Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
‘We wish to see Jesus,’ say the Greeks who approach Philip, and who thus fulfil the Pharisees’ alarm that ‘the whole world has gone after’ Jesus. And it’s no surprise that the Greeks’ curiosity has been piqued. Jesus’ reputation has been steadily growing: the teaching, the healings, the stand-off with the religious authorities. He’s the talk of the city, which is thronged with pilgrims gathered for the Passover, always a dangerous time for the occupying powers, with nationalist sentiment running high. Jesus has raised a man from the dead, and, in John’s Gospel, has just entered Jerusalem heralded by shouts of ‘Hosanna!’, his way strewn with palm branches. The Roman and Jewish authorities are tense, watchful. It will not take much to incite the crowd.
For now, the people’s hopes are pinned on Jesus. And with the arrival of the Greeks, he knows his hour has come. ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself,’ he says. The time of particularity has come to an end: the hour has come for God’s salvation to be made known universally.
But this isn’t what the people want to hear. Jesus has spoken of a grain of wheat dying so that it may bear much fruit. He tells them he will be lifted up from the earth, to indicate the kind of death he was to die. But the crowd isn’t interested in a Messiah who is lifted up to die; they want one who will be exalted in glory, and bring them with him. ‘How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?’ they wonder. ‘Who is this Son of Man?’
This Son of Man doesn’t fit with their preconceptions. They will happily acclaim him as king when they think he will save them in the way they have come to expect. For many Jews at the time this meant salvation from Roman occupation – restoration of Israel and the promised land, self-government and deliverance from those who oppressed them. The salvation they envisage is local and limited. But the salvation Jesus brings goes beyond the boundaries of geography, ethnicity, and theology.
They have no language, no imagination to deal with a crucified Saviour. The cross is a stumbling-block to Jews, and folly to the Greeks, as St Paul says. For Jews, crucifixion was a cursed form of death: ‘cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree’, says the book Deuteronomy (21.23). That put you outside the covenant, outside God’s blessing. And for Greeks (which means the rest of the world), the cross is shameful, humiliating: crucifixion was the punishment reserved for slaves and the lowest form of criminal. It was designed to be degrading and dehumanising.
And this was a real problem for the early Christians. It was unimaginable to both Jewish and pagan neighbours that a god should die on a cross. The cross is the very symbol of godforsakenness. They could not conceive of a god stooping so far that he became subject to the violence, inhumanity and godlessness of crucifixion. That’s why the passage we heard in the letter to the Hebrews was an embarrassment to some in the early Church: ‘In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.’ This is not the usual language of divinity. For many, the passion of Jesus meant that he couldn’t be the Messiah.
But this is the heart of our faith: that in Jesus, God goes to the places of godforsakenness, so that no longer can any place be called godforsaken. He goes to the depths of human suffering and degradation, takes the form of a slave, becomes accursed, for us.
For the cross is God’s refusal to let our lives be determined by sin. Sin is what separates us from God and from each other, and from the people God created us to be. It’s destructive and its end is death. Sin is parasitic on the goodness of God’s creation, and it brings alienation where God longs for us to share his life. The cross is God’s judgement on sin because it is God’s absolute refusal to give us up. All the sacrifices in the world, piled up year after year, couldn’t deal with sin. No amount of human striving could bridge the divide between God and humanity.
So God did what we couldn’t do. In Jesus he became one of us. He lived our life and died our death. As St Paul puts it, ‘he became sin who knew no sin.’ Because without him, we remain forever alienated from God. When Jesus cries out on the cross ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ he is giving voice to the cry of all humanity in its separation from God. In Jesus, God goes to the limits of human existence and experience, to the farthest points from him, so that he can bring us back to himself. Christ dies our death so that we can live his life, so we can be drawn into the love Christ shares with the Father and the Spirit in the Holy Trinity.
‘We wish to see Jesus’, say the Greeks, as they seek him in the press of the city. But will they still want to see him if they follow him out of the city? Will they want to witness the agony in the garden, see him fall under the weight of the cross, watch him nailed to it in defeat? Will they want to see his humiliation, his degradation, hear the animal cries of pain from his prolonged torture? Will we?
‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself,’ says Jesus. Christ draws us to himself through the cross, but he will not let us avoid the cross. As the medieval artists who drew flowers blossoming from the wood of the cross saw, it’s a place of new life. This is why the Church gives us Passiontide each year. It’s not simply a way of keeping the story of Jesus fresh in our minds; it’s an invitation to enter into it, to claim for ourselves the new life that Christ offers.
Over the next two weeks, the Church invites us to make a difficult journey. By making us participants in the story of Christ’s passion, it brings into sharp focus our own betrayals and denials, our power plays and capacity for evil. Because I could be Peter, too scared to stand by my friend. I could be Pilate, unwilling to rock the establishment boat. I could be Judas, my betrayals and impatience handing Jesus over to be killed. I could be Caiaphas, unwilling and unable to bear the challenge to my religious securities and authority. I could be one of the crowd, who wants a saviour on my own terms, then clamours for blood because I don’t recognise the salvation unfolding before me.
For all these, and for you and me, Christ goes to the cross. The cross is God’s judgement on the sin and death which separate us from him. But it does not condemn us. The judgement of the world, as Christ is lifted up on the cross, is a resounding ‘yes’ from God to the restoration and fulfilment of all that humanity is called to be. Our brokenness and bitterness find healing in the wounds of Christ: sin and death will have no more dominion.
But there is no life without death. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains just a single grain. Resurrection follows from crucifixion. We will be drawn to Christ, so that he can bring us to where he is, but the way to the empty tomb goes through Gethsemane and Golgotha.
Today’s Gospel begins with the arrival of the Greeks who wish to see Jesus. It ends with Jesus hiding himself. The next time he appears again in public will be as he is dragged away under arrest by the guards. The crowds want a saviour on their own terms: they will happily acclaim him as king while he carries their hopes for deliverance. But Jesus will not let himself be appropriated by their gaze and their plans. He hides, just as, through his passion, his glory will be hidden from our sight.
And that’s why it’s a very old custom of the Church to veil images and statues during Passiontide. If it makes you feel a bit awkward and uncomfortable, it should. Think about why it does: what is it you miss? I don’t like coming into church and not seeing the icons and the statue of Mary. They represent for me a real, tangible connection with the communion of saints, and without them I feel more alone. And I don’t like not seeing the images of Christ on the cross, both of them with their different images of suffering and victory reassuring me that my suffering and sin cannot keep me separate from God because of what he has done in Christ.
The absence of beloved images, which is a sort of intensification of the Lenten fast, this time for the eyes, can help prepare us for Holy Week because it makes us long for what is, for a time, hidden from our sight.
In the Gospel Jesus hides from the crowds, until he is dragged in sorry spectacle before their eyes. Now he is hidden from us, in image at least. The next time we will see a crucifix in the liturgy will be when we are presented with it on Good Friday as an object of our devotion and adoration, as we learn to see the tree of shame as the throne of glory. If, with the Greeks, we say ‘we wish to see Jesus’, we are asked not to flinch from the cross, not to jump from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday without seeing Jesus in the agony of the garden and the agony of the cross. What the veiled images make me long for is relationship – with God and with his people. Without the events of Holy Week, without the crucifixion and resurrection, they may as well stay veiled permanently, for without Christ’s sacrifice we remain alone and estranged. But after the liturgy of Good Friday the cross will be unveiled, and in the darkness before the Easter Vigil, the icons and statue will once again be visible to our sight as we greet Christ’s triumph over sin and death, and as he brings us with him into the light of everlasting day.