'He also said he'd come not to bring peace, but a sword.'

'When did he say that?'

'That was in Capernaum, not long after Matthew joined us. Jesus was telling us what to do when we went out to preach. He said, "Don't think I've come to bring peace to the earth. I haven't come to bring peace, but a sword. I've come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and your enemies will be members of your own household."'

Christ wrote it down just as the apostle told him.

'That sounds exactly like the sort of thing he'd come out with,' he said. 'Did he say anything else?'

'He said, "Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." There's some of us thinking of those words again now.'

The Stranger Tells Christ What Part He Must Play

The man said goodbye, and hastened back to his companions. Christ went to his room to transcribe the words on to a scroll, and then he knelt down, intending to pray for strength to withstand the test that was to come.

But he hadn't been praying for long before there came a knock on the door. Knowing who it was, he got up and let the angel in.

The angel greeted him with a kiss.

'I'm ready, sir,' said Christ. 'Is it tonight?'

'We have a little time to talk first. Sit, and take some wine.'

Christ poured some wine for himself, and for the angel, too, knowing that angels had eaten and drunk with Abraham and Sarah.

'Sir, since I am not going to be here for long,' said Christ, 'will you answer a question I've put to you more than once, and tell me who you are and where you come from?'

'I thought we had come to trust each other, you and I?'

'I have given my life into your hands. All I ask is a little knowledge in return.'

'This is not the first occasion on which your faith has failed.'

'If you know about the other occasion, sir, you will know how much I lamented it. I would give anything to live that night again. But haven't I done faithfully everything you've asked of me? Haven't I written a true record of my brother's life and words? And now, haven't I assented to the role you told me of last time we spoke? I am ready to play the part of Isaac. I'm ready to give my life for the Kingdom, and atone for the time when my faith was needed, and when it failed. Sir, let me plead with you: I beg you, tell me more. Otherwise I shall go out of my life in darkness.'

'I told you that this task would be difficult. The part of Isaac is easy; it's the part of Abraham that is hard. You are not to die. You are to give Jesus to the authorities. He is the one who will die.'

Christ was astounded.

'Betray my brother? When I love him as I do?

I could never do that! Sir, that's too hard! I beg you, don't ask this of me!'

In his distraction, Christ got up and beat his hands together and struck his head. Then he fell to the floor and clasped the angel's knees.

'Let me die in his place, I beg you!' he cried. 'We look similar ¨C no one will know ¨C he can continue his work! What am I doing except keeping a record? Anyone could do that! My informant is a good and honest man ¨C he could write it ¨C he would be well placed to continue the history I've begun ¨C you don't need me to live! All my life I have been trying to serve my brother, and now, when I thought I could do him the greatest service of all by dying in his place, are you going to rob me of it by making me betray him instead? Don't bring me to this! I can't do it, I can't; let it pass me by!'

The angel stroked Christ's hair.

'Sit up now,' he said, 'and I shall tell you a little of what's been hidden.'

Christ wiped his tears and tried to compose himself.

'The truth of everything I say is already known to you,' the stranger began. 'You have said much of it to Jesus in your own words. You told him that people needed miracles and signs; you told him of the importance of dramatic events in persuading them to believe. He didn't listen, because he thought that the Kingdom was coming so soon that no persuasion would be necessary. And again, you urged him to accept the existence of what we have agreed to call the church. He scoffed at the idea. But he was wrong, and you were right. Without miracles, without a church, without a scripture, the power of his words and his deeds will be like water poured into the sand. It dampens the sand for a moment, and then the sun comes and dries it, and after a minute there's no sign that it's ever been there. Even the history that you've begun to write so meticulously, with such diligence and care for the truth, even that will be scattered like dry leaves and forgotten. In another generation the name of Jesus will mean nothing, and neither will the name Christ. How many healers and exorcists and preachers are there walking the roads of Palestine? Dozens and dozens. Every one will be forgotten, and so will Jesus. Unless-'

'But the Kingdom,' said Christ, 'the Kingdom will come!'

'No,' said the angel, 'there will be no Kingdom in this world. You were right about that as well.'

'I never denied the Kingdom!'

'You did. When you described the church, you spoke as if the Kingdom would not come about without it. And you were right.'

'No, no! I said that if God wanted to, he could bring the Kingdom about just by lifting a finger.'

'But God does not want to. God wants the church to be an image of the Kingdom. Perfection does not belong here; we can only have an image of perfection. Jesus, in his purity, is asking too much of people. We know they're not perfect, as he wishes them to be; we have to adjust ourselves to what they are. You see, the true Kingdom would blind human beings like the sun, but they need an image of it all the same. And that is what the church will be. My dear Christ,' the stranger went on, leaning forward, 'human life is difficult; there are profundities and compromises and mysteries that look to the innocent eye like betrayal. Let the wise men of the church bear those burdens, because there are plenty of other burdens for the faithful to carry. There are children to educate, there are the sick to nurse, there are the hungry to feed. The body of the faithful will do all these things, fearlessly, selflessly, ceaselessly, and it will do more, because there are other needs as well. There is the desire for beauty and music and art; and that is a hunger that is a double blessing to assuage, because the things that satisfy it are not consumed, but go on to nourish everyone who hungers for them, again and again for ever. The church you describe will inspire all these things, and provide them in full measure. And there is the noble passion for knowledge and inquiry, for philosophy, for the most royal study of the nature and mystery of divinity itself. Under the guidance and protection of the church, all these human needs from the most common and physical to the most rare and spiritual will be satisfied again and again, and every covenant will be fulfilled. The church will not be the Kingdom, because the Kingdom is not of this world; but it will be a foreshadowing of the Kingdom, and the one sure way to reach it.

