Sunday, 27 February 2011

Transforming dogs into children of God

We’re looking today at one of the more surprising incidents that is recorded in the gospels. It is in fact quite shocking to us in our very politically correct society.

Jesus calls a Gentile a dog.

Some of the commentators try to take the edge off it by saying that Jesus means cute, fluffy little dog. Others say that he said it with a twinkle in his eye. But those explanations don’t wash.

He says, in reply to the woman’s request that he cast the unclean spirit from her daughter, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs’.

How would you react if Jesus called you a dog?
How would you react if people of your race were described as dogs by another people?
It is an absolutely outrageous thing to say: that people who are not like you are dogs

Unless of course, in one exceptional case, it is true.

We have here a woman who is desperate. Her daughter is beyond help.

She is not sick. Mark knows the difference between sickness and possession by demons. She is possessed by an ‘unclean’ spirit. That is the actual word that Mark uses, and it immediately makes us think of what Jesus has just said in the previous verses (Mark 7:1-23), when he has declared all food clean, and when he has told us that it is what comes out of our heart that makes us unclean.

In our society we struggle with the idea of possession or unclean spirits. But we lose the language of demons to our peril. There are things which grip us, which are completely beyond our control or the control of others. Tablets (British Museum exhibit: homo-tableticus), injections, psychotherapy, counselling, self-awareness, technology, education is not going to cure us or save us. There are things that are beyond all human resources.

Of course we do need to be aware of dangers of the language of demon possession. I remember in London in the street hearing one of our grandmothers (who was remarkably like Precious in Come fly with me - without the hypocritical bit) berating her grandson, and telling him he had the devil in him. I stepped in and said he didn’t have the devil in him. What he did have was a completely absent father, a mother who was unable to cope and a granny who was being stretched in every direction at the same time.

And of course we cannot forget the awful case of Victoria Climbie. She was tortured to death because her aunt believed she was possessed.

But because the language of demons is abused, or because it is sensationalised in popular films, that does not mean that it is a language we should not use.
The signing of people with the cross in our baptism service goes back to the very earliest of times when, before people were baptised, prayers and anointing was offered for deliverance: that those dark forces which had held them up to that time might be broken.
The desert fathers spoke of their struggles with demons in the desert.
For many of our brothers and sisters in countries which are more spiritually open than ours, demon and demon possession is an everyday part of life, and I have to say that in inner city London I came across stuff that I could use no other language for apart from the language of evil spirits and demons.

And this woman looks at her daughter, who is obviously in the control of something that is much bigger than her, and that is destroying her, and she is desperate.

She is so desperate that she breaks all the taboos.

She is a woman and she comes to a man
She breaks the taboo about not invading personal space. Having said that, I suspect that the taboo of personal space is a much greater taboo in our society than in Jesus’ society.
But the greatest taboo that this woman breaks is that she, a Gentile, comes and asks help from a Jewish rabbi.

And Jesus answers her by saying that the good things of God (the bread) are for his people. And that she is a dog.

But amazingly this woman is not put off.

Her answer, ‘Yes Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs’, is not a witty reply. It is one of the most remarkable declarations of faith in the New Testament.

1. She is saying, I recognise divine choice’.
I recognise that I am a dog, and that the Jewish people are the chosen people. I recognise that the God who called Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the true and living God. I recognise the authority of the Jewish scriptures. And I recognise you as the special one who those scriptures told us was coming.

I wonder if those of us who are Gentile by birth would have had the grace to make such an answer. To recognise that the Jews are the chosen people of God is to recognise that those of us who are not Jews, were not the chosen people of God. We were not God’s people. We were cut off from the promises of God. We were outside the covenant of God. We were, as far as they were concerned, dogs.

2. She is saying, ‘I recognise divine providence’.
She actually understood the Old Testament far better than many of the Jews of Jesus’ time.

There were times when they thought that because God had chosen them, that because the other nations were as dogs to them, they were the superior race. And that, as we have seen in history, can lead to some very nasty things. The Hutus thought they were superior to the Tutsis (and vice-versa); the peoples of this island thought that they were superior to the peoples of the colonies; the Nazis thought they were racially superior to Jews.

But actually God did not choose the Jewish people to be his people because they were a superior people. He did not choose them to be his rulers in the world instead of the Gentiles. He chose the Jewish people for the sake of the Gentiles.

