A Good Friday Set of meditations written by Chris Appleby, Ruth Newmarch and George Hemmings for St Thomas' Burwood, April 2014 with sonnets by Malcolm Guite.
John 18:19-24; 28-38 - CA
- Sonnet 1
John 18:19-24 “19Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. 20Jesus answered, "I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said." 22When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, "Is that how you answer the high priest?" 23Jesus answered, "If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?" 24Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.”
John 18:28-38 “28Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate's headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. 29So Pilate went out to them and said, "What accusation do you bring against this man?" 30They answered, "If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you." 31Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law." The Jews replied, "We are not permitted to put anyone to death." 32(This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.) 33Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" 34Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" 35Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" 36Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." 37Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." 38Pilate asked him, "What is truth?" After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, "I find no case against him.”
The moment of judgement has arrived. Jesus is brought to Annas, then Caiaphas then to Pilate. John leaves out the brief excursion to Herod’s palace. Each of these men has the opportunity to examine Jesus and make a judgement about who he is. But none of them is able or willing to make a definitive statement. They ask lots of questions, to which Jesus gives very guarded answers but no firm judgement is made. Even when Pilate asks the Jewish leaders what the charges are they fail to say what he’s done wrong.
It’s clear though that they have made a judgement of a kind. They tell Pilate "We are not permitted to put anyone to death." Whatever the crime is, it requires a sentence of death.
So Pilate quizzes Jesus on the claim that he’s the King of the Jews. But Jesus’ answer turns the tables on Pilate: "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Suddenly Pilate is the object of judgement. Jesus might just as well have asked him: “Who do you say that I am?” as he once asked his disciples. But Pilate doesn’t answer.
So Jesus takes it further: "My kingdom is not from this world”, he says. “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."
Then Jesus adds: "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."
What we discover in that moment is that the judgement we’re witnessing isn’t so much of Jesus as of those who stand around him. In fact this is an ongoing theme in John’s gospel. John 3:19: “19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” John 5:24: “24Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” John 9:39: “39Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
John 12:48-49: “48The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, 49for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak.”
Pilate’s response to Jesus is to brush him off with a flippant “What is truth?” He doesn’t realise that he stands before the one who is the Truth, the one who’s not only the King but the creator of our world. His blindness is made all the more obvious by his unwillingness to set Jesus free, even though he’s found no case against him.
But of course it isn’t just Pilate who stands judged in this encounter. The Jewish Priests and Pharisees are judged because they too are blind to who Jesus is. They blithely announce that he claims to be a king yet can’t see the truth in that claim.
In the passage we skipped over, Peter fails to stand up for Jesus and is judged by the crowing of the rooster as dawn approaches.
And dare I say that we too are faced with judgement as we think about our own responses to Jesus. We may worship him as Lord but are we totally faithful to him at every moment of our lives? Do we make him our Lord and King in every decision we make? Do we proclaim the truth of what Jesus has taught us and done for us, even when faced with the sort of aggressive opposition that Peter was faced with?
Can you see that it’s actually our failure to do all that that led Jesus to this moment? Jesus stands in our place at this moment, not before the judgement seat of Pilate but before the judgement seat of God, taking our place, facing the judgement that we deserve; and he does it willingly out of his great love for us, as our king, taking our place in order to bring us eternal life.
[All Sonnets are from Sounding the Seasons – Malcolm Guite, Canterbury Press 2012] - [see Malcolm Guite's Blog]
I Jesus is condemned to death
The very air that Pilate breathes, the voice
With which he speaks in judgement, all his powers
Of perception and discrimination, choice,
Decision, all his years, his days and hours,
His consciousness of self, his every sense,
Are given by this prisoner, freely given.
The man who stands there making no defence,
Is God. His hands are tied, his heart is open.
And he bears Pilate's heart in his and feels
That crushing weight of wasted life. He lifts
It up in silent love. He lifts and heals.
He gives himself again with all his gifts
Into our hands. As Pilate turns away
A door swings open. This is judgement day.
