The Fertile Fringe

April 12, 2018 Length: 42:56

People come in to the Church through various ports of entry. But when they come in, they come in through the Cross. In this meditation given over the course of the four Royal Hours on Great and Holy Friday, Fr. Pat considers with us four people, one from each Gospel, who cross over the border into the sphere of faith through the event of the Cross.

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In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In the Antiochian Archdiocese, beloved of the Lord, Great and Holy Friday, Good Friday, is one of the days—and there aren’t many—where the full round of the monastic offices are done in the church. These are monastic offices, by the way. I’ll talk about that in a moment.

Last night we had matins following a procedure and a reversal of times which only two of our patriarchs and Joseph Letendre understand. [Laughter] And then this morning we have the first, third, sixth, and ninth hours all together as one big service; vespers this afternoon; and then tonight matins for the next day, Holy Saturday; and then tomorrow morning, vespers for Pascha, along with Divine Liturgy.

Since I came here, this is the 20th time that I’ve done this service since I’ve been here. I’ve done this service 26 times now as a priest, 20 of them here at All Saints. Since I came here for Good Friday, I’ve been preaching four sermons in the morning, one for each of the hours. I decided this year I’m going to do it a little differently. I thought about preaching one sermon and spreading it out over four hours. I can’t do that—that would make a four-point sermon, and I know that would disrupt your entire psyche if I were to do that, and you’d start to wonder if I was slipping an extra person into the Trinity. [Laughter] So I decided instead of a four-point sermon we’d have a four-point meditation. [Laughter]

A meditation on four points. Each of these points of meditation will be based on the gospel reading at this hour, and some particular feature. But I want to consider them all under a common image, or perhaps even under a common theme, that I decided to entitle, “The Fertile Fringe.” Now what do I mean by that? I want to explore with you the relationship of evangelism to the cross. In our adult Sunday school class over the last couple of years, we’ve considered Paul’s ministry in Corinth and how, according to the testimony of 1 Corinthians, when he left Thessaloniki and came to Corinth, he was determined to know nothing among them but Jesus, and him crucified, so that the cross became the absolute center of his proclamation, something quite different from Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus, where the cross is not even mentioned. Remember, it didn’t work all that well; he didn’t get that many converts. But he decided when he came to Corinth he would speak about Christ crucified; he would know nothing among them except Christ crucified.

In other words, there’s a point of entry into the Christian Church which includes the cross—but I’m convinced that means something different for everybody. It’s a rather large fringe around the Church—the boundary of the Church—and people come in through various doors, various ports of entry. They don’t all come in the same way. But when they come in, they come in through the cross. The first thing they meet is the cross. This morning I want to consider with you four people in these gospel readings who cross over the border into the sphere of faith in the living, dynamic event of the cross. This is not just the cross as an image and a key; this is the actual historical event of the cross. We’re going to take this, one from each gospel.

The first canonical hour, the one that we’re celebrating in the moment, I was raised to call prime: hora prima. In the Orthodox Church it’s generally simply called first hour, which means exactly the same thing. The hour of prime is a monastic office. This is not one of the ancient offices of the Church; it’s a monastic office. The third, sixth, and ninth hours, that is very ancient, and we inherited it really from Judaism. That has to do with the set-up of the Temple, when the sacrifices are offered by the people in the Temple at the third, sixth, and ninth hours. That’s very standard. You find that—well, first of all, you will find it in the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is crucified at the third hour, the darkness descends upon the earth at the sixth hour, Jesus dies at the ninth hour. It’s very clear in the Gospel of Mark.

The office of prime, or first hour: our first witness to it is a man by the name of John Cassian, writing in the fifth century. Cassian died in 435, if memory serves, just a little bit after Augustine, with whom he had a number of quarrels. According to Cassian’s Institutes, the first hour was instituted early in the monastery in Jerusalem, where the abbot found out that after matins and before the third hour, some of the monks were sneaking off to bed, and he had to put a stop to that! Monastic discipline was going to collapse everywhere. So he had another hour stuck in there, at sunrise. Another hour at sunrise: make sure all the monks haven’t sneaked off to bed. Well, that stuck. That stuck in the Church for centuries, and we still have it in the Orthodox Church. The Roman Catholics had it until Vatican II, but then they decided to let the monks go back to bed, I guess. I don’t know, but they dropped that office.

