Lent week 5 ~ John 12:1-8
Cast your mind back to 10th February. Lent began on 10th February - Ash Wednesday - which was 32 days ago. That’s more than a month, even given we had that extra day in February, when everyone on a salary had to work for nothing. And everyone on a pension had a day without income! So I don't know whether your 32 days of Lent have been 32 days of work or play - but what they certainly could have been is 32 days to pray.
Today is often called Passion Sunday - the fifth Sunday in Lent, when Passiontide begins: a season within a season when we focus on the meaning of Christ’s cross. The cross is looming ahead, now that Lent is marching on, and here we are at Passion Sunday. The refreshment of Mothering Sunday is past, and now we are well and truly in Lent Part Two, next week Palm Sunday and then we enter Holy Week and will soon find ourselves stationed at the foot of the cross. It’s coming: There’s no escape - no denying it. And we have been there many times before. We’ve also had the resurrection experiences too. You can’t have one without the other.
But why? Why have all this suffering and misery? Why didn’t Jesus just live forever and not bother with the brutal, humiliating dying bit? It’s a question the disciples might have wondered about and many still do today. Why this suffering, why the agony of the cross? And the answers don’t always satisfy because they seem cruel - what kind of God would do this: demand a painful payment from his own son for the sins of the world?
Many hymns have addressed this difficulty - from modern classics like ‘In Christ Alone’ through Victorian children’s hymns like ‘There is a green hill far away’.
We may not know, we cannot tell,
What pains he had to bear,
But we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.
He died that we might be forgiven,
He died to make us good;
That we might go at last to heaven,
Saved by his precious blood.
There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate
Of heaven, and let us in.
Frances Alexander wrote these words as part of her set of hymns for children to teach the tenets of the Creed.
Or, a century later Stuart Townend wrote ‘In Christ Alone’, in which the controversial words are sung:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid-
Here in the death of Christ I live.
History calls this the atonement - the process by which the sinfulness of humanity is taken on by Christ, in his very human nature, but which also, being divine in his very being, he can bear on behalf of all humanity, enduring the ultimate price - death - in order to remove that weight of sin from us, thus removing the cost - and fear - of death for and from us all. That’s why of course, he has to die and rise, rather than simply not die.
Nevertheless, we might feel that the power of the Cross does not have to cast God as a tyrant, nor his Son as a mere offering, even if the idea is as deeply embedded in certain of our worship texts, ancient and modern. On the other hand, God does not ask us to feel comfortable about what happened at Calvary: he asks us to believe it. And while it was God who required a sacrifice it was God who provided it, in the very human being of his divine Son Jesus Christ.
There is another facet to this which is often overlooked, and that is glory. For we sing not so much about suffering, but about glory. In Christ’s sacrifice and suffering is not so much wrath, but glory. And it is the glory of God, transcending and defeating the power of death, which came into the world in Jesus. And that glory comes as much - more so even, in the resurrection, rather than the cross. We sometimes speak of the victory of the Cross, but the victory - or the glory - of the cross, is only there because it prefigures the glory of resurrection victory, which is the victory over sin and death. This is why you cannot have one without the other.
We might wonder, what has all this to do with me and the walk of faith that each of us are engaged upon? What has atonement to do with Ash Wednesday, Lent and Passiontide - or rather, what have Ash Wednesday, atonement and passiontide to do with me?
You might remember, from last year, my Three R’s of Lent. These are Regret, Repentance and Resolution. Regret is what makes us sigh - Repentance is what makes us cry - Resolution is what makes us try.
In Lent we can move through regret for what we have done, to repentance, and then we form the resolve to change, to try to do better. Well, let’s say these are the three R’s of Lent, Part One. And now we are in Lent Part Two. So I have three more R’s for you - three Passiontide R’s.
Recognition, Reconciliation, and Renewal.
