Eucharist Sermon - 21 March 2021

The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Hebrews 5:5–10, John 12:20–33
The Revd Charlotte Bannister-Parker, Interim Cathedral Chaplain

A very warm welcome this morning back to Christ Church on Passion Sunday. It is a privilege and pleasure to welcome some of the congregation back into the cathedral as well as the many of you who continue to worship with us on-line.

As we mark the one-year anniversary of the first Coronavirus lockdown, we must reflect on what a traumatic year this has been. All our lives were thrown into a sense of shock when we realised, we could no longer see our loved ones, hug our family members, visit our neighbours, go to work, school or do many things that give us happiness.

Although, a year on, the vaccine rollout and the falling case numbers give us hope, we are all still coming to terms with the stark truth: More than 2½ million people have died across the world - 126,000 of them here in the UK. For the first time since World War II, probably every single person has been directly affected. At the least, this means a sense of isolation and fear. For a huge percentage of us, the impacts have been more profound. For some, the past year has bought bereavement and the pain of losing someone to Covid. For others, this period has brought deep anxiety, loneliness, stress, unemployment, or ill-health, mental or physical, and a deeper sense of disconnection or despair.

Coronavirus has exposed our vulnerability, and on some level, it also has challenged our humanity. Throughout the past year, we have been told specifically not to relate one another: To walk across the road when a stranger comes towards us. To turn our heads away from others. To mask our faces. Doing those things feels like the antithesis of being human.

So, preaching on Passion Sunday, in this of all years, it is right that I acknowledge all of that vulnerability and suffering. And with that acknowledgement in mind, today’s gospel passage seems remarkably “on point”, as John explores what “dying to one-self, to rise to new life” is really about.

The Greeks, whom Philip brought to see Jesus, wanted to see what this new life was all about. You can imagine in their heads these travellers might be thinking, “Will we see another miracle - the raising of another man like Lazarus?” Or, “Is all that people are saying about him true? Is his message also for us gentiles - to lift up and draw all people to God?”

Their visit prompts Jesus to acknowledge that his “hour” is upon Him: His sacrifice is only days away. Jesus responds by talking again about a different kind of glory altogether. He talks of death because he wants the Greeks and others to understand that following Him is a matter of life and death. “Verily I tell you – 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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:24)

Jesus is expressing in two different ways the so called “divine paradox”: The seed must die for new life to sprout. Earthly life must end to gain both a new life as a follower of Jesus and eternal life. And so when Jesus talks of people “who love their lives”, He is talking about self-centred people, who make their lives about their personal fulfilment. Conversely, by those who “hate their lives”, or whose lives are difficult, He means those who put the needs of others before themselves. In sum, by re-ordering your priorities - putting the needs of other people, of the community, perhaps of the Earth - before your own, your mortal life will be more meaningful and purposeful, but you will also inherit eternal life. Jesus therefore calls us to die to old habits of centredness and rise in new life in acts of love.

The theologian Walter Brueggemann points out that in this new life, “The risen ones are empowered to speak a new language to sing a new song to have a fresh picture of self to value brothers and sisters in a new way.” So perhaps the dying seed here is the ‘old’ way of seeing things, of putting oneself and one’s closest circle before everybody else. The new fruit being born is a ‘new’ way of seeing; that all people and all of Creation, is fragile and interdependent. Each of us must make ourselves vulnerable, to prioritise the “all” before the “I” and the “we”, before the “me”.

An extract from this poem I came across in lockdown beautifully states the turnaround which Jesus seeks from his followers:

“Every act of kindness involves dying to meanness.
Every act of love involves dying to selfishness.
Every act of humility involves dying to pride.
Every act of courage involves dying to cowardice.
Every act of forgiveness involves dying to bitterness.
This is the only way that the false self is dying, and the true self,
made in God’s image, can be born and this true self, as a follower of Christ,
will also inherit eternal life.”

And we know this to be true, because throughout the passion narratives, Jesus relates to us; his humanity is ever-present. He weeps: In his letter to the Hebrews, St Paul writes that Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears.” How many of us have done that over this last year? Jesus is thirsty, and even in this passage from John, He feels “troubled” at the prospect of his death. Jane Williams says we “recognise him because he is one of us. We will see his struggle and his pain is costly obedience and recognise it as the truth about our own humanity” and thus wish to follow him. For, “Whoever serves must follow me.” (John 20:26).

And Jane’s husband, Rowan Williams, picks up on that point, writing, “If we now begin to live in a way that gives priority to God's promise and gift, to live in trust and generosity, we shall not be haunted or imprisoned by the fear of death. We have begun to live the kind of life that can cope with death because it simply looks for God’s gift at every point.”

Reflecting on this type of love, the poet William Blake expresses this thought beautifully:

“love seeketh not itself to please,
nor for itself hath any care,
but for another gives its ease,
and builds a heaven in hells despair.”

Such insights and beautiful words would resonate on any Passion Sunday. In 2021, they are especially poignant. During the past year, there have been countless stories of altruism; of people making themselves vulnerable for the sake of others. We will never forget the stories of doctors, nurses and care staff working around the clock, short of PPE and respirators, to cope with the deadly first wave of Covid. Less noted so far is the altruism of everyday people. Just one example: A year ago, when fear of the virus was highest and the streets were absolutely deserted, the NHS Volunteer Responder app was launched — and within weeks, 400,000 people signed up and began delivering food boxes and prescriptions to the vulnerable, driving patients to hospitals and performing other vital tasks that were not without risk.

And of course, some people have always put others before themselves, but Jesus shows us, as he expressed it to the Greeks, that this is the key to a new life in all its fullness and the key to eternal life.

And remember Rowan Williams talks of a gift. It is probably impossible to ever see the pandemic as a gift, but let us just for one moment think about silver linings. For one thing, Covid did, perhaps for the first time in human history, show every person on the planet that they might be vulnerable to dying from the same disease; that we all share that collective reality; and we all needed to work together against a common threat. It must be true that through this global, shared adversity, we are more aware today of our own humanity, of our adaptability, our compassion, our global connection. The last of these thoughts is important: Through the pandemic, millions of us see and understand better our “interconnectedness” – across our communities, across the nation and across the globe. This shared insight is something new and encouraging which might let positives grow out of the Coronavirus tragedy. Many of us have reflected this year on our lifestyles, energy use and diets: The shifts toward green energy, CO2 reduction are real and powerful, and they have been accelerated this year for certain. This year has seen a flourishing of new “relatedness”. Neighbours have looked out for and look after neighbours they never knew. Churches began food banks. Volunteering has soared. Some people have termed it, ‘build back better’, but I feel this is Christ crying out, saying – just follow me.

As we journey towards Palm Sunday and Holy Week, there is no easy way to process yet everything that has occurred during the global pandemic. But we can work together to rise above all the negative forces, resurrect our natural goodness and commit to relate anew with each other here in the Cathedral at home and in our community. This year of all years, Christ’s call to give up our old lives to gain new life - to put others first ­- should especially resonate. As Christians, we know that even in our darkest moments, we can discover His perfect love which brings us, through vulnerability and fear, into new life. Amen.

William Blake, The Clod and the Pebble, (1757-1827).
Walter Brueggemann, The Bible Makes Sense, (London: D.L.T., 2016).
Rowan Williams, Choose Life, (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).