Sunday, 28 April 2019

Unlock: An Easter Call to the Church

First preached as a sermon on the Second Sunday of Easter at Croydon Minster, also the Sunday of the Annual Parochial Church Meeting. Text: John 20.19-31.

Alleluia. Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia.


Over the last few months the nation has become wearily familiar with the Speaker of the House of Commons, after another vote in the House, bellowing, (and I won’t do an impersonation!) ‘unlock!’

Well, this morning’s Gospel reading is saying the same thing: it’s time to unlock!

Unlock your hearts. Unlock your minds. Unlock your bodies. Open up. Then step out into the world in faith, hope and love.

As we gather for this Eucharist, today the Second Sunday of Eastertide, the day of our Annual Parochial Church Meeting, the Gospel tells us that doors that were locked can be flung open; there is nothing to fear in being witnesses to the love of God in Christ Jesus.

The disciples locked themselves away ‘out of fear’. The keys to the Kingdom that Peter had been given by Christ had locked the door; when really they are for unlocking.

So Jesus Christ unlocks the doors of that room, where the disciples were fearfully huddled, in a threefold way: through peace, forgiveness and faith.

Peace. First, he extends his hands: ‘Peace be with you’ he says. Shortly we will share the Sign of Peace, and in Eastertide the introduction to the Peace draws directly on this morning’s gospel scene: ‘then were they glad when they saw the Lord’.

The exchange of the Sign of Peace is not to prompt backslapping bonhomie, or to catch up on old titbits of news, or even enquire after someone’s wellbeing: that is the behaviour of the locked away, the introspective and the clubbish.

The exchange of the Sign of Peace acknowledges the Peace that Christ brings dispels fearfulness such that we disarm ourselves and look out beyond ourselves.

The gift of peace to the disciples also turns them into being apostles, for they are sent in peace, to bring peace, to be peace-full. An apostle is one who is sent: ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you’ (John 20.21).

That’s what the final commission of the Eucharist is about: ‘Go in peace’! Flow out from here like life giving water - unlocked - bearing peace on your way.

And that’s the second gift there is: forgiveness. Christ the Unlocker breathes the Holy Spirit upon the apostles with the breath of forgiveness. The apostles are to be a forgiven and forgiving community.

There is immense power in this. Jesus is not giving them a power to withhold forgiveness, or not, as if it were their own to bestow. Rather, the power to forgive sins goes with the power of being forgiven by Jesus. Without forgiving others you will never know yourself to be forgiven; without knowing yourself to be forgiven, you will never forgive others.

Forgiveness in the Name of Jesus unlocks: it unlocks intractable situations (reconciliation - personal, corporate, international - flows from forgiveness). Forgiveness unlocks tangled up lives that have turned in on themselves; forgiveness unlocks and releases.

Confession of our sins, not the retention of other peoples’ sins, unlocks and unblocks our relationship with God and other people.

Peace. Forgiveness. Faith.

Faith unlocks. Faith, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, is ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ (Hebrews 11.1). It is faith that gives hope for the future, for the future is filled with things not seen.

What can give us assurance is what was tangible for Thomas. In the wounds of Christ we see, feel and touch the passionate love of God for us and the world. In his resurrection, the wounds of crucifixion don’t go away but are transformed into glorious signs of Christ’s commitment to us.

Faith, then, unlocks our imaginations and opens us up to the capacity that God has for renewal and transformation: the renewal and transformation of our personal lives, our relationships, our church, our world.

Peace. Forgiveness. Faith. Three signs of the presence of Christ, the One Who Unlocks.

So what locks you in? For many people what locks them in is fear: fear of failure, fear of being exposed for being some sort of fraud; fear that being true to one’s own convictions will expose one to ridicule, embarrassment or shame.

If you’re locked in, someone else is locked out. Being locked in creates divisions. You can see that in individual lives, amongst self-identifying groups and communities and between nations.

