Tag Archives: Saint John

23 November: The King VII, Jesus.

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Should we understand Pilate’s question as a signal that he is now ready to listen? I don’t think so. Had Jesus detected even a hint of sincere open-mindedness in Pilate, he would have responded to it. But now, he is too weak and Pilate’s question about Jesus’ origin is far too big. Jesus remains silent. Pilate is not accustomed to such treatment and chooses this moment to remind Jesus of his power over him – once again, the power fixation – ‘Are you refusing to speak to me? Surely you know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you.

Even in the extreme weakness of his physical condition, Jesus cannot allow these ill-conceived words to stand uncorrected. He somehow manages to dredge up the strength to find breath and say, ‘You would have no power over me at all if it had not been given to you from above; that is why the one who handed me over to you has the greater guilt’ (John 19: 11). Another highly enigmatic statement which would have seemed incomprehensible to Pilate – and maybe seems so to us, too. When Jesus says that Pilate’s power over him is ‘given from above’, what does he mean?

Jesus’ statements are always multi-layered. Each time we reread scripture prayerfully we can find new depths in Jesus’ words. This statement is one of his most profound utterances. I would like to pause for a moment to consider its implications. Here, Jesus is saying an enormous amount in very few words. What Pilate understood by them cannot be ascertained, but we ourselves can reflect on them. We can recall that in John’s gospel, ‘from above’ refers to God, the Father and creator of all; it refers to the origin and perfection of all that exists and of all that is truly good and loving. This God, whose very being is goodness and love, cannot will what is evil. And, clearly, Jesus’ execution and all that led up to it, including Pilate’s complicity with the forces of darkness, is evil. The Father did not will this particular evil, or any other evil. But he does will human freedom – with the consequence that human beings are free to love God and each other, and to create or respond to all that is good and true in the world. Love is only love when it is given freely. But, by this same freedom, the human person can conceive the convoluted and tragic structures of sin – hatred, jealousy, slander, falsehood, murder, death, and so much more. The political power wielded by Pilate is part of the complex working out of human freedom on a world scale.

We can also reflect that Jesus knew that his mission was to confront, single-handed, sin and death at its source in a titanic battle against Satan. He understood its demands profoundly, and accepted it absolutely. He never shirked his mission*; he walked resolutely towards it, foreseeing and predicting that the consequences of his teachings and of his very presence in the world would lead to this moment he was now undergoing. He knew that, in fact, his mission was one with his very identity. He gave himself completely to it, holding back nothing, out of his unfathomable love for his Father and for the whole human race. This is why Jesus could say that Pilate’s power had been ‘given from above’ – inasmuch as Pilate was an unwitting instrument of the salvation of the human race.

Jesus’ words to Pilate, however, tell us here that, in Jesus’ estimation, Pilate plays only a very small part in a drama of cosmic proportions – ‘given from above’. And, once again, Jesus pays Pilate the profound compliment of interpreting Pilate in the best possible light, when he tells Pilate that the one who handed him over ‘has the greater guilt,’ for Pilate is the quintessential pawn, not merely of the Roman government and the hysteria of the Jewish authorities baying for his execution, but of the entire history of human evil, culminating in the pathetic, confused, self-absorbed political manoeuvres Pilate was trying to make with regard to Jesus. Jesus sees that Pilate is not fully to blame for his actions. His spiritual blindness and his preoccupation with power are moral failings that he has inherited from the human condition time out of mind. But, Jesus also wants to make it clear to Pilate that Pilate’s so called power is the power of a minnow as compared to a whale. It is no power. Pilate’s threats are only a tiny factor in the greater pattern of primordial evil that Jesus has been confronting all his life, and in his divine nature he would ultimately overthrow it, like a great whale overturning the whaling vessel and the crew that is trying to harpoon it. God’s infinite power ‘from above’ will turn evil on its head through Jesus. He is able to, and will, bring good out of what seems to have fallen completely beyond the furthest reach of goodness, for God’s arm is longer still. Indeed, it will reach into Jesus’ very tomb.

