Dying for Friends

Sunday 17th March 2019
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Luke 13.31-35

Sometimes, there's nothing for it. Whether out of honour, duty, belief or love some people feel that they have to die for a cause. World history is full of examples of desperate defence against the odds, suicide rather than surrender, parents shielding their children from bullets, complete strangers risking their lives for people in distress. Sometimes the selflessness is deeply calculated but as often it is deeply instinctive.

So, given the situation in which Jesus found himself on the way to Jerusalem, it is no surprise that he was determined to press on, regardless of extraneous advice from his doubtful friends, the Pharisees, to the place where he knew he would die and where his mission would be consummated. He could already picture the Jerusalem sequence beginning with what we call Palm Sunday after which he would have his meeting with King Herod, and repeat his lament over Jerusalem before his death on the Cross and Resurrection. All this anticipation is condensed into five short Verses of Luke. If that says one simple thing to us it is that during our Lenten reading of Scripture it is best to read slowly and carefully, not sliding over things we do not understand nor even things we think we do understand.

One of the themes of the Gospel of Luke is the centrality of Jerusalem and its Temple; his Gospel begins in the Temple and the critical point near the end of Acts is the arrest of Paul in the Temple; but then, at the very last, Paul ends up in Rome and Jerusalem disappears from Christian history after its first few decades, except as a symbol of Christian desire, leading to the disastrous movement of the Crusades which ultimately won and lost Jerusalem but then destroyed the Orthodox city and Empire of Byzantium.

What is it about Jerusalem which means that it still features in our Christian worship: Jerusalem the Golden; and Blake's Jerusalem? It is the place where Jesus died, rose again, ascended to Heaven and which witnessed the great multilingual revelation of the Holy Spirit; so that is why it is so important to us; and, incidentally, that is why it is important to Islam because of its reverence for Jesus as a great Prophet; and of course it is still the centre of Jewish veneration.

But all this veneration cannot separate itself from earthly powers. Jerusalem has rarely enjoyed peace: it was the turbulent centre of the Jewish monarchy of David and then the monarchy of the Kingdom of Judah; it was destroyed by Babylon; restored by the Maccabees; captured by and destroyed by Rome; protected by Byzantium; conquered by Islam; briefly re-taken by the Crusaders; and then lost to the Ottomans; and now it is a cauldron of Arab/Israeli resentment.

What we learn from history is how hard it is to separate our spiritual imagination from structures and places not, I emphasise, to retreat into ourselves but to pull ourselves free of ancient prejudice and practice. This morning we are reciting a Creed formulated in the 4th and 5th Centuries to solve contemporary problems; we are deeply influenced by a Prayer Book which was written in the 16th Century to deal with contemporary problems; and our governing theological document was approved by the Crown in Parliament to justify King Henry VIII's divorce. How often have we heard it said that we must renew God's word in every generation?

The problem with history is that it takes such a firm subconscious grip: it is not that much of what these old documents say is not relevant but that it leaves little room for wider horizons. Our liturgy and our ethics have got themselves separated so that we only pray regularly about contemporary problems in our Prayers of the Faithful; and even though we are a relatively small denomination, compared, say with the Roman Catholics, we find change so difficult to accomplish.

Part of our problem is not so much theological or liturgical as cultural: we like our Book of Common Prayer because of its comforting familiarity; we prefer our Authorised Version because of the beauty of its language regardless of its many translation inaccuracies; we prefer the hymns we grew up with to the new songs of what we dismissively call "Happy Clappy"; it is as if going to church is not very different from going to the theatre where we prefer good old Shakespeare to these modern dramatists. We sometimes go as far as to say that new forms of liturgy and contemporary songs might be just the thing to attract the alienated or the young into our pews but how often do we ask whether some changes might not be good for us?

And so, although I sometimes think of my visits to Jerusalem, I more often think of my work in Third World slums where Jesus surely lives and suffers. What began in Jerusalem has become global; and so must we. Now that we know so much about the world that we are better aware of how little we know, we need to be more humble in the global environment. We will not survive as a culturally comfortable church and, indeed, much of traditional Christianity is being supported by the expanding Christian churches of developing countries; and given the secularising state of our society it is not surprising that foreign missionaries are already coming to us.

Finally, bearing in mind the migration of Luke's narrative from Jerusalem to Rome, we need to undertake some mental migration from all we have held comfortable to more exposed ground. Jesus says that he died for his friends; and as his friends we are bound to ask ourselves whether we are worthy of that sacrifice. We shall not be asked to die for what we believe but there are those attributes I mentioned at the beginning - honour, duty, belief and love - which we ought to consider when we examine our consciences.