Difficult questions

Oct 7th, 2005 | By | Category: Church of Ireland Comment

Our Diocesan Council of Mission met yesterday, our last meeting before our diocesan synod the week after next; it turned my mind towards the words I have to put together for our report at the synod.

One of the old customs that takes place at the funeral of a priest in the Church of Ireland is that the coffin is placed at the head of the nave of the church, as it would be with anyone else, but the other way around. Whereas for most people the feet face towards the east window, the symbolism being that on the last day they will stand to face the Lord who comes as judge of the living and the dead, with a cleric the feet face down the church. On the day of judgement the priest then stands to face the people and is judged by the faith of the people. For those who take their ordination promises seriously this can be a frightening prospect.

The service of ordination to the priesthood from the Book of Common Prayer used in the Church of Ireland until the 1990s, the service with which I and my contemporaries were ordained, contained these stern words of warning:

“Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his Spouse, and his Body. And if it shall happen that the same Church, or any Member thereof, do take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue”.

Anyone who knows me will know that I would be very far from being a fundamentalist, I would be fairly gentle and easy-going, but thinking od the synod speech made me think, what is it that we are really about? What does it mean to be ordained? What does it mean to be a member of the Church? Why do we have a church at all if we don’t take Jesus seriously? The Prayer Book warns of the ‘horrible punishment’ that will ensue for the priest who fails to spell out to people the full implications of the Gospel story. On the day of judgement will Christ be welcomed as king or met with terror?

On a Friday in Jerusalem Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor said to Jesus “You are a king then?”. What a strange sort of king Jesus is. He stands before Pilate. He stands before the man who represents the Roman Empire; he stands before the man who can call on the power of the greatest empire in history; he stands there as king. Pilate has no worldly reason to fear this man, but pilate is terrified. Pilate wants nothing to do with this case. There is rising fear and panic in Pilate’s voice. Pilate tries to humiliate Jesus, the crown of thorns and the purple robe, and Jesus is even greater.

Does the Church believe in this Jesus?

Pilate tries to bargain with the crowd, he is desperate. It is Pilate who becomes powerless. He has not the courage to stand for what is right and true against what is wrong and lies. “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate knows what a monstrous deed this is.

Jesus is brought to Golgotha, the place of the skull, the legendary burial place of Adam. The people understood the meaning of the place, they understood how humanity had fallen from God’s purposes into death and destruction. Adam the first, Jesus the last, the Omega, the one who comes at the end of time as judge of the heavens and the earth?

Does the Church believe in this Jesus?

Jesus is brought to the place of the skull and here he is crucified. Pilate prepares a notice and has it fastened to the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”. The sign is in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. This is a king for all the people. Aramaic was a popular form of Hebrew, it was the language of God’s own people. Latin was the language of the Empire, the language of the rulers and those in high office. Greek was the language of everyday life and trade around the Mediterranean. Jesus is a king for all the people; for the Jews and the foreigners; for the great and the good; for the common and the ordinary.

Does the Church believe in this Jesus?

The soldiers divide Jesus’ clothes between them. A common enough thing to do, a scant reward for a gruesome task. The linen tunic is woven in one piece and they don’t want to tear it. Such a garment was worn by the Jewish high priest. The high priest went into the Temple on the most solemn day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, to offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people. Jesus offers himself on the Cross as an offering for the sins of the people, one and for all time.

Does the Church believe in this Jesus?

To the end Jesus is the master of the situation. He is concerned for his mother and asks John to take care of her. Fulfilling Scripture he receives a drink before crying out, “It is finished”. Saint Matthew includes an account of events that we usually leave out: the curtain in the Temple is torn in two; there is an earthquake; and many holy people are raised to life. Most people, including myself, would be uncomfortable with the description of such events, they don’t sit easily in our modern rational minds.

Does the Church believe in this new man, this Jesus, who comes to succeed where the old man, Adam, failed? Does it believe in this high priest who offers a final and complete sacrifice, offering us a place in heaven through what he has done? Does it believe in this king, this king for every sort and condition of person?

The Prayer Book ordination service gives this instruction,

“see that ye never cease your labour, your care and diligence, until ye have done all that lieth in you, according to your bounden duty, to bring all such as are or shall be committed to your charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of age in Christ”.

In my gentlest, most unassuming English Anglican way, I think I have to ask at diocesan synod, do you believe in this Jesus?

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