When God, right at the beginning of the Jewish nation, calls Abraham, he promises to bless him with descendants and land. But then he says, ‘And through you all people will be blessed’. And Isaiah picks up on this vision and speaks of how a restored Israel will bring blessing to all nations and all peoples.

So this lady comes to Jesus. She sees him as the representative of the Jewish people, and she asks for nothing less than the fulfilment of those Old Testament prophecies. She asks that the blessing that will come from the Jews will fall on the Gentiles. She asks that the good things on the table for the Jews, will be so abundant that they will fall off the table and bring blessing to the Gentiles.

3. All she asks for are the crumbs that fall of the table of God - that will be enough for her
I like that. If the crumbs of God can do the impossible; what will it be like to sit at that table with him in the Kingdom? What blessing, what abundance, what comfort, what ultimate healing, what life, what joy!

And for those who, like this woman, have cried out for a sick child but have not seen them healed, it is not because you have not been desperate enough or because you have lacked faith. Instead you are called to walk the very dark and hard road, but to still put your trust in the ultimate goodness of God: to realise - if I dare say this - that you were asking for crumbs when what he really wants to give is a banquet.

Jesus is astonished at her faith. The healing of her daughter is not a reward for a witty answer. It is the answer of a God who longs to pour out his blessing on his own people first, but also on the Gentiles.

In fact this is a key point in the story that Mark tells.

In Mark 6 we have had the feeding of the 5000 in a solidly Jewish area, with 12 baskets of leftovers (with 12 being a very Jewish number: think of the 12 tribes)
Jesus then retreats (hint!) and prays (in Mark, when we are told that Jesus prays, we know that something is about to happen) and crosses the Sea of Galilee to the Gentile area.
He has a dispute with the Pharisees about what is clean and unclean. He declares all food clean, and he goes on to say that what makes a person unclean is the stuff that is in their heart.
And then this Gentile woman comes and begs him to heal her daughter

It is possible that as Jesus saw this woman he knew that this was the moment when his ministry was to go global. This was the point when Israel’s mission to the Gentiles really began

And if we read what follows from this: Jesus, now in solidly Gentile territory, heals a deaf and dumb man
And then, before he crosses back into solid Jewish territory, we get a repeat of the feeding of the 5000. Only this time it is in Gentile territory; he feeds 4000 people and there are 7 baskets of leftovers (with 7 being the universal number). Jesus who has fed the Jews, now feeds the Gentiles. And in between is the Syro-Phoenician woman who asks for crumbs.

And the woman’s faith does not finish there. She takes Jesus at his word; she goes home and she finds her daughter healed and lying on her bed.

We echo the words of that woman in our communion service. We say, “We are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under your table; yet you are the same Lord and your nature is always to have mercy; grant us therefore gracious Lord so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Every time we say that, we acknowledge what this woman acknowledges: that we are dependent exclusively on mercy.

It is not because we are somebody; it not because of our race (on that basis, we are dogs); it is not because of any good deeds that we have done; it is not because we are ‘nice’ people (God preserve us from being ‘nice’ people. We are forgiven, welcomed, healed, cleansed, adopted as children of God, given the Holy Spirit, promised an inheritance in the Kingdom of God - because of the love and mercy of God.

This, of course, is the basis for racial harmony. It is really not on for one race of dogs to accuse another race of being dogs. The problem is not in the calling of the name. The problem is in the not recognising that the hat you want them to wear fits you just as well.

We were not God’s people. We were dogs. We were cut off from the promises and the gifts and the ways of God. But God in his mercy comes to us. He comes to our territory. He is staying here. His stay is secret - but as always in Mark - the secret is an open secret. He is there to be found by anyone who chooses to seek him. And as we call out to him - maybe for crumbs - we begin to realise that he longs to give us far far more. He longs to lift us up, and to sit us at the table with him, so that we eat and drink not as dogs beneath the table, but as full sons and daughters of the living God at the table of God.

And maybe we are driven to him by desperation or by despair or by curiosity - it doesn’t matter. Because he is not in the business of giving crumbs to dogs. He is in the business of transforming dogs into children of God.  

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Following Jesus

Jesus says, ‘The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news’.
He goes on to say, ‘Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’

There are three calls here.

