Watch a drama series on television these days and there will usually be a recognition that many people will miss some of the episodes. So at the beginning of each episode you get a recap, and then at the end they give everything away by telling you what’s going to happen next week. It helps to know the whole story. Though it’s much better to actually watch it all yourself instead of relying on a brief two minute recap.
Holy Week is a bit like that. We had episode 1 on Sunday with the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and the reading of the Passion gospel gave us a preview of episode 3 of the story. Last night was episode 2 with the Last Supper. And we saw how Jesus, our Lord and our God, got down on the floor and washed feet. And today, here we are with episode 3 proper – and the Passion story told again, but this time by John. And while many will engage with episode 1 on Palm Sunday, and then episode 4 on Easter Day, they will miss out episodes 2 and 3 because – rather like a television series being badly scheduled, episodes 2 and 3 happen on weekdays.
Those who, this week, only come to church on Sundays but stay away on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, will have missed out the key part of the story. It’s a bit like someone reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. You read volume one, The Fellowship of the Ring, and then go straight to volume three, The Return of the King. You miss out volume two, The Two Towers, and are a little puzzled when events in volume three don’t make a lot of sense. Actually, I’ve known people who’ve read volume two as well but still can’t make sense of Tolkien’s book – but let’s not go down that route, or my analogy will break down.
Why is it that so many avoid facing the reality of the middle part of the story – of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday? Avoid the embarrasment of Jesus washing feet. Avoid facing up to the despair that is the cross? Why will Christians – even members of this church – find the time to go shopping on Good Friday but not find the time to come to Church? I’m actually very shocked that that happens. The Revd Dr William White tried to answer that question in the Church Times: He said: We have our own ways of avoiding the utter horror of the crucifixion. Some get through Easter by ignoring it, and focusing only on the resurrection. Others do not look at the Cross as a place of human pain, but think of it only as a symbol. Still others are more concerned with the abstractions of theology than with the fact that Jesus actually suffered and died there: viewing the Cross as an unfortunate necessity for the atonement rather than as the instrument of utter abjection that it undoubtedly was.
Last night we reflected on the meaning for us of that quite outrageous act of Jesus, when he took off his outer garments, took a towel, and washed the feet of his disciples. We reflected on Peter’s refusal to have his feet washed and the subsequent insistence of Jesus that he do so. We refelected on our own unwillngness to have our feet washed by Jesus, ,even though we know he told Peter off! And we reflected on the reality of how Jesus wants to wash our feet to set us an example of how to live out the new commandment of love.If we cannot carry out the example that Jesus set us, how can we then live out the new commandment?
Today we are brought before the cross – and we stand with Mary, the mother of Jesus, the other women, and with John. We watch him die – and we come face to face with the reason for that death. And the reason for that death is not comfortable – sin. your sin, my sin. Not someone else’s.
For many the reality is so uncomfortable that they cannot face up to it. Others believe that it is someone else’s sin – not theirs – that is the cause. Many years ago someone who claimed to be a Christian once said to me very angrily, after I had been speaking in general about Jesus dying on the cross for our sins: “How dare you say that I’m a sinner! I’ve never sinned!” It can be very difficult to accept that, as Saint Paul puts it, we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. For Jesus died for your sin and my sin – and the sin of everyone who ever lived and who ever will live.
We are all guilty, and only the death of Jesus can take that guilt away in order that we might have life. For on that cross Jesus paid the price for our sin and conquering death, gives us new life. Jesus became the fulfilment of the Old Testament idea of sacrifice – the scapegoat on whom the sins of the people were laid, the paschal Lamb sacrificed for the people, because a price had to be paid for the people’s sins. Sacrificing animals, of course, could never achieve the wiping out of the people’s sins, but Jesus achieved that on the cross – God paying the price for his own people.
As the hymn writer Stuart Townend puts it, as we have sung twice this Lent:
Till on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live
And perhaps that is why so many cannot really come to terms with the cross. For each and every Christian must accept that it was their sin that put him there. Yours and mine. Not anyone else’s. It’s no good turning round and pointing at other people and saying “but they’re guilty too,” or “I haven’t really done much wrong in my life,” or “I’m not as bad as him.”
We cannot truly live until we have grasped the reality of what Christ has done for us, the reality of our own humanity that needs the forgiveness that Christ gives us from the cross – for only when we come to terms with that can we truly grasp the reality that is resurrection. Unless we come to terms with the sacrifice made upon the cross for our sin, and acknowledge our need for forgiveness, we will never fully realise what the new life Jesus offers us is really all about. If you cannot begin to understand what happened on the cross, if you cannot face up to the reality of what happened, not fully appreciate your sins being wahed clean, how can you ever fully appreciate the amazing new and eternal life that Jesus gives you as a result? Or – as it has been so well put – unless you are prepared to live through the night you cannot enjoy the glory of the sunrise.
And the cross will continue to be something we avoid instead of being, as Isaac Watts put it in his great hymn on the death of Jesus, a “wondrous” cross.
I’m going to finish with a short time of meditation – a reading another of Stuart Townend’s great hymns, a hymn that is a reflection on the meaning of the cross. Let us pray.
How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He would give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure
How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One
Bring many sons to glory
Behold the Man upon a cross
My guilt upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers
It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished
I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no powr’s, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom