It’s funny how some things come together at a certain point in time to make you re-imagine an image that you have held for a very long time. At the moment I’m delving into Paul’s letter to the Romans for a series of Sunday studies and Thursday discussions, so am finding out a bit more than usual. I’ve been reading commentaries on Paul’s letters, and on the Acts of the Apostles for decades, and never before have I come across the information that the name Paul is a Latin baby name, and in Latin the meaning of the name Paul is ‘little, small.’ Being born a Roman citizen, he probably had three names in the common Latin format, and that his other name, ‘Saul,’ which we know from Acts, was likely one he took when going to study in Jerusalem.
So that’s one piece of the new image jig-saw. The second is that the latest member of our extended family was born prematurely, and only weighs just over three pounds. We are praying for her and all her loved ones, because she is tiny, being born before her time.
These two pieces of the picture came together and sparked off another memory of a comment that Paul makes about himself and when he became an Apostle: ‘Then [the Risen Jesus] appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one untimely born (1 Cor 15:7f).’ ‘Untimely born’! What if Paul was using this metaphor not just because his call to be an Apostle was later than the others, but also because it was actually part of his own experience – that he had been born prematurely, and because he was a tiny baby, was called ‘Paul.’ I’ve never really heard a fully convincing explanation of why Paul chose that metaphor, but it would certainly make sense if this was part of his personal history.
There’s one last piece of this jig-saw, and that is the traditional images of Paul in the icons of the Church. He is always a small man, with reddish, receding hair and a beard. Of course we don’t have photos of him, but these icons of the memories of those who knew him and passed on stories about him may have more than a grain of truth to them.
So there we have it. The great Apostle to the Gentiles: Tiny. A small man who was also a colossus.
Oh, and there’s that other Apostle who was sent mainly to the Jews – Simon, called Peter, which means, Rock, or as the great Biblical commentator, Raymond Brown, called him, ‘Rocky.’
Rocky and Tiny – the great Apostles of Jesus to the Jews and the Gentiles.
This short Good Friday reflection was given at the service in Priestfield Church.
We walked through the streets of Newington this morning, a small band of pilgrims carrying a simple cross made of the trunks of two Christmas trees bound together. While we were on this journey from Craigmillar Park to Nicolson Square, the world around us just seemed to be going about its normal business. There were people selling things in shops; in cafés, friends were meeting for coffee and scones; workmen were putting up a new shop frontage.
It occurred to me that this is how it would have been that first Good Friday in Jerusalem. Tens of thousands of people were there for the festival, and the traders would be out selling their wares to all who passed by. The streets would be heaving, barely aware of the little procession passing through as a cadre of Roman soldiers marched a bloodied and beaten man to his execution. They didn’t have far to go, but it took them a while to get there, and he was so weak that they had to commandeer someone to carry the cross beam for him.
And then they arrived at the place. They call it Skull – a piece of gallows humour for this killing ground. It was at Skull they crucified Jesus, and if ever a method of execution was invented for the pleasure of torturing the condemned, it was crucifixion. Men could last for days if they had the strength, and it made it a lot more fun for the crowds. It was also a good warning to those who might have thoughts of crime or revolution in their heads: this is what we Romans do to those who get in our way.
The Place called Skull; the place of crucifixion; the place of greatest paradox and mystery for the Christian faith.
A paradox is holding two things to be true that would seem to conflict. Like, God cannot die; Jesus, the Son of God, died on the cross. How can this be?
A mystery is something that we cannot adequately explain: at Christmas we ponder on the mystery of the incarnation – that in Jesus, God became human. On Good Friday, we ponder on the mystery of Christ’s suffering – that through this violent death of Jesus, God deals with the evil in us and in the world, bringing about our salvation. Ever since that first Good Friday, Christians have sought to explain how that ‘works.’ They used many word pictures, from the court, from the slave market, from the life of the Temple – all of them say something, but none of them can convey it fully, for the way in which Jesus’ death ‘works’ to bring about our salvation is, ultimately, lost in mystery.
This leads us to the fact that there is another paradox at the place called Skull: this experience of darkness and suffering was, for Jesus, a time when he sensed the absence of God – ‘Why have you forsaken me,’ taking upon his lips the words of Psalm 22. Yet in this event of cosmic significance, God has never been more present, dealing with the root causes of suffering and evil, sin and guilt – of all that negates our wellbeing – so that we would experience God’s life and shalom, God’s salvation.
It seems that someone unexpected grasped that something very special was happening at Skull that day – the Roman centurion. One didn’t become a centurion by being squeamish. It was the job of a hardened veteran who had seen many deaths in battle, and who had had to endure the vicious cursing of those being crucified by his troops. But this man Jesus was not like that. In fact, he seemed to take this suffering to himself as if it belonged to him. Even the earth was behaving strangely, with noon feeling more like midnight.
When Jesus breathed his last, surrendering his life with a cry at the top of his voice, this man with hardened experience of soldiering bears witness at the end of Mark’s Gospel to the truth of Mark’s assertion at the beginning of his Gospel by saying, ‘Surely, this man was the Son of God.’
It is this man, the subject of paradox, the centre of mystery, whom we worship as Son of God. It is this man who has, by his suffering and death, effected our salvation – he has borne our sins and carried our sorrows. It is this man we follow, and in following find that we too must take up the cross. But rather than finding only death through the cross, we find life – God’s life of the age to come.
The following is a brief reflection given on Maundy Thursday 2016 at our local ecumenical early morning service.
John 13: 31b – 35
31b Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. 32 If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.
33 ‘My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: where I am going, you cannot come.
34 ‘A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’
Picture the scene at Brussels airport: a family are saying goodbye to a parent. There are hugs and tears, and the parent says, ‘I love you, and remember you be good to each other – I want you to love each other the way I love you.’ The family turn and start to make their way home; the parent goes to the check-in, and all of a sudden there’s an explosion. Death tears the family apart, and the final words the family shared take on a much greater significance than they did when they all expected to meet up again before long. I don’t know if this scenario played out the way I’ve suggested, with exactly the words I used, but it’s likely that something very similar took place when a mother said goodbye to her husband and children.
On that first Maundy Thursday, when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, he told them to love one another the way he had loved them. They were expecting life to go on much as usual after the Passover festival. It has been an exciting and exhilarating time for them over the last few years – a roller-coaster experience of highs and lows as they accompanied Jesus on his mission to the villages of Galilee, or were sent out in twos to put into practice what they had learned from him, or stood beside him in his conflicts with the religious leaders of the day. That conflict seemed particularly intense this year. And round the Passover table he had said a few confusing things about the bread and wine as his body and blood. It will all blow over soon the way it had before.
But it didn’t. Instead, there was the trauma of Jesus being arrested, taken from them because of the kiss of Judas; then Jesus was tortured, humiliated and crucified. They had thought this was going to be just one more Passover in Jerusalem, but they were wrong, and Jesus was snatched away from them by betrayal and death.
So these words came to mean much more to them than they ever imagined: a command from Jesus, for us to love one another. And not just love one another, but love one another the way I have loved you.
When, Tertullian, the early Church Father from North Africa, imagined the pagan people of his time speaking about Christians, he wrote, ‘See how these Christians love one another.’ For the people of his time seemed to be more interested in plotting against and killing one another. The contrast between pagan and Christian was stark in his society, to the extent that it spoke volumes to those with ears to hear. Could we say the same today without the words being coated with a heavy layer of irony? Too often in the West, Christians have become known for violent rhetoric and political shenanigans. ‘See how these Christians love one another,’ as another Christian bites the dust, torn asunder by the congregational lions. Perhaps I exaggerate, but only just.
If ever there was a time when society needed its Christians to show love, and to show others how to love, it is now. We are encompassed with suspicion and terror; migrants and asylum seekers are being demonised and blamed for many of the ills we have created; political rhetoric is engendering aggression rather than reasoned debate. Society needs its Christians to heed the command of Jesus to love one another. It is a command, not to have a nice warm feeling about other people, but to live out in action the kind of sacrificial love he had for us that led him to the cross.
We will find that in loving one another that we cannot stop with one another. Loving our Christian sisters and brothers will prove a good testing ground for loving those whom our society discards so readily. Our Mission Impossible is to spread Christ’s loving action, but it becomes a Mission Possible through the power of his resurrection and the indwelling of his Pentecostal Spirit.
May it be that the people of our time will be able to look at the Christians in this area and say, ‘See how they love.’ Amen.
Apologies to those who have found the family newsletter difficult to download. Here’s a low resolution version which I hope you can read.
warmest Christmas greetings and all good wishes for 2016!
Jared, Jane, Catriona and Ian Hay!
1:1-8 Prologue, greetings, doxology
John’s Scroll (the whole book)
1:9 – 3: 22 Instruction to write on a scroll; letters to Churches.
John is instructed to write on a scroll what he sees and send it to the seven Churches in Asia. He records specific messages from Jesus to each of them.
4:1 – 5:14 In the worship of heaven, God’s Scroll is introduced
6:1 – 11:18 Preparation for what is in God’s Scroll: it is unsealed with accompanying cycles of disaster, each cycle telling the same story of sin, judgement, lack of repentance in spite of the witness of the Church. Each cycle concludes with ‘the end’ seen as the victory of God and his people in the worship of heaven.
11:19 – 22:17 The Story of God’s Scroll is told: God’s salvation (seen as a new Exodus) and opposition to it (seen in the form of ‘Babylon’ which is a symbol of Rome). Despite the opportunity through the ‘plagues’ (as in Egypt), there is no repentance as the ‘Evil Empire’ continues to oppose the Kingdom of God. The armies of heaven, led by the Lamb, defeat the armies of the Beast. The Empire opposing God collapses, its city is destroyed and the city of God, the New Jerusalem, comes down from heaven to earth – creation is renewed as the permanent dwelling place of God and his people, like an ultimate ‘Eden.’
22:18-21 Epilogue: God’s Scroll and John’s Scroll conclude with warnings and promises.
Jared Hay, September 2015.