John 19:1-16 - RN
- Sonnet X
Jesus is stripped of his garments
John 19:1-16: 1Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 2And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. 3They kept coming up to him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" and striking him on the face. 4Pilate went out again and said to them, "Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him." 5So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, "Here is the man!" 6When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him." 7The Jews answered him, "We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God." 8Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. 9He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, "Where are you from?" But Jesus gave him no answer. 10Pilate therefore said to him, "Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?" 11Jesus answered him, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin." 12From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, "If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor." 13When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge's bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. 14Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, "Here is your King!" 15They cried out, "Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!" Pilate asked them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but the emperor." 16Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus;
Think of the irony! Jesus existed before the worlds were made! All creation came into being through him and for him, but he gives up his power.
Did you notice how he willingly submits to what others do to him. He's flogged, which means being stripped of his clothing first, then whipped with a leather cord with sharp objects tied onto it. Then a crown of twisted thorns, is put onto his head, while a purple robe is thrown over his shoulders - covering his bleeding back. Then the soldiers take turns mocking him: 'King of the Jews', but instead of lowering their eyes, they strike him across the face. What an extraordinary scene for the one who was responsible for the very air they breathed.
Then Pilate has him brought out, thinking the effects of the torture and the humiliating dress-ups might placate the Jews. 'Here is the man!' he says. The irony is that he says so much more than he realises, for John has told us from the start that Jesus is the Word, become flesh. But think about the thorns for a moment. Aren't they a tearing reminder of God's punishment in the Garden of Eden...when God's cursed the earth, so it would produce thorns and be hard to work. Yes, Jesus is the man, the second Adam, as Paul puts it, bearing our punishment, in his human body.
Then the chief priests are determined to get rid of him, and they push all the right buttons to get what they want out of Pilate.
So Pilate takes Jesus back into his headquarters to try and save him v 8. But like a lamb going to slaughter, Jesus doesn't defend himself. He only speaks to correct Pilate's mis-perception of his own power. Pilate wants to release Jesus, since he can see he's innocent, but the powerful Jewish lobby cleverly introduces Pilate's own position before the Roman Emperor - Vespasian. Suddenly Pilate's own political career looks precarious...and the choice is easy.
So in v 13 he has Jesus brought out again, and acts in his judicial capacity. He sits on the judge's bench, at a place called Gabbatha, in Aramaic - the Stone Pavement. John tells us it is about noon on the day of preparation for the Passover – the point being, I think, that time was running out. This time, as Pilate makes his judgement, he introduces Jesus, not as the man', but, 'Here is your king!' Again, he is speaking the absolute truth, beyond what he realises. 'Shall I crucify your king?' And they will have to answer to God for their reply – 'We have no king but the Emperor' they shout.
Pilate's judgement was politically expedient...a perversion of justice. But, Jesus has given up his power in these verses, and allowed himself to be stripped.
But what of the other characters in the account. We see the Jews playing politics to hang onto religious power. What do we call their behaviour in plain speaking? Manipulation? Getting what you want at all costs! Raw ambition. And what about Pilate? He puts his career before his duty to justice! What's that? Conceit? Plain selfishness? Preserving ones own skin! When they are stripped of their fine robes and titles, that's what's left!
What would be left if all your externals were stripped away? We all, like sheep go astray. But – not Jesus! He relentlessly chose humility...and the iniquity of us all is laid on him...for it was the will of God to crush him, making him an offering for sin...he was wounded for our transgressions, and short-comings, he took the punishment that makes us whole, and by his stripes we are healed. Stripped back - that's who Jesus really is – our true king.
So what do we do now? I can do no better than offer what Paul says to the Philippians – 'Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, rather have this mind, which is yours in Christ Jesus. Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, humbling himself becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross'. The way of emptying lies ahead, open.
X Jesus is stripped of his garments [see Malcolm Guite's Blog]
You can't go on, you go on anyway.
He goes with you, his cradle to your grave.
