25 March 2012

‘Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out’

A carving of Saint Philip on the pulpit in Saint Philip’s Church, Leicester ... was he trying to keep people from seeing Jesus? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral Dublin,

Sunday 25 March 2012,

The Fifth Sunday in Lent,

11 a.m., Choral Eucharist

Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Psalm 51: 1-13; Hebrews 5: 5-10; John 12: 20-33.

May I speak to you in name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I wonder: what drives you with Passion?

What fills you with Passion?

What gets your heart moving to the point that you want to get going, to do something about it?

I’m asking because this Sunday was once popularly known as “Passion Sunday” – it was the name given in many traditions of the Church to the Sunday before Palm Sunday, until some confusion arose after the Liturgical reforms of the 1950s and the 1960s. But The Book of Common Prayer in the Church of Ireland and Common Worship in the Church of England still refer to these last two weeks in Lent as “Passiontide.”

Passion Sunday is so important that we are not celebrating the Feast of the Annunciation this morning. It normally falls on 25 March, but we have moved it to tomorrow [Monday, 26 March 2012] and this morning our Bible readings are the Lectionary readings for Passion Sunday.

I imagine that the Greeks who are in Jerusalem in time for the Passover and who come to Jesus in our Gospel reading this morning, must have been caught up in the passion and the tumult in the city that day.

Because they are Greeks, I imagine, they come to Philip and Andrew, and say they want to see Jesus. Perhaps they have heard the commotion, seen the crowds, realised they are present at a great moment in time and in history.

As Greeks, they probably approached Philip and Andrew expecting that they would understand them – for these are the two disciples with Greek names.

But do they get to see Jesus?

We do not know, we are never told if they get to see him before, later on this chapter, he goes away and hides (John 12: 36).

All we know is that they go to Philip; Philip puts them on hold and he goes to Andrew; and Andrew and Philip conspire to put them on hold as they go to Jesus.

Recently I was in Saint Philip’s Church in Leicester where the carving of Saint Philip on the pulpit made me wonder whether he was on a mobile phone, talking to someone, as if he had left these waiting Greeks on hold.

Don’t you just hate it when you’re on the phone and someone puts you on hold when you make a call … when they play that awful “musak”? And then, inevitably, instead of being put through, you get cut off

But if they could overhear, through the clamouring crowds, they might have heard that Jesus is never going to put them on hold or to cut them off.

Instead, the Holy Spirit speaks of the coming glory, and then Jesus tells us that the ruler of this world will be driven out (verse 31) and that Christ is going to draw all people to himself (verse 32).

Would it fill you with Passion if you knew that the values of this world are going to be overthrown and that all people are going to be drawn into Christ’s plans for the Kingdom?

Would it stir you with passion if you were feeling cheated by our economic and financial structures, feeling cheated by many of our politicians, feeling cheated by the prospect of your children emigrating or your house being repossessed or the threat of long-term unemployment, to hear Christ say, as he says this morning: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (John 12: 31)?

The Annunciation ... Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850), now in the Tate Gallery, London

It’s a passion that stirs the Virgin Mary after she realises the consequences of the Annunciation – which we are going to celebrate tomorrow instead of today.

After realising the consequence of her Yes to God’s plans, she sets out, she goes “with haste” (Luke 1: 39) to see her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant too, and shares in words of passion her vision:

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1: 46-53)

It’s the same passion that inspires the Prophet Jeremiah as he writes this morning of his vision of a new covenant that is going to be written in the hearts of the people (Jeremiah 31: 31-34).

Jeremiah has spent much time and energy pointing out to the people how over the generations they have systematically violated the covenant that was agreed with God on Mount Sinai.

They have violated that Covenant through an economic policy that abuses the poor.

They have violated that Covenant through a foreign policy that depends on arms.

They have violated that Covenant by theological practices that offend God, and by illusions of privilege before God.

They have violated that Covenant in a way that brings with it severe sanctions, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of its leading citizens.

