Those who know the Gospel of John will be familiar with its frequent references to light and dark, to seeing and being blind, to people asking to see Jesus.
These Greeks brought to Jesus by Andrew in Christ’s last days on earth mirror the very first meeting between Jesus and Andrew, who was then a disciple of John the Baptist.
‘Behold the lamb of God’ said the Baptist predicting Christ’s sacrificial death.
‘Come and see’ said Jesus in reply
Now these Greeks say they want to see Jesus
I have been inviting people to come and see, come and see the Epsom Churches together Passion play and I have been getting a variety of reactions
In a world used to special effects does the sight of a slightly portly Anglo-Saxon walking past Macdonald’s and being strapped – not nailed I am assured – to a piece of wood outside Marks and Spencer become just faintly ridiculous?
Is that not just a bit amusing, a bit silly – what insight can that offer into the divine narrative
Well I have been doing my best to get into the part
I have taken Lent seriously and lost almost a stone.
I have grown a beard – to a variety of views …
Still my family tell me it will be embarrassing
Embarrassing like the decline in numbers in the church – it just doesn’t cut it anymore, doesn’t speak to people the way it perhaps once did
I already have some experience of this – I have carried a cross in a Good Friday walk of witness on Headley Heath
People walking their dogs look at you as if on the loose from a psychiatric institution. (As if taking an animal for a walk were not also actually a rather bizarre thing to do?)
So why do we do this?
Why do we witness to Christ’s passion in public?
Well certainly we are not at the time that Jeremiah spoke of when ‘no longer will a man need to teach his neighbour to know the Lord’
I think people are a bit uncomfortable about the whole Idea of religion, especially Christian religion.
Which brings people face to face with suffering and shows them that they are responsible for it
This is clearly one of the Gospel messages of the passion – that there is suffering in the world
And that through the incarnation God is in it with us
The ultimate in kenosis is for the immortal to die
Not only that, but we participate in the killing – ‘Then “Crucify!” is all our breath’ …
It is disturbing – not easy
There are elements of Greek Tragedy
We suffer in watching – are we cleansed by it – does Aristotelian catharsis work in us?
There is something deeply uncomfortable in watching someone be deliberately killed.
It is not and was never meant to be an easy ride to take up your cross and follow me
And how far is this from the glory of God of which Jesus spoken so often?
Now is the son of man glorified and God is glorified in him (Jn 13:31)
This Glory which is a theme through John’s gospel being mentioned over 20 times.
This was also the glory of which Jesus had spoken on the death of Lazarus, the story in the Eucharistic lectionary for today
The story of Lazarus which sets up the story of Calvary, helping us understand it
This sickness will not end in death – no it is for God’s glory – so that Gods son may be glorified through it (Jn 11:4)
But the first mention of Glory comes earlier, with the first miracle:
Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (jn 2:11)
And was set out as John’s purpose at the very beginning of the Gospel
The word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory – the glory as the only begotten of the father (Jn 1)
God’s glory was a theme of the old testament – we had it in our Psalm
All the nations you have made shall come
and bow down before you, O Lord,
and shall glorify your name.
For you are great and do wondrous things;
you alone are God.
So what are we to make of this glory and how to reconcile it to the ridiculousness of the cross which Paul acknowledged:
Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1 22-25)
The message of John is that bad things happen so that God can show his glory, that glory can only come after dishonour
Sometimes you have to go down in order to come up
We had a graphic depiction of this at the St Martin’s school end of term service here on Friday
It began with five candles alight on the altar – each representing one of the key events of Holy Week.
Five candles for Palm Sunday with its hope of triumph
Then one was extinguished leaving four candles – I resisted the temptation to make any Ronnie Barker jokes – this was a representation of the four cups of the Seder meal which begins Passover
Then three candles – for the prayers in Gethsemane – the three central characters – Jesus with Peter and Judas – the best friends who let him down
Two candles for the trial before Pilate – a chance to plead innocence and escape – a chance not taken
The final candle – a red one for crucifixion on Calvary
And we then we relit them all – for Easter Sunday – five candles – a light divided but undimmed[i]
Very truly, I tell you, 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. (Jn 12:24)
A dramatic and challenging idea – but an idea that we have no problem telling in literature
In the story of Aslan in Narnia
In the sacrifice of Harry Potter’s parents
As Obi Wan says in Star Wars: ‘You can’t win, Vader. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.’
Even in Game of Thrones we hear that ‘what is dead can never die’ – that death is a prerequisite for immortality
That is what we believe in as Christians – in God’s incarnation as a human being and its corollary that he suffers with us
In an immortality – in a glory – that comes through suffering, through self-sacrifice even to the point of death
That is why we should invite people to come and see the Epsom Passion Play
Since a part of the glory of God is in his suffering with us
When I am lifted up I will draw all men to myself (Jn 12:32)
We behold his glory on the cross – here above us
A stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles
And so we who have beheld his glory say to others – ‘Come and see!’
Sermon given by Christopher Hancock at St Martin’s Epsom on Sunday 2nd April, 2017.
[i] From the Exsultet