At prime on Good Friday, Great and Holy Friday, the Church reads the Gospel of Matthew. The character I want to take for this morning for this hour is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, and that is Mrs. Pilate. She’s found only in the Gospel of Matthew. Pilate’s wife has long entreated the imagination of the Church, not only entreated but intrigued the imagination of the Church, and the imagination of people who have simply an interest in obscure people. Mrs. Pilate appears in just about every film that’s been made about Jesus—The Greatest Story Ever Told, for example; The King of Kings, The Passion of Christ. She appears. She appears on her own in a number of other literary efforts. I suppose among the many poems about Pontius Pilate’s wife, the most famous is the one by Charlotte Bronte, which is simply called “Pilate’s Wife’s Dream.” It’s a little long to read during this sermon, but I won’t read it. You can just look it up for yourselves on Nancy’s phone; it will be there. Charlotte Bronte’s poem. It may be on Joseph’s phone, too. “Pontius Pilate’s Wife’s Dream.”

There’s something about Pontius Pilate; even his name is intriguing, since we’re talking about borders. The name Pontius is a Latin word; it comes from the Latin word pons. Pons, p-o-n-s, which means “bridge.” The word “pontifex” is a bridge-builder. The pontifex maximus was the high priest at Rome, who was a mediator between heaven and the people; he was the great bridge-builder, the pontifex maximus. Pontius comes from that idea of pons, which really is quite intriguing to me, because we’re talking about a border: how to get from one place to another.

Mrs. Pilate has this dream. We don’t know much about the dream except it was revealed to her in the dream—and she’s very distressed about the dream—it’s revealed to her that Jesus is a just man. In the trial of Jesus, as it’s portrayed in Matthew’s Gospel, she’s the only one who speaks up for Jesus at his trial; she’s the only one. From the Christian tradition, we know that her name was Procla, or sometimes made a diminutive—little Procla—Procula, which is just the diminutive of Procla: Procula. In the Orthodox Church she is venerated as a saint on October 27. As far as I know, the West has never had that saint, and it’s their loss as far as I’m concerned. She’s venerated as a saint in the Church.

She comes into the Church very much through a side window, doesn’t she? Her husband is the one who condemned the Son of God to death. She comes in in that context, confessing Jesus and his justice. From some sense of justice: she’s having a bad dream because a just man is being put to death. Now, in Matthew’s structure, this dream of this Gentile at the time of Jesus, when they’re getting ready to put Jesus to death, it has a parallel at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, where the Magi have a dream, when Herod is trying to put Jesus to death. See how Matthew structures this thing? You start out with a dream of the Gentiles, the Magi, the wise men, in the context of Herod’s trying to kill the Messiah. Notice when Herod seeks counsel, in order to kill the Messiah, whom does he consult? The high priest, the elders, and the scribes! You have the same enemies of Jesus at the beginning of the Gospel that you have at the end of the Gospel, and in each case a Gentile comes forward, or Gentiles. The Magi are warned in a dream not to go back to Herod and share with him where the Christ Child is. Mrs. Pilate comes into the faith in the context of the cross from a recognition that a just man is being put to death.

That is an extremely important border in the Gospel: the difference between justice and injustice. If one can make that moral distinction in his thinking, if one can do that he’s well on his way to becoming Christian, because the cross has to do with God’s affirmation of righteousness. The world does not really make that affirmation. You see, when God sent his Son, he was condemned by the two major and most important legal systems of antiquity: Rome and Judaism. And that wasn’t enough, and this one lady spots it, and that’s why she’s recognized in the Church as St. Procla.

Amen. We will take the third hour when we get to the third hour.

