Whether you are reading this online, through one of the social media outlets, via e-mail or post we want to wish you a Happy Easter and to share a few thoughts with you at this strange and difficult time.
Sunday 5th April is Palm Sunday which marks the beginning of Holy Week, the week when Christians traditionally remember, and in some way try to journey with, Jesus on his road to the cross and then on to that glorious first Easter Day.
But, of course, this Holy Week will be like no other with the people of our communities trying to cope with the implications of lock down and social distancing.
I wonder what the impact of these past two to three weeks has been for you? For all of us, at the very least, it will have meant the self-imposed restriction of what we consider to be our normal way of life; an inability to go out other than for a bit of exercise or essential shopping, the loss of face to face contact with family and friends. For some, it will have resulted in an increased struggle to live without the support and networks we have hitherto relied upon. For all of us there will have been anxiety; concerns for ourselves and for those closest to us. And for some, it may have meant illness and even the loss of someone very dear to us.
What has the Christian Gospel, and especially the events of Holy Week, to say to us in this situation? I invite you to look with me at what Jesus experienced in those last days of his earthly life. If you have a Bible, I invite you to read these events for yourself. Each of the Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) record them from slightly different perspectives but, I hope you agree, the power and truth of what happens speaks through each page we read.
On Palm Sunday, we celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (e.g. Matthew 21: 1-11). The crowds cheered him as the one who was going to free them from Roman oppression, but they missed the symbolism of Jesus entering not on a warrior’s stallion but on a donkey, and quickly turned against him when their hopes were not fulfilled in the way they had hoped.
On Maundy Thursday, we see Jesus with his friends preparing to eat what would be his final meal with them. According to John’s Gospel (John chapter 13; verses 1 – 17), Jesus does what only a servant was meant to do and washes his disciples feet. Not only is he setting his disciples an example, that they are called to serve others, but he is saying to them that they, and we, need to let Jesus minister to us – “If I do not wash your feet…..you will no longer be my disciple”.
That what Jesus is about to go through the next day was for us, for you and me, is made even starker when he takes a piece of bread from the supper table, breaks it and says to his disciples “This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22: 19) and then picks up the cup and passes it round the table with the words “This cup is God’s new covenant sealed with my blood, which is poured out for you”. Jesus is saying that his death, which he knows he must face, will be for all of us.
We then follow Jesus into his favourite garden, Gethsemane, where he has previously spent many hours in prayer. He emotionally wrestles with what lies ahead for him (Matthew 26: 36-46). He begs God for another way; a way that will spare him the agonies of crucifixion, yet his ultimate wish is to do the will of God and his final prayer in the garden is one of acceptance, “My Father, if this cup of suffering cannot be taken away unless I drink it, your will be done”.
Within minutes of this prayer being completed, Jesus is arrested, betrayed by one of his closest friends. His other friends desert him and he is left alone to experience a rigged trial, cruel beatings and the ignominy of carrying his own method of execution through the streets of the city into which he had, only a few days earlier, entered a hero.
He dies a traitor’s death, watched by a few jeering soldiers and, further away, a few women including his own mother.
If this was the final act in the drama, it would be a sorry tale. But we know that his death was not the end. Two days later the tomb, heavily guarded by a massive boulder and by armed soldiers, was empty and Jesus began to appear to various people. They didn’t immediately recognise him but Jesus made himself known to them as their risen Lord. He called faithful, desperate Mary by her name and she knew it was Jesus. He journeyed with two dispirited disciples; their hearts were excited as he explained to them what had needed to happen and they recognised him when he broke bread with them at supper. They knew it was Jesus. He made himself personally known to the disbelieving Thomas, even inviting him to look at his wounded hands and thrust his hand into the gaping hole in his side. Thomas knew that it was Jesus but not just Jesus, his friend, but “my Lord and my God” (John 20: 28).
And history was changed for ever. Death was defeated. New life was given, not just to Jesus, but is now available to all who are prepared to place their trust in him, to all who are prepared to allow him to bring his healing into their lives, to all who are willing to take those first tentative steps of following him.
But I return to my earlier question. What has all this got to say to our present situation?
If we are feeling alone, cut off from people we love, we find a fellow sufferer in Jesus who had to experience his darkest times without the support of the friends he cared most about.
If we feel God has deserted us then we are not alone. The words of Jesus on the cross tear across the centuries to us – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27: 46).
If we are suffering, physically or emotionally, we can reach out to the one who experienced the emotional trauma of Gethsemane and the physical agony of the cross. We have a God who knows and who cares. He has been there himself. He did it for us.
Above all, I believe the events of Holy Week and Easter Day give us a reason to hope in our darkest places. Good Friday is followed by Easter Day. The darkness that came upon the earth when Jesus died (Matthew 27:45) was swallowed up by the light of that first Easter Dawn.
As a church we are keen to keep in touch with you and be available to you as much as possible. We will be doing our best to maintain contact with you by phone. We also encourage you, if you are able, to please access our websites or other social media outlets (see below for details), through which we will be providing information about services and other resources to help and encourage you. And you are welcome to ring us if you need practical help or want someone to talk to.
St Stephen’s Church
Tel: 537190 / 07548177638
Weekly email newsletter: subscribe on eepurl.com/bYlqGf
Stephen Everard, Assistant Curate
Tel: 375858 / 07407354021
Katrina Walker, Reader
Tel: 778959 / 07443942922
May we, whatever our circumstances, ask God to help us to find him in the midst of our difficulties and concerns and to know the hope and the life that he brings us.
May God Bless You and all whom you love and care for