Passion Sunday 2021
If you had to draw a shape to represent your life, what would it be? I’m not sure I could easily answer my own question and I doubt whether any of us, with the way the past year has been, would sketch something smooth and seamless, like a circle. In this week’s Gospel, though, Jesus gives us some strong indications of what shape our lives as his followers should take.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
This extremely brief parable — just a single, stark image — is a crucial verse in the reading. It sits at the start of three verses of sayings that point unavoidably to the cruciform shape of the Christian life. It follows a declaration by Jesus that his crucifixion is approaching. ‘The hour has come,’ he says, ‘for the Son of Man to be glorified’ (verse 23), using the turn of phrase that he regularly deploys in John’s Gospel to speak of the Cross. It also precedes a saying that is clearly not about Jesus but directed at people who reject or follow him: ‘Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life’ (verse 25).
The parable of the grain not only stands between these two statements but connects them: it clearly refers to Jesus’ death and its effect — an effect he spells out at the end of the reading when he speaks of ‘the judgement of this world’ (verse 31) and says that when he is ‘lifted up from the earth, [he] will draw all people to [him]self’ (verse 32). But it also relates to the life that his followers are called to lead: a cross-shaped life, a life of self-giving.
In case we miss the point, Jesus puts it to us again in different words: ‘Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also’ (verse 26a). Jesus is at this point heading towards the Cross. This, then, is where his servants should be, is the direction in which his servants should be heading. It is, in essence, the Gospel of John’s equivalent of Jesus saying in Matthew, Mark and Luke that anyone who wants to follow him should carry their cross (Matthew 10:38, 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23, 14:27).
These three verses close with a promise: ‘Whoever serves me, the Father will honour’ (verse 26b). The promise parallels Jesus’ declaration of his crucifixion, the hour of his glorification. When we follow the cruciform life to which Jesus calls us, God will honour us, just as God has glorified Jesus. It’s not clear from the passage what this honour consists of, but this parallelism clearly links it to Christ and his suffering.
We are used to hearing Jesus in John’s Gospel speak of the Cross as his hour of glorification but we should take a step back and consider how strange it is to describe the crucifixion in these terms. This form of execution was an utter humiliation. More than that, it aimed at expunging the crucified person and their memory from the community. In effect, it expunged them from existence. Loud and clear, it gave the message that Rome could do what it liked with you, that the power and violence of the Empire held sway. That you were nothing. It was, if anything, an hour of shame.
This system of power, domination, violence and shame is what the Gospel means when it speaks of ‘the world’. It is a system that leads to alienation from one another and, above all, alienation from God. This is the world that Jesus says in verse 31 will be judged by his going to the Cross and it is life in this world, in this system, that he asks his followers to hate.
The Cross disarms this system and drives out ‘the ruler of this world’ (verse 31), breaks the authority of the system, by exposing just how false the shame and alienation, the violence, power and domination are. The hour of shame becomes the hour of glory. The hour of violence becomes the hour of peace. The hour of death becomes the hour of life.
A glance at the news over the past week or so might well lead us to question how real this disarming is. The murder of Sarah Everard and the shootings in Atlanta show how violence and domination are still rampant in our world. Clamp-downs by Governments throughout the world and even closer to home on peaceful protest can easily be read as another outgrowth of the impulse to dominate rather than serve. And the Vatican’s statement on same-sex relationships lays bare how shame, power and domination are still strong in the church.
I don’t think Jesus is under any illusions about any of this. This is why the Gospel writer has him tell us that ‘those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life’ (verse 25). He knows that the system still tries to ride roughshod over the image of God in each and every one of us. It still pulls at us to act in ways that alienate us from one another and from the God who created and loves us. It still drives us to act in ways that oppress others, that do violence to them, to the planet or to our fellow creatures.
Jesus calls us and frees us to ‘hate [our] life in this world’. That call is a cry to take up the Cross of resistance to this system of power and oppression.
And such resistance works, as the non-violent civil rights campaign in the US and anti-apartheid campaign demonstrate. I mention those not simply because they are famous examples but because of the role theology played in them through the leadership of Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu.
We are not living in pre-civil rights America or apartheid-era South Africa. But we are still called to resist the pull towards violence, shame, domination and alienation in the world around us. How, then, shall we live? How should we, as faithful individual followers of Christ, as a community of faith, as a church — a church still run predominantly by men — respond to the reality of the violence and harassment that women and girls face day in day out? How should we respond to attempts to clamp down on the freedom to protest? How do we ensure that, instead of perpetuating shame and gatekeeping God’s blessing, we extend Gospel hospitality to all — and especially the marginalised — just as Jesus did?
These are uncomfortable questions. They are questions we need to reflect on as individuals and a community, continually allowing them, and other questions like them, to challenge us. One thing they demand of us, however, is that we listen, that we allow ourselves to be made aware of what privilege we wield and that we surrender it as far as we are able. That we become aware of how our attitudes and actions pull us towards violence and domination and that we resist that pull. Such actions will bring us into conflict with the world — perhaps even within the church — but when we take such steps, and when we do so Jesus’ name, we lift him up and he draws people to himself. When we live this Cross-shaped life, those who come saying, ‘we wish to see Jesus’ (verse 21) will find him walking among us.