St Peter's Church, Manchester
Compassion — Acceptance — Welcome
Preached at St Peter's, April 2nd 2006
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our strength and our redeemer.
Nothing is ever simple or straightforward when we turn to John's Gospel. He brings an entirely fresh approach to the telling the good news an approach quite different than the synoptic writers (Mark, Mathew and Luke) and re-orders the material so as to make his points more clearly — after all this gospel is written that we might believe.
The story we have heard this morning comes immediately after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and occupies the same place as the cleansing of the temple does in the synoptic gospels, however it also connects with the passion of Jesus — the agony in the garden which of course comes later in the other Gospels.
For the Gospel writer the coming of the Greeks to Jesus signifies that Christ's dealing are not exclusively with Israel. In the placing of this story we are to be reminded that in cleansing the temple Jesus announced that it was to be a house of prayer for all people. The act of turning over tables and driving out the money changes does not of itself affect the universality which he comes to restore to religion and the life of God's people. That is only achieved in and through the cross and resurrection. The cross is central to the Gospel to whoever it is preached.
This universality — the good news for all is echoed in the words ‘When I am raised up I will draw all people to myself’. We hear this as not referring so much to the resurrection but to the cross. It is in and through his suffering that Christ is draw people to himself and therefore to the Father. We are charged as preachers to preach Christ crucified and none other, and that is always implicit in our preaching if not explicit.
In this season of Lent we are reminded that it is only through roller coaster events of that last week, triumphal entry, last supper, agony, double betrayal, kangaroo court, hostile crowd taunting and mocking by soldiers and painful execution that we can get at Easter day. It is through the cross that we approach the resurrection.
For John, Jesus is no passive participant in his suffering, in the passion. It is through his obedience as a son to the Father that the Glory of God will be revealed.
I remember as a small child asking my mother who was in charge if God was Jesus and done here on Earth — who was running the world? Mum's reply the God the Father, God's 3 people but the same person as well! My first introduction to the mystery and complexity of the Trinity. But of course that three persons solution also causes us problems as well. Like the small girl who announced that she loved Jesus but hated God the Father because he not only allowed Jesus to die but wanted him to die — indeed demanded it.
We need a more mature appreciation of the mystery of the Trinity, which has at its heart the sense and reality of community and communion. How can one person of the Trinity suffer and not the other two? The death of Jesus reminds us that when the world had done its worst, the love of God in Christ was not extinguished, not broken. We have a God who was prepared to enter fully into the human condition, to be incarnate and there by to know the full reality of our human condition, the depths of despair (My God, My God why have you forsaken me), the reality of pain. A Saviour prepared to die for us. Caught so eloquently by Charles Wesley in the lines ‘And can it be that I should gain an interest in my Saviour's Blood, died he for me who caused his pain.’
However with the Christian obsession with suffering I have been reminded in preparing this sermon of the lines from the Book of Common Prayer where in the prayer of thanksgiving it speaks of Christ by his death on the cross as the one: ‘who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full; perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the world’ In part a piece of anti catholic rhetoric but also serving to remind us that in order to be Christians it is not necessary that we also suffer and die. After all we are charged with proclaiming good news.
The cross remains a very powerful symbol within the Christian faith, we are very much people of the cross. The other week I was preaching elsewhere when the gospel reading covered the saying by Jesus that to be his disciples, we must take up our cross and follow him. It came just after the local preachers' meeting when Jane Craske had introduced the report on sexual abuse and the church's response and responsibility.
That report is underpinned by a significant chapter on theology which seeks to deal with the imagery of God, the nature of Christian forgiveness, the cross and suffering, amongst other things.
It states quite baldly that: ‘It is not healthy or life-giving Christian theology to say that people must suffer because Christ suffered, or to imply that suffering is good in and of itself’ — and goes on to offer a whole range of alternative pictures of Christian discipleship, bearing fruit, eternal life, life in abundance, the spring or water that wells up with in us etc. It made me think of the others — mustard seeds, light on a stand, salt and leaven. All positive joyful imagines of what it means to be Christ's disciples.
One of my friends recounts the story of his favourite great aunt, who packed her bags and took the children with her rather than scream quietly so that the neighbours won't hear. She left her husband and faced society's outrage at a time when women were expected to endure.
The report reminds us that: ‘If a person's life is experienced only as suffering imposed by others, it will not make a better Christian disciple of them simply to endure it’.
To speak of the cross that we bear is to take up language of active discipleship. It should not be to imply that we must bear stoically all that life throws at us — however painful. The gospel is or should be good news for all. Jesus is recorded at the start of his ministry as quoting from Isaiah; ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the poor, he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour’
For those who have known suffering low self esteem etc knowing the reality that God loves them is life affirming. Wesley again:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray -
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light,
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus and all in him, is mine!
Alive in him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ, my own
The gospel is about change and transformation. It is about the love of God in Christ.
We are called to follow Christ, to preach the good news that through his life death and resurrection we have life in all its richness and fullness. Christianity is about transforming the world and transforming individual lives. Amen