All this can be true of a church community too. Churches can go into spiritual, and physical, lock down. (After all, that’s what the embryonic church, the band of Christ’s disciples, did). We can look in on ourselves. We can keep things ticking over. We can take comfort in the familiar and what we can control. We can ‘batten down the hatches’. We lock ourselves in and lock others, including Jesus Christ, out.

In that situation Christ calls: ‘Unlock! Receive my peace; be forgiving and forgiven. Have faith’.

I know that is our heart’s desire here at this Minster Church: to unlock and open up.

That is about our spiritual disposition, what you could call our culture, and it’s about physical posture, in other words, our practice, what we do.

I detect a great yearning for this church to establish itself afresh as the ancient and enduring spiritual heart of this community of Croydon, not in splendid isolation but working with all who seek the Common Good, to be a symbol of God’s faithfulness over the centuries, God’s commitment to the present, and hope and faith for the future.

There is a desire to unlock, roll up our collective sleeves and serve our locality because “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” (Gaudium et Spes, 1)

I hope that our annual report is a reflection of all the wonderful things that happen here and an indication of all that can be unlocked here.

In the coming weeks we will have a chance to do some self-reflection, through the short questionnaire that you’re encouraged to complete, through praying for our church and gathering on 15th June for a time when we can map out our vision as a church community.

That is not us being introspective or locked in, but being renewed to step out afresh, going in peace to love and serve the Lord.

In the coming months, leading to the autumn, the Church Council and I will be working on a new Mission Action Plan. That plan will have been deeply informed by our vision day in June. It will help us identify what you can call our ‘greater “yes”’, as we look towards God’s future with hope.

That Mission Action Plan will be our tool to unlock and open up our renewed vision, mission and purpose. There is so much we would love to do. Yet under God, a plan will identify the things that we say ‘yes’ to and embrace, and the things that, at this time, we need to say ‘no’ to. And it will ask us to identify the resources we need to realise it.

Knowing our ‘greater “yes”’ is what will unlock our energies and passions not for ourselves but for the sake of the Kingdom.

Unlocked living is about living life in all its abundance (cf John 10.10).

May that life, received in Word and sacrament, be an enduring feature of this church and all who pass through her doors, unlocked, for the sake of all people and the Kingdom, such that we go from here in peace, forgiven and forgiving, filled with faith to love and serve the Lord.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Running to the Tomb: An Easter Day sermon

First preached a sermon at Croydon Minster on Easter Day 2019 at the Principal Eucharist of the Day. Readings John 20.1-18

Alleluia. Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia.


Mary ran. Peter and John were running. John outran Peter. There is a great deal of running on that first Easter morning!

Mary ran from something and Peter and John to something. It was of course the tomb in which Jesus’ dead, bloodied body had been laid.

I imagine that far from running to the tomb early on that first day of the week as it was still dark, May Magdalene perhaps walked slowly and ponderously, heavy of heart and heavy of feet.

Her Lord, the one from whom she had received healing and forgiveness, love and acceptance, was dead.

Why was she going to the tomb? She was doing what many bereaved people do. She went to that place just hoping that by proximity to her Beloved’s body, even if dead, she would somehow draw some inspiration, some sense of presence, some rekindling of a memory.

But the tomb was empty. All she knew for certain at this stage was that the tomb was empty. Now even the body of her Beloved was gone. The experience of relatives of those who have been ‘disappeared’ by tyrannical regimes, or those whose body is never found, bears out Mary’s shock and anguish. To grieve well we need a body.

A human being is body and spirit together; neither is more important than the other. That’s why the dignity of the human body matters to Christians; that’s why the wellbeing of the human spirit in each person matters. Jesus’ death would have had no redemptive power were it not for the fact that he had a body, was real flesh and blood and really died.

It’s contrary to the early heresy of Docetism, which suggested that Jesus was so divine that he only appeared human, but could not really have been. So his death appeared to be a death but was not. So, he could not possibly have died ‘for us and for our salvation’.

That denies the Resurrection. Jesus, fully God and fully human, died.