Probably all of this is way beyond what Pilate could consciously grasp. But, clearly, something came home to him, for the other gospels indicate that Pilate is thoroughly shaken now and wants to put as much space between himself and this intense and enigmatic preacher as he can. In Matthew’s account Pilate, at this point, publicly washes his hands of Jesus and of the whole situation. But in the gospel of John, Pilate continues to interact with the crowd, bringing Jesus out again before them, broken and bleeding. Pilate’s action elicits only an intensification of mob-hysteria, as they scream for Jesus’ execution. Again, Pilate challenges them: ‘Shall I crucify your king?’ They answer with the blatant hypocrisy Jesus had challenged in them repeatedly throughout his ministry: ‘We have no king but Caesar!’

And Pilate gives up. There is nothing for a politician to do but appease this group, give them what they seem to want and hope they will go away and give him less trouble in the future. And Pilate is first and last a politician. He orders Jesus to be taken away and crucified.

*The other gospels tell of Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane – but this is not a ‘shirking’ of his mission. Rather, it shows the reality of Jesus’ suffering, and of his human psyche instinctively recoiling from an excruciating death. But, through his prayerful communion with his Father, Jesus received the strength he needed to carry on.

SJC

 

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November 21: The King V: Over to Jesus.

 

Readers who are picking up these posts for the first time may wish to scroll back to Sunday 17th to catch up. We are looking at the dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate in John 18:1-19:22. Today we are reflecting on John 18:33-38.

If Pilate pleases the crowd he may gain their support, and that could be useful in the future, possibly. This is always in the back of Pilate’s mind. Jesus has just told Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world, and Pilate has retorted, ‘So then! You are a king’? In answer, Jesus volleys the question right back to him: ‘It is you who say that I am a king,’ Or, the words of Jesus could be fairly rephrased as, “It is you who are so determined to misunderstand my words about kingship.” Jesus’ statement exposes Pilate’s power-obsession.

Pilate can’t quite believe Jesus when he implies that worldly kingship and power are not what define him. Again, the sniffer dog is alert in Pilate. If that is true, there must be some other power that Jesus has that has caused this furore. What would that be? Jesus answers this implied question. He now solemnly gives the reason for his very existence, and explains the nature of his power and kingship: ‘I was born for this,’ Jesus says. ‘I came into the world for this, to bear witness to the truth, and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.

Truth is indeed powerful, but Pilate has never seen enough of it at work in a human being to realise just how powerful. We, the readers of the text, can see that Truth has frightened the religious authorities enough to turn them into murderers. But this is not something of which Pilate has any real understanding – or not yet. On the contrary, Pilate bursts out, ‘Truth?? What is that?’ Or, he might just as well have said, What use is that? Who really cares about truth? Almost no one! Certainly not this group of Jews, for whom Jesus seems to be challenging a religion that they think has been good enough for a very long time. But at least Pilate realises now that Jesus will never be a rival to any political power on those grounds. Yes, Pilate is smug now, thinking that he has at last sussed it. He is incredulous that such a fuss is being made over a man who is little more, in his estimation, than a harassed philosopher. This man Jesus does not deserve the death sentence.

Pilate is exasperated as he goes out to the dais and makes his pronouncement to the crowd, ‘I find no case against him.’ The accusations against Jesus seem unfounded to Pilate, and the mob-violence bizarre. Few authorities in charge of keeping order in their district would feel indifferent about such a situation. Nor is Pilate indifferent, but neither is he a moralist. He merely wants to regain control. Pilate probably wonders: does all this strange hate come from only a small but vocal minority? A few pushy crackpots? What about the rest of the people? So Pilate offers the saner majority (if such majority exists) a chance to swing this situation. Pilate says to the crowd, ‘According to a custom of yours, I should release one prisoner at the Passover; shall I release this king of the Jews?’

It would be easy to idealise Pilate here for this seeming reluctance to sentence Jesus, but let’s consider: does Pilate care about Jesus for any religious reasons? No. He has already made that clear. He is a political animal. He just wants to end this crazy religious feud and restore order. He sees that Jesus is a nobody: not rich, not influential, not ambitious; Jesus knows none of the right people. His only claim is that he knows truth and who cares about that? In Pilate’s mind, Jesus is rather a freak, but no more than that. The sniffer dog in Pilate has temporarily gone to lie down. But he will soon be alert again.