Now is the time to loosen, cast away
The useless weight of everything but love.
For he began his letting go before,
Before the worlds for which he dies were made,
Emptied himself, became one of the poor,
To make you rich in him and unafraid.
See, as they strip the robe from off his back
They strip away your own defences too,
Now you could lose it all and never lack,
Now you can see what naked love can do.
Let go these bonds beneath whose weight you bow,
His stripping strips you both for action now.
John 19:16-30 GH
- Sonnet XI
John 19:16-30 16Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; 17and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. 18There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. 19Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." 20Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. 21Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, "Do not write, 'The King of the Jews,' but, 'This man said, I am King of the Jews.'" 22Pilate answered, "What I have written I have written." 23When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. 24So they said to one another, "Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it." This was to fulfill what the scripture says, "They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots." 25And that is what the soldiers did. Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." 27Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. 28After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty." 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished." Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Well you can't get a much clearer sign than this. As we’ve worked through John's gospel we've seen all sorts of signs that point to God's Kingdom. But here is a sign that isn't like those. It’s not like the turning of water into wine or the feeding of the 5000. Here years at last is a sign that’s clear, that plain, that impossible to ignore. The sign hangs just outside the walls of Jerusalem so that everyone going in-and-out of the city can't help but read it. And it’s written in Hebrew and Latin and Greek so that everybody can read it. If the sign was hanging out the front of St Thomas's it would be written in English and Chinese, both simplified and traditional so no matter what language you speak the sign is there for all to read It's clear Jesus is king.
But there's a problem with this sign. It's not written a big neon letters on a flashing Billboard. This sign is written on a bit of wood nailed to a post. And this sign doesn't hang above a golden throne as we might expect for a king. It sits above a wooden cross where a king hangs dying. This sign is meant to be a warning. When Jesus was brought before Pilate he was charged with sedition. This sign tells everyone he’s been tried, he’s being judged, he’s been found guilty and now he’s being punished. This sign is a warning that the Roman Empire truly is tough on crime. This sign is also meant to mock and humiliate. It’s Pilate’s final act of bitter revenge on the chief priests and the Jews who’ve manipulated him. Despite their objections Pilate will not relent. He says what I have written I have written. He taunts them by saying this man, this broken dying, defeated man is your king, no matter how much you might object.
Here at last is a clear sign: Jesus is King. But honestly, if this sign’s anything to go by who’d really want to follow this king? But despite the intent with which this sign is written it really serves God's purposes. Because we know the cross wasn't a bitter defeat or a shameful death. It was the means of Jesus exaltation, the very manner of his glorification. This is the sign of God's triumph over sin and death. So this sign tells the whole world that the one crucified is king. That he is able to turn a tool of torture into an instrument of love.
We see a tiny sliver of that love as Jesus hangs on the cross in his final acts. While the soldiers are gathered there seeking to coolly profit from their barbaric tasks some women also come near, looking on hopelessly and helplessly. Seeing his mother among them Jesus as he hangs dying, out of his love for her, hands her into the care of his beloved disciple. But we see that love more fully in the words that come next. After hours of agony with the only relief is a momentary sip of sour wine, Jesus cries out at the last “Tetelestai”, it is finished. It's not a cry of defeat but a cry of completion. The job is done. Jesus has accomplished all that the father sent him to do. It is finished. At the start of the last supper, the meal that we remembered and commemorated last night, we’re told that Jesus loved his own to the very end. Here is the end. Right up until the end Jesus loves his own and he shows his love as he lays down his life for us, so that through his death we might have life. it can't get much clearer than this. This is the sign; the ultimate sign of how much God loves us. Jesus the king Jesus God's son lays his life down for his people. Honestly, if this sign is anything to go by who wouldn't want to follow this king.
XI Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross [see Malcolm Guite's Blog]
See, as they strip the robe from off his back
And spread his arms and nail them to the cross,
The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black,
And love is firmly fastened on to loss.
