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Home » Sermon – 17th March 2024

Sermon – 17th March 2024

    Passion Sunday

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    Readings: Hebrews 5: 5-10; John 12: 20-33

    Today we enter Passiontide – the start of the two weeks leading up to the events of Good Friday and Easter Day. Continuing the penitential season of Lent, we begin to turn our attention now to the sufferings of Jesus.

    Now ‘passion’ is quite a difficult word. When we say we are ‘passionate’ about something – the environment, for instance – that is certainly a different passion from what takes place between two lovers, and both of those instances of passion are different from what we are talking about today.

    But my dictionary gives, as the first definition of passion – ‘strong emotion; outburst of anger’; and then, ‘the sufferings of Christ on the Cross.’ Another definition is ‘feel or express passion’. In our English grammar, we talk about verbs being used either in their active or passive voice. ‘He hurt the robber’ is active: ‘he was hurt by the robber’ is passive. So we might say that ‘passion’ means being done to, and so, suffering. Passiontide is the season when we are drawn to contemplate the sufferings of Jesus. His passion and death confront us in both readings for today.

    In the reading from Hebrews we are taken back into the Old Testament world, where once a year the high priest would enter the tent of meeting, before the days of the Temple, and in the Holy Place would offer sacrifices for the sins of the people – the blood of goats and calves. The writer sees Jesus as the greatest of high priests. Now Jesus is a King as well as a priest, but also an obedient Son, who suffered. The high priest offered those sacrifices year after year to atone for the sins of the people, but it was an imperfect sacrifice. Elsewhere the writer says that it was impossible for the blood of goats and calves to take away sins. But Jesus’ offering was complete: he gave himself once, for all time and all people, and his sacrifice was perfect, and he became the source of eternal salvation for all who would obey him. As one writer has said, “His had to be the most awful Passion to bring about the salvation of millions.”

    Turn now from all this technical language to the very simple request we heard in today’s Gospel. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” The 19th-century vicar of Holy Trinity, Cambridge, Charles Simeon, had inscribed in his pulpit, but only where he could see it, the words “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” A good reminder to preachers that people don’t, or shouldn’t, come to church to hear an eloquent speaker, but to see Jesus. This was the request of those Greeks who had come to the festival in Jerusalem – the Passover. They were Gentiles, in Jewish eyes – outsiders, unbelievers – but were sufficiently attracted to Israel’s religion to make a pilgrimage. They had heard about Jesus and wanted to see him. But rather than revelling in the limelight of his popularity, Jesus senses that events are nearing a climax for him – that his ‘hour’ had come. He is to be glorified; or rather, his Father is to be glorified by what is about to happen to the Son.

    Jesus is aware of the passion that he is about to go through. He is troubled, yes, but he does ask to be spared from ‘this hour’. Rather, he asks that God will be glorified through it. A voice comes from heaven confirming that this will indeed be so.

    It seems the Greeks don’t get to see Jesus, at least not in any private audience. Rather, Jesus begins to spell out how he is to win this eternal salvation for the whole human race. We talk about this ‘salvation’ almost glibly at times, but it really is a most staggering thought. No other world religion, as far as I know, makes such a claim as our faith makes.  Jesus said ‘when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.’ ‘He said this’, the gospel-writer continues, just in case we hadn’t made the connection, ‘to indicate the kind of death he was to die.’ When Jesus was to be lifted up onto the Cross, the Greeks would see Jesus, but not in the way they imagined. ‘Seeing’ in John’s gospel, is as much about spiritual recognition as about physical vision.

    Of course, we’re not talking about some unscathed hero or superman here. Jesus knew he had to give his very life in his Father’s service. Hebrews reminds us that Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears – meaning, I imagine, the mental agony he suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane. And in today’s reading he observes that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit. The early Christian writer Tertullian said that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” It is notable that the Church tends to grow through, or after, a period of persecution. That has happened in many places across the world, and in every century.

    And then comes one of the very ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus: ‘those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ In a commentary, Judith Dimond observes “The world measures everything by short-term success, but Jesus sees gain in the value of eternity. Contemplate how the world looks on loss – as failure and disgrace. Yet God will glorify the name of Jesus for the loss of his earthly life. For the true self of Jesus will remain intact, unscathed by the compromises of this world.”  What does it mean to hate one’s life?  One of the great commandments is that we love our neighbour as ourselves, suggesting that it is alright to love one’s own life, so long as that is secondary to loving God and neighbour. So could today’s injunction to hate one’s life mean being able to deny one’s own self for the sake of a greater good?

    Most of us find that when we do put other people first, or carry out some act of kindness, or cause inconvenience to ourselves for the sake of someone else, we find feelings of value and fulfilment, and come to realise afresh what is important in life, and in our dealings with others, and with God.  So it would seem to be a Christian truth that the human self is most itself when not being selfish.

    Often we seek comfort and safety; we avoid conflict or having to put ourselves out; we look after ‘number one’. But Jesus teaches that those who love their life will lose it, and that seems to hold true for the smaller things of life as for the more critical. We shall not, God willing, ever be facing death on account of our discipleship and obedience to God, but we shall be called on to let our little comforts and securities and safeguards go to serve God and neighbour, or to make some stand for what is right. Sister Frances Dominica, an Anglican sister and nurse, wrote “If we really pray we take a big risk because by doing so we are saying “Here I am, send me.” God may take us at our word. If God’s own way in Jesus is one of costly involvement, perhaps we might need to risk that ourselves.

    Perhaps, also, we can attempt to enter into the passion of others during Passiontide. Writing in The Times yesterday, Selina Stone suggests that ‘we might lament the pain and trauma of so many in our human family who live exploited, harassed and at risk of death this year. We should remember those who do not have words for what they suffer, and those who are not heard even when they do speak.’

    The example of Jesus can help us in our times of difficulties, despair or suffering. Jesus was troubled at the thought of his coming Passion, but he had assurance of the way forward. We, too, have the promise of God’s love for us and his good purposes for us, and can draw on that assurance, hidden though God’s way may sometimes be from us.

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