 

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19 November: The King III, Over to Jesus.

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We are looking at the Jesus-Pilate dialogue occurring towards the end of the Gospel of John (John 18:28f.) in order to explore what it may tell us about Jesus’ kingship. Pilate is clueless about Jesus and his teaching, but as the situation progresses, some important aspects of Jesus’ person and identity gradually, if incompletely, come home to Pilate. Perhaps by watching this process, we may discover something new about Jesus, also.

The dialogue has barely begun, but Pilate has already exposed his impatience with the entire affair – a fact which in itself was insulting, and must have registered as such with Jesus. Pilate asks Jesus bluntly, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’

We have noted above that Pilate, as governor of Judea, acted as a supreme judge in his district. Therefore he alone had the authority to impose the death sentence, which is what the Jewish leaders who handed Jesus over want Pilate to do. Jesus’ arrest and trial so far have gone on all night and it is now morning. Jesus must be exhausted, but his response to Pilate’s question is not in the least expressive of the mental derangement which Pilate probably hoped to find in him and which might have made his task so much easier. Jesus, in answer to Pilate, asks a question of his own: ‘Do you ask this of your own accord, or have others said it to you about me?’

Astonishing question. What can Jesus mean by it? Jesus knows his hour had come. His question cannot have been an attempt to gain time in order to plot his escape. It can only have come from his awareness of Pilate as a human being in need of salvation. Although Jesus has already been insulted by Pilate’s manner, it is never his way to return insult for insult. As always, Jesus is reaching for the deepest level of the person to whom he is speaking: he wants Pilate to question Pilate, if not now, then perhaps later. Jesus’ thirst for souls is never quenched, never shelved, forgotten, or given up. To his last breath he is offering salvation to all. Jesus sees clearly that Pilate, on one level, is a man to be pitied. He is a puppet of higher political powers. History suggests that probably most of Judea regarded Pilate as an inept governor, always acting with one eye turned towards those who might be watching him, and rarely, if ever, acting, or even thinking, without being jerked into position by those puppet strings. Jesus, however, seems to pay Pilate the compliment of taking him seriously as an independent thinker, able to lay claim to his own actions and respond to him from within his own centre of freedom.

But, this compliment is lost on Pilate, seemingly. He knows that others are pulling his strings, and although he hates it, he thinks that getting more power for himself will solve his problems. He will allow himself to be a puppet to any degree if this seems to be the most effective way of eventually obtaining more power. Power is what everything is about for Pilate; it is the mental ‘lens’ through which he views everything he does. Naturally, his conversation with Jesus is coloured by these preoccupations.

But, as far as Jesus is concerned, the preoccupations are entirely other. The conversation with Pilate, in Jesus’ view, is about truth and freedom. What will Pilate make of this man?

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18 November: The King II, Pilate and Jesus Meet.

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We are preparing to look at the relationship between Jesus and Pontius Pilate with a view to exploring the theme of power as it emerges in the relevant texts of the Gospel of John (18:1 – 19:22). I would like first to summarise the passage immediately preceding the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus. In John 18: 1-11we are told that Jesus had been arrested in the evening by a cohort from the Roman garrison, and a group of guards sent by the chief priests and Pharisees, all with weapons and torches – essentially, a lynch-mob. Jesus handles the mob with courtesy, cooperation and courage. Nonetheless, they bind him and, no doubt, shove and frog-march him to the palace of Annas, the high priest. Annas, probably realising after a short exchange with Jesus that he was out of his depth and could not possibly win in a dialogue with him, sends Jesus on to the next questioner. This will be Pontius Pilate and Jesus is sent to the Praetorium – his palace.