***

Now we have just listened to Mark’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus, and you’ll notice—and I’m sure you did notice, because I tipped you off ahead of time—that in this gospel reading, Jesus is crucified at the third hour, which is why it’s read at the third hour. The crucifixion of Jesus at the third hour is traditionally associated with the Church at Rome. Our two earliest witnesses of Jesus being crucified at the third hour are both from Rome. One is the Gospel of Mark, which we just heard, and the second is the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, written probably about 210: two Roman works. Both of them speak about the crucifixion of the Lord at the third hour.

That’s very significant that it’s the Church at Rome which keeps that memory. With respect to the composition of Mark and Rome, consult virtually every author who wrote in the second century—Papias of Hierapolis, starting with him, Tertullian, Irenaeus, and so forth—everybody was persuaded that the Gospel of Mark was written at Rome and based on the preaching of Peter, and was taken from the Church at Rome when Mark went to found the Church at Alexandria. That’s just an absolute universal tradition of the Church. Why Rome? Very interesting.

Why did I pick Simon of Cyrene to talk about in this connection? When Mark speaks about this today—and you just listened to it—what did he say specifically about Simon of Cyrene that is not mentioned by Matthew and not mentioned by Luke? Anybody pick up on that? [Inaudible] Very good! Several of you did. He calls him the father of Alexander and Rufus. Clearly, he expects his readers to know who Alexander and Rufus are. He expects that. Isn’t that interesting? With St. Paul, when he writes his letter to the Romans, says, “Be sure to greet Rufus and his mother and mine.” It’s interesting. Paul knew the family. We’re not entirely sure what had happened to Alexander in the meantime, but it is interesting that in the excavations of a sarcophagus—and this is in the last 20 years—of someone who was clearly a Jerusalem Christian, the name on the sarcophagus is Alexander. I just don’t know about it, but it’s very curious. Say no more.

Here we have a man who has not the slightest interest in the cross. He’s an African, come from the city of Cyrene in Africa. In modern iconography—I can’t speak to the tradition on this, because I just don’t know; I don’t know that tradition, but you could probably find it, either by asking Eva or it’s on Nancy’s phone: it will be there—in modern iconography, pretty much invariably, Simon of Cyrene is portrayed as a black man, which could very well be the case. It could very, very well be the case. The Jews in Africa are black, and a lot of them, of course, have come into the Holy Land since the founding of the state of Israel in the late ‘40s. One will see plenty of black Jews, going around the holy city. I don’t know if you noticed them, but you’ll see black people dressed in the yarmulke and so forth. I’m not going to make a racial claim there at all, but the Cyrenians were considered so different in Jerusalem that they had their own synagogue. We know that from the Acts of the Apostles, don’t we? The synagogue of the Cyrenians. One of the seven deacons that’s designated is a Cyrenian.

When he goes out that day to work, as he’s coming in from the field, says the gospel, he’s not even aware of what’s going on. He just happens to come in at about the time they’re leaving the gate of the city, and Jesus is staggering under the weight of that cross and needs some help. What does the text say? “They compelled him to carry the cross.” He was not given any choice on this matter. They just yanked him out of a crowd and compelled him to carry the cross. That is his introduction to Jesus.

Over the course of carrying that cross with Jesus and walking after Jesus, in the footsteps of Jesus, he comes to the faith. So by the time of the crucifixion, he’s already a believer. We know that because his children are believers, and that’s recorded even before the Gospel of Mark is written. That’s recorded already in the epistle to the Romans, which is about nine years earlier than the Gospel of Mark. He’s compelled. He’s compelled to carry the cross.

You see, sometimes, beloved, taking up our cross and following Jesus is not something we’re given a lot of choice about. The Lord will visit crosses upon people that didn’t ask for them, who are not the least bit interested in them. Sufferings happen in their lives: the loss of a loved one, the disintegration of a family, bankruptcy, all sorts of things that can go wrong. One of the ways into communion with Christ are these crosses that are laid upon us. They’re not crosses we choice. Giving up ham and eggs during Lent: that’s a cross we choose. But having somebody in our family killed in an automobile accident or contracting cancer, that’s not a cross we choose.