  1. The call to listen

We are called to listen to what Jesus has to say.  

And the reason that we are to listen to Jesus, according to Mark, is because of who he is.

He is the Son of God. Mark’s gospel begins with those amazing words, ‘The beginning of the gospel (good news) about Jesus Christ, the Son of God’; You cannot get more a dramatic opening than that.

And Mark claims that Jesus is the one promised by Isaiah and the OT prophets. The whole of the OT points to him.
He is the Christ, the Messiah, the one chosen by God to be his ruler in his world;
John the Baptist pointed to him, and said that he was the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit;
The voice from heaven tells us that he is the one who is uniquely beloved of God;
He is the one who has been in the desert with wild animals – but who has come through;

And here, he is the one who declares that the Kingdom of God is very very close.

Philip Pullman wrote a series of three novels, ‘Dark Materials’ which is, I’m told, meant to do for atheism what CS Lewis with Narnia has done for Christianity. I don’t think it really works – but you would probably expect me to say that. But Pullman comes up with a brilliant analogy in his second book, The Subtle Knife. Pullman envisions a parallel world which is alongside this world (he buys into the idea of multiple universes). But in this book there are places in this world which are incredibly close to places in the parallel world. They are separated by a thin veil. And there is a special knife which, in those places, you can make a cut in the air in this universe and step through into the other universe. They are that close. And that universe is similar to this universe, but it is also slightly different (although Pullman’s parallel universes are depressingly similar to our universe, where self-centredness and violence and fear and death still rule supreme)

Well, to use that illustration for Jesus’ teaching, it is almost as if Jesus is saying, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven, the place of the rule of God, where there is love and beauty and joy and goodness and abundant creativity and intimacy and absolute freedom and glory, is just there. All it needs is for the veil to be cut. And Jesus does that, not with a subtle knife, but by his death on the cross. And as a result the door has been opened, and the life of that universe can begin to penetrate into the life of this universe. And the first place where that begins is here, in the human heart. And there is a doorway between that world and this world, there and there and there, in the heart that has heard Jesus’ call. And one day, says Jesus, when he returns, the life of that universe will pour into this universe, and it will overwhelm this universe. And heaven and earth will be united. 

This really is good news. It is the news that God has not given up on us, or abandoned us. It is the news that this world is not all that there is; that sin and death do not have the final word. It is the good news that we can begin to glimpse the life of that kingdom here and now; and that even for those people for whom life is a living hell now - there can be hope, a certain unshakeable hope.

Simon and Andrew, James and John could so easily have missed it all. They could have been too busy with their fishing and their mending, that they just didn’t hear Jesus. They could have been so focussed on the things of this world – their boats, their nets, how much money they had made, whether the overdraft could be paid off, who fancied who, who had succeeded and who had failed, whether Capernaum FC were going to beat Nazareth United in the local Derby - that the last thing that they would have done was listen to Jesus when he spoke about another world, an invisible world, the Kingdom of God being near.

But by the grace of God they didn’t. They listened and they heard.

And my dear brothers and sisters I beg us to listen. There really are times when we need to stop and to open our ears and to listen. Not, in this case, to listen to the world, not even to listen to our hearts – because we are incredibly good at self-deception – but we need to be prepared to listen to Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

  1. The call to repent and believe

Jesus says to them, ‘Repent and believe the good news’.

This is not just about repentance. It is not simply a matter of saying sorry for the wrong things we do.

For a start we don’t really know whether what we do is wrong or not. Sometimes we feel dreadfully guilty about things that we do not need to feel guilty about. At other times we are quite blind to the things that we should feel guilty about.

A person may scrupulously make sure that their tax affairs are correct to the last penny and go to sleep with a peaceful mind, when actually they have built their whole existence on their business, and they are heading for hell. 
A person may resolutely decide that from today, ‘I am going to be a better person’, but they are defining what it is to be a good person in their own terms, and they still think that they can do it themselves.

Jesus is not calling us here to be sorry for the bad things we do, and to turn over a new leaf.

He is calling us to a complete change of mind and of life orientation. The problem is that we live for this universe and the things of this universe. We have become blinded by our self-centredness. Even if we profess to believe in God, the god we believe in is a god who exists to make our life better and more successful in this world.