But here a pure change happens. On this tree
Loss becomes gain, death opens into birth.
Here wounding heals and fastening makes free,
Earth breathes in heaven, heaven roots in earth.
And here we see the length, the breadth, the height,
Where love and hatred meet and love stays true,
Where sin meets grace and darkness turns to light,
We see what love can bear and be and do.
And here our Saviour calls us to his side,
His love is free, his arms are open wide.
John 19:31-42 - CA
- Sonnet XIV
John 19:31-42 31Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. 32Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. 35(He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) 36These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, "None of his bones shall be broken." 37And again another passage of scripture says, "They will look on the one whom they have pierced." 38After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
The day ends with anti-climax. The Jewish leaders don’t want the offence of dying bodies hanging on a cross to spoil their celebration of the Passover so they ask Pilate to have the crucified men’s legs broken, to hasten their death. But when they get to Jesus he’s already dead. He’s given up his spirit. They don’t take it from him. He lays it down of his own accord. (John 10:18).
They make doubly sure by piercing his side with a spear and John sees a clear reference to the prophecy of Zechariah 12: “10I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” (Zechariah 12:10) Those who love him, who have followed him for the past three years do weep and mourn. Yet there’s hope even at this moment of great sorrow. Perhaps as John sees the water and blood flowing from Jesus side he also remembers the next passage in Zechariah where we read: “13:1On that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.” (Zechariah 13:1)
But then we get one of the surprises in this story. It isn’t the disciples, or the women who come to take down Jesus’ body. It’s Joseph of Arimathea, who was a secret disciple of Jesus, we’re told; secret because he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. Yet his grief at Jesus’ death overcomes his fear of the other Jewish leaders. Likewise, Nicodemus, the one who came to see Jesus at night, again probably so his fellow Jews didn’t find out, now also comes in full daylight, bringing a huge weight of spices. These two are the representatives of Jerusalem who weep bitterly over the one they’ve pierced.
Together they anoint him for burial, showing their deep love and affection in the only way now possible.
It’s interesting that for all the threats of retribution by the Jews against anyone who supported Jesus, these two significant leaders are willing to be seen as supporters and disciples of Jesus, albeit a little late perhaps.
Perhaps this is their way of showing contrition for their silence up until now. Certainly they use their influence as leaders of the Jews to get Pilate’s permission to take Jesus body and bury it. You can’t imagine Jesus’ brothers or his disciples being allowed to do this, even if they were brave enough to try.
There’s a sense of hurriedness in the end of this account. The sun is setting and all work must cease, so they quickly put Jesus into a newly made tomb in the garden, where no other body has ever been laid. John doesn’t mention the stone or the two Marys watching, though that’s clearly implied by the account at the start of the next chapter.
But you can imagine how difficult it must have been to have gone so far with putting Jesus’ body to rest but not be able to complete the task until the Sabbath was over.
All they’re left with, all we’re left with at this point is a deep sadness. Sadness at the loss of their closest friend, of the one they’ve come to love with all their heart; but sadness as well for the loss of a dream, of the hope that things were about to change, that God was doing something that would change the world. Of course we know that that’s exactly what he was doing, but for the disciples, both those who’d followed him openly and those who followed him in secret, there was only darkness. This was the moment for them to weep and mourn while the world rejoiced. Their joy would come in 2 days’ time, but not yet.
XIV Jesus is laid in the tomb [see Malcolm Guite's Blog]
Here at the centre everything is still,
Before the stir and movement of our grief
That bears its pain with rhythm, ritual,
Beautiful useless gestures of relief.
So they anoint the skin that cannot feel
And soothe his ruined flesh with tender care,
Kissing the wounds they know they cannot heal,
With incense scenting only empty air.
He blesses every love that weeps and grieves,
And makes our grief the pangs of a new birth.
The love that's poured in silence at old graves,
Renewing flowers, tending the bare earth,
Is never lost. In him all love is found
And sown with him, a seed in the rich ground.