But that’s one of the places on the border of the Church—the fertile fringe—where people actually enter into communion with Christ without any plan to do so, because the cross is always the occasion of grace. This is what we see, I believe, in Simon of Cyrene. This was not his idea. The government forces him, and he becomes a Christian, because it’s either that or be a rebel for the rest of his life, and that would be unbearable. Amen.

 

***

All right. We’ve just heard the gospel appointed for the sixth hour, hora sexta. It is at this hour that the darkness descends upon the earth: the ninth plague of Egypt. The tenth plague of Egypt is? The death of the first-born, which takes place in the ninth hour. In the sixth hour, the darkness descends upon the earth. St. Luke has a special way of speaking about this darkness and contrasting it with the light. The darkness descending upon the earth is realized in one of these themes.

According to the other evangelists, both of the thieves cursed Jesus. Luke’s the only one who tells about the conversion of one of the thieves, and that’s why I’m picking that particular person for this gospel. Like Simon of Cyrene, this thief was caught up in the event of the cross. It was time for an execution and there were several people lined up, and he just happened to be on the list that day. He just happened to be on the list that day. He was about to have the most transforming—and the only transforming—experience in his life. He was going to witness things, something he had never seen before.

As Jesus is being crucified, Jesus is praying to his Father to forgive those who were crucifying him. He’s never seen anything like this before! Never seen anything like that at all. It’s just amazing how little exposure some people have to anything decent. How many children are there in this city for whom no one has ever said a prayer? How many children in this city that no one has ever blessed? Who have never heard a prayer in their homes? How many? It’s got to be in the millions. This thief, where did he come from? I suspect he came from a long line of thieves; I don’t know.

He’s caught up here, and grace works in his heart, because he has some sense of decency. Like Pilate’s wife he recognizes: this is a good Man. And he’s being crucified, and he’s praying for those who are killing him. He’s a good Man. He recognized Jesus that way. There’s a vestigial dignity in this man who’s spent his whole life as a robber, and now he’s receiving capital punishment, and he rejects the darkness.

In the context of Luke’s literary themes, this one fits in perfectly. Luke is forever contrasting individuals. Forever. The Pharisee and the Publican: that’s only in the Gospel of Luke, the contrast between the Pharisee and the Publican; the just man, the unjust; the rich man, the poor man—it’s only in the Gospel of Luke. So the contrast between the two thieves fits a pattern. Luke’s the only one who gives us not only the beatitudes but also the woes. Luke does lots of these things in contrast.

This thief has spent a life of crime. His whole life is given over to crime. It’s as this point he’s finally getting capital punishment. He has nothing good to show for his life at all; it’s been a total waste. Perhaps with minutes go—because he’s going to outlive Jesus, isn’t he? His legs would be broken so that he can die, unlike Jesus. With just a little while to go, he crosses a border.

See, when Socrates dies, Socrates tells his judges at the trial, “I go to gods who recognize the difference between a righteous man and an unrighteous man,” which is a real stern warning to the judges at Athens. “I go to gods who recognize the difference, fellas.” The thief also knows that. He’s going to a God who recognizes the difference between just and unjust, and he knows, unlike Socrates, who thought himself a just man, this thief knows he’s not a just man and has absolutely nothing going for him. He’s going to die empty. “In my hands, no price I bring.” So you recognize the hymn. “In my hands, no price I bring; simply to thy cross I cling.”

It crosses his mind—it was an impulse—he acted on an impulse. Will this work? Then he says, “What the—heck?” [Laughter] “Let’s give it a shot. Jesus,” he says. He calls him by name. How does he know his name? It’s up on the cross. “Jesus,” he says, “Denk an mich,” says the German text. “Think of me,” that’s how it goes. “Think of me. Think of me when you come in your kingdom.”

What does he know about the kingdom? He hasn’t heard the sermon on the mount. But this sign over Jesus’ head identifies him as a king. If that’s the kingdom, if the kingdom is someplace where the unjust are prayed for, where those being murdered pray for those who murder them, he wants that. He doesn’t know much else.

