptians, the killing of the firstborn. The angel of death literally “passed over” their homes, which they’d marked with the blood of lambs they’d sacrificed. It celebrates the start of the journey towards the Promised Land, where they’d eventually make a new life and build a new community.

When Jesus and his disciples gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover festival at which he’d be crucified, these were the stories and images that would have been in their minds.  They’d have been thinking of freedom, of new beginnings, of journeys to a new land flowing with milk and honey. How they thought Jesus and his message fitted into all this, if they thought of it at all, we just don’t know. Some of them may have wondered if Jesus was a new Moses, a new leader sent to rescue them. Some of them certainly hoped he would deliver them from the oppression of the Romans, as Moses had delivered the slaves from the oppression of Pharaoh.

Whatever they hoped though, the crucifixion put paid to their dreams. Jesus was dead. There had been no last minute rescue, no “passing over” the suffering and death of the cross. There was no deliverance, for Jesus or for them.

And there were no followers either, or at least, none that counted. Moses had led thousands of people out of Egypt, but Jesus was alone as he hung on the cross. Even his closest friends had deserted him. The only people who’d showed their faces anywhere near the scene of his death were a handful of women who’d supported him in his ministry as he had travelled around preaching and healing. In a  society that believed women’s voices weren’t worth listening to, what good was that?

So anyone who’d been thinking of Jesus as the new Moses would have consigned those ideas to the dustbin when he died.  Moses had won. The Israelites had escaped from Egypt. Pharaoh’s armies had been swept away as the waters of the Red Sea closed on them. But Jesus had lost. He was the one who had been overwhelmed by the deep waters of death.

And so Jesus lay buried in a borrowed tomb, with a stone rolled across the entrance. And that , it seemed, was that.

At this point the focus of Mark’s Gospel, which we heard just now, shifts to those women, the ones who’d been watching from afar when Jesus died. Frankly there was no one else to focus on. The rest of the disciples were hiding, and those who’d crucified Jesus were trying as hard as they could to forget he’d ever existed.  But these women don’t seem to have been able to stay away. Whatever the world thought of them, they knew that Jesus had valued them, and even if he was dead, something had changed in them forever. They couldn’t just abandon the memory of this man who had talked to them, listened to them, debated with them just as he had with his male disciples. They were determined to do for him what they’d do for any of their loved ones who had died; anoint his body with spices and oils, give him the dignity in death that he had given them in life. It wasn’t much, but it mattered to them to do this.

On that Sunday morning, they were expecting to find Jesus just where they’d left him. They’d been there when he was buried, and all they could talk about on the way to the graveyard was how they were going to move that heavy stone away.  But when they got there the stone had already been moved and the tomb was empty.  A mysterious “young man” – an angelic figure – told them that Jesus had been raised from death, but none of it made any sense to them, and Mark’s Gospel ends with them running away in terror and confusion.

Most Biblical scholars believe that very early on in the church’s history the last page of the Gospel was simply lost.  It wasn’t meant to end this way. But I quite like the cliff-hanger it’s left us with.  We share the surprise and bewilderment of the women.  “What’s going on? What’s going to happen next?” they wonder, and so do we. They thought they’d reached the end of the road, but now they find that they are really at the start of a whole new journey.

As the early Christians – people like these women - pondered this story, echoes of the Passover started to chime loud and clear in a new way.

This too was a story about freedom, they realised, just like the Passover stories. If Christ had been raised, then he must have been sent by God to them and the things he had told them about God and themselves were true; they really were of infinite worth to God, as he had told them. And they were on their way to a new Promised Land, a place where the poor and the marginalised  - people like them – really mattered.   

Jesus had talked about this world all along of course, this new Promised Land. He’d called it the kingdom of God. He’d said that you found it not by trekking through the desert like Moses and the Israelites, but growing gradually through acts of love and justice. It didn’t have borders drawn on a map; anyone could be part of it if they wanted to. And it grew from small beginnings, right where you were. It might seem no bigger than a mustard seed or a grain of yeast, but it could grow big enough to change the world. And though it continued after death, it started right now.

