Reading John 12.20-33
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Since Ash Wednesday we have been directing our eyes towards the suffering and death of Jesus. The focus now narrows further, because today begins the season of Passiontide.
There’s a word, ‘passion’. I heard someone say once that ‘passion’ is like ‘Dresden’, for both instantly put you in mind of opposites. With the second it is delicacy and destruction: Dresden china, wonderfully fragile cups and saucers and figurines; and the Dresden raid, the obliteration of that German city and 35 thousand of its people in 1945 by Britain and American bombs. And ‘passion’ is like that too. First, passion is strong, even violent feelings for a cause or a person. Take two recent Sun articles (required reading for all good Anglicans now the Archbishop of York is a Sabbath columnist): General Sir Peter Wall mounts ‘a passionate defence of the fight for peace in Afghanistan’. Then the ‘Dear Deirdre’ column has a letter headed, ‘Desperate for husband to forgive my passionate toyboy affair’ (see what you’re missing, all you Times and Telegraph people). But passion is also pain – if you are compassionate, you feel someone else’s suffering. Benoit Assou-Ekotto, the Spurs footballer, said in Monday’s Standard,
There are some moments that make you look at the world with different eyes. But sometimes in these moments there is a magical power because people connect, people see the human in each other and people feel another person’s pain…
He was describing how it was when his opponent Patrice Muamba lay on the pitch after cardiac arrest. That was a moment when the two passions came together: desire, strength of will – then suffering. And the two passions come together in Jesus: two weeks ago we saw Jesus’ strong, even violent feelings, as he turned over the tables of the money changers in the Jerusalem temple courtyard. Today he hints at what is to his come, ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies…’; and next Sunday, Palm Sunday, we will hear the Passion Gospel, which tells of Jesus’ arrest and trial and suffering. Passion. Jesus knows both kinds, and so must we.
It’s a horrible thing to use a tragedy or atrocity for your own ends, but sometimes it works that way whether you like it or not. Nicolas Sarkozy’s handling of the Toulouse murders will do him no harm in the Presidential election; and, as we prepare to say goodbye to Archbishop Rowan, among the largely appreciative pieces about him, some see the so-called ’Muamba effect’ as a sign of what – and who – the church needs next. Patrice Muamba’s story – refugee, hardworking student, top-flight footballer – is one to celebrate, he is a credit to his sport, so big public sympathy is no surprise, but what is a surprise is the manner of it. ‘Pray 4 Muamba’ the T-shirts urge, a message echoed by players, fans, manager, and fiancée, who adds that ‘God is in control’. Now Muamba is recovering, the word ‘miracle’ is being spoken. ‘At a moment of crisis,’ says one article, ‘an old-fashioned kind of religion has taken centre-stage.’ It argues that, ‘if the church is to return to the centre of national life, it will be through passion’. And that, it seems, points a certain Sun columnist getting the top job.
Leave aside the entertaining stories about runners and riders in the Canterbury stakes. There are big questions which surround this old-time religion. If being in control means making it all OK, and if God was in control at White Hart Lane and afterwards at the London Chest Hospital, was God not in control in Toulouse? If you come forward to receive anointing and the laying on of hands during communion (as I hope many of you will), how will God be ‘in control’ then? Someone put it very well in an email to me:
The question is about how God does act in the world…it [is] really hard…to understand how he does, but if he doesn’t…then I’m bound to ask what’s the point of prayer?
But if he doesn’t…? Exactly. An inactive God is not gospel. If Jesus’ God just felt our pain and no more, the stories about him would have been different. We would not have seen him overturn the money-changers tables. He might have wept at his dead friend’s tomb but he would not have said, ‘Lazarus, come out.’ Never must we suggest that praying is like putting a coin in the slot and getting a Mars bar. But faith in a God who never makes a difference can never be a passionate affair, for such a God might as well be dead. So, with faith is God as with life in general, there is contradiction and confusion. How might we live faithfully within it all? Let’s look at another word: glory.
In today’s gospel, pilgrims tell Philip the disciple that they want to see Jesus. Philip and Andrew tell Jesus, who then says something puzzling: ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’ ‘Son of Man’ refers to Jesus, so how is Jesus to be glorified? We all know what glory is – glory is the sunshine outside, glory is triumphant success – so is this Jesus’ moment of glory, with people flocking to him? (If we had queues every Sunday outside St Mary’s, we might be forgiven for calling these our glory days.) No. Jesus is talking about his death, and since when did glory mean disgrace and pain and darkness and lost life? The church has sometimes gloried unhealthily in suffering, saying that pain or poverty are not to be fought against but put up with, borne with dignity, because they are good for the soul. So is there any way – any way that isn’t sick – that we can see Jesus dying on his cross as a glorious thing? Or are we giving it a name that isn’t true but just convenient, like the People’s ‘Liberation’ Army or ‘cotton-rich’ socks? Are we using the word in an Alice in Wonderland kind of way?
‘There’s Glory for you,’ said Humpty Dumpty.
‘I don’t know what you mean by glory,’Alice said.
‘I meant there’s a nice knock down argument for you.’
‘But glory doesn’t mean a nice knock down argument,’Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ said Humpty Dumpty in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’
John’s gospel never uses words carelessly, and ‘glory’ is a key word – it’s bound up with Jesus’ relation to the one he calls his Father: the word of God became flesh in Jesus, says John, ‘and we beheld his glory’. Glory is when you see God here among us, here at work in our world. When Jesus turns water into wine, there’s glory for you: God among us, making us drunk with joy. When Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, there’s glory for you: God among us, defeating the last enemy. But can God be among us in that other passion of Jesus, in his suffering and death?
If God can, then here is a God who really is made flesh, who gets under the skin of what makes you and me human, who really does enter our world of confusion and contradiction. And that really is glorious. We can be passionate about such a God, about helping others to know such a God. We can even say that such a God is ‘in control’, not in the sense of immediately making it all better, but in drawing all things – often painfully – to the point where ‘all shall be well’.
In these days leading up to Good Friday and Easter, you and I are invited to give some time to seeing if we can find this God among us in our confusions and contradictions: not as a weak, spiritual something-or-other but as a strong presence, a source of strength and a spring of action, action and passion. If we can, then there will be glory for you, and for me.
Who the church needs next Terence Blacker: ‘Like it or not, Sentamu is the best hope for the Church of England’ http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/terence-blacker/terence-blacker-like-it-or-not-sentamu-is-the-best-hope-for-the-church-of-england-7578163.html
We beheld his glory John 1.14.
Jesus in the temple John 2.13-22.
Water into wine John 2.1-11.
Lazarus John 11.53.
All shall be well The words of Julian of Norwich, English mystic. c1342 – c1416.