by Mark Henrickson
As I begin today I invite you to become aware of the most important thing that you bring here today, that is, your body. I invite you to become aware of the stresses and tensions you bring to this place. The tension in your shoulders which may live constantly up around your neck: you may wish to let them go a little. Consider your jaw, which sits clenched with the anxiety with we live with constantly, holding in the words we dare not say, or the shouts of pain we dare not express. We become aware of the tightness of our foreheads and our faces which hold in place the mask with which we face the world. Our wrists and hands which are braced, full of words we type, texts we send, or the metaphorical weapons we use to battle the world for our very survival. Our backs, which too often feel ladened with the sorrow and cares we carry. Our lower backs, stressed by the struggle of standing upright not only against gravity, but against all the burdens we carry daily. Our bodies are held tight against feelings we do not wish to have, or distorted against the various aches and pains that are our daily companions. And if you have allowed these words to touch you, then perhaps you are ready to release a little further the tensions in your shoulders, neck, and jaw.
We armour ourselves daily to protect ourselves against the world. To let go of those of those places feels risky, feels like we are making ourselves too vulnerable to the slings and arrows that the world aims at us. To release those places of tension and body stress may make us feel, well, a little too human. To let go of our armoured bodies, feels as though we are risking everything that is familiar to us. It is to risk allowing ourselves to be caressed by the breath of God.
At a Passover festival there were some Gentiles who came to see Jesus. This story comes after a lengthy section of John’s gospel describing how Jesus has come to seek the Gentiles. John uses the raising of Lazarus (John 11) to state “This illness does not lead to death, rather it is for God’s glory so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (Jn 11: 4). The lifting up of the Son of Man—and John means this ‘lifting up’ to describe the crucifixion of Jesus—will draw all people to Jesus, and he will then give them eternal life. (I will note in passing that the notion of ‘eternal’ (αἰώνιος) life used by John here does not mean ‘in some paradisical future not yet realised’, but has to do with the quality of one’s present life. Eternal time operates outside linear time (past-present-future) as we usually understand it, and is what gives transcendent meaning to the present moment. Jesus is promising a fully meaningful life.) Jesus is for all people: Jews, diasporic (Greek-speaking) Jews, and Gentiles (non-Jews). And after the great drama of the resurrection of Lazarus, the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, and the frequent announcements that Jesus has come for all people, now, at last, the Gentiles come to see Jesus. John is so intent on the coming, the seeking, the arrival, of the Gentiles that he never says if they actually got to see Jesus. Instead, in this scene Jesus foreshadows his own death (or if you will, John theologises long after the event about what the death and resurrection of Jesus means not only for Jews but for all people). The story we heard today is the climax of the Lazarus story, which is itself the climax of the first of John’s two major sections (the Book of Signs and the Book of Glory). After so many times in John when Jesus says his hour has not yet come, he finally tells us “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified”. It is the coming of the Gentiles(in the daytime of faith, it must be noted), that allows Jesus to proclaim at last that his time is now at hand.
Jesus then reflects on the meaning of death and life, and more specifically, his death and life. “Unless a grain of wheat fall into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24). We maybe reminded of the parable of the mustard seed in the synoptic gospels (Mk 4:32), where from the smallest seed a tree grows so great that the birds of the air can nest in it.But whether wheat or mustard, the point is that the seed must lose its protective seed coat—its armour— in order to sprout. It must die in its original form in order to achieve it greatest and most meaningful form. Jesus reflects on how not only he, but all people must pass through death (metaphorical or actual) in order to find their eternal—that is, their most meaningful—lives. Jesus then says that whoever serves him must follow him—that is, follow him not merely ethically but soteriologically: not merely by following his teaching, but through his death. This is, of course, hero story narrative familiar in most cultures: the hero of any good story must make a life-threatening choice, must sacrifice something in order to achieve a great gain, usually in order to become a better, truer, form of themselves. But in John, the traditional hero story has a twist: Jesus sacrifices himself in order that other people, that we, may find the greatest meaning in our lives.
But, writes John, Jesus’ sacrifice is not in any way a simple thing. Jesus struggles with himself in a kind of internal dialogue: “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour” (Jn 12:27). The pathos in that sentence is almost overwhelming (except that we who read this story after the Resurrection know how the story ends). Jesus does not want to die, he does not want to sacrifice himself for these ungrateful people who want only to seize, arrest, and crucify him. He sees perhaps little point in being crucified for people who only want to stone him, who claim privilege because they have Abraham for their father. It is he coming of the Gentiles who help Jesus to understand that his time had now come to lay down his life voluntarily. Still, he asks God to make meaning of this awful death: “Father, glorify your name”. And as has happened before in John, the crowd hears a voice from heaven. But Jesus does not use that authority to avoid his death: “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine… And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (Jn 12: 30,32). This is the moment when Jesus claims his death as evidence of God’s glory, and for all people. These are practically the last public words Jesus says in John’s gospel (of course he speaks at length to his disciples in the coming chapters), so they are his final message to the world, as it were: I choose to make this sacrifice for everyone.
You will remember that there is no garden of Gethsemane in John’s Gospel. Gethsemane of course is the place where Jesus goes alone with his disciples to pray after his final supper that the cup of his death be taken from him: Jesus has no wish to sacrifice himself. But at Gethsemane he ultimately sets his face towards Golgotha, toward the Cross. This section we read today is John’s Gethsemane moment, the moment when Jesus struggles with his purpose, is filled with self-doubt, but ultimately recognises that in his sacrifice is not only glory, but a way for all people of the earth to find divine meaningfulness in their lives. Since there were no witnesses at Gethsemane (remember the disciples were asleep in those accounts), so this story at the Temple may reflect a little more closely what Jesus experienced.
Today is the fifth Sunday of Lent, Passion Sunday, the beginning of the two weeks of Passiontide. Today we are invited to consider Jesus’ decision to sacrifice himself on our behalf, not to appease an angry God who demands compensation or satisfaction for our disobedience, or to atone for our human sinfulness. Jesus’ Passion is the sign of the new Covenant, written on our hearts (as foreshadowed in Jeremiah 31); the pathway to freedom from Law, as we heard in Hebrews 5; and the inevitable conclusion of the Incarnation, the enfleshment of the Divine. In Jesus’ Passion, Jesus participates completely in the self-doubt, fear and insecurities that fill most human lives. And because he chooses to share them with us, he allows us the opportunity to shed them, and to find meaning and divine purpose in our lives. The Passion of Jesus is not only the time when Jesus shows us that he is most fully human, but is the time when he allows us to be most fully human. The human we are is not the armoured, fearful selves we too often live, but liberated, loved, and absolutely secure in the knowledge and love of God. In Two Choruses from ‘The Rock’ T.S. Eliot writes
The world turns and the world changes,
But one thing does not change.
In all my my years, one thing does not change.
However you disguise it, this thing does not change:
The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil.
Forgetful, you neglect your shrines and churches;
The people you are in these times deride
What has been done of good, you find explanations
To satisfy the rational and enlightened mind.
Second you neglect and belittle the desert.
The desert is not remote in southern tropics,
The desert is not only around the corner,
The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
The desert is in the heart of your brother…
I will show you the things that are now being done,
And some of the things that were long ago done,
That you may take heart. Make perfect your will.