Dignity for the body in death is as significant as the dignity of the body in life; hence why Christian practice reverences the body in funeral practices; is not like an old pair of shoes discarded when the essence of someone carries on spiritually. This is at the heart of the Christian teaching of the Resurrection of the Body: as St Paul puts it we are given a new and glorious body.

Mary though arrived to find no body. Little wonder, then, that she ran to tell the disciples.

Mary ran away from the tomb, shocked, disorientated and bewildered. And they ran back there.

Perhaps, like men often do, they thought that this poor woman had got it wrong, or was willing him not to be dead, or was just plain confused. There is even a macho reference to one disciple, the author no doubt, who outran Peter, but let Peter, the rock of the apostles, look in first.

Mary was right. The tomb was empty. Peter inspected. There was order and purpose in this empty tomb. The linen wrappings were still there. The cloth that covered his dead face carefully rolled up. This was not the scene of a break-in or body snatchers. Yet the two men went home.

It was Mary who stayed, simply being present. Her running was not activism but a deep, contemplative yearning after Jesus Christ. St Paul speaks of this yearning in terms of running in his letter to the Philippians. He describes of what is lacking in his faith and in his life, and then says ‘but I am still running, trying to capture the prize that first captured me’ (Philippians 3.12).

Mary’s coming to the tomb is evocative of the lover in the Song of Songs searching for the Beloved around the city, asking strangers ‘have you seen him?’ The spiritual life is about yearning; an aching desire for the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives to bring us healing, forgiveness, peace, abundance of life and his presence.

Yet Mary stood weeping at an empty tomb: profound absence. No-body.

In St John’s gospel initially we don’t get more detail than that. It is the other gospels that tell us of the myrrh bearing women who went to wash and anoint Jesus’ dead body, as was the custom of the day. It is the other gospels that tell of an angelic presence describing what had taken place: that Jesus was risen. That comes later in St John.

St John gives us other beautiful details. The first day of the week; that’s code for the being the same day as the creation of the world, the day when God spoke out of the darkness the words, ‘Let there be light’. The dark night in which Mary had arrived in was giving way to the dawn, suggestive of a New Creation. As John refers to in the Prologue to his Gospel, ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’.

The Easter Proclamation is the proclamation of light overcoming the darkness: life overcoming death. Last night at the Easter Ceremonies, the light of our Paschal Candle was kindled and borne aloft into a dark church as we sang, ‘The Light of Christ: Thanks be to God’. The light was shining in the darkness, as in the beginning, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

At Baptism each newly baptized person is given a candle lit from the Paschal Candle and is told, ‘Shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God the Father’. Just as Charles was told after he was baptized last night.

Because of her patient, attentive, faithful presence: a faithful loitering at the tomb Mary met a stranger, and, through her tears, asks, ‘have you seen him?’

Christ is no stranger and names Mary into being. As God named the sun and moon, the sky and earth, the animals and even Adam – humanity - into existence, so now he names this woman into fullness of New Life: Mary.

Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden: Jesus and Mary Magdalene are in the garden of the New Creation.

We find ourselves in the Garden of the New Creation today, in this church.

It matters little if you ran here this morning, if you trudged here, or were dragged here: you are here! You are present and you are opening yourselves afresh to hear Christ speak your name, to call you into existence and fullness of life.

And you don’t come to an empty tomb with no-body around. You are with your brothers and sisters in Christ, the Church, the Body of Christ, and you will receive the very presence of our Incarnate, Crucified and Risen Lord as you feed on his Body in the Sacrament of the Altar, his offering of his life that you may live.

Alleluia. Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

Friday, 19 April 2019

Liturgy of Good Friday: Homily


In St John’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus just five people stood by him.

His aunt was there. Mary, the wife of Clopas was there (which rather begs the question, ‘where was Clopas?’). Mary Magdalene was there. His bosom friend, the Beloved Disciple was there. Most poignantly of all perhaps, the woman who brought him to birth, his Blessed Mother, was there.

They were there. And of course the duty execution team of Roman soldiers was there.

Where was Peter? Where were the other members of the inner circle of the Twelve? Where were the crowds who followed him through the Galilee, being fed, healed, taught, reconciled? Where were the crowds who greeted him just days before at his triumphal entry into the Holy City, throwing down their cloaks, waving their palm branches?

