John 12: 20-33
On Passion Sunday we turn our faces towards Jerusalem, when we prepare to hear again the great story of Holy Week and Easter.
This story, the story of the Passion, is a story which we hear chiefly on two registers. In the main we hear this as a human story. We hear of the courage and injustice faced by Jesus of Nazareth. We hear of the experiences of those who were close to that story whether as friend or accuser or judge. And in the deep human tragedy of this story we seek to hear and know something of what God achieves through this.
If you have seen the BBC mini-series of The Passion, or the gorier film The Passion of the Christ, or even the new film Mary Magdelene, they all speak in this human register. Speaking to a world which is often indifferent to faith there is a wisdom and power in beginning with this human story and register and seeking meaning and understanding through that.
However, there is a second register with which this story is told which we hear in our Gospel reading today.
This second register speaks first not of the human experience but the cosmic scale of this story. This cosmic register asks first what this story is telling us about the great plan that God has for all creation that will come to fruition at the end of, or on the other side of time itself.
We find a tension between these two registers in our Gospel reading today.
On one hand this could be read in the human register we are more comfortable and aware of. Jesus is surrounded with friends and through them some Greeks, or at least non-Jews are brought to him. This feels like an encounter we recognise in many of the other accounts of Jesus’ human ministry.
But into this human story and register the cosmic register breaks in.
In the next this turns, as it so often does in John’s Gospel, on one word: Glory.
In the human register of this story glory is not a word we would readily reach for. Glory, in our common language, is about success and winning. Writing this sermon I did a quick internet search on news headlines using the word glory. And I found stories of:
Local kickboxer on his way to glory
17 photos that show the glory days of Toys 'R' Us
Henderson to start as Ireland bid for Grand Slam glory
Glory in these human stories is about winning, wealth or success. The human story of Jesus’ Passion, the human register with which we tell it, is as far from this kind of ‘glory’ than we could imagine.
But in our Gospel reading this cosmic register breaks into the human story through this word ‘glory’. Beginning with a very human experience Jesus turns this experience on its head with this idea of glory, and then, to confirm this cosmic register, we hear a voice from heaven affirm again the ‘glory’ of this story.
‘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. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’
On Passion Sunday what this story and passage reminds us is that, as we look to live again this human story, we need to hold this together with the scale of the cosmic register we hear in today’s Gospel.
As I said earlier it is very understandable why, in our sceptical and indifferent age, we might defer to the human register of this story. But it was not always the case. In Anglo-Saxon England this story would have been heard chiefly in this cosmic register.
We find his nowhere more clearly in the finest and most imaginative of all Anglo-Saxon poems, The Dream of the Rood. In this remarkable poem we hear the story of the Passion not in human terms, but in semi-mythical terms through the voice of the Rood, the rod or tree or cross on which Jesus was crucified.
In this telling of the story Jesus not an involuntary victim of human cruelty, but the worthy hero in the style of the pagan epics onto which much Anglo-Saxon poetry was grafted.
Then the young hero (who was God Almighty)
Got ready, resolute and strong in heart.
He climbed onto the lofty gallows-tree,
Bold in the sight of many watching men.
This is a story played out on a cosmic scale where Jesus’ death is not an apogee of human suffering, but the consummation of a cosmic tale of glory and victory.
The one Almighty Ruler brought with Him
A multitude of spirits to God’s kingdom,
To bliss among the angels and the souls
Of all who dwelt already in the heavens
In glory, the Almighty God has come.
And most importantly for us this cosmic register does not remove the story from our experience. The cosmic story we hear is one we continue to live through our faith in the glory of the Cross. Putting these words into the mouth of the cross itself, we are called to reflect on what it means to live a life formed and grafted into the wood of the cross.
The Son of God once suffered; therefore now
I tower mighty underneath the heavens,
And I may heal all those in awe of me.
Once I became the cruellest of tortures,
Most hateful to all nations, till the time
I opened the right way of life for men.
So then the Prince of glory honoured me,
And heaven’s King exalted me above
All other trees
Over the coming weeks we will hear again the great story of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. We will hear it in many different forms and styles. But it remains a story that we know, or we think that we know.
The challenge for us as we begin this period of Passiontide is to hear again this greatest of stories not in a way we would prefer, or in a register we feel comfortable. Our challenge is to hear this great story within the scale life changing power with which God tells it to us. And in hearing it with fresh ears and open heart know again the redeeming truth revealed to us by the Prince of glory