Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, Sunday 21st March 2021
Gospel: John 12:20-33
There’s an old joke about two friends watching a cowboy film, and one friend says to the other, “I bet that character dies in the end.” And sure enough he does.
At the end of the film the friend turns and says, “About that bet – I have to confess, I’ve seen this film before.”
“So have I,” says the other friend, “but I thought he’d have better luck this time!”
In the same way, we might be forgiven for finding ourselves hearing the Gospel narratives leading up to Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion with a sense of foreboding – willing the story to turn out differently, for Jesus to “get away.”
As human beings, I think that we hate the idea of inevitability. We want things to turn out differently to what we know is the established pattern.
In the second half of the last century there was at attempt by liberal theologians to recast the events of Easter. According to their new narrative, Jesus’s death wasn’t inevitable; it wasn’t the supernatural climax of the son of God’s time on earth.
Rather, they said, Jesus was someone who was inspired to preach a better way of living; to try and create heaven on earth; and the authorities were so dismayed by his attempts that they killed him for it.
But this idea of a purely human sacrifice, on the altar of greed and power and all the other human ills, fails to take account of Jesus’s own words.
“When I am lifted up from the earth,” he says, “I will draw all men to me.”
When I am lifted up – the language here is a kind of irony: he uses the language of glorifying and elevation, but the lifting up that we see, that he is foretelling, is his lifting up on the cross of Calvary. And he does not draw all men towards an earthly paradise but to himself – with all the pain and joy that comes with following him.
Jesus’s death is not the sad end to the story of a miracle working teacher of kindness to others, but the very reason that he came to the earth in the first place. “What shall I say? Save me from this hour? But it was for this very reason that I have come to this hour.”
Passion Sunday marks the shift of our Lenten pilgrimage from the desert to the Cross. It is a reminder to us of Jesus’s words: if anyone wants to be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For a month now we have denied ourselves with Jesus in the desert. Now we begin to unite ourselves, if only spiritually, with Jesus in his soffering and death.
Of course, many people have, over the centuries, united themselves wholly in the death of Jesus, either through the shedding of their blood or through the rigours of the monastic life, the so-called white martyrdom. The ancient Christian writer Tertullian wrote that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, and it’s easy to hear an echo of Jesus’s own words from our Gospel – that unless a grain of wheat falls and dies it remains only a single grain, but that if it dies it spreads its seeds and yields a rich harvest.
And this has been true of the many martyrs – red and white – who, in dying to the world, have spread the good news of Jesus far and wide. I often think of Papua New Guinea, in the Pacific Ocean north of Australia. The Bishops of Lynn have, for a long time, been responsible for the Church of England’s link with the Church in Papua New Guinea, a country whose rich Christian heritage owes much to the many who have lost their lives for their faith.
Of course, the last year of lockdowns has felt like one long Lent, and for all too many people, it has brought a personal Good Friday, as people have lost those they loved. I don’t wish to suggest that the 126,000 deaths in the UK are anything other than a tragedy; but Passiontide is a reminder that in every stage of life, Jesus is with us. He has known the death of those he loved – when he stood at Lazarus’s tomb, the Bible tells us, “Jesus wept” – and he has known death itself.
Just as we unite ourselves to his suffering in Passiontide, he has already united himself to all the suffering we have endured this past year, and he will always be united to us, in whatever storms or calms of life we may face in the future.