'But only ¨C only ¨C if at the centre of it is the ever-living presence of a man who is both a man and more than a man, a man who is also God and the word of God, a man who dies and is brought to life again. Without that, the church will wither and perish, an empty husk, like every other human structure that lives for a moment and then dies and blows away.'

'What are you saying? What is this? Brought to life again?'

'If he does not come to life again, then nothing will be true. If he doesn't rise from his grave, the faith of countless millions yet unborn will die in the womb, and that is a grave from which nothing will rise. I told you how truth is not history, and comes from outside time, and comes into the darkness like a light. This is that truth. It's a truth that will make everything true. It's a light that will lighten the world.'

'But will it happen?'

'Such stubbornness! Such hardness of heart! Yes, it will happen, if you believe in it.'

'But you know how weak my faith is! I couldn't even... You know what I couldn't do.'

'We are discussing truth, not history,' the angel reminded him. 'You may live history, but you must write truth.'

'It's in history that I want to see him rise again.'

'Then believe.'

'And if I can't?'

'Then think of an orphan child, lost and cold and starving. Think of a sick man, racked with pain and fear. Think of a dying woman terrified by the coming darkness. There will be hands reaching out to comfort them and feed them and warm them, there will be voices of kindness and reassurance, there will be soft beds and sweet hymns and consolation and joy. All those kindly hands and sweet voices will do their work so willingly because they know that one man died and rose again, and that this truth is enough to cancel out all the evil in the world.'

'Even if it never happened.'

The angel said nothing.

Christ waited for a response, but none came. So he said, 'I can see now. It's better that one man should die than that all these good things should never come about. That's what you're saying. If I'd known it would come to this, I wonder if I'd ever have listened to you in the first place. And I'm not surprised that you left it till now before making it clear. You've caught me in a net so that I'm tangled like a gladiator and I can't fight my way out.'

Still the angel said nothing.

Christ went on, 'And why me? Why must it be my hand that betrays him? It's not as if he's hard to find. It's not as if no one in Jerusalem knows what he looks like. It's not as if there are no greedy scum who wouldn't give him away for a handful of coins. Why must I do it?'

'Do you remember what Abraham said when he was commanded to sacrifice his son?' said the angel then.

Christ was silent.

'He said nothing,' he said finally.

'And do you remember what happened when he lifted the knife?'

'An angel told him not to harm the boy. And then he saw the ram caught in the thicket.'

The angel stood up to leave.

'Take your time, my dear Christ,' he said. 'Consider everything. When you're ready, come to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest.'

Christ at the Pool of Bethesda

Christ meant to stay in his room and think about the ram in the thicket: did the angel mean that something would happen at the last minute to save his brother? What else could he have meant?

But the room was small and stuffy, and Christ needed fresh air. He wrapped his cloak around himself and went out into the streets. He walked towards the temple, and then away again; he walked towards the Damascus gate, and then turned to one side, whether left or right he didn't know; and presently he found himself at the pool of Bethesda. This was a place where invalids of every kind came in the hope of being healed. The pool was surrounded by a colonnade under which some of the sick slept all night, though they were supposed to come only during the hours of daylight.

Christ made his way quietly under the colonnade and sat on the steps that led down to the pool. The moon was nearly full, but clouds covered the sky, and Christ could not see much apart from the pale stone and the dark water. He hadn't been there for more than a minute when he heard a shuffling sound, and turned in alarm to see something coming towards him: a man whose legs were paralysed pulling himself laboriously over the stone pavement.

Christ got up, ready to move away, but the man said, 'Wait, sir, wait for me.'

Christ sat down again. He wanted to be alone, but he remembered the angel's description of the good work that would be done by that church they both wanted to see; could he possibly turn away from this poor man? Or could the beggar in some unimaginable way be the ram that would be sacrificed instead of Jesus?

'How can I help you?' Christ said quietly.

'Just stay and talk to me for a minute or two, sir. That's all I want.'

The crippled man pulled himself up next to Christ and lay there breathing heavily.

'How long have you been waiting for a cure?' said Christ.

'Twelve years, sir.'

'Will no one help you to the water? Shall I help you now?'

'No good now, sir. What happens is that an angel comes every so often and stirs the water up, and the first one in the pool afterwards gets cured. I can't move so quickly, as you may have noticed.'

'How do you live? What do you eat? Have you got friends or a family to look after you?'

'There's some people who come along sometimes and give us a bit of food.'

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