Sunday, 18 March 2018

Cross Examination (Mark 15.1-20)

Picture courtesy of The Lumo Project

If you pick up a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records you will probably find a reference to this man [picture on screen]. I bet £5 that no one here knows who he is - and I think my money is safe. Any guesses?

Wikimedia Commons

His name is Sir Lionel Luckhoo. Why is this man in the Guinness Book of Records? The answer is that he secured 245 murder acquittals in a row, making him easily the most successful trial lawyer in world history.

He’s the guy you want defending your case if ever you find yourself in the dock. Or maybe not actually; I guarantee he wouldn’t get you off the hook, not because he’d be defending the indefensible, but because he’s dead now. He died in 1997.

But on 7 November 1978, at age 64, he experienced a dramatic and sudden conversion to faith in Jesus Christ. This is what the world’s most successful trial lawyer said about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

“I say unequivocally that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so overwhelming that it compels acceptance by proof which leaves absolutely no room for doubt.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, aren’t we? The resurrection is for Easter Day in two weeks’ time. Not that it’s only relevant for one week of our year – the resurrection is momentous and significant every day of our lives.

The Inevitable Outcome

I just mention this now though because even this amazingly intelligent man, Sir Lionel Luckhoo, could not have got Jesus acquitted and released.

Why not? Why would he lose the case? It’s not that he wasn’t a great lawyer; as I just said, he was the best the world has ever seen.

It’s not that Jesus was so manifestly guilty, that his case was as good as over before the hearing. The opposite is true. No one managed to make a single accusation stick.

In fact, Pilate threw his hands in the air and said, “Why [should I condemn him]? What crime has he committed?” because he couldn’t find anything wrong with him.

So, why would Sir Lionel Luckhoo fail to get Jesus off the hook?

There’s only one reason and it’s this; because, the Bible says, Jesus was appointed by God the Father before the beginning of time to be our Saviour. No human force could stop it. It was predestined. God, in his unsearchable wisdom, and immense love for us, had decided before creation that this must happen.

Galatians 4.4 says that when the time was right, God did what he had determined from eternity; become one of us and die in our place to save us from sin and eternal death.

The Personnel

Let’s look at today’s Bible passage. There is an inevitability about Jesus’ trial. Every time I read this I think, “No, they can’t; he’s so obviously innocent, look, he’s being framed, don’t do it.” But the journey to the cross is inescapable.

Last Sunday, we saw how Part 1 of the trial, the hearing before the chief priest was a complete farce. If you were here you might remember that I found no fewer than twelve illegalities that rendered the trial null and void. The case should have been thrown out.

But, at the end of chapter 14, they all decide Jesus is guilty of blasphemy and must die.

However, the chief priests have a bit of a problem. They have no authority to apply the death penalty. Only their overlords the Romans can do that. So they have to persuade Pontius Pilate to do their dirty work for them.

In one sense, that should be no great problem. Because Pilate, as it turns out, is a great fan of crucifixion. He’s got a reputation for it. Anyone who even slightly steps out of line gets banged up on a cross.

Pilate doesn’t care. He rules by fear and the history books say he has already crucified about 3,000 people before he even meets Jesus.

We know quite a lot about Pontius Pilate actually from outside the Bible. Appointed Prefect of Judea in AD 26, he stayed in that job for 10 years. He antagonised the Jews with outrage after outrage against their religion.

He helped himself to temple money to spend on one of his vanity projects and conveniently ‘forgot’ to pay it back. He went into the temple with offensive images on his shield, caused a riot and spilled lots of blood.

He suppressed any hint of protest with excessive force. His furious temper was notorious. He quickly got a reputation for corruption and capital punishment without trial. It’s all there in the history books.  

So the elders and chief priests probably think it will be easy to get this cruel and vindictive man to order the crucifixion of some nobody who is supposed to have been causing trouble. Should be easy, right?

But it’s more complicated than that. Because word has been getting back to Rome about Pontius Pilate inflaming unrest and Caesar is starting to lose patience with him.

The emperor needs someone to keep the peace, not stir up the locals, so by now Pontius Pilate is one avoidable riot away from being fired. And he knows the score; “You mess it up once more with these Jews, and you’re out of a job.”

