John 12: 20-33
Grace and peace this morning. We passed the vernal equinox this past week and now are officially in spring, though perhaps it’s not all that significant for us to notice, with such a mild winter and these warm and sunny weeks. I mowed the lawn at our house, and more significantly, as some of you know when you’ve driven in the evening down North Euclid, I finally took down our Christmas lights. So summer will be here before we know it, and no turning back.
On the traditional calendar of the Church Year, and as this is as you know a continuing hobby-horse of mine, we spent some time talking about this at the Wednesday Bible Study this week, this Fifth Sunday in Lent was the beginning of the last part of the Lenten Season, a kind of “season within a season,” called Passiontide. Lost in the simplification of the calendar in the 1979 Prayer Book. But in the Prayer Book tradition for the first 4 centuries anyway a regular reminder that we’re on the doorstep now and once again, to anticipate—once again about to enter all the high drama and powerful focus of Holy Week beginning next Sunday, Palm Sunday. And with all that an invitation to begin to prepare for that high and serious and rich encounter right now.
In the old Prayer Book lectionary the reading appointed for Passion Sunday was from Hebrews 9 to provide a framework and drawing on imagery from the traditions of Temple Sacrifice in Jerusalem for our understanding of the story we are about to hear and tell again.
“But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.”
The calendar of our new Prayer Book doesn’t call this season Passiontide anymore, although next Sunday, Palm Sunday, is also called the Sunday of the Passion, with the appointed reading of one of the long Passion narratives from the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, or Luke, depending on the year. Since we’re in Year B, Mark next Sunday. And then with the great climax of the reading of the Passion from St. John on Good Friday.
But I think the reading we have this morning from John 12 does all the work that we need for a week of preparation, even without the official title of Passion Sunday. I anticipated it a bit last week when talking about the image of Moses and the Sign of the Serpent out in the wilderness, and here again. Providing for us what we might think of as preparation for Holy Week, giving us a vocabulary, words and images and a conceptual framework, for the story we are about to hear.
To begin the process once again of appropriate, making sense of it all. Not that we need all of us to be teachers of doctrine and systematic theologians. But to come to the heart of the story. What we of St. Andrew’s would know essentially by heart as we read it every Sunday overhead in the inscription on our rood beam. “And I if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me.”
It is a sad, tragic, moving story that we are about to hear. A good man is betrayed by evil enemies and suffers painful torture and public execution for crimes he didn’t commit. It is a kind of tragedy, a miscarriage, and we would of course be inspired by the dignity and calm and grace and courage as he faces this unjust fate. How even at the point of death he reaches out to show concern for others, and with so much generosity of heart even has a word of forgiveness for those who are putting him to death.
If the story ended there it would be a great and powerful story. Something for Shakespeare or Tolstoy or perhaps with the contemporary edge of a Thomas Pynchon. Dark shadows. Tragic vision. And a remnant and vestige of humanity shining through even the most inhumane experience. But what we are to know is that this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
Because what we are approaching here is the story not of things gone wrong, but of things being put right again. Reminding ourselves again. All the way back to the First Chapter of St. John, and as we read together in the midnight of Christmas Eve: In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness overcame it not . . . . And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we behld his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth.
Not defeat, but victory. Glory. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Glory. Healing. Mercy. Forgiveness. New life. A new world. The door swinging open. Immanuel: God with us. This is what it means. God with us.
And we stand there now. In the gravitational field of the center of the universe, the beating heart of the creation, the Father’s own self-giving, from before time and forever. Read it again, always before our eyes. “I when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me.” It’s not just another skirmish against the Ancient Enemy. The whole war is fought here and won, decisively, once for all. His one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.
It’s actually all just so much deeper and farther out there than any words can convey. We stand here in silence at the foot of the Cross. Eyes open, ears open. Mind open. Heart open. Accepting the gift even before we can begin to comprehend what it is he is offering us. Like the Bread and Wine at the table. What is it? Manna from heaven. His own self. Take and eat. Lord Jesus, remember me, hold me in your heart, draw me into your presence. Again from Hebrews:
How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.
So Passiontide. Next Sunday Palm Sunday, we remember that. Seems like 20 minutes ago and the angels were singing to the shepherds and Holy Mary was carefully placing her sleeping newborn son in the straw of the manger. And now the whole story will unfold before our eyes once again. A new covenant. May we this year and in this moment of our lives be ready to receive the gift that he has come to give.