HOLY TUESDAY, 2019, Bishop Michael Marshall
TEXT: ‘Some Greeks came to Philip and said to him, ‘’Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’’’ (John 12:20)
Tonight, IN THE COURSE OF OUR HOLY WEEK PILGRIMAGE, which began on Palm Sunday and reaches its climax next Sunday, Easter Day, when we seek to walk and not just talk the way of Holy Week, walking as pilgrims and disciples with Jesus, each day together with other countless pilgrims all over the world; - tonight we’re joined by some earnest Greeks who in all probability may well have seen Jesus from a distance the previous day, in the Temple Precincts – in the Court of the Gentiles, and were fascinated by his radical teaching.
But, whatever it was, clearly something about Jesus had driven them to seek Jesus out for a personal encounter, - possibly as they might have thought for a religious and philosophical discussion – knowledge in the sense of information about God and truth.
We are living in an age, in which churchgoing is shrinking numerically, yet paradoxically an age when many, both inside the institutional church as well as outside its formal life, are looking for something deeper, more challenging, more authentic – in a word, ‘seekers’ searching for a life worth living, for self-transcendence and release from the prison house of consumerism and the information overload of technology, and in which it would seem that – at least in the West – we have been given everything to live with, and nothing to live for.
Nevertheless, amongst all the rubble of disillusionment with institutional religion, and at a time when the many tin gods, man-made utopias and ‘berlin walls’ of hostility and division of recent decades have bit the dust, yet still – almost in our collective unconscious, - the person of Jesus is still standing after 2000 years.
So, perhaps it was in the context of a similar disillusionment with failed philosophy and ideologies that those Greek seekers in the temple said to Philip, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus,’ or in the NEB translation, ‘Sir, it’s Jesus we want to see.’
’Sir, it’s Jesus we want to see!’’ (As the psalmist says, ‘Seek ye my face: Thy face Lord, will I seek’) And perhaps many in our own day of religious intolerance and religious antagonism – perhaps many, while using different words, are in essence saying something very similar ‘’It’s Jesus we want to see’’ – not squabbling, judgemental Christians, or a return to the wars of institutionalized and politicised religions.
The Russian Orthodox mystic, Nicholas Berdyaef, back in the early twentieth century wrote these words, increasingly relevant in our own day: ‘There is no longer any room in the world for a merely external form of Christianity based upon custom and culture. The world is entering upon a period of catastrophe and crisis when we are being forced to seek a higher and more intense and interior kind of spiritual life which will be demanded from all Christians’ and churches.
So back to those Greeks: Jesus refuses to enter into a philosophical discussion, but rather refers to his forthcoming death and the greater life which this will release for the whole world: the mystery and paradox of the Cross, foolishness to Greeks, as Paul said and a stumbling block to Jews, but to Greek and Jew alike, ‘the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ (in tonight’s 2nd reading)
So, ‘I if I am lifted up,’ says Jesus, will draw or attract all men and women to myself.’’ Yes, indeed – all men and women, irrespective of race, colour or culture.
When Jesus had cleansed the Temple and overturned the religious supermarket in the court of the Gentiles, he quoted from Isaiah the prophet, ‘My father’s house shall be a house of prayer for all nations.’’ ‘For all nations’ – perhaps, that was the phrase which had rung bells with those Greeks and prompted them to seek out Jesus.
You see, the Court of the Gentiles had originally been set up as a kind of buffer extension, stretching all along the front of the Temple precisely to accommodate Gentile believers, (‘outsiders’) who were not allowed to enter further inside the temple precincts, that space being reserved for insiders. But, in practice, that space ring-fenced as the Court of the Gentiles (‘outsiders’) had been purloined and hijacked by the traders in religious sacrifices. (Jews were compelled as part of their religious practice, to pay for their animal sacrifices, but not in ‘secular’ money. They had to exchange ordinary currency into the temple coinage – religious money – and of course, - can you guess?- the exchange rate all went to benefit the religious establishment. Yes, the house of prayer for all nations, in the words of Jesus had indeed become a den of thieves.’
Such is the long sad history of religion when it degenerates into a commercial institution, or an exclusive, political ideology wedded to violence and exploitation, drawing battle lines between insiders and outsiders, opening doors for ethnic cleansing and terrorism and all in the name of religion. So, Paul Tillich rightly comments: ‘Jesus came to save us from religion.’
