After thirty five years in pastoral ministry I am still sometimes caught out by a question I was not expecting. Earlier this week I drafted a service order for a funeral in church and the committal. As is my custom the draft read “entrance music and on the next line “scripture verses” and then the service continues with welcome, hymn etc.” It is a perfectly reasonable question and it’s because the family want everything correct on the service sheet. It stopped me in my tracks because the truth is I don’t know off hand the references, these are verses with words of hope and comfort from various books in the bible that I have memorised. As I entered the church today for a funeral I began by reciting “I am the resurrection and the life says the Lord .” as I always do and then according to however long it takes for family to find places I add a few more memory verses but I can’t recall chapter and verse for each, they are just lodged in my memory as words of assurance appropriate for the occasion.
They all relate to the hope that we have that there is a life beyond this one which we access through faith in Jesus Christ and not according to how well we have behaved. Being rewarded with gifts according to good behaviour sounds to me more like Father Christmas than our Father in heaven. For me the resurrection and the assurances I draw from that are key components of my faith. Exactly what happened in the early hours of the first Easter Sunday morning is a matter of some debate helped and in some ways not helped by the record in the gospels but of this I am sure Jesus is in some way alive and, as St Paul writes, is interceding for us. Personally I don’t find communion on Easter Sunday morning to be the most helpful way of celebrating Easter but many do and for their sake I will, once again, preside at the Lord’s Supper this year. Exactly what we believe about the new life and how we celebrate it reflects different personalities and traditions but I strongly urge you all to believe in His life and celebrate it.
There is also some variety within the Christian church as to the most appropriate way of approaching the Easter story within our liturgy and public witness. What I find helpful and the components that stand out for me will be different even from some of my readers. For example there is controversy every year as we try to plan Churches Together publicity and any joint events. I have argued every year that I have been here that the Good Friday Procession of Witness should not be silent with sombre faces but it is not an argument that convinces those who actually make the event happen.
The first time I walked the Via del Rosa through Jerusalem was a real learning curve. This involves walking a route through the ancient city of Jerusalem from the Garden of Gethsemane to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, pausing to read short passages and possibly sing a hymn and or say a prayer at each of the Stations of the Cross. Thousands of pilgrims do this in their church groups every day throughout the year. It passes through the Arab parts of Jerusalem as well as the Jewish and Christian ones. The streets are narrow and busy with shoppers and tourists pressing all around. The noise levels are considerable, the aromas from the market stalls that we pass – butchers, spice merchants, grocers, cafes, bakeries etc. fill the senses. At first I struggled with the atmosphere that seemed so at odds with Christ’s journey to the cross. But then it dawned on me, that is how it would have been at the actual event so why not today?
Good Friday ought to unite all Christians of all traditions – indeed its theology does. All Christians believe that the death of Jesus Christ in this humiliating and unjust way is a consequence of human sinfulness including my own short comings. I am truly sorry that my actions selfish and short sighted as they are at times cause others to suffer. This is the experience of all honest believers but for me the overwhelming emotion of Good Friday is gratitude for forgiveness of my sin and the knowledge that nothing can separate me from God’s love in Jesus Christ is paramount. So I don’t feel like being sombre and silent, rather I feel delighted to be so loved and welcomed.
I do hope that the events and services we arrange will help all of you to find an appropriate to engage with the events that changed the world from the triumphal entry (Palm Sunday) to the triumphal entry into eternity (Easter Sunday).