Unsurprisingly, Pilate doesn’t like the chief priests and the chief priests don’t like him. There’s bad blood between them.

The Charges

In v3 it says they accuse Jesus of many things. The one thing they don’t charge him with though is the one thing they have just found him guilty of; blasphemy. Jesus said he is God in human flesh. For the chief priests, that’s worth of the death penalty.

But blasphemy means nothing at all to a Roman governor. The one thing the Romans can’t get enough of is gods.

They’ve got gods for love, for war, for wine, for food, for the sea, for just about everything. You tell the Romans you’re a god and you’re cool! They’ll fall over themselves to build you a temple in your honour.  

So the Jewish leaders have to accuse Jesus of something else to get him condemned. Piecing together from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, it’s clear that they go attack him on three different fronts.

First, they allege that Jesus has been going around telling people to not pay taxes to Rome.

Second, they say that he stirs up disturbances all over the countryside.

And thirdly, they say that he is setting himself up as king in a direct challenge to Caesar.

In other words, they accuse him of tax evasion, rebellion and treason.

The Decision

As Pilate cross examines Jesus, he asks him a question, "So, you’re the king of the Jews then are you?" And Jesus replies, “You said it.”

Pilate is no idiot. He can see straightaway that Jesus is not dangerous and he’s being framed. He asks if Jesus wants to answer the charges against him.

This is his great chance to prove his innocence and get out of slow death by crucifixion - Pilate won’t be hard to convince - but to his amazement, Jesus remains silent.

Jesus can get himself out of this – and he says nothing. Isaiah 53.7 says “He was oppressed and afflicted, he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”

He chose the cross. He accepted it for you, so you can be forgiven whatever - no matter how bad it is - and know God and have abundant life forever.

The four gospels show how Pilate tries everything he knows to get Jesus off death row. Even flogging him to within an inch of his life. A Roman scourging was absolute carnage; leather whips with bits of bone and iron attached to the ends; it tore lumps off your back and left a pool of blood and flesh.

But even that isn’t enough for the chief priests. Pilate tries offering them a choice. Jesus or a fanatic and convicted murderer called Barabbas. Who do you want roaming the streets at night? “Give us Barabbas.”

“What about Jesus, then?” “Oh, crucify him!” And they bay for his blood over and over again. Why do they want crucifixion so badly? Why didn’t they just stone him secretly themselves? Because it says in Deuteronomy 21.23 says “cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree” and they want Jesus to die cursed by God.

The Relevance

So Pilate, fearing another riot, worried about getting the sack, caves in under pressure and hands Jesus over to be put to death.

It seems so remote to us doesn’t it? But it’s a choice that you and I face all the time. I’m serious. Here’s the choice. “Should I do what I know is right, whatever it takes? Or am I just going to please the crowd? What choice am I going to make?”

The crowd says, “Put a few dozen extra miles on your expenses. No one checks. It’s an unofficial perk. Go on! The company owes you a few beers.”

The crowd says, “Everyone’s doing drugs at this party. Come on! What’s wrong with you? It’s just mild stuff. Don’t be the only one who says no.”

The crowd says, “Take an intimate picture of yourself on your phone - or of someone else - and send it out on Snapchat. Look, everyone does it.”

Is that what God wants? Please the crowd? Know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and that you are called to the true joy of radical purity.

Pilate’s footnote in history, according to the best sources, is that he fell out of favour for good with the Emperor Caligula about five years after Jesus died and he committed suicide a broken man.

If  you had been there that Friday morning, as Jesus was led off to his gruesome death, what might you have seen?

Ending: The Picture of Grace

Maybe the ugly face of a scoundrel called Barabbas you recognize from all the Wanted posters around town. What would he be saying, do you think? Maybe something like this:

Ha ha haaaa! Pinch me! I can’t believe it! Barabbas. Career criminal, neighbour from hell and uncontrollable delinquent – that’s me.

I’ve broken into peoples’ homes and stolen all their stuff. I’ve knifed 6 innocent people this year so far. I’ve been a serial offender for years.

Last week, the law caught me trying to set fire to a hospital. Two of my mates were with me. They said we’d get the worst punishment they could think of - death on a cross. 

Just before dawn this morning I woke up – the day of my execution. The padlock on the door was unlocked and I thought, “This is it, time to face the music.”