“Think of me,” he says. “Think of me when you come in your kingdom.” “Amen, I say to you.” When Jesus says, “Amen,” it means he’s really down to business. “Amen, I say to you: Today, simeron, today you will be with me in paradise.” It works. No one has ever come to him and been cast out. How much grace does it take to get into the kingdom? Only a little bit. The channels of grace, they’ll carry the current; they’ll carry the current. And the light comes into his heart, and he’s canonized even before he dies. There’s a couple of others in this parish: you can be canonized before you die. I don’t have a doubt about that. I hear your confessions. Why haven’t they put your icon up there yet? Why haven’t I put their icon up yet? because I’m ready to canonize them now! But he’s canonized before he dies. Unlike a canonization by Pat Reardon, which shouldn’t count for very much, a canonization by Jesus is kind of significant.

And the Good Thief steals heaven right before he dies. That’s really good thieving.

 

***

We have now come to the ninth hour, the death of the First-Born. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is early identified as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The lamb in the Bible is a sacrificial animal. Commenting on this text, at the beginning of the third century, St. Hippolytus of Rome refers to the two lambs daily offered in the Temple, the daily sacrifices. One is offered at the third hour, mid-morning, and the other at the ninth hour, late afternoon. Hippolytus sees both of those sacrifices in the Temple as types of Christ, who in the Roman tradition followed by Hippolytus is crucified by the same hour of the morning that the lamb is offered at the Temple, and dies in the late afternoon, the same hour that the lamb is offered in the Temple.

The character I’ve picked for John’s story is one who appears only in the Gospel of John. Just as, among the gospels, only Matthew mentions Pilate’s wife, only Mark speaks of Alexander and Rufus, only Luke tells the conversion of one of the thieves, but John is the only one who tells about Nicodemus. This is a most interesting character who crosses over the border into the realm of grace. I’m picturing the boundary of faith, this sphere of faith; I’m picturing it as round, just so you know where my weird mind is coming from. I’m picturing it as the force of an orbit. As certain characters, following their own trajectory, approach this orbital force, they’re sucked into it. Pilate’s wife, she’s sucked into it. Simon of Cyrene, he’s got his own business—he’s sucked into it. He enters the orbit of grace by simply an attraction that happens only because he gets close enough and he’s pulled in by grace. The same is also true of this thief. He’s going about his business; he’s getting executed. [Laughter] I mean, that’s what happens to criminals: they get executed. And he’s sucked in by the attraction of grace.

In the case of Nicodemus, he’s already headed toward grace. He is a religious scholar. People have speculated about this Nicodemus, because he appears only in the Gospel of John. Only in the Gospel of John, this Nicodemus; that’s the only place he appears. In the Jewish Encyclopedia, there’s an article, as there should be, on a Nicodemus ben Gorion. That sounds almost like I’m making that up, doesn’t it? Don’t take my word for it. Go home and pull out your copy of the Jewish Encyclopedia and see for yourself. You probably have it, actually—she’s got it on her phone. [Laughter] It just seems so weird to have somebody named Nicodemus ben Gorion, but there really was such an important rabbi by the name of Nicodemus ben Gorion, who lived in exactly this century. In this article it speculates whether this is the Nicodemus who is mentioned in John’s Gospel three times. I think it’s not. It just doesn’t fit. This Nicodemus ben Gorion is probably several decades, maybe half a century, after what I consider the time frame we’re dealing with, so I don’t think it’s the same.

But we do know he’s a Pharisee, and he was a scholar. Jesus describes him as a teacher in Israel. Remember, Jesus is giving him this dialogue, this talk, although Jesus is the only one who says anything important. In John 3, he visits Jesus by night. That’s the first time that Nicodemus appears. Every time Nicodemus appears, it has to do with the cross. Notice that: every time. The first time Nicodemus appeared to Jesus, what did Jesus tell him? He says, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” You all know that text; you’re all familiar with that text, because you watch football. [Laughter] Right? That sign out there, John 3:16, out there in the stands? That’s the reason you go to football games, isn’t it? To be reminded that God so loved the world so he gave his only-begotten Son? Where else are you going to get that except at a football game?