Like the nation that was formed during that first Exodus through the desert with Moses, people would need to learn to live together in this kingdom, and it wouldn’t always be easy. But whoever you were, whatever you’d done, you’d be welcome – Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, rich and poor, women and men, and children too. It was a new start – exciting, but challenging too.

There’s a great poem by the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas called The Kingdom, which describes perfectly the Promised Land these women found themselves catapulted into on that Easter Day.  I quoted it in this month’s parish newsletter, but I’d like to read it today too. It talks about the Kingdom, the Promised Land, as seeming far off – very different from the way the world seems to work – but also very close, right here and now where any of us can reach out and touch it as we live out its values. This is what Thomas wrote:

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

And that brings me back to where I started, with the date of Easter . In a sense, you see, it doesn’t really matter when Easter is at all because if we are serious about living in the Kingdom of God, helping it grow, being part of its community, then every day is Easter day. Every day is a day of resurrection and new hope, of love that defeats the hatred of the world and life that overcomes the power of death. Every day is a day when we can begin again, when we can hear the angel’s voices proclaiming that Christ has been raised and that God in his love can raise us too if we will let him. Alleluia!

Friday, 3 April 2015

Good Friday: God's "Yes"

One of the displays you will find in church this afternoon explores an idea which has become central
The twig cross was made at Messy Church in the morning.
We added purple ribbons as our prayers of sorrow or concern
and gold ribbons for our thanksgiving.
to Christian faith; the atonement. Atonement is a word which was invented around the time of the English Reformation by those who first translated the Bible from Latin into English – translators like Wycliffe and Tyndale. They couldn’t find an exact match for the Latin “reconciliare” – reconciliation wasn’t a word that was used then – so they had to think up something new. The word they came up with was as obvious and literal as they could make it. Atonement is really “at-one-ment” . It is something that brings things, or people, together, something that makes them “at one” again.

The word was new, but the idea wasn’t. Of course it wasn’t. “At-one-ment” is a very basic human desire, whether we have any religious belief or not. We all know what it feels like to be “at one” with someone, that deep sense of peace when we don’t have to explain ourselves, when we know that there is no unfinished business, no hidden agenda, that we are pulling in the same direction.
And we know just as well, perhaps even better, what it feels like not to be “at one” with people – to be at odds with them instead. We know about ruptured relationships and broken promises and that dreadful sense that it’s all gone wrong somehow.  It’s not just other people we might feel at odds with. We can feel at odds with ourselves, knowing that all is not well within us. We can feel at odds with creation, beset by illness, baffled by natural disaster. And we can feel at odds with God, distant from him, angry with him, or afraid that he is angry with us.

The first followers of Jesus knew the difference between these two states just as well as we do. They suffered the same kinds of problems as us, and a whole lot more of their own too. They lived under the rule of Rome, and they knew that the occupying forces they saw around them every day would be brutal to those who opposed them. They lived in a world where life was fragile and often unfair, a world where power, strength and wealth bought you security, but where the weak and the sick had very few safety nets to sustain them.

But into their world, with all its brokenness, came Jesus. And throughout his ministry he brought about atonement, making people “at one” with themselves, with each other and with God. He did it as he healed and as he taught. He did it as he welcomed and loved those whom no one else noticed or cared about. He did it as he declared God’s forgiveness and set people free from the burdens that weighed them down. He did it as he showed them a new way of life and made them part of a new community, helping them to become the people God had wanted them to be. When he was around they found themselves made whole again – that’s another way of describing at-one-ment.