But they just threw this new bloke into our cell.  He had been treated really badly. His clothes were torn, his body was bruised, he had two black eyes, his face was all beat up. He was a mess.

I could tell just by looking at him that he was innocent.  He looked over at me and he looked… so... I can’t really describe it. There was no judgement. No hardness on his face. No one has ever looked at me with as much love before.

Pilate said he was not guilty – no surprise there. He wanted to let him go. But the crowd was just fanatical. You could hear them from miles away. “No! Crucify him!”

Then I was led out, from my dark cell into the morning sunlight, all chained up.  Pilate asked the crowd to choose between us. 

Well, what a joke! I had a snowball in hell’s chance. It was no contest. There was no way they’d let an animal like me out on the streets again. 

But when Pilate asked, “Which one shall I set free?” everyone shouted “Barabbas”.  I just couldn’t believe my ears. I thought I must be dreaming. I was guilty as sin.

But here I am – outside, free again, my life given back to me.  All my past has been pardoned.

And heading off towards that cross, over there, the Place of the Skull, between my two mates, is that man. Instead of me

Why? It just doesn’t make sense. I can’t understand it – I don’t think I ever will.  This good man, Jesus, is going to die in my place.

Let’s pray...

Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 18 March 2018

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Jesus On Trial (Mark 14.53-72)

All pictures courtesy of the Lumo Project


We live in an age of sensational court cases, dramatically reported by the media; President Nixon’s impeachment, O.J. Simpson, the great train robber Ronnie Biggs, Rolf Harris, Max Mosely, Slobodan Milosevic, Oscar Pistorius… powerful men, audacious crooks and disgraced celebrities facing the music.

But today, I want to talk about the most famous legal trial the history of the world. The most written about, the most read about, the most spoken about, the most notorious, the most grievous for its dishonesty, and the most heinous for the injustice of its verdict was the two-stage criminal trial of Jesus of Nazareth. We’re going to look at it in depth today and next Sunday.

As we read on in Mark’s Gospel, you’ll know if you were her last Sunday that Jesus has just now been arrested. He is now on trial for his life. He is staring death in the face, knowing that his enemies are set on terminating him. And they rough him up and ply him with questions in an attempt to trick him into incriminating himself.

A Rigged Trial

By the standards of any fair legal system, Jesus’ trial was a complete joke. It was rigged. It was rotten. It was actually engineered to deliver a miscarriage of justice. It was, in fact, a judicial murder.

There are twelve different reasons* why Jesus’ case should have been thrown out, and I’m not talking about principles of British Law or modern Human Rights conventions. Even according to the first century Jewish legal system, Jesus’ trial was null, void and invalid.

Here they are, 12 reasons why Jesus’ trial was a total sham…

1. All four Gospels are clear that Jesus was arrested without a charge being made against him. That was illegal.

2. The arrest was set up by his judges, the chief priests, who thus became the counsel for the prosecution and should have been discharged of their duties for conflict of interest.

3. The trial took place on private property, in the high priest’s home, not in the public law court. That wasn’t allowed either.

4. The trial had to held in daylight hours but it took place at night. That was unlawful too.

5. The trial began without the accused actually being charged of an offence.

6. The prosecution witnesses brought no consistent evidence, so the case should have been dismissed.

7. Those whose statements disagreed were not charged with perverting the course of justice as they should have been for giving false evidence in court.

8. Jesus was not released without charge when his accusers were shown to be unreliable witnesses.

9. The judge failed to call a single testimony for the defence, failing in his duty of impartiality.

10. The judge made no cross-examination of Jesus' claim to be the Messiah, abruptly ignoring it.

11. Jesus was physically attacked and harmed while in custody, thus punished before a verdict was made.

12. The sentence of execution was rushed through for the same day, allowing no time for a legal appeal.

Do you ever feel the world has treated you unfairly? Know that Jesus was tested in every way as we are, yet was without sin. He didn’t retaliate, didn’t lash out, didn’t even insist on his rights. He certainly didn’t become hateful and bitter.

Nelson Mandela took inspiration from Jesus, saying “Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.”

