The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
What can we honestly say about the person of Jesus and how can we really get to know him? Who was Jesus? Who is Jesus?
The first thing to say for sure is that this question has engaged people in vigorous thought and debate ever since Jesus walked the earth. Jesus initiated the debate himself with his own small band of intimate followers. 'Who do people say that I am?' he asked. Even his closest friends who heard his teaching and saw his miracles came up with all sorts of answers. Some thought he was one of the Jewish prophets come back to life, Moses or Joshua or Elijah. So, Jesus then asked his disciples, 'Who do you say that I am?'
Another thing is very clear from the gospel accounts. Even as the disciples were walking with Jesus to Jerusalem on his last journey, even though it began to dawn on them that it was his last journey, and even though Jesus himself tried to prepare them, his closest friends, for what was to come, none of them really had a clue. They simply could not understand. They failed to hear what Jesus was saying, let alone to grasp it.
St Mark tells us that Jesus tried to warn them three times and explain to them what was going to happen. A third time, Jesus said to them, 'See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.' But the only response even two of his closest disciples could make was to ask him if they could sit beside his throne when he became a king. And they were probably thinking of an earthly kingdom, of Jesus having conquered the hated Roman Empire and taken over as ruler of a new free Israel under God.
We see this same confusion tonight. As we know, after the Last Supper, the supper that we heard described in the Gospel reading just now, Jesus went with Peter, James and John to the Mount of Olives to await his arrest. Jesus knew he would be arrested. The disciples may have had some inkling, but they certainly failed to see what it might mean. When the moment came, Peter drew his sword and attacked the men who had come to make the arrest. It made no difference. And Jesus was taken away for trial first by the Jewish authorities and then by the Roman governor who condemned him to death.
We can trace the disciples' confusion as we look forward. Even when the amazing events of the first Easter day were revealed to them, they remained fearful, mostly locked away in the Upper Room, right up to the moment they received the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Only then were they emboldened to preach what they had come to know and to risk their lives to proclaim the Good News of God's love revealed in Christ.
But they and their followers, the early Christians they converted and their successors in the first few centuries of the existence of the Church had endless debates about the interpretation of the legacy they had received and about its meaning for the person of Jesus and what it meant to be his followers. And the discussion has continued throughout the two thousand years, as the universal Church has grown and grown from tiny beginnings to an enormous world-wide movement, still growing larger and larger year by year, still lurching from crisis to crisis, still making terrible mistakes and failing to match up to what is expected, often confused and uncertain but still fascinated and engaged with the person of Jesus Christ.
After the first few hundred years, the Church had come to some firm conclusions, in fact strongly foreshadowed in the Gospel accounts of this evening's events, the last supper, the agony in the garden, the arrest of Jesus and his trial.
First, the Church concluded, Jesus was a complete human being, in every way human like you and me, except without sin. He was not a god coated in human flesh, like a deus ex machina, looking like a man but feeling like a god. Jesus experienced what we experience, felt what we feel, suffered what we suffer. His agony in the garden was not for show but true fear, terror at the prospect of spiritual conflict and a painful death. His scourging, the mockery he suffered, his agonising death: all this was no sham or empty show but just as true and real as the agony of people held hostage or imprisoned by terrorists and being tortured and crucified or beheaded in the awful events we hear of in the Middle East.
The second great truth was that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Teacher, was also, as Peter had said in answer to Jesus' question, 'The Christ, the Son of the living God.' We heard it in this evening's Gospel. 'Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.' The glory of the Cross. Jesus is the Son of God, God the Son, the full revelation of God. When we see Jesus, we see God; when we know Jesus, we know God. And in the man Jesus Christ his human and divine natures were not mixed up but also not separable. This is really important when we think of our own suffering and the suffering of the world. In Christ, God experiences human suffering and can turn it to good.
So, how can we know Jesus? The earliest account of the last supper is in a letter St Paul wrote about twenty years after the events described. We heard it as our second lesson. Jesus took a loaf of bread, gave thanks for it, broke it and said, 'This is my Body that is for you' and he took a cup of wine and said, 'This cup is the new covenant in my Blood.' 'Do this in remembrance of me.' From the earliest days, the followers of Jesus met daily and 'did this.' As St Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles, immediately after Pentecost, 'They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.'
So we too in our day know about Jesus through the Gospel accounts and the rest of the New Testament and through the teaching of the Church: the apostles' teaching and the fellowship. But we know Jesus in the breaking of bread and in prayer. We know Jesus when we eat the bread and drink the cup of wine which are his Body and Blood, and are nourished and nurtured by him.
We come to know Jesus this evening as we come to Holy Communion and as we watch with him in prayer for a time, as he prays in agony in the garden.
This is a beautiful 16th-century prayer:
Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.