They were nowhere to be seen.

The Passion Gospel of John asks the question of each of us, where are you, where am I, in relation to the Crucified?

Thanks be to God we are here this afternoon. We come to associate ourselves with Jesus Christ the Crucified One. We stand with him and we come to kneel to reverence and venerate the cross afresh.

We come to the foot of the Cross to stand with countless witnesses to the Way of Jesus throughout the ages: with the nameless, like his mother’s sister; with those who feel solitary in their faith, like Mary the wife of Clopas; we stand with Mary Magdalene, who had sinned much but knew much greater forgiveness; we stand with the Beloved Disciple full of love and faith; we stand with Mary who said ‘yes’ to the call to bring Jesus to birth in the world and heard Simeon’s words that a sword would pierce her soul: now she was at that moment.

‘Where do you stand on such and such?’ It’s a question that is asking someone to justify a position, a stance, perhaps an intellectual argument or political opinion.

Our response when asked ‘where do you stand on Jesus Christ?’ does not need to be answered with words, however cogent, rational or well-argued; but rather, we stand patiently at the foot of the cross.

Where do I stand? I stand at the foot of the cross with Mary’s sister, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the wife of Clopas, the Beloved Disciple, Mary, the Mother of Our Lord and God. I stand there with saints and martyrs, with countless faithful men, women and children throughout the ages and today.

I stand there; you stand there, because in baptism we receive the sign of the cross, and are told as bearers of this sign, ‘Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ, against sin, the world and the devil, and remain faithful to Christ to the end of your life’ (Common Worship: Initiation Services).

It is the way of fidelity to Jesus Christ, through communion in his sacrifice, in and his Body and Blood, standing with him, kneeling before him, worshipping and adoring him that we become the people we were created to be: at one with God; at one with the creation; at one with one another; at one with ourselves.

We adore you O Christ and we bless you,
because by your Holy Cross,
you have redeemed the world.


For further reflection:

What tongue can tell,
what intellect can grasp
the heavy weight of your desolation
Blessed Virgin?
You were present at all these events,
standing close by and participating in them
in every way.

This most blessed and most holy flesh –
which you so chastely conceived,
so sweetly nourished
and fed with your milk,
which you so often held on your lap,
and kissed with your lips –
you actually gazed upon
with your bodily eyes
now torn by the blows of the scourges,
now pierced by the points of the thorns,
now struck by the reed,
now beaten by hands and fists,
now pierced by nails and foxed to the wood of the cross,
and torn by its own weight as it hung there,
now mocked in every way,
finally made to drink gall and vinegar.

But with the eye of your mind
you saw that divine soul
filled with gall of every form of bitterness,
now groaning in spirt,
now quaking with fear,
now wearied,
now in agony,
now in anxiety,
now in confusion,
now oppressed by sadness and sorrow
partly because of his most sensitive response
to bodily pain,
partly because of his most fervent zeal
for the divine honour taken away by sin,
partly because of his pity poured out upon wretched men,
partly because of his compassion for you,
his most sweet mother,
as the sword pierced the depths of your heart,
when with devoted eyes
he looked upon you standing before him
and spoke to you these loving words:
‘Woman, behold your son,’
in order to console in its trial your soul,
which he knew had been more deeply pierced
by a sword of compassion
than if you had suffered
in your own body.

From ‘The Tree of Life’ St Bonaventure (1221-1274)

The Passion in the Psalms: Good Friday Addresses

Detail of the reredos of Croydon Minster

The Passion in the Psalms. By the word passion I am referring, first, to the suffering of Christ. The word ‘passion’ comes from the Latin verb, passio to suffer, hence the word passion, meaning ‘suffering’. So in church as we speak of Passiontide it is the reflection on the suffering of Christ, ‘for us and our salvation’.

But the word passion has another meaning too; there is a play on words here. The word ‘passion’ can refer to things that are deeply held and heartfelt, things that set us on fire with something beyond ourselves. That may be love, indignation, a sense of justice.

