Seven Last Words 07


"I thirst" - John 19:28.

Dependence is a word which we all hate. We think of people who cannot feed themselves, of children that cannot walk, of disabled people who cannot hear or see, of scroungers and misfits, of the poor and the poorly, of the bruised and battered, of the helpless and the hopeless. Our images of dependence are a warning to our sense of integrity; but for the Grace of God, we say, go I.

It is such a strange idea that it is the Grace of god that keeps us independent. Many people think it is the other way round, that the Grace of God is what we depend upon; but perhaps that is too technical a debate for this sad and solemn time when we ought to concentrate more closely on the human condition as it relates to Our dying Saviour instead of worrying about theological metaphors.

Hanging on the cross, dying, Jesus is sick, disabled, poor, bruised, battered, despised, outcast; and He is thirsty; and He cannot get Himself a drink but has to ask for help. And when the drink comes it is horrible and He cannot take it.

Millions of times every day this happens to people all over the world: to people in wheelchairs who wait to be loaded into vans; to starving peasants who watch helplessly as their crops are washed away; to refugees in camps; to people not five miles from here trapped in the welfare state. All over the world there are millions, hundreds of millions of people, consciously or unconsciously, living their lives, day after day, in the imitation of Our Dying Saviour. And instead of respecting them, of seeing their union with Jesus, of seeing Him in them and them in Him, we want to separate ourselves, to be proud of our independence. We worship choice: free to drive wherever we like in our cars; free to choose from 50 different flavours of ice cream; free to choose from hundreds of varieties of wine, beer and whiskey; free to fly the world. This, as we now know, has disastrous ecological consequences but what should concern us today, as we stand at the foot of the cross, is the damage it does to our understanding of who we are. The essence of our existence is the simple, though not easy choice of loving or not loving God; the other choices by which we set so much store are incidental.

And yet there are some Christians who walk in Our Saviour's Church of Dependence with a list in their hands of the marks of Godly approbation, who say that prosperity, the freedom to choose earthly things, is a sign of Our Saviour's love, inferring that the poor are less loved. There are lists of skills which indicate divine favour; there are physical characteristics, there are mental characteristics, all humanly defined, which are supposed to illustrate closeness to God.

We have already thought about the false distinction between virtue and vice based on external appearance; and we also have to get away from drawing any spiritual conclusions from lifestyle options and choices, flexing our analysis to see that matters are not so simple. But, having said that, we should remember that Jesus came to earth as a baby of poor parents in an occupied land; and through all of His mission he kept warning how dangerous this world was for the rich and how its rewards would make it more difficult for them to go to Heaven; and he kept saying how heaven was prepared for the sinners, for the poor and the weak. Nonetheless, the symmetry between earthly fortune and heavenly prospects is fixed so firmly in our minds that we cannot shake it off.

If we only stop to pray, we know that earthly dependence is an illusion, a poor shadow of the dependence on Our Saviour. In the terrible 20th Century we learned to understand the idea of the suffering Saviour who kept company with the imprisoned, the tortured and the condemned. We came to understand that the passion and death which He suffered fitted Him uniquely for the mission of consolation. It does not matter how often and how vehemently Jesus is claimed by the rich and the powerful, He will not be bought. It is incredible to think that He who has everything can be bought when His mission is to give, to enrich the poor; not only the economically poor but the poor that we are.

And yet Jesus can give nothing to us if we do not learn to take. If we are not prepared to be dependent upon Divine love expressed through human loving, how are we to live lives of Christian discipleship? To be a witness of Christ is to give in love but it is also to take in love. We are very adept with our accountancy model. We can add up all the good we have done, all the things we have given, all the virtue we have shown; and then, on the other side of the ledger, we can add up all the self denial, all the gifts refused, all the pleasures foregone.

And I say when I insist on giving and will not take, when I glow with the superiority of my generosity, when I think my neighbour too mean to give me anything, I am not being virtuous, I am being proud; I am not learning to live like My Saviour.

Some people, aware of the dangers of power and the need to cultivate dependency, took up the monastic life; but most of us never will; and so we have to try to live out our lives of dependency in a fiercely competitive world. This is terribly difficult. Perhaps the temptation we should fear most is that of power. We may think that we only have power in relatively small things but the routine exercise of power and choice are so seductive, particularly if we think we are exercising power and choice in the name of the good.

By the time we are so helpless that we cannot function without others, when we rage against the dying of the light, when our active minds are frustrated by our feeble bodies, it is too late. The rage only shows how badly we have lived our Christian lives. Instead of disciplining ourselves in humility, in subjection, in gratitude, we are trained in assertiveness, in choice, in the exercise of power. When Our Saviour came to earth He emptied Himself of all His divine power and became like us; lived less well than us, spent his whole mission on the road dependent on others for food and drink; and then, at the end he needed a drink as we, close to death, might need a drink and be too weak or confined to stretch out and grasp it for ourselves. But the purpose of coming to grips with future incapacity is not so that we will be prepared in a functional way; we are to learn dependence because that is our true state. Any power we have comes from God and so it is agency not power; any power we have is illusory.

Jesus is thirsty. We may give Him something to drink; but only if we will also take the drink He offers in the shape of our neighbour.

Take and drink; the taste is bitter. Say nothing.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, as you hang upon the Cross dependent on the few friends who remain to give you a cup of bitterness to drink, we are sorry that we have so often fled and only returned to you with a bitter cup; May we struggle towards the cross exchanging assurance for dependence on Your Grace which is the only true freedom. Amen.