Good Friday Preaching – The Servant Girl


The truth is, I only really noticed her on Sunday. I’ve never payed her the blindest bit of attention before.

I guess no-one ever did.

The servant girl who answered Peter back. She’s a woman in John’s gospel but a servant girl in the version that Matthew and Cedric were watching on Sunday. There’s more detail there too.

Peter warms himself by the fire. Cold. Human. Miserable.

She sees him and simply says, “You were with Jesus the man from Nazareth”.

He says no.

She says, “yes you were.”

He denies it again.

A third time, “But you are a Galilean”

Scripture rather euphemistically says that Peter began to curse and swear an oath and said, “I do not know this man you are talking about”.

I think it is important not to mistake what is going on here.

Three times she says – you were with that Jesus.

And Peter’s response is, “Look you, fuck off! I didn’t know the man you are talking about at all”

That’s what scripture tells us happened.

And then the cock crows.

And I’ve preached on Peter on Good Friday plenty of times. And I’ve preached on the cock crowing. The triple betrayal. The cock. The shame of it all for Peter.

But I’ve never really noticed her.

Until this time.

You always notice something or someone new when you come to the passion again.

This time for me it was her. The servant girl. The one who spoke up, spoke clearly and spoke the truth.

And we don’t know her name.

There is a, perhaps rather fanciful, tradition about names in the New Testament. There’s all kinds of small bit parts in the gospels and in Acts – people who appear and disappear rather suddenly. Simon of Cyrene is an obvious example in the passion. The tradition is that those whose names we know from scripture are probably people who found faith and became part of the early Jesus movement that was to become the church. There’s some sense to it. If they joined the movement they would be known by those who collected the gospel stories. They would still been around. In the case of Simon of Cyrene, we even know the names of his sons – surely he had contact with the early church if they were all remembered by name.

But this servant girl is one of those who appear with something very significant to say but whose names go unrecorded.

Looks like she never joined the movement and probably was never much taken seriously by anyone at the time.

But she speaks the truth and we should listen very carefully to what she says.

She speaks the truth to Peter even in the face of his shame and betrayal of all the love and values that he once professed.

Ever meet this servant girl?

She was around at the recent investigations into child sexual abuse in the church.

I don’t remember her name but there she was giving testimony against all kinds of be-dogcollared bigwigs.

Her testimony can be summed up easily:

“You knew Jesus? You knew this to be wrong? Why didn’t you do something?”

And she made those bigwigs wriggle with shame.

The servant girl in the courtyard with Peter speaks truth to power. She persistently calls out his lies.

She is a better priest than Caiaphas. She is a better judge than Pilate. She knows right from wrong. She knows she is being lied to and she says so.

And Peter – yes, that’s Peter, the rock on which the church was built has no answer.

I still don’t know her name, and I’m not sure she wants to have much to do with the church anyway but I’m sure I’ve started to hear her voice more often recently.

The woman in the courtyard accusing Peter.

I hear her speaking truth to power.

I see her holding up slogans demanding gun control following a shooting in her school.

I was there she says. I know what really happened. I saw it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears.

“You knew that man Jesus didn’t you and yet you ran away when he was vulnerable and in trouble”.

I know not her name but I hear her speaking out about abuse in the world of showbiz, the world of politics, the world of religion.

And she speaks the truth.

She knows that those in power, no let’s name it – men in power will wriggle when trouble comes and try to cover their backs. Try to say – I was not there. I didn’t see it. I knew nothing about what was going on.

The darkness of the courtyard, Peter stands warming his hands by the brazier and the light of the fire causes her to see the badge he is wearing that no-one else can see which says plainly – “It wisnae me”

She she’s fooled by nothing.

She knows that cheating is wrong in business, or education or relationships. She knows that abuse is wrong in the classroom, on the sportsfield or in clergy training programmes. She knows that in this world in which everyone has an opinion, there’s still such a thing as truth. Black and while truth.

She knows what’s what and she has found her own voice. And she speaks the truth.

I found myself on Sunday listening to the passion and asking myself why I’ve never heard her voice before.

But I’ve never heard it because I’m part of the system too.

Patriarchy is the system that we all find ourselves negotiating and most of us find ourselves making deals and compromises with patriarchy. And voices go unheard.

Are things changing.

Is the servant girl – no let’s call her a woman, is the woman in the courtyard finally being heard?

I don’t think we can know yet.

But I do know she’s finding her voice. I do know she’s speaking truth to power. I do know also that the powerful are going to put up quite a fight to shut her up.

But she looks into that patriarchal world and she calls us to live by the company that we have kept with Christ.

Love is both the goal and the weapon. Love is the destination and love is on the horizon but love is the weapon by which we nip away at patriarchal assumptions, rules and systems.

She knows the truth, does the woman in the courtyard. And this is her time.

Who needs a crowing cock.

These days she posts on twitter.

And she uses the hashtag #metoo.

Six things I have learned about anti-semitism and the church

antisemitic stations

1 Anti-semitism is a real thing in the life of the church

A number of years ago I was visiting a church in the Diocese of St Andrews and happened to look up at a set of Stations of the Cross and remarked to the Rector that they were rather stylish. “Hmm,” she said, “look again – some of those images are not very nice. There’s a narrative of trying to implicate ‘The Jews’ in the way the pictures represent the story of the crucifixion.”

And I looked and indeed saw that it was so. She was right and I hadn’t noticed. The picture that I’ve posted above is one of those stations and is based on stereotype and characterisation which is prejudicial to Jewish people.

