Saturday, March 20, 2021

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Here is the transcript of my sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Reading: John 12:20-33

Our Gospel reading begins this week with some people, whom St John describes as ‘Greeks’, asking to see Jesus. We are in the last Passover of Jesus’ life during which he will be arrested and crucified. Immediately before this, Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, an event we will celebrate next week on Palm Sunday. For us, Palm Sunday is something of a ‘fun day’ for all the family. I am all for fun, but it does mean that we miss what was actually going on and the significance of the events that were taking place.

As St John observes, Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem was in fulfilment of what was written in the Scriptures. The prophecy comes from the prophet Zechariah (Zechariah 9:9). St John writes:

‘… as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”’ (John 12:15)

The crowds who gather to see the prophet from Nazareth as he enters Jerusalem go wild with excitement and make how they are feeling plain. St John writes:

‘So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!”’ (John 12:13)

The crowd’s choice of palms is significant. The palm was a symbol of Israel. In itself, it spoke simply of national pride, but, as a symbol of national pride, it was to be adopted as an image on the coins minted by the Jews during the Jewish war of AD 66 to 70 and the Jewish revolt of AD 132.

With Jesus choosing to enter Jerusalem as the prophet said the Messiah would enter it, the crowds waving a symbol of Jewish nationalism and hailing him as their King, it’s quite clear what everyone expected to happen next, and it wasn’t for Jesus to be crucified.

This was why Jesus’ disciples had become his disciples and what they were following him for. The disciples believed passionately that Jesus was the Messiah, the One who would be the King of Israel. They even discussed what positions they would hold in his Kingdom when it came (Mark 9:46; Luke 10:35-45). The crowds had tried to make Jesus King during the time of a previous Passover when Jesus had again provocatively done something else that it was believed the Messiah would do when he came.

Jesus had provided bread in the wilderness for 5,000 people as it was believed Moses had done when the Israelites were in the wilderness. This event is recorded in all four Gospels. Again, Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 wasn’t just about a nice family picnic after a busy day, it was an event full of Messianic symbolism. The symbolism was not lost on the crowds who were present for it. St John tells us that Jesus had to escape from the crowds to prevent rebellion breaking out there and then (John 6:15).

We know that it was not long after this that many of Jesus’ disciples stopped following him. Those such as Peter, John, James, Andrew, and Philip who continued following Jesus hadn’t stopped thinking of Jesus as the Messiah who would lead a rebellion. They probably just thought that Jesus had felt that the timing hadn’t been quite right at that particular moment.

We can imagine, then, how the Jewish authorities must have felt about all this. St John tells us that, not long before Jesus entered Jerusalem, the Chief priests and Pharisees had got the governing Council together. Their worry was clear. They say:

‘If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ (John 11:48)

The Jewish ruling authorities in Jerusalem were given quite a lot of power and autonomy by Rome as long as they kept good order. If there was even the hint of rebellion, the Romans would intervene to take control and that would be end of their power and influence. The Pharisees feel the situation is slipping away from them. They say to one another:

‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!’ (John 12:19)

St John tells us that, even among the authorities themselves, there were those who believed in Jesus, albeit secretly for fear of what might happen to them if they were seen openly to be supporting Jesus. St John has no sympathy for this secretiveness (John 12:43).

Such, then, is Jesus’ popularity that ‘some Greeks’ who have come to the Festival to ‘worship’ ask to meet Jesus. We are not told much about these Greeks. We do know that people came from all over the Empire for the major Feasts and that the population of Jerusalem increased greatly during them. St Luke, in the book of Acts, describes how there were people in Jerusalem ‘from every nation under heaven’ on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:5).

The question, then, is whether these Greeks were Jews or Gentiles. Given the way St John introduces them, it is likely that they were Gentiles, but that they belonged to that group of Gentiles who St Luke describes as ‘God-fearers’. Gentiles, in general, are often referred to in the New Testament as ‘Greeks’. These particular Greeks, then, were Gentiles who were attracted to Judaism, but who had not yet fully converted. It was from this group that many of the first believers were drawn. By wanting to see Jesus, these Greeks are a sign of things to come.

The Greeks speak first to Philip who then speaks to Andrew. St John tells us that Philip was from Bethsaida. St John is repeating what he has already told us in chapter one. In his first mention of Philip, St John writes that Philip is from Bethsaida ‘the city of Andrew and Peter’ (John 1:44). Why, if St John has already told us this, does he repeat it here?