And you could say that passion for things can be a form of suffering in themselves.

Today on Good Friday we contemplate Christ’s passion for us - meant in both senses of the word passion – his suffering and yearning love for us, the creation, the whole cosmos.

And what of the Psalms?

The Psalms, whose author traditionally is King David, have long been associated with the Jesus Christ, the Anointed One, of the House of David. From earliest times the Church Fathers have seen the language of the psalms as either referring directly to Christ, or narrated by Christ or as a way of associating directly with him.

Of all the Old Testament books most often found on the lips of Jesus, it is the Psalms that feature most.


Psalm 41 is, at first sight, the most benign of the four psalms that I will focus on today.

It begins with a deep sense of reassurance of one who considers the poor and needy and who brings deliverance. It associates all those who endeavour to bring healing and reconciliation with the healing and reconciling ministry of Christ. It is a beautiful description of the ministry of Christ Jesus in Galilee, made clear in his quoting of the prophecy of Isaiah, when he stood up to read the scroll in the synagogue his home town of Nazareth:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’ (Luke 4.18, 19).

That text, he declared, speaks of him: anointed, Son of David, the one to bring healing, release and the favour of God to his people. In that it further echoes Psalm 41 which speaks of the deliverance of the Lord ‘in the time of trouble’ (v1b).

Yet, as happened in Nazareth, Jesus’ words, even if they are words of healing and peace expose - and even draw out - the malice and ill will of other people. In Nazareth, we read, ‘all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drive him out of the town, and led him to the brow of a hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.’ (Luke 4.28b, 29)

Jesus, who comes in the name of the Lord, uncovers the rage within the human heart, a rage and malice that becomes hones and refined in systems of brutality and murder, reaching its apparent apogee in the sophisticated brutality of Roman methods of death and execution: look no further than crucifixion. (Of course, had the Romans not perfected it, somebody else would have, such is the human condition).

And this is where Psalm 41 begins to turn as we come to verse 5. My enemies speak evil about me, asking when I shall die and my name perish. Moving ahead to Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem, after the triumphal entry into the Holy City, the site of David’s Temple, ‘the chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death’. The circle is closing, the enemies plotting.

Human rage is not just manifest in hot blooded lashing out, as in the synagogue in Nazareth, but is in cool, premediated, murder. The hot blooded sins we commit are bad enough, but the cold blooded, the thought-through sins we commit are all the more pernicious. Verses 6-8 speak of this, their heart gathers mischief; when they go out they tell it abroad. All my enemies whisper together against me, against me they devise evil, saying that a deadly thing has laid hold on me, and that I will not rise again from where I lie.

We don’t have to go far to make the connection with the plot that Judas is at the heart of. The psalm points us that way, in verse 9, even my bosom friend, whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me.

Therein lies betrayal. There are few things more devastating in our human experience, which Jesus shared in its fullness, than this form of betrayal. The Passover meal, a meal that both recalled and placed the people of Israel in the experience of liberation from slavery and death into freedom and life, and profoundly bound together God’s people, became the locus of its attempted reversal. Judas was set, hell bent you could say, on a destructive path that moved away from life and into death, not reconciling but dividing and fracturing: even my bosom friend, whom I trusted, who ate of my bread. That bread that Jesus shared with his disciples, including Judas was so much more now than the Passover from Egypt, but was now also the New Covenant in his body and blood. Judas shared Jesus’ life, in bread and wine, his body and blood, and now sought his death.

But Psalm 41 does not leave us there: because of my integrity you uphold me and will set me before your face for ever (v12). It is from this position of integrity of faithfulness to the Holy One of Israel that Jesus is strengthened, given courage to go on, praying, in the words of the psalm: But you, O Lord, be merciful to me and raise me up, that I may reward them. By this I know that you favour me, that my enemy does not triumph over me (vv. 10, 11)

It is this integrity that anchors Jesus throughout to his primary mission of reconciliation and healing, by bringing us to be one with the Father, such that he can pray from the cross, as related in St Luke’s Gospel ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (23.34) and ‘I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23.43).

