Keep taking the tablets!

April 2, 2017

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Preached by Canon Gregory Clifton Smith using Jeremiah 31: 27-37; John 12: 20-33 at Choral Eucharist on Sunday 2nd April 2017, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Passion Sunday.

Last week, Mothering Sunday, marked that mid-point in Lent when we were given a brief period of respite from the various Lenten narratives, as we were reminded of the Annunciation and our Lord’s forthcoming birth. Today, Passion Sunday, marks that point in Lent when our thoughts turn from focussing on Lenten themes in general, such as the forty years the children of Israel spent journeying through the wilderness and the temptations of Christ after his baptism, to focussing on more specific Passiontide themes such as the giving of the 10 commandments by God to Moses and the giving up of Jesus’ life on the cross. As we prepare to travel with our Lord to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and throughout Holy Week, we are reminded of the giving of God to his people of the old covenant rooted in the law, and the new covenant rooted in selfless love, events which are at the centre of our Old and New Testaments canon of scripture respectively. At Evening prayer during Passiontide, we are also reminded of the deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery under Pharaoh, the first Passover being the precursor of the second at which Jesus himself is the Passover lamb, sacrificed for us all.

And, in the northern hemisphere at any rate, we are lucky enough to be making this spiritual journey within the context of Spring, where all around us is screaming out the reality of life springing out of death. This reality in nature underpins those words of Jesus in our reading from the gospel of John, “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.” When the Jews were at their lowest ebb, God gifts them, through Moses, the Decalogue, the first four commandments having to do with our right relationship with God, the remaining six concerned with how we build and establish right relationships with one another. When the disciples were at their highest ebb, their lord is taken away from them, butchered on an instrument of execution like a common criminal. And from that desolation springs not just new life, but eternal life. At both Passovers, sins are forgiven, a new beginning beckons.

For sins to be forgiven, they have to be acknowledged in the first place. Before Pass-over can become a reality, Buck-Passing has to be challenged head on! A theme which Jeremiah warms to in our Old Testament lesson is that of the importance of people taking responsibility for their own actions and when things go wrong, refusing to blame others, most typically as Jeremiah sees it, the action (or inaction) of previous generations. As we all recognise only too well, and as our Lord himself was only too aware, it’s much easier for us to point out the speck in another’s eye without attending to the plank in our own! It was customary to think at the time that if things went wrong in the life of the nation, the reason that this was happening was because God was punishing his people for having sinned, the wrongdoing was the cause, of which the punishment was the effect. And the idea of punishment was to initiate a change of heart and then repentance.

We might want to take issue with Jeremiah here and point out that this is all fine and dandy if bad things just happen to bad people, but as we know, bad things happen to good people as well.  Indeed as well as being a tragedy and an act of genocide of indescribable dimensions, the holocaust was also a theological black whole. Because of free will, there will always be the possibility that evil will take a hold in God’s world. But without free will there’s no opportunity for goodness to take a hold either. The only possible way that this situation can be transformed is if in some way, the divine can enter into the created order and absorb evil inwards. But surely this would be impossible. Thank God, nothing is impossible to Him, and, as we now know, the mystery of the Incarnation set the scene for the enacting of the second covenant, the death and resurrection of our Lord.

 From our position of hindsight it really does seem that Jeremiah is offering his listeners the hope that God will establish a new covenant with his people. And this covenant will internalise the Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai. No longer will it be written on tablets of stone, but it will be written on the human heart. People will not love God or their neighbour or have a deep respect form themselves because they are being told that is what they must do. This compunction will come from within, God who is love at work from the inside out.

This working from the inside out can most strikingly be seen in the person of Jesus, who in our gospel passage is depicted as wrestling with his inner demons. Jesus may be fully divine and fully human, but here his humanity comes to the fore. He knows what is expected of him, he knows what he must do. If there is no death caused by the hatred of humanity focussed on its very creator, there can be no resurrection, and no gift of eternal life, as the God of love forgives those who have tried to exterminate the godhead. But he is frightened. We are told by John that our Lord’s soul is troubled. The natural reaction of anybody would be to want to avoid certain death, unless, that is, they have another context in which to set their humanity and have the courage and the faith to put these into effect. I am reminded of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe who stepped forward and took the place of a Jewish man in a Concentration Camp and was killed by the Nazi’s in his place. “Greater love hath no man than this, than he lay down his life for his friends.” “And you are my friends”, Jesus goes on to tell his disciples, and, we believe, Jesus is telling all his disciples, for all time, including you and me. The love which our Lord lived is costly. There is nothing wishy washy about this love. Fr. Maximilian exemplified this unconditional, self-sacrificial love in an action that speaks louder than any words. His action saved the life of one man. Our Lord’s sacrifice offers the gift of eternal life to all of humanity in every age.

Our New Testament passage began with a question. Whereas at the Jewish celebration of Passover, it is the youngest child that asks what this celebration is all about, here it is some Greek thinkers who want to see Jesus. After Philip has checked with Andrew and they both tell Jesus, we assume that the Greek enquirers meet Jesus but we are not actually told either way. If they do meet Jesus face to face, the question they presumably actually ask is not recorded any way either. Perhaps it might have been one of the following: “Exactly who are you?” or “What exactly do you believe?” What Jesus says might appear at first glance to be somewhat mysterious to his Greek listeners as his reference to the Son of Man taps in to an Old Testament theme which first appears in the book of Daniel where the coming of the Son of Man is understood to herald in the Golden Age of Peace. The paradox here of course is that this is not to be achieved by power and conquest but self-less love. This, combined with the farming metaphor, would have given Jesus’ Greek and Jewish listeners food for thought, only fully understood after Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus keenest wish for his listeners is that they will “believe in the light whilst they still have the light, so that they may become children of the light”.

The currency of love only has value when it is given away. Then its value is priceless.   May we learn this truth afresh and find new ways of putting this into effect this Passiontide.

Let us pray. (Evensong only)

“Greater love hath no man than this, than he lay down his life for his friends.”

Heavenly Father, let nothing separate us from you.

Everywhere, at any place, at any hour and at any time,

daily ceaselessly, let us truly and humbly believe in you,

love, honour and worship, praise bless and glorify you,

serve you and give thanks to you,

most high and sovereign eternal God. AMEN

We pray for your Church as it seeks to minister in your world.

Give your Church, O God, the grace to follow in the steps of Jesus, who came among us as one who serves. May it be ready in all the world to spend and be spent in the service of the poor and the hungry, the sick and those who know you not. May it work with strength and suffer with courage for the liberation of the oppressed, and the restoration to all of the dignity and freedom of those created in your image: grant this O Father, for the sake of of the same Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.


God be in my head, and in my understanding;

God be in my eyes, and in my looking;

God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;

God be in my heart, and in my thinking;

God be at mine end, and at my departing.