Jesus calls us to repent, to wake up: to realise that God is there, that he is real and that His kingdom is not our kingdom. His agenda is not our agenda. We need to stop seeking the things of this world, and to start seeking the things of that world.

That is what repentance is – it is, literally, about a change of mind – a choice to put God first, to put our trust in God and in his promises and to put God’s kingdom first. It is about living in the light that the door from that universe to this universe has been blown open, and it is about allowing the life of that universe to flow into this universe in us and through us.

And of course we will mess up – but it will be messing up in God’s terms and not on our terms. And that is where confession comes in – saying sorry. But we are confessing our sins as people who are repentant, as citizens of the kingdom. And because of Jesus we know that we are forgiven.

That is why we cannot separate ‘repent and believe’. To truly repent is to turn from living for ourselves and to live for God; it is to put our trust in God and what God has said; and specifically it is to live as if the Kingdom of God is very near.

  1. The call to follow Jesus

Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James and John to follow him: ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’..

And that call to follow Jesus is repeated throughout Mark’s gospel.
He calls Levi, the tax collector, to follow him (Mark 3:14)
He calls the rich young man to sell everything, to give to the poor, and to follow him (Mark 10:21)

And to his disciples he says, ‘If you would come after me, you must deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me’.

And at a key point in the story which Mark tells, toward the end of Jesus’ life, as he is about to enter Jerusalem for the last time, we are told of a blind man called Bartimaeus. Jesus heals Bartimaeus and, Mark writes: ‘Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road’ (Mark 10:52)

For the first Christians the call to follow Jesus was quite literal. They followed him as he travelled and taught.
But Mark’s gospel is written to show us, who were not there with the historical Jesus, what it means to follow Jesus.

A person who follows Jesus is learning to live to the glory of God as he lived to the glory of God, to trust God as a loving heavenly Father as he trusted God as his heavenly father. They live in the light of the Kingdom of God, which is very close. And because of that they are learning to take up their cross, to live as people who are dead to this world and alive to that world, who are allowing Jesus to baptise us, to overwhelm us, with his Holy Spirit. And that person will have a passion for God, a deep love for people, and hope and joy – and they will be incredibly attractive. They will become fishers of men: they will catch people for life.

And by the way, Mark’s gospel also tells us that people who follow Jesus may end up crucified.

At the mens’ breakfast yesterday, Malcolm Gifford was telling us that in many strict Islamic countries, believers will not necessarily identify themselves as ‘Christians’. The word Christian has too many negative cultural overtones for their Moslem neighbours. Instead they identify themselves as ‘Followers of Isa, Jesus’.

Jesus says to Simon, Andrew, James and John, ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of men’

As members of the church, our first task is not to see St Mary’s or St Peter’s grow in size; it is not to increase the numbers of people making use of the church building or sitting in pews – much as we long to see that happen; it is not to provide services that are primary entertainment or to offer a place of beauty and quiet; nor is it to provide social services or pastoral care or even a religious framework for our society.

Our first task is to be people who follow Jesus. And as we follow Jesus, then we will be changed and people will be caught for life.   

We do not necessarily need new structures or new initiatives or new programmes or new events. What we do need are to be people who listen to Jesus, who have repented and who live in the light of the Kingdom of God, who choose to follow Jesus every day of our life.

Prayer of St Richard of Chichester

Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits which you have given us,
for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us.
Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother,
may we know you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly,
day by day. Amen.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Prayer: of desperation and of faith

Story of Samuel: the last judge of Israel and king-maker

Samuel is a book of contrasts:
Judges - Kings
two judges: Eli and Samuel
two kings: Saul and David

Here we see a contrast: two women - two rivals: Peninnah and Hannah
Hannah beloved of her husband, but barren
Peninnah, less favourite of the wives, but fertile.

And Peninnah was going to use this against her rival. She ‘kept provoking her in order to irritate her’. ‘She provoked her until she wept’

And Peninnah had hit Hannah’s raw nerve. A woman’s identity and value in society was dependent on her children. A barren woman was a failure, a nobody.

I’m conscious that even in today’s society there is still a deep subconscious assumption that an infertile woman is only half a woman, just as an impotent man is only half a man. That is still thought to be true even though many women are making the choice not to have children. Infertility still does carry some kind of personal and social stigma, to say nothing often of the desperate pain of couples where they do desire to have children but are unable to do so.