Bethsaida itself was in an area at the north of the Sea of Galilee called Gaulanitis. The name, Bethsaida, means ‘house of fishing’, and was located east of the Jordan, close to where the river flows into the Sea of Galilee. This was a heavily Hellenized area ruled by the youngest of Herod the Great’s sons, who was also called Philip. On the death of Herod the Great, his Kingdom had been divided by the Romans into four with a tetrarch ruling over each quarter. (‘Tetrarch’ means ruler of a quarter’.) Philip was tetrarch from 4 BC to AD 34. It was about this time (AD 30/31) that Philip rebuilt the city and named it Julias in honor of Livia (Julia Augusta), the wife of Augustus Caesar.

Given the extent of Greek influence here, it was likely that people from Bethsaida spoke at least some Greek. This was much as it is here in Hong Kong where many people speak at least some English because of the previous British connection. The Greeks, who want to see Jesus, probably approach Philip because he is one of Jesus’ disciples who can speak Greek. That Philip then speaks to Andrew suggests that Andrew was a Greek speaker too. But why the fuss? Why doesn’t Philip just take them to see Jesus?

Anyone following the sermons since Christmas will be able to work out the answer. Jesus ‘came unto his own’ (John 1:11), that is, the Jews. It was a big thing for Jesus to talk with Gentiles, as we see from his initial refusal to help the ‘Canaanite’ woman from from Syria Phoenicia whose daughter was possessed (Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30). Jesus’ disciples were also very nationalistic Jews. St Peter, in Acts chapter 10, says that he has never eaten anything that is ‘unclean’ (Acts 10:14). He also refused to associate with those who ate unclean food seeing them as unclean too! It needed a vision that had to be repeated three times to overcome his reluctance to have anything to do with Gentiles. St Peter says to the Gentiles that God sends him to:

‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.’ (Acts 10:28)

This explains Jesus’ reaction when Philip and Andrew tell him about the Greeks wanting to see him. At first sight, there seems to be no connection with what Philip and Andrew tell Jesus and what Jesus says in reply. Jesus answers them:

‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’ (John 12:23)

Jesus’ hour has been there in the background all the time throughout Jesus’ ministry. In the beginning, at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, Jesus referred to his hour when his mother told him that the wine had run out. And it has been mentioned at crucial points since (John 2:4; 7:30; 8:20). Jesus also told his brothers that his ‘time’ had not yet come when they urged him to go up to the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:8). Now it has.

Now, as Jesus told Nicodemus again at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus must be ‘lifted up’. As Jesus said then, this was so that ‘whoever believes in him may have eternal life’ (John 3:15). ‘Whoever’, that is, and not just ‘his own’. Jesus repeats this now:

‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ (John 12:32)

Jesus views the Greeks coming to see him as a sign that the hour for him to be lifted up and draw all people to him has now arrived - all people, that is, and not just his own. Jesus' public ministry, a ministry to his own people, is coming to an end. After this, Jesus will speak only with his disciples. As we will see, Jesus has quite a lot to say to his disciples, and what he says will occupy 5 chapters of the Gospel. Jesus’ public ministry to his own people, however, has now come to an end.

Now, knowing the moment of his death has arrived, Jesus tells his disciples that anyone thinking of following him must be prepared to let his death serve as the model on which they base their own service of him. Jesus says:

‘Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.’ (John 12:25-26)

This teaching is teaching we have heard Jesus give before during his public ministry. It is central to his teaching about what it means to be his follower. What he asks of his followers is not going to be easy.

Jesus himself is deeply troubled at the prospect of his own death, but this is the reason that he has come to this moment. What matters to him is that his Father’s name is glorified. A voice from heaven confirms that the Father’s name will again be glorified. Jesus tells the crowd that his death will be the ‘judgement of the world’ and the casting out of the ‘ruler of this world’. The Light of the world will only be with them a little longer. They still have time to believe, but not much.

St John tells us that after he has said this Jesus departs and hides from them. They have had their chance. Jesus’ ministry to his own has ended in failure. St John provides the sad conclusion:

‘Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him.’ (John 12:37)

St John quotes the prophet Isaiah to explain the failure of people to believe (Isaiah 53:1; 6:10). Not only have his own people not believed, but in some way that we can’t understand, it is God who has prevented them from believing. These words of Isaiah are quoted by all the Gospel writers, and it is how St Paul closes his own ministry to the Jews in Rome (Acts 28:25-27). There is both sadness and mystery here that St Paul will discuss in his letter to the Church in Rome.