Pilate does not meet with Jesus until he meets Jesus’ captors – a rather unsatisfying encounter, I suspect, as far as Pilate is concerned. Jews were not allowed to go into the inner court of the Praetorium on pain of incurring ritual impurity, so Pilate must meet Jesus’ captors outside – a concession which must have rankled. But he complies, and questions them about the reasons for Jesus’ arrest. According to the text, they claim at this point simply that Jesus is a criminal and deserves death, and that they are not allowed by their religion to pass the death sentence. They do not specify what Jesus has done to deserve it (see Jn. 18:28-32). Pilate, none the wiser for this exchange, must now question Jesus about the reasons for his arrest.

Pilate leaves them, returns to the inner court of the Praetorium, summons Jesus and begins a highly revealing exchange with him. We see here two men who could not possibly have been more different. Pilate, with an abruptness suggesting that he is an important, busy man, asks Jesus the only question that could have any real interest to him, or any bearing on his judgement of Jesus: ‘Are you the king of the Jews?

Immediately, we see that the issue for Pilate is power, but he must hope that Jesus’ power is a trumped up affair, threatening to no one. He had probably encountered mad prophets before – they were not unusual in the Judea of Pilate’s day. So, Pilate’s question would, Pilate hopes, set such a prophet up to expose himself as a rant-and-rave religious fanatic. A wild-eyed diatribe on Jesus’ part would be most useful to Pilate and enable him quickly to dismiss Jesus as long-winded but essentially harmless; then Pilate would be free to move on to the more important business of the day. It is easy to imagine the slightly mocking tone of voice in which Pilate asked his question, much as one might use to a rather ill-behaved child, perhaps, or to someone whom one has already mentally pigeon-holed as not worth taking seriously. Pilate feels secure, powerful at this stage. Accordingly, his treatment of Jesus belittles him. We will examine Jesus’ response to this tomorrow.

Pilate went out to the street to meet the Jewish leaders.

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17 November: The King, 1.

 

At the end of the Church’s year we celebrate Christ’s Kingship, and the Gospel reading is either of the last Judgement or the Passion: Luke’s account of the crucifixion or John’s report of the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate, which Sister Johanna will be talking about this week. A challenging reading, as she states from the start.

Introduction

Toward the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus undergoes a question and answer session with Pontius Pilate that ends with Pilate sentencing Jesus to death (see John 18:1 – 19:30). I must confess that I tend to read this dialogue too quickly because it is always painful. But, I recently read John’s account of the Pilate-Jesus dialogue again, this time more slowly and more prayerfully. I found that the text opened up and some new realisations occurred to me.

I would like to share my findings with you in this week’s posts.

  1. Power

In the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate in John’s gospel, an impasse is quickly reached around the central theme of power. Problems around the theme of power were nothing new to Jesus; they had been rumbling along beside nearly every experience of Jesus’ life and they were addressed in many of his teachings. Yet few – if any – of Jesus’ followers were able to grasp Jesus’ teaching on power and powerlessness. Perhaps we cannot blame them; Jesus asks us to absorb a profound paradox here. He would have us lose our life to find it, be great by being truly small, be powerful by being the most powerless servant of all. This seems to go against our instincts, which lead us to seek self-preservation through control and dominance, even if over only a few people. The apostles themselves were forever getting this wrong, arguing often about who was the greatest. To detail the way the theme of power is present in Jesus’ whole life and in his teachings goes far beyond the scope of these posts, but in looking closely at how the two personalities of Jesus and Pontius Pilate are revealed in their dialogue in John’s gospel, I found that one thread in this complex weave-structure can be examined. As we approach the Solemnity of Christ the King next Sunday, I hope these reflections will shed light on the true power of Jesus, our King.

Pontius Pilate is a well-known name to readers of the New Testament, but as a historical figure little is known about him. What is known is very telling, however. He was the Roman Procurator in Judea from about the year 26 to 36. The Procurator’s job combined several offices: governor, judge, tax collector, and commander of a band of soldiers that functioned a bit like a police force. A lot of power was concentrated in the Procurator. Yet, for this reason, the job was an awkward one.

