Sermon for HIGH MASS Lent 5 Sunday 18 March 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar
Readings: Jeremiah 31.31-34; Psalm 51.1-12; Hebrews 5.5-10; John 12.20-33
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
Today, as the purple veiling reminds us, we have entered the season of Passiontide and next Sunday, Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, we will re-enact in our Palm Procession Jesus’ entry into the city of Jerusalem.
But in the passage from John’s Gospel we have just heard that is already over. The lectionary has leapt ahead and Jesus is already in the holy city.
Among those who have been swept up in the enthusiasm of that event are some Greeks who ask to see this Jesus; presumably to discover what all the fuss is about. They choose Philip and Andrew as intermediaries because they have Greek names and come from Galilee – an area with a mixed Jewish and Greek-speaking Gentile population. But when Andrew conveys their request to Jesus, his response hardly seems to answer their request directly: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
In John’s Gospel we hear on a number of occasions that Jesus’ “hour” has not yet come, and so the schemes of his opponents come to nothing. Now things have changed. His enemies who had witnessed the enthusiasm of the crowds as he entered Jerusalem, had just said despairingly: “What can we do, the whole world has gone after him?” Now that world, represented by those Greeks, has come to him and this signals for John the arrival of his “hour”; the decisive moment in his whole life and ministry.
Jesus’ first word at the beginning of this week, “The hour has come,” is in the perfect tense, which signifies completion; just like his last word on the cross, which we will hear in the St. John Passion in the Liturgy on Good Friday, “It is finished – it is accomplished.” These two cries – at the beginning and the end of Jesus’ week in Jerusalem – tell us much about his understanding of his life’s mission: he came to die for the whole world – not just one part of it.
Talk of death is not what an audience of pilgrims aglow with religious fervour and nationalist zeal would expect or want to hear. The Passover, the reason they are there in Jerusalem, celebrated Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. It reminded them, too, of their current subjugation to Rome and kindled hopes of a new liberation and of a Messiah, sent from God to lead it. That is why the Roman governor is there with extra troops who are on high alert for trouble.
In the manner of his entry into the holy city, riding on a donkey not a war horse, Jesus had quite deliberately demonstrated that he had not come to be such a leader; a nationalist freedom-fighter. But people did not get the message. We often hear what we want to hear, and see what we want to see.
For John, Jesus’ glory is to be seen in his death on the cross. This is his being “lifted up” – both in the literal sense of being raised up on the cross for all to see – and in the sense of being exalted to glory with the Father in the resurrection and ascension.
But death, and certainly the ignominious death of the cross, seems to signify defeat rather than glory. So, to show how this is not always so, Jesus draws on an example from the natural world: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit.” Death is the pre-conditon for fruitful life in some parts of the natural world, and, as we now learn from Jesus, in the supernatural world too. What looks like the grain’s demise is in fact its harvest. So, too with Jesus’ Cross. What looks like a perfect proof against Jesus’ authenticity – his execution as a criminal – proved to be the supreme argument for, and the major display of, God’s profound love for the world.
What is true of Jesus himself is also true of his disciples: “Whoever serves me will follow me, and where I am there will my servant be also.” Jesus’ life-unto-death service also serves as the perfect pattern for his followers’ lives, as he proceeds to spell out. It does not seem at first at all normal or wholesome for anyone to hate their own life. Jesus himself did not seem to hate his life in this world; he was no puritan killjoy. His preacher’s exaggeration for effect here means that, the one who dies to the supremacy of their own self-preservation and advancement at all costs, usually rule for us, will find life.
Jesus says we are only to hate our lives “in this world”, a word which for John has a double meaning: both of the creation which God loves and of all that in that creation is at odds with its Creator; this fallen, messed-up, hurt-filled, self-seeking, rebellious world.
So, we could translate Jesus in this way: “If we hate the way life is lived in this world” in its consummately selfish way and in our own culpable involvement in that way, then we will, by living differently, counter-culturally, preserve our life into that eternal life which is deep, lasting and truly enriching. That is something which we both experience in the here and now and hope for in the future: “Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.” This verse also means that “where I am in glory, there my servant will be also.”
‘Now is my soul troubled. And what should I say – “Father, save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father glorify your name.”
This is John’s equivalent of Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane with his anguished prayer: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me, but nevertheless, thy will be done.” John’s telling of the passion shows a Jesus who is strangely and almost serenely master of the situation. But that does not mean that he did not, in the words of Hebrews, “offer up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death.” Jesus is not an imperturbable Stoic – he wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus – nor do we need to be. That completion of which Jesus speaks in John, that perfection of which Hebrews speaks, is through his costly obedience to the will of the Father.
“Father, glorify your name.”
The voice from heaven replies, the only time we hear God speaking directly in John’s Gospel:
“I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” – meaning “I have glorified it in your ministry.” and “I will glorify it again in your death and resurrection.”
It is the Father who enabled Jesus ministry to glorify the Father, and it is the Father who again will enable Jesus death and resurrection, ascension. It will be the Father who enables Church to glorify the Father in the future: “and I will glorify it again.” Thus even Jesus’ life and death to the glory of God, as Jesus has repeatedly affirmed, is possible only as the Son’s obedient response to his Father’s initiatives and enablings. The same is true of our living and dying to the glory of God.
The crowd’s reactions to the heavenly voice either – earthly – it was just thunder – or heavenly – an angel has spoken to him – both miss the point.
What does Jesus mean when he says: “This voice has come for your sake not mine.”? The voice addressed Jesus and encouraged him, but he wants even more for his hearers to take heart from what the voice said; by learning that same truth which came to Jesus from heaven: that the two main ways God the Father has been and (always) will be glorified on earth are by Jesus’ ministry and life and his death and resurrection.
“Now is the judgement of this world, now the ruler of this world will be driven out.”
In the cross, the world and all its vicious ways are exposed and condemned for what they are. That exposure is, if only we can see it, the truth which sets us free from the power of evil. Condemnation is not the last word: in the resurrection, the world is offered forgiveness and reconciliation.
“Now the ruler of this world will be driven out”
The devil is not often mentioned in John’s Gospel. There are no exorcisms in his account of Jesus’ ministry. The devil is cast out by Jesus’ decisive exorcism on Calvary. By persevering in unswerving obedience to his Father’s will, Jesus overcomes the power of evil.
“And I, when I have been lifted up, will draw all people to myself.”
This lifting up draws not by the compulsion of force but by the attraction of unconquered and unconquerable love; the love which overcomes evil.
And so we are drawn near in faith. We celebrate the new covenant and its law of love which God has promised to write in our hearts, its message that our iniquities have been forgiven and our sin will be remembered no more.
As we celebrate the Eucharist we are drawn into Christ’s priestly offering of himself, “the manner of death he was to die,” the grain of wheat which by dying bears that fruit which is “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”