Chapter 12 closes with the final public words of Jesus. These serve as a conclusion to Jesus’ public ministry and to this part of the Gospel. Jesus says that if anyone believes in him, they believe in the one who sent him. If, however, people reject his words, they have effectively passed judgement on themselves.

Jesus must now prepare his disciples for his departure and the work he is going to give them to do. Jesus will do this during his Last Meal with his disciples in the Upper Room. For the next few weeks, we are going to be occupied with the events of Easter itself. We will, however, return to St John’s Gospel and the Upper Room after Easter to see what Jesus has to say to his disciples.

But for now, what do these last words of Jesus say to us?

Once again, Jesus tells us that if we love our life, we will lose it; but if we hate our life in this world, we will keep it for eternal life. This is fundamental to what it means to follow Jesus. It is not teaching for the saints or for the select few. It is the bottom line. And again, at the risk of repeating myself, this, is diametrically opposed to how our world today thinks and to how many think in the Church itself.

Self-fulfilment and self-realisation are at the heart of the worldview of the age in which we live. Nothing, absolutely nothing, it is believed, must be allowed to get in the way, not only of who I am, but of who I want to be and of what I want to do. Every aspect of life in this world is now judged by this criterion. Alongside this narrative of the centrality of Self goes a narrative of oppression.

It is all too clear that many people cannot become who they want to be. There is much in this world that stops me fulfilling my potential and realizing my goals. There is, for example, patriarchy and sexism if I am a woman; racism if I am black; and unjust economic structures if I am poor. This narrative insists that evil is not about what’s in me or what I do. Evil is what is out there. It’s not me as an individual who is to blame for society’s ills and inequalities, it’s the system. It has now become commonplace to hear people use the word ‘systemic’ when identifying evil: racism is systemic, sexism is systemic. Furthermore, this narrative teaches, it is precisely because these evils are systemic, that is, intrinsic to the society in which we live, that whole groups of people find themselves oppressed.

But what if I, as someone in an oppressed group, don’t feel myself to be oppressed? The answer given is that this is because I have been taught to accept my oppression. I have internalized it and so have come to see it as something normal. If, as a woman, I don’t feel I am a victim of male oppression, well, that’s because I have been socially conditioned to accept patriarchy. When I am educated by those who have ‘knowledge’ of the true state of a woman’s oppression, I will see the extent of my own oppression, find liberation from it, and want to fight against it. It is now common for companies routinely to run ‘awareness’ courses to enlighten people about a previously unrecognized evil that they need both to recognize and renounce or risk losing their job. Failure to ‘take the knee’ of repentance for the evil that has been identified is to be seen as doubly complicit in the evil.

In the narrative of oppression life and history are seen, of course, through the eyes of the oppressed. There is nothing wrong with looking at things this way, and, indeed, there is much to commend it, but it does mean that those who belong to the groups seen as responsible for the oppression are demonized.

We are taught through this narrative that individuals within the groups of the oppressors - white people in the case of racism, men in the case of sexism - need to see that they are themselves, in a sense, also victims of systemic evil in that they have been socially conditioned and taught to see their oppression of others in positive terms. It is because they are caught up in the systems of oppression that they perpetuate them and resist attempts to change them.

It follows, then, that those who belong to the groups of oppressors also need educating and liberating from them or, if they refuse, forcibly be made to change their behaviour. There is legislation going through the Senate in America at the moment designed to do just this.

Many of those who adopt this narrative of oppression are totalitarian in their approach in the same way as those who led the cultural revolution in China or who, under tyrannical regimes, sent people sent to re-education camps, were totalitarian in theirs. While the measures being used to force people to conform today are not yet quite so extreme, increasingly anyone seen to support what have been identified as the systemic evils of our day are now themselves systematically ‘cancelled’. The justification is simple: you wouldn’t let anyone who believed in child abuse teach in schools, so why allow a racist or sexist to do so?