Romanian pastor Richard Wurmbrant was imprisoned for 14 years by Communists over 2 different periods. He wrote a book about it called Tortured for Christ. Here’s an extract:

“It was strictly forbidden to preach to other prisoners. It was understood that whoever was caught preaching received a severe beating. A number of us decided to pay the price for the privilege of preaching. So we accepted their terms. It was a deal. We preached, and they beat us. We were happy preaching and they were happy beating us. So everyone was happy. The following scene happened more times than I can remember. A brother was preaching to the other prisoners when the guards suddenly burst in, surprising him halfway through a phrase. They hauled him down the corridor to their beating room. After what seemed an endless beating, they brought him back and threw him—bloody and bruised—on the prison floor. Slowly, he picked up his battered body, painfully straightened his clothing and said, ‘Now, brethren, where did I leave off when I was interrupted?”

Who Is Jesus?

As we’ll see, Jesus’ trial centres on one crucial and vital question.

And it comes in v61 where the high priest asks Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” In other words, “Jesus, who are you?”

The thing that struck me most as I read these verses is that, in a sense, Jesus’ trial is still happening now. People every day are still judging for themselves and deciding what their answer is to that same question. Who is Jesus Christ?

It’s the most important question in life actually. “Who do I think Jesus is?” Your entire life; this one and the next, depends on the answer you give. Everyone has to make their mind up. Plenty already have; more books have been written about Jesus than about anyone else in history. Who do you say Jesus is?

So the trial begins. It’s gone midnight. Jesus is led to the high priest’s house. Peter follows furtively at a distance.

They look for evidence to convict him but, as v55 shows, no one can find anything wrong with him. People come forward and make up stories to accuse him. But they make a pig’s breakfast of it and bungle the case for prosecution badly.

In v58 they misquote him but, even then, they can't really agree about what he didn't say. Their stories don't add up.

Well, the high priest looks at Jesus and says, “What have you got to say for yourself?” Jesus has just listened to a litany of flawed testimony, fabricated statements and fictitious evidence, fake news and false quotes. And he gives it the contempt it deserves, offering no answer. He doesn’t waste his breath. He just ignores it.

As I said, the big question comes in v61 and here it is. “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”

Firstly, “Are you the Messiah, that is the Christ, the anointed one? Are you the chosen one we Jews have long been waiting for?

For many centuries, they had been awaiting a Saviour, a great deliverer. The prophets said he would come one day. Every baby born into the Jewish nation, people wondered, is this the special one? Could this be the great leader who will rise up and change our fortunes?

So the high priest says to Jesus, “Well, is it you then? You’ve got quite a following. News about you has travelled. People say you might be our Messiah. Is this who you think you are?”

The thing is, as we’ve seen throughout Mark’s Gospel, they have already decided that Jesus cannot be the Messiah. Everything about him is wrong.

·         He heals people on the Sabbath. It’s not allowed. 
·         He eats without ceremonially washing his hands. It’s against the rules. 
·         He touches lepers which is not only gross, it’s contagious. 
·         He walks on water, showing complete contempt for health and safety. 
·         He raises the dead using the wrong liturgy. In fact, not using any discernible liturgy at all…

So they know one thing for sure; this man, whatever else he is, cannot be the Messiah. Like many people today, they write Jesus off without even bothering to investigate.

And then the high priest asks, “Are you the Son of the Blessed One?” In other words, do you claim some kind of unique and special relationship with God almighty? Have you come to earth from heaven? Or are you God himself in human form?”

And Jesus’ answer is clear and emphatic. “Yes, that’s exactly who I am. I am.” The great I am. The name of God. In other words, I'm not just...

·         a wise teacher
·         a charismatic leader
·         a social innovator
·         an advocate for the poor and marginalized
·         a friend of outcasts

Jesus is all those things, but that isn’t why they killed him. They killed him because he said, “I am the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, the Son of God, in fact God the Son.”

What Jesus says here in v62 is not ambiguous, or enigmatic. He claims the identity of a figure from the Old Testament Book of Daniel; the Son of Man, at the right hand of the Mighty One, and coming on the clouds of heaven.

This is so important. This is who Jesus says he is.

In Daniel 7, written about 550 BC, there’s a dramatic vision of eternity with the revelation of a powerful figure from heaven but who is described as being “like a Son of Man.” That points to some kind a heavenly being, clearly, but one who’s going to take on humanity; he’s going to have flesh and blood, he’ll be one of us.