The Procurator was caught in the middle. He needed to garner support from the Jews in order to please his own authorities in the Roman government. At the same time, he needed to be seen to stand for the official line in order to further his own career – a factor that made it more difficult to please the Jewish community in the area he governed. There is historical evidence that he clashed with both sides and pleased no one. Finally, around the year 36, he was deposed as Procurator of Judea and recalled to Rome.

It is tempting to feel a bit sorry for Pilate in the situation that developed with Jesus and the Jews, and to see him as the harassed middle-man caught in a strange and violent drama that he neither caused nor fully understood. There is certainly an element of that in the story. And perhaps Jesus, too, gave him the benefit of that doubt. But we are looking at something much more profound here. We will begin our exploration tomorrow.

SJC.

Not the sort of King that Pilate expected: Shrine of St Thomas, Canterbury.

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20 June, Corpus Christi: Temptation lingers.

 

Our friend Christina Chase recently wrote that ‘Temptation lingers in desert spots‘ – which is perfectly true. It’s so easy to get things out of proportion.

But what did the children of Israel  wish for, out there in the desert? The fleshpots of Egypt, not a closer walk with God.

The children of Israel said, ‘Would to God we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’ (Exodus 16:3)

And when they were in Egypt, they were oppressed so hard they could not stand – yet they’d rather go back to slavery than walk as free men and women with God. Of course spiritual slavery is more subtle than that. Who are the false gods we are tempted to put before the true One?

God heard his people, but did not answer their despair with thunderbolts to fulfil their death wish. No, he sent mercy, like the gentle rain from heaven, in the form of manna. He sustained them on their travels.

As we will be sustained:

[They said], Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat. Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. (John 6:31-33)

It’s a scandal that Christians are not united at the Lord’s table.

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April 27: What became of Peter?

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There were a few more people in the boat that morning than we can see here: Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathaniel, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples; seven of them altogether. I can see how they’d have wanted to get Jerusalem out of their hair, and in any case, the message was to get themselves back to Galilee. And once there, it made sense to go fishing, just as it made sense to the children in yesterday’s picture to go fishing. They preferred the river to the lough, and could charm little trout onto a bent pin dangling from a hazel rod, putting us to admiring shame, but I digress – a little.

We, after all, were amateurs. Peter was a professional, whose livelihood depended on a good catch. Had he lost his touch? He’d lost his brash self-confidence …

The stranger on the shore could see the shoal through the mist, but Peter the professional could bring the fish in.

The story in John 21 is familiar enough: as on Easter morning, John gets the picture before Peter, but it’s Peter who jumps in and staggers ashore; Peter who is challenged three times, three challenges that allow him to accept forgiveness for three denials; Peter who is commissioned three times. And Peter leaves the lorry behind – or at least the aspirations to a better life that Joe’s lorry stands for in yesterday’s story. Peter’s vocation now was not to be a fisherman but a fisher of men, a feeder of the five, ten, hundred thousand sheep and more, even down to us today.

There’s good in the heart of the likes of Joe’s dad, working hard, denying himself to provide for his family with a lorry he could earn more money from. No wonder Joe was proud of him! And then some of us are called to leave our father’s house and spread the love of the risen Lord. Come to think of it, that’s you and me as well. We should all be ready to share the love, even with a  simple smile to a stranger whenever we leave the house (and perhaps at home as well; but that can be a real challenge!)

Happy Easter!

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April 26: What became of the fish?

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This was Brocagh School in County Leitrim, close to the Irish border, in 1969. A year or so later the little 2 classroom schools would be all closed down and a new school built in Glenfarne village. The assistant teacher was leaving anyway to get married! So this is an historic photo graph! As seminarians (student priests) we went two and two to the little schools and gave the children an RE lesson each week.

It was Mrs McCormack who gave me a valuable lesson, thanks to Joe McHugh, down there in the front row. One week after Easter we had John’s story of the breakfast by the lake after the miraculous catch of fish, and Peter’s final declaration of faith; I felt the lesson went well. I had the ultimate visual aid close at hand in the lake: Lough MacNean.

