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For or with? Contract or relationship?

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In tonight’s brief passage from the Gospel of St John, we heard the parable of the grain of wheat. Christ drew this parable about resurrection on the Kingdom of God from the everyday circumstances of life; it was quite easy for his rural audience to understand the principle of “resurrection produced by dead seeds sown into the earth: the image of the grain of wheat dying in the earth in order to grow and bear a harvest can be seen also as a metaphor of Jesus’ own death, burial in the tomb and Resurrection.

Using the example of a wheat seed Jesus tells the disciples that he must die. A wheat seed by itself is just one seed. However, this same seed planted in the ground dies to itself and becomes something much greater. Jesus says the time has come. His time to be glorified is approaching. He will die and through his death there will come an abundance of fruit. In the Gospel there is already evidence of the possible fruit. Who has heard this parable of the wheat seed? There are the disciples. There are some leaders of the Hebrew people. Also, among them there are some Greeks. They have come to see and speak to Jesus. People are coming to see him. Not just the Jewish people, but also the Gentiles. Jesus will die not for the few, but for the many. Jesus will die for the generation to whom he speaks and Jesus will die for the generations to come. Jesus dies for you and Jesus dies for me.

But we hear a lot of “for”. During this last week we have been spending time with Christ – so what of the “with”?

Around Good Friday in 1373, an Englishwoman was stricken by the plague, and facing what she thought would be her own death.  Much of her life is a mystery.  Her baptismal name is not recorded, but we know her better by her adopted name. She is remembered as one of the greatest of all English mystics. We know her as Julian of Norwich

In her long-ago fevered haze, Julian received a series of visions of Jesus, which she wrote down in a book entitled Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love.

The Eighth Revelation, the heart of the book, concerns the Passion and the Cross, focusing on Jesus’ pain and suffering. “Is any pain like this?” she wondered, “…Of all pains that lead to salvation this is the most pain, to see thy Love suffer.  How might any pain be more to me than to see Him that is all my life, all my bliss, and all my joy, suffer?”

Recounting the vision, she ruminated on Jesus’ mother Mary’s suffering, the one who suffered more than any other in his death; then expanding the circle to include “all His disciples and all His true lovers suffer pain” at this death.  In this community of pain, forged by the suffering of Jesus, Julian articulated one of her great theological insights: “Here saw I a great ONEING betwixt Christ and us: for when He was in pain, we were in pain.”  To Julian, the Cross was about ONEING—the complete unity of God with us and us with God; and not only us as humans, but as she relates from the vision, the ONEING of “all creatures that suffer pain, suffer with Him…and the firmament, the earth, failed in sorrow” and the planets, all the elements, and even the stars despaired at Christ’s dying.  The cosmic circle of grief, emanating from Jesus’ Passion, reveals that Jesus not only suffered for us; but he suffered with us—his death occurred for the sake of “Kinship and Love” with all this was, is, and will be.

Did Our Lord suffer for us or with us?

On many a Good Friday, I have sat in a darkened church, listening to readings and music, all focused on the first preposition of the Passion’s equation: Jesus suffered for us, for sinners, for the world, for me.  But only rarely have I heard spiritual reflection on the second preposition: Jesus suffered with us, with sinners, with the world, with me.

Some of us here are writers. They choose prepositions carefully. There is a huge difference between for and with.  For is a preposition of distance, a word that indicates exchange or favour, it implies function or purpose.  I do something for you; you do something for me.  Notice: someone does something on behalf of or in another’s place. For is a contract.  Jesus suffered for us—means that Jesus did something on our behalf; he acted on behalf of a purpose, in place of someone else.  “For” always separates the actor and recipient, distancing a sacrificial Jesus from those for whom he died.  At the Cross, Jesus is the subject; we are objects.

For or with? Contract or relationship?  Exchange or participation? Quid pro quo or friendship?

If we are honest, with is a hard preposition in the world of today.  Are you only with those who share your party or cause. We judge others on what they can do for us.  Indeed, we are for many things.  But we are sceptical of with—indeed; much of what we do in the world makes us ridicule, doubt, and even fear with. It is often safer to remain at a distance, to stay away from with.

When we come to Christ, we see the for. We understand the exchange, that God died for me, so I get baptized or confirmed or serve the church.  Jesus sacrificed his life so that I might exchange Hell for Heaven.  People sacrifice and die for something nearly every day, and it is particularly sobering–as in the case of soldiers—when someone sacrifices or dies for my freedom or safety.  Indeed, thinking that Jesus died for salvation may give pause, cause us to raise a prayer of thanks, feel sadness or relief; but ultimately, the idea that someone dies for something is theologically and spiritually uncomplicated.

But with is complicated, even frightening.  Good Friday plunges us into with. Have you sacrificed with others?  Have you walked the way of death with someone?  Felt the power of the suffering love?  Do you know, in every fibre of your being, the ONEING of God in Julian’s visions?  Do you feel Jesus dying with his Mother, his friends, with us, with all creatures, with the firmament, with the planets and the elements?  Can you embrace the truth that, at Calvary, Jesus’ Mother, friends, US, all creatures, the firmament, the planets and all elements died there with him, too?

The Cross isn’t a contract between God and sinners; the Cross is God’s definitive expression of kinship and love—that everything, everywhere, through all time, is connected in and through pain and suffering.  We are with Jesus on the Cross, not at a distance from it, standing by, watching safely from afar; those are our hands and feet nailed, our blood dripping, our voices crying out “We thirst.” And Jesus on the Cross, naked and mocked, is with us all on every broken-heartened, betrayal-laden, blood-soaked day of human history.  That is God’s Passion; that is Jesus’ Cross.  And, in the tortured Christ, we find the hope to endure, a love for others and creation, the power to enact God’s dream of love and justice for the whole world.  We are with God.  God is with us.

We are often asked if we have time in our lives for Christ. As believers we do. But what is much better in terms of our relationship with him is that we do, as we have done during this last week, spend time with Him.

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Nothing will be impossible with God

In Nazareth, an unimportant village in a remote region of the Roman Empire, the angel Gabriel descended from heaven to ask a young, recently engaged girl to become pregnant with God’s son Jesus and usher in salvation for the world. But Mary was given a choice, she could have said no. She could have allowed her fears to overcome.

The ancient world could be vicious towards women and especially women who became pregnant out of wedlock. Mary’s imagination must have been running wild with possibilities. Joseph would leave her, she would never marry, she would struggle to find shelter and food, she would be shunned by friends and family. She would bear the stigma of shame and scandal for the rest of her life.

God had great plans for Mary, but would not force her to accept them. Like us, and like all people, God gave Mary freedom of choice. And yet God also gives comfort and reassurance to those who say yes to Him. He wouldn’t just ask great things of us and abandon us. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God,” the angel Gabriel says to calm the terrified girl. “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Having the courage of faith to trust her life with God, Mary surrenders: “Let it be with me according to your word.” And so Mary, letting God into her to bring birth to his Son, becomes the first disciple.

In the poem “Annunciation,” the Roman Catholic poet Denise Levertov meditates on the courage and model faith Mary shows as she assents to God’s will for her life.  The poem asks us to to consider where God has introduced a journey before us, a plan for our lives and God’s redeeming story for the world, and challenges us to not turn away, in a moment of weakness or despair, from taking the “roads of light and storm”—the often difficult paths of the life of faith.

Annunciation

Denise Levertov

‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’

From the Agathistos Hymn, Greece

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.

This is the text of the meditation given at 15 minutes with Christ on Tuesday 2 July 2013.

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