And this great figure comes with the clouds of heaven to the Ancient of Days, God Almighty, and is given authority, glory and sovereign power.

So who is it? Is it some kind of angel or archangel? Is that who Jesus says he is? Some sort of created spiritual being who will be sent as God’s messenger?

No. It can’t be. It goes on to say, “All nations and peoples of every language will worship him.” This is huge. Everyone should bow down and adore him. Angels in the Bible always say, “Don’t bow down to me, I’m just an ambassador. Worship God.”

And look, it says, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”

He rules an unshakeable, unparalleled, invincible kingdom that will never end. This is as big as it gets. Almighty and ever-living God is going to come as flesh and blood into human history, and everyone is to exalt and honour and revere him.

Jesus says, “That’s who I am.

·         That’s why the high priest tears his clothes and shouts, “Blasphemy!” 
·         That’s why they condemn him to death. 
·         That’s why they spit in his face. 
·         That’s why they blindfold him, and tease him, and beat him up.

What do you think? Do you think Jesus was lying? Or deluded? Or was he right?

Could it be that Jesus was just making up some story about being the Son of God, knowing he was nothing of the sort?

Could it be that Jesus was a bit of a fruitcake, possibly schizophrenic, fantasising about being the Son of God, but tragically nothing of the sort?

Or is his is the most beautiful life the world has ever seen? Don’t the Gospels describe the most convincing, and real, and attractive, and authentic life imaginable?

What a thing! God, the creator of the universe, the author of life, the source of beauty and everything good comes to earth – and what do we do? We sit on a bench with a wig and gown and we put him in the dock. Then we break every rule in the book, rig the trial, smash the gavel on the desk and pronounce him guilty.


I wonder how much of the trial Peter got wind of outside in the courtyard? At least he got as far as that. Where were the others?
Were there leaks about how things were going from people going in and out of the house? Did Peter hear raised voices from within?

All we know is that there are three occasions when people blow his cover.

A girl recognises his face in v67 as someone who was walking around with Jesus. “Didn’t I see you two together?”

It’s late. Peter’s tired. “What are you going on about?” he says and he moves away from the light of the fire where people can recognise him.

Then in v69, after wondering, “where have I seen that guy before?”, she remembers that he was hanging out with the other disciples. “Yeah,” she says in earshot of everyone around, “you were with his band of followers, I’m sure it was you!”

Peter’s heart starts to beat faster, his throat tightens, his hands begin to sweat. Again, he says, “No, definitely not, it’s just some bloke who looks like me.”

And then in v70, this time a group of bystanders notice the distinctive way he talks. No one talks like that round here. “It must be you, with your northern accent!”

Peter loses it. “God damn it; I swear on my mother’s grave, I don’t know the man, I’ve never met him.  He means nothing to me at all.

Peter buries his face in his hands, a broken man, bitter tears running down his face. “What have I just done?”

Jesus is his best friend. For three years they have eaten together, laughed and cried together, travelled everywhere together, slept under the stars together.

Peter has seen thousands spellbound by Jesus’ preaching, he’s seen Jesus cast out demons, heal the sick (including his own mother in law), and raise the dead.

At Jesus’ command, Peter has let down nets into a lake that yielded no fish all night and then been unable to haul in the catch, such is its size.

He has seen it all, and done it all. Jesus is his leader, his hero.

Just a few hours earlier, remember, Jesus says to the twelve, “You will all fall away.” Peter says, “Oh no! Everyone else might, but even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.”

And Jesus says, “But you will, Peter. Not once, not twice, but three times, before daybreak actually, before the cock crows."

God knows we will let him down; he knows when, and he knows how badly. He knows where will fall into sin and he knows how. He knows how wretched things can get, how estranged from him we can become and the thing is this; he still loves us and is absolutely committed to us.

You are the apple of his eye and where sin abounds, where sin thrives, where sin flourishes and overflows, the Bible says that grace abounds even more.

Our adversary, the devil wants to bring condemnation and shame and heaviness every time we let God down. He’ll say, “You are a failure. God doesn’t love you. You always mess things up, don’t you? You’re pathetic. You will never change. This is who you are.” Is that what he says to you? Tell him to go to hell.