But then, because of the message he preached and lived, he was crucified. The brokenness of the world broke him, as he knew it would. You didn’t have to be a prophet, let alone the Son of God, to see it coming. Real at-one-ment – putting things back to rights - means change, and change is threatening, especially for those who have the most to lose, those at the top of the heap, those with the power.   So Jesus, who had come to make us “at one” found himself broken apart; broken physically, broken from those he loved as his friends betrayed and deserted him. Even his relationship with his Father seemed to have been broken as he cried out “why have you forsaken me?” It seemed as if death had had the last laugh, the final word, as if all the at-one-ment he had achieved through his ministry had had been a cruel lie.

George Orwell, in his novel 1984, described a totalitarian and deeply hopeless society, where the state exercised absolute control and dedicated itself to eradicating joy and love from the world. If you want a picture of the future,” says one of the government agents in the story “imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

If the Christian story stopped at Good Friday, that would be the image we’d be left with too. No life, no light, no future. No is the word that echoes through Good Friday. The message that Jesus had brought seemed to have come to nothing. Love had come to nothing. Hope had come to nothing.

But of course, the story doesn’t end there. We should never hurry through this day and the day that follows it. We should never brush away the reality of despair and suffering that Christ and his disciples felt as he hung on the cross or lay in the tomb. We need to keep this time of desolation, because at some point in our lives we will all feel that sense of utter hopelessness. If it hasn’t happened yet, it one day will, and knowing  that Christ has been there too can be the only thing that gets us through.  
But we can’t tell the story of Good Friday without an awareness of Easter Sunday, just around the corner, out of sight at the moment, but still there. And Easter Sunday proclaims that however all-enveloping the “No” of the cross seems to be, in the light of Easter it becomes part of God’s great triumphal “yes”. We see in it not just the death and the pain, but the commitment and the love which led Jesus to it, commitment and love which were not given in vain. It is this “yes” which truly has the last word.  

As St Paul put it, “In Christ every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’ For this reason it is through him that we say the ‘Amen’, to the glory of God. “(2 Corinthians 1.20 ).  In the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus – and they all go together in the end – we hear God’s ‘yes’ to us; his ‘yes’ to the possibility of life when all seems dead, his ‘yes’ to the possibility of change when all seems stuck,  his ‘yes’ that gives us hope when everything in our lives seems to be screaming “no”.

In a moment, the choir are going to sing an anthem which picks up this message. It is a prayer for God’s help to increase our faith, to change our lives, to bring us the “at-one-ment”, the wholeness which is not only our deepest desire, but also what our world needs most. “Sweet Jesus, say ‘amen’” it ends. “Say yes” – that is what ‘amen’ means.  And we make that prayer in confidence, because we make it to Christ whose whole being and life, whose death and resurrection, are God’s atoning “yes” to us.  


O Lord, increase my faith, often attributed to Orlando Gibbons, but probably by Henry Loosemore. The youtube clip here isn't of our choir, of course, but we made a good sound too!

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Maundy Thursday and Tenebrae

“And it was night.”

Those few words – four in English, just three in the Greek original – are absolutely key to this story, the pivot around which John’s account of the Last Supper revolves. In a sense, they are the pivot around which his whole Gospel revolves. They aren’t just telling us about the time of day; they are telling us about cosmic time, about what is happening at the deep heart of everything as Jesus moves towards his death. It is a point of no return. Judas goes out to betray Jesus, “and it was night”.

As we end this service we will enact those words in the service of – Tenebrae – it means shadows in Latin – as we blow out the candles in the Lady Chapel one by one, leading us into a “night” that will stretch right through to Easter Sunday.  

John’s Gospel is full of the language of light and darkness. It begins with the beautiful passage we hear at Christmas “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
John goes on to tell us story after story about people seeing the light, or being blind to it. Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night” to question him. He’s in the dark, but he’s caught a glimmer of something in Jesus that he wants to know more about. A man born blind is healed. He sees the light, but the religious experts around him are baffled and offended. All they can see is that Jesus has broken the rules because he healed him on the Sabbath when work was forbidden. Who is it that is really in the dark here? Not the man born blind but those who choose not to see what is glaringly obvious. “I am the light of the world,” says Jesus. As John put it at the beginning he is “the light [that] shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” 

But just at this moment, as Judas slips away, it doesn’t look like that at all. We may know that Easter Sunday is just around the corner, but Jesus’ followers don’t. The darkness looks as if it is very definitely going to overcome Jesus. “It was night.”