The question is, would I have noticed this if it had not been pointed out to me? I had been in that church plenty of times and never noticed. In that there’s something of a parable. Anti-semitism is something that people who think they are good simply don’t notice. How much of our art, our theology, our preaching, our discourse, our storytelling is anti-semitic?

The answer has to be that I don’t know. I/we need to do our best to spot things that might make someone Jewish feel threatened, but the truth is, there may be things that I/we cannot see due to familiarity, uncovered prejudice or simple ignorance.

I enquired about those Stations of the Cross a couple of years ago and was told that they’d been taken down and stored in a glory hole somewhere and there didn’t seem much appetite for putting them back up. I hope that they didn’t ever go back up though I do know that these were only copies and the originals still hang in a Church of England parish in the Diocese of Derby.

2 So called “Christian Seder” meals are offensive and unhelpful

It has become the custom in some parts of the church to celebrate something called a Christian Passover or Christian Seder. The idea seems to be to learn more about “exploring the Jewishness” of Jesus and the “Jewishness” of the Last Supper. NB – Jesus didn’t have a small element of Jewishness within him. Jesus was Jewish.

It should not be a surprise to Christians that holding a parody of a key religious meal that people in another faith celebrate is offensive. However, that often seems to come as a surprise. Again, I will admit that it was only hearing a Jewish theologian talk about how offensive it is that I really thought about it for the first time. However, once I had done, the penny dropped.

There are ample explanations on the internet for why Christians holding a parody of a Jewish Seder meal is offensive. When something is offensive, we shouldn’t do it.

You want to know about the Seder? Then ask someone who is Jewish. They might even invite you to one and note well, you’ll be offered food there. Compare and contrast this to asking people from other faiths to a Christian Eucharist and telling them “no bread, no wine”. Not that anyone should expect someone from another faith to Christianity to take bread and wine in church but there’s something about hospitality that Christians have to learn from other faiths that is missing all too often in our own.

3 Some Christian theological interpretations of texts are anti-semitic

In particular – and this is really important, it is anti-semitic to teach Christian interpretations of the bible solely through the lens that Jesus was the answer to all the Jewish scriptures. Yes, you can find ample biblical evidence to support such a view. But you can find ample biblical evidence for slavery – so go figure.

Look up supersessionist and understand what it means. (Quick version – the idea that the church has replaced the Jewish people as God’s chosen people). Look out for supersessionist interpretations of scripture in church and talk about them when you encounter them. For you will. Look for that kind of theology in hymnody as well as in sermons and readings.

4 I have learned more about anti-semitism from Jewish people than from others

I have learned some things about anti-semitism from people with a Jewish heritage who have subsequently embraced the Christian faith. I have also learned a great deal from people who are practising Jews themselves and this should not be surprising. It should not be surprising that it is Jewish people who know what anti-semitism is and have a more authentic voice in any of these debates than anyone who is not Jewish.

In particular, I learned a lot from participating as a theological reflector at a conference organised by the Council of Christians and Jews. I also learned a lot about Judaism that I didn’t know (and quite a lot about Christianity that I didn’t know) from being invited recently to a synagogue to experience worship there on a Saturday morning. I learned about anti-semitism though the experience of having to take photo-ID with me and the experience of witnessing their having to have a security presence on the door. It is unacceptable to me that a religious group in Glasgow should need this. And I feel helpless in knowing what to do about it.

I have learned about anti-semitism from reading things.

Amongst the things I’ve read, I’ve learned in particular from the novels of Chaim Potok (though I am aware of criticism from within Judaism of his writing), from the theology of Amy-Jill Levine and from the novels of Howard Jacobson. (I read his novel “J” last week whilst on holiday in Milan and it was a fitting backdrop to the obscenity of anti-semitic speech from UK politicians that has recently been evident).

5 Liberals are not exempt from anti-semitism and it is anti-semitic of them to presume that this is a problem for Evangelical Christians

One of the curious prejudices that can be found in the Christian faith is that anti-semitism is something that right-wing evangelicals engage in whilst good liberals are all sufficiently conscious to make sure that they never engage in anything like that at all. The fact is, that just isn’t true.

One thing to look out for in particular is the view that Jesus came to free us from the “tyranny” of the Law. The truth is, Jewish people have lived lives of great fulfilment whilst engaging in lifelong dialogues about what it means to live within God’s law. They have felt free, happy and full of life-giving energy. They have composed, written, prayed and told one another a million jokes about their experience. One is not oppressed by the fact that one is Jewish though one may obviously encounter prejudice and oppression. Jesus did not come to set Jewish people free from being Jewish. That idea is itself problematic as it contains the notion that Jewish people are not themselves free agents able to dialogue with God and possessed of free will.

In particular we need to be aware of the dangers of creeping anti-semitism when reflecting on feminist theology, LGBT theology and other theologies of liberation.

6 There will be more about anti-semitism I have yet to learn

I have to acknowledge openly that I never learned that much about anti-semitism from within the Christian church. That in itself should give us pause for thought. I don’t think I learned anything at all about it in either of my theology degrees nor in my ordination training. I’ve learned what I know almost by happen-chance and meetings with people who have enriched my life but whom I might never have encountered.

The fact that the things that I’ve learned about anti-semitism have surprised me when I have recognised them must mean that there is more to learn and that I will have prejudices that I do not know about deep within me.