Because, rightly perceived, Christianity isn’t a philosophy; Christianity isn’t an ideology; Christianity isn’t even a religion, in the strict sense of the word; Christianity isn’t anything; Christianity is somebody – it is ‘Jesus and the Resurrection,’ to use St. Paul’s strap line. It’s essentially Jesus and new life through death; it’s Jesus and the new humanity in which the dividing lines between insiders and outsiders, them and us; the manmade lines between sacred and secular, no longer apply in that Kingdom which Christ proclaimed, embodied and heralded, for lines of difference and diversity so frequently degenerate into battle lines of hostility. For Jesus came to turn both temple and church inside out, precisely in order to let the outsider in.
Jesus said: ‘I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever comes to me I will in no way cast out.’ Saint and sinner alike; educated and uneducated; left wing, and right wing; all are welcome to the banquet of Christ: ultimately, the only outsiders are those who chose to stay outside. The door into that banquet like the door into heaven in the book of Revelation, stands open to all who wish and desire to enter: as it says – ‘’Behold, I have set before you an open door which no one is able to shut.’’ In Christ’s new world order, there are no lines drawn between insiders and outsiders. For as St. Augustine said, ‘’Our God is the God whose centre is everywhere, and whose circumference in nowhere.’’
But our perennial difficulty is that we will go so far with this cosmic Christ, but then at some point we draw a line of exclusion, and say I can go no further. ‘’I’ll go so far, but I draw the line at him; I draw the line at her; I draw the line at Muslims or I draw the line at Jews or whoever.’
Yet, the story of Romeo and Juliet is the persistent and tragic underlying myth of our history, as in the Musical, ‘Westside Story, in which she sings: ‘Stick to your own kind, one of your own kind.’ So, the geographical as well as the psychological map of our world, is covered with the lines and scars of centuries of hostile exclusion – and often endorsed in the name of religion – a religious tribalism.
But wherever we draw a line, Jesus has drawn another line right through it – it’s the Cross of Christ; that banner of contradiction of unconditional love and acceptance.
As St. Paul said: ‘But, now in Christ Jesus, you, who once were far off’ (‘gentile outsiders’), have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For Christ is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.’
AND, Jesus is still saying to his church today as well as to the nations of the world, what he said to those Greek outsiders; ‘I if I be lifted up will draw all men and women to myself.’’ ‘DRAW’, ATTRACT – not control, but drawn by unconditional love) So, ‘lift high the cross’ – that’s our mandate and not least in an age of religious and ideological intolerance. For as Augustine said, ‘We come to God, not by navigation, but by love,’ – not philosophy, not by words, but by a love in which we loose ourselves – ‘lost in wonder, love and praise: self transcendence.)
You see, in Christ, God has accepted us just as we are, precisely so that by the patient work of the Holy Spirit, we can be transformed from the inside out, drawing us to His attractive and non-threatening self, slowly recreating us as we were first created to be – namely, as adopted sons and daughters of the living God, in the one universal family of God, as diverse as the flowers of the field.
Because, until we have accepted the fact that we are acceptable to the one who knows us as we truly are – inside and out, warts and all – we cannot accept ourselves, and so we cannot accept others, - that something in others, that we have not accepted in ourselves. And then it’s back to those lines again!
Eric Abbot wrote: ‘We are all persons in the making and in a real sense we are making and re-making one another….One of the greatest promises in the New Testament is that we are accepted in the Beloved. Let us try to be ministers of acceptance for one another.’
So this Holy Week, may each of us, in heart and mind be drawn again to the foot of that same Cross, to Christ, whose arms are still outstretched in the catholic embrace of his all-inclusive love. It was the Jansenists who narrowed that embrace on their heretical crosses to a narrow exclusiveness, which thank God is an heretical caricature of the true cross of the all-embracing Christ. St. Paul caught the vision: ‘’In Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female bond nor free – yes, indeed, no lines, no locked doors, no barriers.
So come, just as you are, and tonight, respond to the universal welcome of Christ as a forgiven, forgiving sinner, finally embraced and accepted by the One in whom we have been made acceptable, and in whom we are unconditionally loved in the law of difference and diversity, within the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.
‘Just as I am thy love unknown, has broken every barrier down. Now to be thine yes thine alone, O lamb of God I come.’