Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on 28th April 2013
28 April 2013 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Sacrist
Even in John’s Gospel, it sounds a bit strange. In Mark’s Gospel it would jar more substantially, but even here, in St John’s account of Jesus’ last days, it feels weird. Moments earlier, we are told, the devil had entered Judas Iscariot, as Jesus had handed him the morsel of bread which indicated that Judas would betray him to death. For the first time in John’s Gospel, the evangelist then tells us that it is night. Darkness now reigns, in terrifying comparison with the glorious Technicolor which has dazzled us throughout John’s Gospel. Now it was night.
And yet, now in the darkness, we begin to glimpse the unveiling of the paradox: the light becomes brighter the more the world tries to extinguish it, or as St John of the Cross reflects, “The light shines most intensely at the heart of the darkness.” Once Judas has gone to out to betray him, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified…”, as Jesus is being removed from his disciples, he gives them the command which should shape their communal life, the command to love one another. This is an explosion of seeming paradox which will resound around the pages of John’s Gospel until the ultimate unveiling of the God-Man on the Cross, that here the Eternal Word is at his most alive as the life is being drained out of him, and as he creates the new community of his Mother and his beloved disciple moments before he breathes his last.
But why here, and now? Why is Jesus “glorified” and God glorified in him, once Judas has gone out? It is because Jesus has been handed over, a process of handing over which begins in the first chapter of John’s Gospel when the Word became Flesh and the world did not know him, and which culminates in the Cross. And yet, at every stage there is paradox, as at each stage Jesus reveals more of who he is.
Rowan Williams once wrote that God is “personified handing-over.” That’s a useful way of saying that God exists in relationship by the self-offering, of his eternal love. And there is more than a sense that in this context, Jesus is being handed over into something deeper, something truer—not simply handed over to death like a lamb to the slaughter (although of course that is an important metaphor for John as for the other Gospel writers), but also being handed over more intensely into his mission, more fully into the heart of the world with its contradiction, its confusion, its urgent need of life and healing. And whilst they deal with it differently, this is a theme which has resonance in other Gospels, where they describe Jesus’ final days—what the Early Church called the “Pascha”—as Jesus’ Exodus. His liberation into victory through the cross, as the Israelites went through the wilderness to the promised land. What we see here, once Judas has handed Jesus over is, in a certain sense, Christ’s freedom to fulfil the destiny for which he has been born. That, surely, is why, moments after the betrayer has gone to do his work, Jesus proclaims, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” The context of Jesus’ work has just been widened, the curtain torn apart, the cosmic scale of his mission opened up, the final act in the drama inaugurated.
And here is the key. The final act in the drama has begun as Jesus is handed over—the journey towards victory, towards resurrection, towards new creation. Those of you who follow Twitter, may have seen the Church of England’s Easter hashtag “everythingchanges”—as this final act of the drama begins, everything changes, not just for Jesus but for those who would follow him, as they too can share in this Paschal dynamic of love. Jesus teaches his friends, that although it is impossible for them to go where he must now go, they can be part of it and can share in it, if they love one another with the same love with which Christ has loved them. Through the simple sharing of a love stronger than death, a selfless love which renews and restores, Jesus’ friends will be known as his disciples by those around them. This is the second instruction to “do-as-Jesus-does” in one chapter—the previous instruction, some twenty verses earlier, was the command to wash one anothers’ feet—in other words, to serve one another. Both these commands to serve and love, as Jesus serves and loves, are given in the context of what we know to be The Last Supper. John does not include the account in the other three gospels of the institution of the Eucharist, but instead he includes these two commands towards Eucharistic living. Serving and Loving—these two essential marks of the friend of Jesus. People who serve, and people who love. People who, perhaps, have been handed over to love and service.
It is hard, in general terms, to describe what such action looks like without resorting to clichés. We can each think of moments where we have seen or known of such serving love in action—in our own lives surely, but also in those heroic stories we have heard—I think of Archbishop Oscar Romero pleading with the Salvadoran military to disobey their orders and lay down their weapons, despite the risk to his own life; of Sister Helen Prejean, the nun who refuses to abandon a murderer on death row, instead telling him to look into her eyes as the lethal injection kills him, saying that she “would be the face of Christ for him”—loving and serving will look different in different contexts. And very often, it will be costly. Finding a way of living lives of service and love, even in the small day-to-day things will often be to discover what T S Eliot calls that “condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything).” This is Eucharistic living—which the Son of Man himself reveals most intensely as the result of his betrayal. This condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.
This is Easter Living. This is “Paschal Triumph, Paschal Joy” as we shall sing in the offertory hymn, because in our baptism we have been handed over into this Paschal way of life—we were marked with the Cross, with Christ we went through the deep waters of death to share his risen life. We too have been handed over, so that everything might change. The Christian challenge is to live this change at every stage in our lives; even in the face of fear, or the trauma of betrayal. The Church in Syria currently lives this dynamic in a particular way, with the abduction some days ago of two of their Archbishops, even as the lives of ordinary Christians become harder and harder. Today, for these Orthodox, is Palm Sunday. In a letter to his Churches yesterday, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, John X, wrote, “Since we are children of the Resurrection, we are not afraid of the one who takes violence… (this) will not change our resolve to uphold our civil life and coexistence… to seek the reign of justice and rights in our motherland… Humanity is the object of Christianity, for our Lord was incarnate for our salvation… Let the resurrection occur in every human heart, as the Lord has raised Lazarus from the dead… May love, service and courage be the gateway to the joy of the Resurrection, a joy that cannot be taken away.”
Let it be so for the Christians of Syria, let it be so for us