But, in the wake of brokenness and shame, defeat and anxiety, Jeremiah then asserts God’s resolve to renew this broken covenant, God’s promise to “make a new covenant.”

The law, once written on stone tablets, will now be written “on their hearts” (verse 33) – the people will be faithful, and following the Law will be a matter of individual conscience and willpower. Instead of the Covenant on Mount Sinai, which was written on stone tablets, this new covenant will be written on our hearts. And in the verses that follow this reading (verses 36-40), we are promised that this Covenant will last for ever.

This covenant depends on the mutual fidelity of God and the people. This covenant is a genuine, a passionate new beginning.

God is willing to begin anew. God is ready to forgive. God promises that this new relationship is one marked by generosity and grace on God’s part.

Because of God’s readiness, God’s generosity, God’s promises, we have the hope that it can all begin again.

This promise of a new covenant resonated with the early Christians who wanted to articulate the newness of God that they experienced through Christ.

God’s gracious generosity permits, allows, demands forgiveness and reconciliation, even for those who do not seem to deserve it. The American theologian Walter Brueggemann calls this claim in Jeremiah “the staggering readiness of God to forgive.”

And he goes on to ask whether there are modern, contemporary parallels of the predicament that Jeremiah finds?

In a sermon last October, he said that the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest and similar protests around the world serve as a vivid and unmistakable reminder that our economy is one marked by “a broken social covenant whereby too many are shut out of the economic covenant that makes society possible and workable.”

When we think about “forgive and forget” in our society, it contradicts the prevailing patterns in our society, where nothing is ever forgiven and nothing is ever forgotten: the Ulster Covenant, the Men of the Somme and whether they were stabbed in the back by the men of 1916, the War of Independence, the Civil War, the “Troubles.”

When and where can we ever think about “beginning again”?

But God’s generosity reaches beyond our need to be satisfied by retaliation.

And in a renewed, covenantal society, would our values revolve around the command to love our neighbour? What are the political and socio-economic implications of that?

God invites us to a fresh generosity, to move beyond petty and deep resentment, to embrace each other. Brueggemann says: “Where there is no forgiveness and no forgetting, society is fated to replay forever the same old hostilities, resentments, and alienations. What forgiveness accomplishes, human as well as divine, is to break the vicious cycles of such deathly repetition.”

Jeremiah continues to challenge us about what we need to do, and to remind us of what does not need to be. We are invited to move beyond “fate” to possibility.

When Jeremiah promises a new covenant that overturns the old order and that is written on our hearts, when Christ announces that Now, Now, is the judgment of this world, now, now is the ruler of the world being driven out, do you think this would bring passionate hope to those who have been counted out in the past?

And if so, how can we, as the Church, ensure that it stirs them up with passion today, that it renews their confidence, that it sets their hearts on fire, that it gives new life to their faith, that they come alive with Easter hope for all, for the whole earth, for the whole creation?

What if Jeremiah is right this morning?

What if Christ is right this morning?

If they are right, then we have no need to fear. We need to follow. When Christ is lifted up, he draws all people to him: the Greeks who are telling Philip and Andrew that they want to see Christ, but are put on hold; the Pharisees who fear Christ is stirring up the people; the prophets of doom; and the peasants just trying to get by.

The God who Christ proclaims, the God who created the universe, is still drawing the universe towards the justice for which it aches. That God is calling. The days are surely coming. God wants to inscribe God’s just and liberating word on our hearts, and for all, from the least to the greatest, to know it, to experience it, and to celebrate it.

And so, may all we think, say and be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


Most merciful God,
who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ
delivered and saved the world:
Grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross,
we may triumph in the power of his victory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of hope,
in this eucharist we have tasted
the promise of your heavenly banquet
and the richness of eternal life.
May we who bear witness to the death of your Son,
also proclaim the glory of his resurrection,
for he is Lord for ever and ever.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Choral Eucharist in the Cathedral on Sunday, 25 March 2012.

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