And how many of us have done this? At school? At work? In the home? Wherever.

People ask, “What did you do at the weekend?” and you don’t dare to say, “Oh, I was in church”; you say, “Oh, this and that.”

Then you feel gutted. You feel sick. Why did I keep quiet? Why didn’t I just say it?

Has your heart hardened? Is being associated with Jesus a burden, or an embarrassment? Let this be a day for tears and for a return to the fervour of the time when faith was young.


One last thought. How do you think we know about Peter’s denial? How did Mark get to hear about it?

We know that this Gospel was based on Mark’s notes of Peter’s preaching in Rome. And that means that Peter himself must have told Mark about what happened.

He doesn’t dress it up. He doesn’t try and make himself look good. It’s an admission, a confession. “I denied the Lord. Three times.”

Mark’s Gospel doesn’t mention that he actually walked on water with Jesus for a moment. Or that Jesus said he would build his church on Peter. You’ve got to go to Matthew for that. He doesn’t mention Jesus restoring him either, “Peter, feed my sheep.” You’ve got to go to John for that.

In Mark’s Gospel, from Peter’s own testimony, you’ve just got, “I denied him. I said, I have never heard of him.” In other words, don’t look at me. Don’t idolise me. Don’t put me on a pedestal.

Look at Jesus. Look at the Messiah, the chosen one, the Son of Man, coming on the clouds of heaven, at the right hand of the Mighty One, the Ancient of Days, and to whom is given authority, glory and sovereign power.

Let’s stand to pray…

Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 11 March 2018

* Based on 15 found by Baptist Bible teacher David Pawson; I felt 4 of his were not valid, but found 1 more of my own.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Broken for Me, Broken for You (1 Corinthians 11.23-26 and Mark 14.12-26)


The week before Easter is usually pretty busy for me.

Looking at my diary Ben will be home so I’ll want to spend some quality time with him. I see I have a school service to lead at Saint Mary’s on the Monday. There are Holy Week services each evening in Long Newton. I, along with all other clergy, have to go to the Cathedral on Maundy Thursday to renew my ordination vows. There is a Good Friday meditation to lead here. Then there are Easter Sunday services to prepare.

That’s on top of the usual meetings and emails and phone calls and stuff that just turns up. I’m not complaining; I love what I do. But that’s the week before Easter and I’m a vicar.

If you were to ask an observant Jew how he or she spends the week before Easter you would probably find it is similarly hectic. Of course, they celebrate Passover the same week.

It’s a highly evocative meal which has its own customs, liturgies, and symbols – all of which have been handed down from generation to generation, not just for decades, or even centuries, but for millennia; they have done the same things every year since the eve of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt about 1,450 years before Christ.

The Preparation

For devout Jews work is cancelled. They are required to take a full week’s holiday the week before Passover. Jewish businesses cease trading for the duration of the holiday. Kosher food producers and restaurants all close down for 7 days.

Actually, the men put their feet up and rest. But the women are expected to undertake an in-depth spring clean of every square inch of the home, from the attic to the cellar.

And in particular, they have to rid the house of every trace of… leaven. Biscuits, cakes, bread, crumpets, muffins, bagels, it all goes in the bin. But also Marmite, beer and a whole host of other stuff… everything with yeast in it has to go.

Every surface is wiped down, every floor is vacuumed, every window is cleaned, every bed is changed; no stone is left unturned – the house must be 100% leaven free before Passover.

Yeast, in the Bible, symbolises sin. Because sin, just like yeast, starts small and unnoticed, but it ends up affecting everything. That’s why unleavened bread for Jews is a symbol of purity and righteousness.

So the women get busy cleaning and the men watch TV. Sounds like a fair division of labour doesn’t it?

However, according to the rabbis, only the man about the house can legally certify that the home is officially yeast free. So they have devised a ceremony called the bendikat chametz in which he goes about with a feather, a wooden spoon and a handkerchief and he has to find the one crumb of bread that she has deliberately left. He sweeps it up, takes it to the synagogue and burns it. You can buy a special kit like the one on the screen for that very purpose.

When the disciples ask Jesus in v12 “where do you want us to go and make preparations for the Passover?” this is what they mean. They have to get a room up to spec, yeast free, before laying the table and setting all the food out. But Jesus tells them the room will be furnished and ready, meaning he has already made arrangements to get rid of all the yeast.