The psalm ends with a phrase known in the beginning of St Luke’s Gospel, the Benedictus spoken by Zechariah, the father of our patron John the Baptist,

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
who has visited his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour
born of the house of his servant David. (Luke 1.68, 69)

Psalm 41 speaks of friends turning into adversaries and enemies plotting. In Zechariah’s words, the mighty Saviour, Jesus Christ, raised up for us, will set us free from the hands of our enemies (Luke 1. 71, 73), and he will lead us from the shadow of death and guide our feet into the way of peace.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen. (v 13)

God our deliver,
raise up the poor and comfort the betrayed,
through the one who for our sakes became poor
and whose betrayal brought our salvation,
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


I suggested in the first address that perhaps our first psalm, Psalm 41, begins in a benign way before becoming much darker.

Psalm 88 begins confidently, O Lord, God of my salvation but immediately signals something despairing and dark I have cried to day and night before you.

If Psalm 41 bespoke the betrayal of Jesus by the bosom friend who once shared bread with him, pointing us to the supper Maundy Thursday and the successful conclusion of the plot against Jesus with his arrest in Gethsemane the arrest, then Psalm 88 speaks of Christ in the Garden and thrown into the dungeon.

This psalm is truly a Psalm of the Passion and it offers very little by way of comfort or a happy ending. Indeed it short circuits the notion that all will come good. We are held in the grip of an unremitting bleakness. There is a cry of hope at the end, but almost as a last breath before the suffocating darkness envelopes him again.

There is a place in Jerusalem which archaeologists believe to be the house of Caiaphas, who was high priest when Jesus was arrested. As you will recall Jesus was led away to the high priest’s house after his arrest (Luke 22.54). What is more, it was in the court yard of the high priest’s house that Peter, who had followed along, denied Jesus three times– which makes us ask, was the betrayal referred to in Psalm 41 something we should only place on Judas, or does it stretch to Peter too, a bosom friend, a rock?

Beneath the site of Caiaphas’ house is a dungeon, which again archaeologists are quite clear, was used for the holding of prisoners, where shackles and manacles would be fixed. Descending further there is a cell, which, when the single electric light is turned out, is pitch black.

For pilgrims to Jerusalem this is often one of the most poignant moments. If this is not the cell Jesus was held in after his arrest it was pretty nearby, and, either way, the power of the words of Psalm 88 bring home his experience. Indeed, in an open Bible the text of Psalm 88 is laid out and then read for pilgrims:

4    I am counted as one gone down to the Pit; I am like one that has no strength,
5    Lost among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave,
6    Whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand.
7    You have laid me in the lowest pit, in a place of darkness in the abyss.

There is an echo here of Jonah in the belly of the great fish. Swallowed up, descended to the very roots of the mountains, one out of sight who feels that he is drowning, drowning with weeds wrapped around his head, suffocating, inhibiting breath. That in itself points to the slow death of crucifixion, but also to the depths that he has plunged. In the words of Psalm 88:

10  I am so fast in prison that I cannot get free; my eyes fail from all my trouble.
11  Lord, I have called daily upon you; I have stretched out my hands to you.

Jonah took time to wake up to call to the presence of God in his Holy Temple, but in Psalm 88 that is the first place the psalmist, Christ, looks to. It is in the second verse that he prays:

2    Let my prayer come into your presence; incline your ear to my cry.

What we have here is the Psalm of Christ who suffers the agony of isolation for us. Our human identity is profoundly in relation to others. Egocentrism, narcissistic self-sufficiency cuts us off from relationships which shape us and give us hope. That is why the blight of loneliness is so corrosive to society and to individuals.

We like to believe that torture does not exist in our society yet we cut people off to suffer in loneliness - spiritual, emotional and physical - such that interest in the wellbeing of another person is construed as interference and is hedged around by rules and regulations that leave them further isolated.