Then Jesus goes on and says, “Then I, when I am lifted up, will draw all to myself.” Jesus refers to the cross; he refers to his being lifted up in his talk with Nicodemus. The next time Nicodemus appears is in chapter 7 in the Gospel of John, where the Sanhedrin is meeting and plotting the death of Jesus already back in chapter 7, and Nicodemus is the only one who stands up in the Sanhedrin and says, “Doesn’t the Law require us to hear a testimony of anybody we’re going to condemn? We don’t condemn anybody without testimony.” Again, in other words, it’s about the death of Jesus, and Nicodemus stands up for Jesus.

He’s secretly a disciple for Jesus, and that’s the way he’s identified in John 19. Nicodemus shows up with Joseph of Arimathea to take the body of Jesus down from the cross. I figured these are pretty stout men or they had help. The spices, it says, weighed a hundred pounds. It’s been a long time since I could lift a hundred pounds. My 20th was the last time I could lift a hundred pounds. I know you probably can, but I was zoning. My 20s was the last time I could lift a hundred pounds. In fact, they may have had help, but it could also have been the case that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were body-builders. I don’t know. But they’ve come bearing these spices; they’re going to bury Jesus with these spices. Nicodemus appears over and over again in the art of the Church. In fact, many of the… several of the pietas that Michelangelo did, Nicodemus appears in that pieta, helping Mary support the body of Jesus

Nicodemus is quite different from the other three in several respects. He wasn’t caught off a tangent. The others are flying; they’re grabbed and pulled in, pulled into the influence of grace. He’s headed toward it. He is a scholar. This is the one Jesus worked with patiently over a period of two years. If you follow the chronology in John’s Gospel, it takes Jesus two years to pull Nicodemus in, and he engages him in a discussion; he engages his mind. See, this is one of the entry-points of the border, and that is the operation of the mind. When Jesus speaks to Nicodemus, he speaks about being reborn in water and the Spirit. Nicodemus was traditionally commemorated… Now, in the Orthodox Church, Nicodemus’s feast is on August 2 and again on Myrrh-bearer Sunday. Among the Lutherans, Nicodemus is commemorated on Trinity Sunday, in case you didn’t know that. Nicodemus appears prominently in a cantata that Bach wrote in 1715 for that Sunday. The name of the cantata is “O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad.” B-a-d is bath. O holy bath Geist- und Wasser, O holy bath of spirit and water. That’s Nicodemus.

Nicodemus, then, is placed by John at the foot of the cross, and what does he witness at the foot of the cross? He witnesses the death of Jesus. He witnesses Jesus’ side being pierced, and the saving waters of baptism emerging from his side. He sees Jesus hand over the spirit, because that’s the way it’s expressed in John’s Gospel: to pnevma paredoken. When Jesus dies, he doesn’t “give up the ghost”; he hands over the spirit. Bach caught that. Bach caught that in that cantata.

Nicodemus, then, is the model of someone who comes to God through serious religious thought. That was not true of Pilate’s wife, that was not true of the thief, that was not true of Simon of Cyrene. Nicodemus, in some way, represents the path to God through the workings of the mind, because God also works in the workings of the mind. He works in people’s lives. He puts them in situations that they didn’t plan on. We saw a lot of that today, didn’t we? But God also works in the mind. Nicodemus has been standing there through three hours of darkness and asking himself. The soldiers come. They break the first, the second, who were crucified with him.

But when they came to Jesus (says the text) they saw that he was already dead, and therefore did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers, with a spear, pierced his side, and immediately there flowed out blood and water.

This was done why? To fulfill Scripture. “A bone of him you will not break” refers to the Paschal Lamb. “A bone of him you will not break.” John once again introduces the Paschal Lamb in that context. “And they shall look upon him whom they have pierced.” And the scales fall from his eyes.