I wonder if you realise why Jesus says to just two of the twelve in v13, “Go into to the city and a man carrying a water jar will meet you”? Why doesn’t Jesus just say, “I’ve booked a room at 47 Bethany Street” for example? Why does he talk in this covert kind of way?

It’s because Judas is right there listening. Jesus knows that Judas is looking for an opportunity to betray him; v11 says he is actually watching for an opportunity to hand him over.

Luke’s Gospel records that Jesus says, “I have eagerly desired to eat the Passover with you before I suffer” but if Judas gets wind of the address where this Passover meal is going to take place, there’ll be a whole bunch of temple police waiting at the door with swords and clubs. The last supper will never happen.

The Meal and its Meaning

Those of us who are Gentiles generally have a pretty sketchy idea of what the Passover meal involves. A few years ago, I invited a friend from an organisation called Jews for Jesus to give a presentation about it in the church I was leading at the time. It blew my mind.

The Passover meal speaks eloquently about what Jesus did for us when he died in our place. He is in every symbol, in every custom, in every commemoration, in every ritual.

Remember, all observant Jews do this every year. The youngest present at the meal begins by asking “Why is this night different to all other nights?” In the upper room, this might well have been the Apostle John.

And the head of the home replies, explaining to everyone gathered. “This is to remind us that God delivered our people from slavery in Egypt and led us into the Promised Land.” These are the words that Jesus would have said.

All Jewish households celebrating the Passover today, following the instructions in Exodus 12, take parsley, dip it in salt water and eat it, reminding them of the tears and sweat of their ancestors while they were slaves in Egypt. And the head of the table explains that this is a reminder to them of the bitterness of life.

These bitter herbs are also made into a kind of paste, like horseradish sauce. They dip their unleavened bread into the sauce and when they eat it, it’s like chopping an onion, tears begin to fall.

When Jesus says, “one of you will betray me, the one who dips his bread in the bowl with me” well, this is the bowl of sauce he is talking about, this bitter horseradish sauce.

In v19 it says that they are all upset. Do you know why? Because everyone present will have already dipped their unleavened bread into this sauce. In a sense they did all desert him and deny him. But Jesus takes bread again later in the meal, dips it in the bitter sauce and gives to Judas saying, “What you must do, do quickly.”

The Passover meal, according to Exodus 12, also contains lamb that must be without defect; no broken bones or malformations. It doesn’t say why. But we know that Jesus is the Lamb of God, without sin, who takes away the sin of the world. Neither Pilate or by Herod will find any wrong in him. His bones will not be broken on the cross, even though according to Roman custom they have to be.

Every Passover meal features a bag for the unleavened bread and it’s called a matzoh tosh. There’s a picture of one on the screen. It’s a bag with 3 compartments, and each contains a slice of bread without yeast.

A matzoh tosh like this is what Jesus will have used too. The rabbis say that the bag is a unity: three breads, one bag, three in one.

The bread in the middle bag is called the bread of affliction. Some rabbis teach that the three breads represent Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Others disagree and say that it symbolises the priests, the Levites and the people. There are other interpretations. But no one really knows why there is this three-in one bag. What could it possibly point to?

Picture courtesy of Lumo Project

At every Passover meal, they play a little game of hide and seek. Taking the second unleavened bread, “the bread of affliction,” out of the middle compartment, they wrap it in a new linen cloth called the afikomen which means “it comes later.”

According to the custom, the afikomen is removed from sight and hidden somewhere in the house. Then, later, the children go and search for it.

And here’s the amazing thing; in every Jewish home at Passover, the head of the meal unwraps a linen cloth and reveals this unleavened bread (symbolising sinless perfection) and they what do they see? They see pierced holes and dark stripes where the bread has been baked. Does that remind you of anything?

Surely, it points to Isaiah 53 that says, “he was pierced for our transgressions and by his stripes we are healed.”

At the last supper with his disciples, in the Upper Room, this is the bread Jesus breaks saying, “take, eat, this is my body, broken for you;” it’s the bread of affliction, marked by stripes, pierced all over, that was taken away but then reappears.

It is a vivid visual symbol of his broken, pierced, scarred body, revealed to all, having been put away in a linen burial cloth.