Christ is passionate, in both senses of the word, about those people: suffering and deeply moved; moved from the depths of the isolation he knew for us and in the face of the iniquity of the raging, angry and murderous:

19  All day long they come about me like water; they close me in on every side.
20  Lover and friend have you put far from me and hid my companions out of my sight.

He is alone. ‘A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’.


In the depths of our isolation
we cry to you, Lord God;
give light in our darkness
and bring us out of the prison of our despair
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


In St John’s Gospel Jesus, hanging on the cross, gasps, ‘I thirst’ (John 19.28)

That cry of thirst is representative of the deepest cry of the human spirit. The One Who Thirsts is also the One who says, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me’ (John 7.37). In him all our hungers are satisfied and thirst is quenched.

In this address we will consider Psalm 69, but another psalm, psalm 63, picks up the theme of thirsting:
O God, you are my God, eagerly I seek you; my soul is athirst for you…as in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water. (Psalm 63.1, 2a)

Psalm 69 deploys water in a quite different way. It cries for salvation because the waters have come up, even to my neck (v 1) and water floods sweep over me (v 2). This psalm is the psalm of one crying out to be rescued and of thirst not slaked, but vinegar offered instead (v 23).

So what of this water we thirst for? The imagery in this psalm is more of the prisoner being tortured; the scandal of water-boarding, of simulated drowning. That torture is a parody of giving someone a drink: ‘when I was thirsty you gave me nothing to drink…’ (Matthew 25.42) In water torture, nothing given to drink but water is forced down the throat.

As Margaret Saunders’ poem, Corpus Christi, says of food:

Don’t give rich food to starving babies.
it chokes them
gives them belly ache.
They need
pilgrim food for journeying
manna, waybread
bread of affliction.
They need thin gruel
to sustain
the aching lonliness.
Perhaps the only bread
that holds them in that narrow place
in which the broken body
is fragmented and shared
can be food for the journey.

Rich food on an empty stomach is like water poured onto a dry land, there is no way it can be absorbed. It needs to be sprinkled gently, ideally over land tilled and prepared.

Water in this psalm is threatening, evocative of the Great Flood which engulfed the earth, of which Noah and his clan was the remnant. God promised then, with the rainbow it its emblem never to seek to destroy the earth in such a way again.

Water is emblematic of the Christian life born into the waters of baptism, a stream of life that flows from the primal waters of creation, over which the Spirit of God moved in the beginning.

Being plunged into the waters of baptism is for deliverance into life; descent for ascent. Drowning is not what baptism is about: except at Epiphany when the Prayer over the Water says ‘drown sin in the waters of judgment’.

This thirsting for God is what Jesus leads us to, and then gives us is living water that will last forever. John’s gospel sees transformation through and in water: water into wine; living water as with the woman at the well (4.1-4); healing at the turbulent waters of Bethzatha (5.1-10); water of service transformed into a kingdom action (2.1-11).

Jesus gasps, ‘I thirst’. He thirsts for human comfort on the cross, no doubt, and he articulates the thirst of us all, so that no longer are our throats raw (v 3) but are enabled to say, as in verse 32:

I will praise the name of God with a song; I will proclaim his greatness with thanksgiving.

In Ezekiel (Ezekiel 47) the prophet sees a vision of the Temple filling with water. It echoes the psalm:

Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple towards the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me round on the outside to the outer gate that faces towards the east; and the water was coming out on the south side.

Going on eastwards with a cord in his hand, the man measured one thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the waist. Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed. He said to me, ‘Mortal, have you seen this?’

The waters were rising up, as per our psalm, yet that water flowing forth from the Temple brings life to everything it touches. Jesus speaks of the Temple of his Body, the place of sacrifice that will be destroyed and in three days be raised again (John 2.19).

This body hanging on the Cross is the Temple, the place of sacrifice, and from it flows water and blood not to drown the world, but to drown sin , and not to be vinegar but the wine of the kingdom and water of new life in baptism.


Thirsting on the cross,
your Son shared the reproach of the oppressed
and carried the sins of all;
in him, O God, may the despairing find you,
the afflicted gain life
and the whole creation know its true king,
Jesus Christ our Lord.