The children drew some remarkable pictures, but Mrs McCormack drew my attention to Joe’s in particular: come here now, Joe, what’s this in the corner? – It’s Saint Peter’s lorry, Miss, come to carry away the fish. I’d missed the lorry completely; I’d not interpreted the shapes he’d drawn in 20th Century terms.

What she knew, but I did not, was that Joe’s family had recently acquired a lorry which was Joe’s pride and joy, so of course St Peter would have had his lorry ready to take the fish to market. The story made sense to Joe, and has always made more sense to me as a consequence; thank you Joe, wherever you are.

An earlier version of this true story appears in thepelicans.org.uk website, Gallery p356.

MMB

Here, for the record are names of the children as far as their neighbours could remember them. Back Row: ——, Paddy McManus, John McManus, Jimmy Peckanham, ?Junior McHugh, Sean McGivern, Sean Clancy, Thomas Kelly, Ann Keany, Bernadette Clancy; 2nd Row: ?Teacher —— Agnes O’Hara, —— Breege Campbell, Bernadette Kelly, Kitty Cullen, Lily Pechenham, Owen O’Hara, Marie O’Hara, ——, Ann Brady, Ann McHugh, Ann Kelly, ?Mrs McCormack; 3rd Row: Josephine Clancy, —— McPartlin, ——? Gerry Clancy, ———, ———,———, Veronica McHugh, Geraldine McGuire, ?Teresa Keany; Front Row: Bridget McManus, Noel McManus, Ann Kelly, ——, Joe McLoughlin, Joe McHugh, Hugo Clancy, Margaret McGuire, Damien McGuire, Rosaleen McLoughlin (Thanks to Olivia O’Dolan, Mary Brady-Timoney, her sisters Kathleen Brady- Keaney and Bridget Brady – Fitzpatrick; Ben McHugh and Clancy family

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23 April: Not a mere generous impulse; Brownings X.

Here is Elizabeth Barrett, writing to Robert Browning a few months before the extract in our last post.
I thought too, at first, that the feeling on your part was a mere generous impulse, likely to expend itself in a week perhaps.
It affects me and has affected me, very deeply, more than I dare attempt to say, that you should persist so—and if sometimes I have felt, by a sort of instinct, that after all you would not go on to persist, and that (being a man, you know) you might mistake, a little unconsciously, the strength of your own feeling; you ought not to be surprised; when I felt it was more advantageous and happier for you that it should be so. In any case, I shall never regret my own share in the events of this summer, and your friendship will be dear to me to the last. You know I told you so—not long since.
from “The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846″ by Robert Browning, available on Kindle and online. 

It can be hard to accept that we are loved, whether by God or another human being. Surely we have experienced those ‘mere generous impulses’ which come to nothing but scratch a few scars on the heart in the process.

Jesus – in this world, in his time – stayed long enough to reassure his disciples that their friendship was dear to him to the last. And while Peter (the past master of generous impulses) may always have regretted his share in the events of that spring, he received the grace to feed the Lord’s sheep and be faithful to the last.

The clasped hands of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, cast by Harriet Hosmer, Metropolitan Museum of Art. This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

 

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19 April, Good Friday. Stations of the Cross for Peter: XIII, Jesus’ Body is taken down for burial

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Peter remembers the Olive Garden on Maundy Thursday when he has sliced off Malchus’s ear, and the heavily guarded garden around the tomb the next night.

Scripture references: Malchus: John 18: 10-11; Luke 22: 47-53; Joseph of Arimathea: John 19: 38-42; Mary Magdalene: Luke 23: 55-56.

Joseph had enough influence to get hold of the body and bury it. He had to be quick though. If he had been found still moving it when the Passover feast started there there would have been even more trouble.

The guards were watching. They had taken over Joseph’s garden and even he could not send them away. Right down to that Malchus with his mended ear, they were ready to start on him if he put a foot wrong. They would have been glad to get their hands on a high-up like Joseph.

He had to hurry Mary Magdalene away without doing everything properly.

Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom.

Let us pray for all who live in fear, whose lives are a mess, who do not feel they have done things properly. May they feel God’s forgiveness and love.

Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom.

 

Image from Missionaries of Africa.

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