There has been a negative reaction in some quarters to this narrative of oppression or, at least, to some expressions of it. What isn’t always appreciated is that this narrative of oppression is just part of a more comprehensive ideology, or rather idolatry, that has worship of the Self at the centre. This makes the adoption of the narrative that has routinely taken place in our churches so pernicious and frightening. At times, it just sounds common-sense: who in the Church today, for example, would argue for apartheid and the racist practices that were common in some churches in the past? Of course evil affects the institutions and social structures of our world; how can it not?

It is, however, many of the assumptions behind this particular understanding of evil and the ideology of which it is a part, that make them both so dangerous. Jesus warns his disciples of false prophets, describing them as ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing but [who] inwardly are ravenous wolves’ (Matthew 7:15). Today, the wolves are well and truly amongst the sheep.

How, then, as followers of Christ should we react to this lupine teaching?

Firstly, we need to see that evil is indeed systemic. This is why Jesus talks about the ‘world’ so much in St John’s Gospel and in our Gospel reading. We live in a world that is evil through and through and which holds us captive as members of it. This evil affects every aspect of our life from politics and economics to art and music. So, when people today say that injustice and oppression are systemic, they are only saying what the Bible said many years before. It is not, however, simply things that we have come to regard as evil that are systemic; evil itself is systemic.

Secondly, where the narrative of oppression really goes wrong, however, is in suggesting that we as individuals are only guilty of evil by association because we have been socially conditioned either to practice it or to accept it. As Jesus teaches, the world is evil, but so are we. We are not simply a blank slate that evil writes on from outside. We are already evil on the inside. The evil the world writes on us from outside of us only emphasizes the evil that is already there in us. We do things that are wrong, what the Bible calls sin, not only because the world teaches us to sin, but because we are ourselves are naturally sinners. This is what is meant by ‘original sin’. It’s our nature. It is in our very DNA. As Jesus said it is ‘from within, out of the heart’ that evil comes’ (Mark 7:23).

Thirdly, the reason that it is so hard to fight evil in society is not simply because it is systemic, but because behind the systems of evil lies an intelligent controlling power who holds all people, both oppressed and oppressor, captive to the power of evil. Jesus, in our reading this week, describes him as the ‘ruler of this world’. We began Lent by seeing Jesus being confronted by the ruler of this world. His power is real.

Fourthly, we also choose to do evil. The reality of evil in our world and in our lives makes us sound helpless and weak. It should for that is what we are. For some, however, saying that evil is systemic is to absolve themselves of any personal and individual guilt. Evil is always someone else’s fault, not mine. The Bible, however, as well as clearly teaching the reality of evil in our world, makes it plain that we are not simply the victims of evil and infected by it; we willingly choose to do evil. We are sinners socially and personally; collectively and individually; by nature and by choice.

Jesus, in St John’s Gospel, is absolute: we are born as evildoers into a world that is systemically evil controlled by a power who is evil, and we ourselves choose to do evil. Jesus is also absolute about the choice facing each one of us. We either believe in him and are saved or we are condemned by our unbelief; we either come to him who is the Light of the world or we will remain in the darkness.

Jesus said emphatically that ‘everyone who practices sin is a slave of sin’, but he promised that if the Son sets us free, we will be really free (John 8:34-36). St Paul echoing Jesus’ words writes that Jesus:

‘… has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.’ (Colossians 1:13-14)

Jesus sets us free not to be ourself, but to be free from ourself. It is those who, by believing in Jesus, die to self and live in the light, who are truly able to find themselves. They do this not by following their dreams, but by following Jesus.

In closing, however, I want to give a word of warning. We are often all very casual about this. We let Jesus’ words wash over us. We may nod in agreement, but we then get on with our lives as if we have not heard them or as if they are something we can leave worrying about to another day. Sufficient unto the day are our own concerns.

Part of the problem is that we just don’t think there is any urgency. After all, if God loves us (and how could he not?) then everything will be alright regardless of what we do. Jesus himself is completely frustrated that people won’t respond to what he is telling them. Their failure to respond means that they are not only missing out on what Jesus is offering them now, but that they are passing a judgement on themselves that they will have to live with not only in this life, but in the life to come.  Jesus says:

‘The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge …’ (John 12:48)

What Jesus means is that how we react now to his words will determine how we ourselves are judged. Indifference and rejection will have the same result. After Jesus has spoken the words in our Gospel reading this week, St John writes something that ought to frighten everyone who reads them:

‘After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.’ (John 12:36)

They had had their chance. The time to respond to Jesus’ words is now.

May we respond to Jesus’ words now while we can.


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