Friday, 22 April 2011

Good Friday Inspiration.

"The Lord redeemeth the soul of His servants: And none of them that trust in Him shall be condemned." Psalm 34:22

Today marks the day that Jesus of Nazareth was sentenced to a criminal's death, and died on a Roman cross, with the mocking legend "Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews" nailed above his head, in order to ram home to the people the idea; "This is what happens to your Kings, so don't get any ideas". Darkness and grief descended upon his family and his disciples, it seemed as if the dream was over.

While, generally speaking, the crucifixion does not have the same meaning to Unitarian Christians as it does to our more orthodox brethren, this does not mean that the day is any less significant or that it is any less poignant.

Jesus' death is an embodiment of the literal meaning of the word martyrdom; Witness.

He witnessed with his execution, before the eyes of his brethren, that he loved God more than his life, and he demonstrated that no power was able to force him into disloyalty to his God. His death mocked the strength of an empire that would in time expire, while his message would go on to shape the world including Rome itself!

Life itself is often seen as the ultimate purpose of creation, providing its own reason for being, "I live so that I can live". But perhaps life is itself only a means to an end? Perhaps an additional purpose is what infuses life with its reason to exist? "I live in order to fulfil a purpose". If life was its own ultimate purpose then martyrdom would not only be futile, but would indeed be a horrific waste of life and a rejection of all that is good and purposeful. Jesus however believed that there is a fundamental purpose, that gives meaning to life, and his belief is affirmed by Unitarian Christians and many others. "I live to serve God by living a good and righteous life, helping my fellow man, working on improving my character and keeping God always before me".

This conception of life led to Jesus' insistent drive towards reaching out to his fellow countrymen and brining them back into a life of balance, connected with their Heavenly Father, and resulted in him guiding them to live lives of simplicity, devotion and service. This earned him enemies as is known, but his belief that the time had come for God's Kingdom to become manifested on earth and his conviction of his own special role in that Divine aim, earned him even more, and increasingly dangerous, enemies in the temporal and mighty rule of Rome, and of their lackeys in the Temple precincts. Eventually they saw the "risk" posed by him and his vision of society as too great, and ended his life. Many, especially amongst his own nation, have fallen after him, persecuted by those who will not countenance an allegiance higher than the state, or its understanding, (or abuse) of religion. By his death, willing as he was to risk his own life to bring greater purpose and happiness to the lives of others, Jesus demonstrated a powerful love for his fellow man that transcended the strength of powerful empires and the icy grip of fear, the memory and impact of which has lasted down the years even to our own times.

"Greater love hath no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends." John 15:13

His love for his fellow human beings was made shockingly apparent when despite the cruel and unjust suffering that some where heaping upon him he uttered the famous words:

"And Jesus said "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" Luke 23:34

How utterly ashamed these words must make many of us feel, and how they awaken the conscience, when we are struck by the level of forgiveness people can reach! And to think we find it hard to forgive the smallest slights! Jesus demonstrates what can be achieved when one's love for God leads not to a distance but to a love of His creations. One cannot love the Creator by trampling the creation, made in His image, underfoot.

Others throughout history have also bravely faced the challenge presented by tyrants; to give up their commitment to God, truth and faith in exchange for their lives. And in so doing have elevated themselves to beacons of that higher purpose which fills all life with meaning. The expression "if you have nothing to die for you have nothing to live for" seemingly sums this up.

Unitarians have had their share of historical martyrs who perished for affirming the Unity of God.

However, for all the majesty achieved by Jesus and other martyrs down the ages, I feel we must never relish what ultimately remains a great tragedy. After all, God created us to live and not to die for him.

"I am the Lord your God. Ye shall therefore keep my statues and my judgements: Which if a man do, he shall LIVE in them: I am the Lord." Leviticus 18:5

While in our day and age the chances of any of us actually becoming martyrs in the old sense is thankfully greatly reduced to almost nothing, we should still avoid however, placing ourselves deliberately in the path of opposition or acting provocatively, often motivated in large part by pride, in ways that are guaranteed and even designed to cause others to rise up against us. We do not have to court controversy. Those preachers both Christian and Muslim that one sometimes sees on street corners, denouncing the sinful ways of all those around them, who seem to thrive on the anger and opposition of the shoppers and walkers, are exceedingly far from the example of Jesus:

"And he keeled down and prayed saying; "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me." Luke 22:42

Life is a gift and we should not search out ways to put it in jeopardy. Peace and co-existence are precious and we should always seek to preserve them as much as possible.

There is one way however, that we can all emulate, on a daily basis, our teacher's final passion on Golgotha, and to discover how we can do so, we need only listen to the words uttered so long ago amongst the olive trees of Gethsemane, with which Jesus concluded the verse in Luke 22:42;

"Nevertheless not my will, but Thine, be done."

Every day our desires clash with the morality that God has communicated to us via scripture, reason or our consciences. The moment when our tiredness and frustration urges us to scream at our children, partner, or parent can be an opportunity to reach beyond ourself. A transcendent opportunity to sanctify the name of the Divine, by instead substituting His will for our own, and speaking with words of kindness and calmness. Likewise the moment our self-regard or desire for belonging urges us to share some juicy gossip, or our inclination to vengeance goads us to make suffer they who have made us suffer a heavenly ladder descends, presenting us with the ability to bring God's light into the world by simply setting aside our will, for that of the Divine.

So if nothing else, as Friday afternoon arrives and the time of Jesus' death 20 centuries ago comes to my little corner of the world, I will pause, perhaps shed a tear, and think of the lessons of the cross, and I will pray to his Father, our Father, my Father, that by these lessons, Jesus' cross will raise me up nearer, nearer my God, to thee.

In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.

When the woes of life o’ertake me,
Hopes deceive, and fears annoy,
Never shall the cross forsake me,
Lo! it glows with peace and joy.

When the sun of bliss is beaming
Light and love upon my way,
From the cross the radiance streaming
Adds more luster to the day.

Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure,
By the cross are sanctified;
Peace is there that knows no measure,
Joys that through all time abide.

In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.

John Bowring 1825

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