So the story of Samuel begins with a man called Elkanah, and his wife, Hannah, who prays.

Right from the beginning we know that something very special is about to happen. Elkanah is introduced in exactly the same way that Manoah, the father of Samson, is introduced (Judges 13:2). ‘A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was childless, unable to give birth’.

But the focus of these verses is not Elkanah, but Hannah: a barren woman, who is desparate and who prays.

1 Samuel 1:10-11

She prays that:

1. God will remember her

She is praying that God will take notice of her, that he will look at her misery.
This was the prayer of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt
This was the prayer of the Psalmist: Psalm 44:23-24. They were crying out, ‘God, we’ve remained faithful to you. Why have you walked out on us? Where are you?’
This has been the prayer of women and men of God through the centuries: ‘O God, take notice of me, don’t be deaf to me; don’t be blind to me’.

It is actually a tremendous prayer of faith. Hannah chooses to turn to God.
She didn’t have to. She could have turned against God. She could have chosen to turn her enmity against Peninnah into a crusade (Sarah does that a bit with Hagar). She could have done what Eli accuses her of doing - turning to the bottle: drinking just to kill the pain.
But she doesn’t. She turns to God.

We don’t often do that - not really. When we are in trouble, we turn to the credit card, to medical science, to entertainment - to anything which will make us feel better here and now, or which will anaesthetise the pain.

But Hannah turns to God. Only he can answer.

And her prayer is very honest: ‘God, remember me’. Why? Because she feels abandoned.

Maybe we need to learn what it is to cry out to God in desperation:
like the father with the possessed son
like the mother with the possessed daughter
like Jairus or the Centurion crying out for their child or servant
like the tax collector in the temple
like the blind men calling to Jesus.

2. Hannah prays about what matters to her the most

She prays from the heart. She is praying out of her anguish and grief. As she prays, she weeps bitterly.

And she prays from the heart. It is often said that the ancients did not tend to pray in their head. They spoke the words out loud. It is written of Augustine that he prayed silently, and it was something that was strange enough to be recorded. So here, when Hannah prays, because she is so desperate - she moves her lips, but no sound comes out. And that is why Eli thinks she is drunk.

And if we look at her prayer, we realise that she is not necessarily praying for a child - but she is praying for everything that comes with a child: vindication in her rivalry with Peninnah; honour in the eyes of the community; security for the future.

I wonder what really matters the most to you at the moment. Perhaps it is a child, a grandchild, a sibling, a husband or wife. Perhaps we are worried sick about illness or debt or scandal.

I remember being told that the ancients lived in a shame culture. The most awful thing that could happen to you was that you would be shamed publicly; that those you respected and valued would ignore you or think very bad of you. But I am not sure that that was just the ancients. I suspect that today the thing that matters most to us is what others think of us, and what we think of ourselves. We desire material goods for our comfort and freedom, but also because they make us look good in public. We think we matter because we possess. And actually when we desire material objects, we have not really looked deep enough at ourselves: because what we really desire is to live, to matter, to be vindicated, to be respected.

Hannah prays first that God would look on her misery. Then she prays for a son.

And that is significant. Because it might have been that God could have chosen to sort her misery without giving her a son - in which case he was still answering her prayer.

God says that he knows what we really need. In Matthew 6 Jesus warns us against praying long and wordy prayers, because God knows what we need before we ask him. And he does not promise to give us what we think we need, but what we really do need. He promises to give us far more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20)

3. Hannah makes a vow to God

Hannah says, 1 Samuel 1:11  The bit about giving him to the Lord and not letting a razor touch his head is Hannah saying, ‘He will be a Nazirite’ (we learn about Nazirites in Numbers 6:1-21). Samson was a Nazirite - so ‘Hannah volunatrily vows for her son what God had required of Samson’ (TNIV footnote)

There is a difference between making a deal with God and making a vow to God. If Hannah had said, ‘God give me a son, and I will come to the temple every day..’ That is trying to bargain with God.

But Hannah doesn’t say that. She says, ‘God if you give me a son, he will be a Nazirite’. It is not a deal. It is a promise. She isn’t trying to twist God’s arm, to think that she can control the creator. She realises that if she has a son it will be God’s work from beginning to end, and that the child will havec come from God and belong to God. So she is promising reality.