I have to confess, at this point, that actually the set Gospel reading for Maundy service is supposed to miss out this bit about Judas, skipping from verse 17 to verse 31, from the footwashing to Jesus’ words about loving one another.  But it seemed to me that this distorts the message of the story. If we chop this bit out it just becomes a story about a bunch of people who have a lovely meal together – with some mildly embarrassing stuff about having your feet washed - and that’s not how it was. It isn’t how it is for us either. It turns the Last Supper into the kind of family meals beloved of the advertising agencies. Everyone’s smiling. The food’s perfect.  Wise words are being shared. The children are eating their sprouts… I mean… whose family is that? Family gatherings can be wonderful, full of love and joy, but every family I know, including my own, also has its fair share of tensions, resentments, anxieties and squabbles. Did we have to invite Uncle Fred and Cousin George – we know they get on each other’s nerves? Please don’ t let anyone ask how Julie’s boyfriend is – I know he’s dumped her, but no one else does.  And what’s with Aunt Susan? She’s hardly said a word, and I’m sure I saw her kicking Uncle John under the table…
That’s real life, and the Last Supper was real life too, so it matters that we hear the whole story, not just the bits we want to hear.  

One of those sitting at the table with Jesus – Simon Peter – supposedly one of his closest friends - is about to deny even knowing him. Another, Judas, is going to betray him. And none of the rest really have a clue what is going to happen, despite him trying to tell them. How lonely must that feel?

The light of the world is sitting there in their midst, but they have their eyes tight shut to it, through ignorance, through weakness, through their own deliberate fault, as our confession puts it.

At this point, their failings may seem relatively trivial. Even Judas probably started out meaning well, wanting to follow Jesus. But gradually something changed. Dissatisfaction crept in. Things weren’t going the way he wanted them to. Maybe even at this late stage he doesn’t mean for Jesus to die, but it will all get out of hand.
Peter’s flaws might not have seemed significant either. Ok, he’s all bluster on the surface, and we know he sometimes doesn’t follow through – but it never occurs to him that when push comes to shove, his fear will get the upper hand and he will abandon his promise, and his friend.
Even those who most actively plotted for Jesus’ death – the powerful religious elites that decide to get rid of him – were not monsters. They were just trying to pick their way through a dangerous world as best they could, protecting themselves and their families. Who wouldn’t? But somewhere along the way, they lose sight of the humanity of those around them and convince themselves that it is all right to sacrifice one man – even if he is innocent – to preserve the status quo. “Father forgive them,” says Jesus, as they nailed him to the cross, “they don’t know what they are doing.”

The darkness that covers the earth as the Light of the World is eclipsed by sin isn’t caused by some dramatic cosmic force of evil. It’s made up of a million of tiny shadows – tenebrae - little shreds of darkness that we all produce when we neglect to care, when we allow self-interest to triumph over the love God calls us to share.

Like so many of our family gatherings, Jesus’ Last Supper is a strange and awkward event, with all sorts of simmering tensions and mixed feelings under the surface, but the extraordinary thing is that he still chooses to be there, to spend the last night of his earthly life with this mixed up, treacherous bunch of people. And he commands us to be there too, gathered with him and with one another as we “do this, in remembrance of him”. He commands us  to come together as we are, to welcome one another as we are, to stick to one another as we are, differences and all, resentments and all, with all our failings and flaws, however terrible. He commands us to do that because it only when we do that we can discover what love is really all about, and how powerful it truly is, powerful enough to drive back the darkness of hatred, powerful enough even to raise the dead.