The Jews then take a cup of wine; the third one of the meal. This third one comes after the supper itself and it is called the cup of redemption which looks forward to the time when the Messiah comes.

This cup of redemption is what Jesus gives to his disciples after supper saying, “Drink this all of you, this my blood of the Covenant which is poured out for many.”

One day, maybe soon, the Lord will open the eyes of his beloved people, the Jews. Zechariah 12 says “They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.”

Perhaps it will be at the Passover table that their eyes are opened to see and embrace their Messiah and ours.

Feasting at the Lord’s Table

Why do we share this simple meal as we have done today? Because Jesus himself told us to, so that we never forget what it cost him to bring us together and win us for himself.

Picture courtesy of Lumo Project

Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” We have just been thinking about what happened at the meal in the upper room when Jesus broke bread the night before he died.

He wants us to remember, above all else, more than his birth, or his baptism, or his leadership, or his teaching, or his miracles or his works of compassion - he wants us to remember his sufferings and his death and his resurrection.

This is what we recall this morning in breaking bread and pouring out wine. It’s more than a reminder; it’s a re-enactment. There is nothing else on earth quite like it.

Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, 1 Corinthians 11 says we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again. By sharing this meal we publicly identify with the power of the cross and resurrection for us.

Taking bread and sharing a cup is to say openly, “I believe today with all my heart that Jesus really died on a cross, that he actually carried my sin there in his body and because of him I can know God and be healed.” I am not a casual observer. I am part of the story. Jesus didn’t say, “Watch this”, he said, “Do this in memory of me”.

We share this simple meal recalling Jesus’ agonies on the cross. We also share it to express that we belong to a Christian family, we belong to one another, we are members of one another as the Bible puts it. We, who are many, are one body, because we all share one bread. Meeting together at the same table is not just “me and Jesus” but an expression of love for one another as well.

That is why it is important to be right with one another before we come to communion. Jesus said, “If you enter your place of worship and you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you… go to this friend and make things right first.”

But of course, it’s about making sure we are right with God as well as with each other. It is a holy communion.

When we break this bread, it’s just bread. No more. There’s no “abracadabra” or magic words. The wine is real wine. If you drink it all, even ‘consecrated’ you won’t be legal to drive home! The physical ingredients do not change.

But by the power of the Holy Spirit, when we engage spiritually by faith, it’s more than just bread to us. It’s, as it says in 1 Corinthians 10, “a participation in the body of Christ.”

It’s a bit like a window. You can look at a window; the frame, the handle, the size, the shape… Or you can look through it and see much more.

When we eat and drink, in faith, there is healing and grace. It’s the bread of heaven. In this cup, there’s forgiveness and life forever. As we come in faith, by the Spirit, Jesus is present.

You can see just bread and wine if you want. In essence that’s all it is. But you can also, by faith, look through and taste and see that the Lord is good.


So this is why we eat and drink with one another at the Lord’s Table. It is a sweet and holy thing. But what about that bit about eating the bread or drinking the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner?

It says if you do that, you will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.” And it goes on. “We ought to examine ourselves before we eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For those who eat and drink without recognizing the body of the Lord eat and drink judgment on themselves.

Who is not troubled by these words? What does it mean to examine yourself before eating and drinking?

It means this is a serious business between you and God. It’s not a religious game. Don’t do it lightly. It’s a time to remember Jesus’ death and what it cost him to save you from sin. 

But what if you don’t “recognise (or discern) the body of the Lord?” Does the Bible really mean here that if you take Communion insincerely or absent-mindedly you can fall ill and die?

Paul’s words in v30-31 are plain. “Those who eat and drink without recognizing the body of the Lord eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have died.”

It’s true. There’s one who ate the bread and drank from the cup, who dined with Jesus at the last supper, without having examined his heart, someone who died soon afterwards; Judas Iscariot, the one who tragically fell away.

Peter, that same night, denied Jesus too, as we’ll see over the next two weeks. But he turned back in tears of repentance, was restored, and went on to bear much fruit.

I want to end by showing you a testimony of a man, who doesn’t live that far away from here. His story shows why Jesus died, how powerful and life changing that is, and why we come back to the cross when we meet to worship.

Let’s pray…

Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 25 February 2018