So Hannah prays that God will remember her, that God will meet her deepest need, and she makes a vow to God - recognising that if what she prays for happens, it will be fully of God.

It is fascinating that four of the most significant people in the history of Israel were born to women who had been unable to conceive: Isaac, Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist. And the most significant person was born of a virgin. In each case, it was God’s way of saying, ‘This child is of me. This child is mine, for my purposes’.

As we look through the book of Samuel we will see those purposes being worked out.

Hannah is an inspiration to us.

  • She is an inspiration because when we look at her we realise that Godly people will experience times of deep anguish and trouble. She and Elkanah were regulars at the temple. 
  • She is an inspiration because she is a woman of faith who turns to God, and pours out her heart to God. 
  • She is in an inspiration because she recognises that whatever happens will be of God, and is therefore belongs to God.

Monday, 7 February 2011

An all age talk on the death of Jesus

Show pictures of some separating walls and ask people which countries they come from. Could include: Jerusalem, Great wall of China, Berlin wall, wall in Northern Ireland, Mexican/Texan border, Korea etc.
The greatest and most serious walls/divide ever was in Jerusalem.

It was not between people and people, but between people and God.
It was not a wall, but a curtain.

It was the curtain in the temple, which separated the Holy of Holies (the place of God) from the people.

Bring out three adults to form a barrier. If appropriate ask if there are any children who would like to try and break through the barrier. Have a controlled mini rugby match!  

This barrier completely separated human beings from God

It was put there by human beings: we reject God. We ignore God. We live without reference to God. And if we believe in God, we believe in a God who exists to help us. That is what sin is.

But it was also put there by God. It symbolises the anger of God against our rejection of him – who is ultimate goodness and love.

But the situation is not hopeless. Once a year the high priest was able to go through the curtain into the holy of holies to make sacrifice for the people, and to ask for God’s mercy on them.

Take child through barrier and then bring them back

This barrier represents sin, and the penalty for sin – which is death – and spiritual blindness. Because one of the consequences of us rejecting God is that we become blind to God.

Ask three adults in barrier to hold up 3 pieces of paper on which are written ‘sin’, ‘death’ and ‘spiritual blindness’

And I don’t know if you noticed, but in our reading, when Jesus died, the curtain in the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.

What happened was that, as Jesus died:

  1. he deals with our sin

He took onto himself the judgement on our sin and the punishment for our sin.

There was darkness (Matthew 27:45) – parallel the darkness in the last but one judgement on Egypt ((Exodus 10:21-23)
There was Jesus cry of abandonment (Matthew 27:46)

And now, as King Jesus dies – as the king gives his life as a sacrifice for his people – the curtain is torn in two, from top to bottom.

Tear up word ‘sin’, and ask the first adult to sit down

  1. the power of God is released  

There is an earthquake and the tombs break open and the dead are raised (Matthew 27:51-53). It is a strange incident, but it is telling us that because of Jesus death, death itself has been defeated.

Yes, we all have to die, but death now is not our final destiny.

Tear up word ‘death’, and ask the second adult to sit down

  1. people recognise that Jesus is the Son of God

In Matthew 27:54 the Centurion and his fellow soldiers realise that Jesus is the Son of God.

Up to now there has been a curtain. They have been blind.

They thought – I don’t know what they thought. They thought that Jesus may have been a dangerous radical, a lunatic, a good man but a man who was way out of his depth, or as someone who was being turned into a political scapegoat.

But now as he dies, as the curtain tears, they suddenly realise: this man was the Son of God

Tear up the words ‘spiritual blindness’ and ask the final adult to sit down

And now there is no barrier.

The way to God is open because of Jesus death on the cross.
Or perhaps we can look at this a different way. God himself has come out to meet us.

I could finish this by saying: look at the cross and decide. Decide, with the centurion if the one who hung on the cross is the King who loved me and died so that I can be forgiven, know God and have life. Is he the Son of God?

But I’m not sure that the passage is saying that.
I think that it is saying to us that the reason that we can join with the centurion and look at Jesus on the cross and say, ‘This is the Son of God’- is because he did die for us. The reason we can have life is because he did die for us.

And we therefore respond with praise to Father God who, in his love, gave us his Son; and to the Son of God who loved his Father, and who loved us, and gave his life for us. To Him be glory and honour and the kingdom now and for ever. Amen.