My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, and are so far from my salvation, from the words of my distress? (v 1)

This is the ultimate cry of desolation and despair.

This cry has been uttered before.

Jesus is not the first to speak these words but he takes them and cries out: cries out with David; with God’s ancient people the Jews, the first to hear his word; with prophets killed on account of their proclamation of word of the Lord; with those condemned to death; with all who know the pain of desolation.

This cry of desolation has raised many questions: Has God abandoned Jesus? Has Jesus abandoned God? Can God abscond? Is there ever a time, or place, that really can be God forsaken? Does this undermine the unity of the Blessed Trinity, if the Father and the Son are separated by a gulf of presence? We speak of the real presence of Christ in word and sacrament, can we, should we, speak of the real absence of God?

The mystics, who form their response to God in the deepest contemplative prayer of the heart, teach that the times of desolation, when God seems far from us, might just be the times when he is closest at hand.

The intensity of darkness may be due to the overwhelming light of the presence. And as night falls Jesus speaks of ‘his glorification’ (John 13.31)

Far from being a sop or piety that diminishes the human suffering of the abandoned, and indeed Jesus’ own suffering, we can come to see that just as the Father and Jesus are one, so then, in communion and fellowship with him, we too are at one with him and he with us.

This is borne out by the likelihood that by quoting the first line of a psalm Jesus is alluding to the content of the whole psalm. And this psalm narrates Jesus experience on the cross.

Psalm 22 takes on a journey that implies that far from abandonment, Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word, begotten not made, is in the bosom of the Father. The contours of the psalm are of the cry of desolation, that insist that the speaker is still in a relationship with God, indeed such a relationship with God that he can speak in this way.

Perhaps it is those who are closest to us, who love us most, who can say the hardest things to us. A cry of desolation or a cry of intimacy?

From there being no answer we move through lament and anguish, until in verse 19 and 20 a plea comes forth that asks God not to be far from this experience of desolation, rather it is a cry for deliverance: it echoes Moses’ cry ‘let my people go!’

At no point in his ministry does Jesus hint that something or someone is beyond redemption (unless they place themselves outside the possibility of redemption in an exercise of radical freewill that sins against the Holy Spirit): those who have sinned are told that they are forgiven and should go and sin no more; Peter, who denied him three times is given the chance to express his love three times; the Penitent Thief who asks to be remembered in the Kingdom is told, ‘today you will be with me in paradise’.

The work of the Spirit of Jesus Christ is one that is utterly transformative. Dry bones in a valley are given sinews to be knitted together into a body:

17  I can count all my bones; they stand staring and looking upon me.

These bones will not remain dry. Verse 21 signals a change of tone and of gear: you have answered me!

God is not absent; God is in the midst of this suffering pain and anguish.

This is not to diminish in the slightest the pain, bitter torment and agony of the Cross or anyone else’s pain. Rather the psalm points to God’s capacity to redeem even the darkest situation, to be with us in the hour of our trial when our bones are out of joint, and when my heart has become like wax melting in the depths of my body (v 14).

When Jesus utters that famous first line he points us to the rest of the psalm, such that we can be moved to praise: ‘we sing the praise of him who died, of him who died upon the tree’.

These psalms that we have considered in these hours when we commemorate the death of ‘Jesus Christ, King of the Jews’, upon the cross have taken us from the supper of betrayal, through the depths of loneliness and isolation, through the suffocation of condemnation to the redemption of abandonment.

All this Christ endures with and for us, out of the deepest love, which knows no limits and gives of its very self. The jeer of verse of 8 comes to be truer than the scoffers could ever have imagined, beyond their wildest imaginings:

‘He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him;  let the Lord deliver him, if the Lord delights in him.

Deliver him he does: ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’


Restless with grief and fear,
the abandoned turn to you:
in every hour of trial,
good Lord, deliver us,
O God most holy, God most strong,
whose wisdom is the cross of Christ.

Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England, material from which is included here, is copyright © The Archbishops' Council 2000 and published by Church House Publishing.