And of course, there will be one further R - the Easter one, making a total of 7. The Easter R is of course Resurrection, which sums up the other 6 and is the keystone of the Christian Faith - the foundation and the destination, the meaning and the purpose, the promise and the hope that explodes from the Tomb on Easter morning.
But first, Recognition.
One of the problems of life today, and therefore one of the great callings of the faith today, concerns recognition. We need to recognise what is going on around and in us. We need to Re-cognise - to reestablish our relationship with reality. We need to see how things really are - what is really going on in the world, what the trends and dynamics are underlying the things we hear and read about. Where is our society heading? Where are we heading?
We need to recognise what is underlying the issues of our day. The EU referendum, the migration issue, the war and violence in Syria, what is really going on underneath the bonnet? And what is going on underneath the bonnet of our own lives? What untruths are we telling ourselves and what are we conveniently ignoring?
Lent is a time to reflect on the bigger picture - a time for prophetic thought almost - a time to move our focus away from the minutiae of daily life and the petty problems of our own little worlds - a time therefore to step back, view from a distance and recognize what is going on. It is a time to identify problems and to bring, as the prayer which was not written by St Francis put it: love where there is hatred; pardon for justice; doubt, true faith; despair to hope, sadness to joy, darkness to light. We are called to recognize where this is necessary and possible, and then to be agents of reconciliation.
So this brings us to our second Passiontide R: Reconciliation. ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.’
This is the stock phrase, and it refers to the atonement again - it tries to indicate what on earth was going on, and indeed, what in heaven was going on, when Christ ‘hung and suffered there’. What it was, if it was anything, was a divine putting things right. To sort out the past, wipe the slate clean, rewrite the rules, break out of the vicious circle and bring together that which had become separated - that is God and humanity. So at the heart of it, behind it all, is unrequited love. But always tinged with the justice of the universe: sin requires punishment. The creation has both freedom and laws. The law, or rather the breaking of the law, is what put Christ on the Cross. The freedom, of God in particular, to transcend those laws, is what raises Christ from the dead. They go together: one is a response to the other.
So just as you cannot have resurrection without crucifixion, you cannot have laws without freedom. For if we didn't have freedom, we wouldn’t need laws. And laws would be meaningless without the freedom to break them. Thus in reconciling the world to himself by the radical reasoning of the cross, God in Christ prepares the way for renewal.
So thirdly, as we enter Passiontide and reflect on the suffering and the glory of the cross, we can be renewed. Renewal - the making new of something old.
We have been to Passiontide before, as I said - and while every passiontide and Easter is different, it is, after the all the same old story. It’s an old story, and it is the same every year. Except it isn’t, because we are not the same. We have changed, and the story hasn’t. But just as a basic scientific experiment reveals, if you bring two elements together you’ll get some kind of interaction, or even a reaction. Change one of them and the reaction will likely be different.
Since last Easter, people have died, become ill, been born, had personal tragedies, and more. We have baptized Elsie and Hugo, and Raphael. We have lost Les, Ron, Ray, Dick and Norman since last Easter. And it is a year ago that my Aunt died suddenly at 59. A junior doctor involved in her treatment, made a mistake, and well, basically, killed her.
We don’t need it spelt out - Good Friday and Easter will be new experiences for many of us this year - in ways we cannot yet tell, no doubt. We walk together on that road, that Via Dolorosa. We change, but the story - the meaning, the message and the truth, do not. And nor does the hope. But it lands differently, and in that can be renewal - the third R of Lent and Passiontide.
And it is renewal that is so closely linked to the Easter one - Resurrection. For in that itself is our hope. I said this at Ron’s funeral last week - hope is our hope. It’s what we have, it’s what we rely on, it’s what we are promised. And no-one else can give it to us except God in Christ.
The raising up of Christ is a hope for us all, the hope for us and our loved ones. And it reveals to us, not so much the wrath of God which must be satisfied on the anvil of pain, but the love of God, revealed in the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.
To whom be all glory, now and always. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield 14/3/16