A sermon preached on 5th Sunday of Lent, 18 March by Dr Robert Titley, Canon Treasurer.
Reading John 12.20-33
Today is the first day of Passiontide. It directs our attention even more firmly towards the death of Jesus, to his ‘cross and passion’. ‘He said this,’ our gospel reading ends, ‘to indicate the kind of death he was to die.’
Quite a word, ‘passion’. It puts you in mind of opposite things. Like ‘Dresden’, the German city whose name at once means wonderfully delicate china cups and saucers, and also (since 1945) brutal destruction.
Most of the bombs fell on Dresden on February 14, itself a day of opposites (as it was this year), both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday.
‘Passion’ is similar. First, it can mean strong, even violent feelings for a cause or a person. ‘What are you passionate about?’ is apparently a standard question at job interviews. ‘Drenched in passion,’ said the Sun about yesterday’s rugby. The Soaraway Sun also carried a Cheltenham Festival story about a couple who have named their six children after horses because of husband Julian’s ‘passion’ for racing. (See what you’re missing, all you Times and Telegraph people?) Their surname, by the way, is Gamble.
And passion can also mean suffering. We have seen both sides of passion since the outrage in Salisbury: the suffering of three people in our hospital (we pray for them by name each day) receiving the compassion of those who are caring for them; and others who care about them; the suffering - lesser but still real - of those whose livelihoods are being harmed, and the compassion in which they are held; and the passion of anger towards those who did this crime.
Desire and suffering. Passion means both, because often one leads to the other. ‘Love hurts’, sang the Everly Bothers nearly half a century ago (and that had been a songwriter’s theme since forever), for love brings yearning, aching disappointment, frustrated anger; and it brings pain, including the pain of feeling another’s pain.
Desire and suffering. Jesus knows both. Two weeks ago in the gospel reading we saw his strong, even violent feelings, as he turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple courtyard - ‘Zeal for your house will consume me,’ was the gospel writer’s commentary on the scene (John 2.13-22) and today his ‘soul is troubled’ as he hints at what is to come for him: ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies…’; and next Sunday we shall hear the Passion Gospel (just as hundreds heard Bach’s Matthew Passion here yesterday), which tells of Jesus’ arrest and trial and suffering. Passion. Desire and suffering. Jesus knows both, and so must we.
Which brings me to another thing happening today. I feared that getting from Passion Sunday to our Eco Church award was going require a real handbrake turn, but I don’t think any tyres need to screech, because here too it’s about desire and suffering.
I have learned that it is important to discern where the passion lies in a church (if anywhere), where the energy of desire is, if some of what God wants done is to get done. When I was first asked, two years ago, to see what we could achieve with the Eco Church awards, I was expecting some positive reactions but also some eye rolling as I got zealous about recycling bins and plastic bags. I am so glad - and a little ashamed - to say that I was wrong.
What has met me much more often are the eyes of enthusiasm, sometimes even of passion - sometimes more passionate than has been comfortable - from staff, volunteers, worshippers, residents of the Close: ‘Why can’t we do this?’ ‘Why do we still do that?’ We are delighted to have been given the Silver award, and there is still a pile of ideas from you in my inbox. In a few moments a small group, representing all those different groups, will come up - Oscar-like - to receive it.
Where is this energy of desire coming from? There has been a surge of belief that we have to take some responsibility for the planet we inhabit. For people of faith it is a conviction that this is a matter of caring for a gift, an act of thanksgiving as well as of good sense; and an awareness that it is a crisis, not just a state of emergency but a crisis in the biblical sense, a moment of judgment, a moment when the truth about what we have made of ourselves will be revealed. My former parishioner David Attenborough ended Blue Planet II with these words:
We are at a unique stage in our history. Never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet, and never before have we had the power to do something about it. ‘Surely we have a responsibility to care for our blue planet. The future of humanity, and indeed all life on Earth, now depends on us.
Set beside them the words of Jesus this morning, ‘Now is the judgment of this world.’
That’s a cheap trick, you may say, grabbing a phrase like that to give extra, biblical buzz to the bee in your bonnet. When did Jesus ever say a thing about plastics in the ocean? Never; but then he never talked about nerve agents either.
What we need to do every year in Passiontide is to look again at the forces that get Jesus crucified: the fear, the vested interests, the callousness. These are what come under judgment as they are laid bare on that first Good Friday. We then need to look around ourselves and inside ourselves and ask, where are they now, those dark forces? What are they doing now? And who are they hurting? Part of that answer lies under a police tent, in a laboratory and in hospital wards not far from here. Other parts of that answer lie in our air and our oceans; and in our own hearts.
The Christian story (says Rowan Williams) lays out a model of reconnection with an alienated world: it tells us of a material human life inhabited by God and raised transfigured from death; of a sharing of material food (as we are about to do) which makes us sharers in eternal life; of a community whose life together seeks to express within creation the care of the creator.
Who suffers in this alienated world? We do, in body and soul, and so do the creatures who share this world with us. And how do we feel about that? When Sir David shows us a whale still succouring her poisoned dead calf, is it compassion we feel? We should guard against feeling merely sentimental - how many of us are going to leave here in leather shoes on our way to a roast lunch? - for the gospel is not about sentimentality, it is about truth.
The great days of Holy Week and Easter will show again what happens when the truth about ourselves - the truth about the forces that drive us in this alienated world - collides with the truth about God, and God’s ‘astonishing, generous…self-giving love’. God’s passion, in fact, a passion God invites us to share.
The Christian story Bishop Rowan Williams, from his 2009 Operation Noah Annual Lecture.
Astonishing, generous Tom Wright, John for Everyone, Part 2, 2004, page 34.