Sunday, 21 March 2021

When we want to
pose for our own
‘selfies’ with Jesus

‘Some Greeks came to Philip … and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’ (John 12: 20-21) … the Monument of Alexander the Great in Thessaloniki, looking out towards Mount Olympus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday next 21 March 2021

The Fifth Sunday in Lent (Passion Sunday)

10 a.m.:
the Parish Eucharist

The Readings: Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Psalm 51: 1-13; John 12: 20-33

There is a link to these readings HERE.

‘But this is the covenant that I will make … and I will write it on their hearts’ (Jeremiah 31: 33) … hearts decorating a bar in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

One Easter morning, when all the great Greek excitement of Easter was over – the processions, the parades, the late-night services, the bands and the street crowds – we enjoyed the calm and peace of the morning, and we walked the length of the seafront in Thessaloniki.

After all the solemnity and excitement is over, after the Lenten fasts have come to an end, no-one in Greece stirs outside their family home on Easter morning. It almost felt like we had the seafront to ourselves as we walked from the harbour to the landmark White Tower and on to the monumental sculpture of Alexander the Great.

The White Tower is a mixture of Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman work. It was a prison and a place of massacre, and it was once known as the Red Tower, because of the blood splattered on the walls of the countless victims of torture and execution. After Thessaloniki was incorporated into the modern Greek state, the tower was whitewashed in a symbolic gesture of cleansing.

As this morning’s psalm says, ‘Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow’ (Psalm 51: 10).

From there, we walked on to the Monument of Alexander the Great at Nea Paralia. This is a tall sculpture, six metres tall, by the artist Evangelos Moustakas, and shows Alexander the Great on his horse Voukefalas (Bucephalus).

Thessaloniki is proud that it is the city of both Aristotle and Alexander the Great. At one time, Alexander the Great was so powerful and his empire so expansive that to many Greeks he seemed to be the ruler of the world (see John 12: 31). And every Greek knows Alexander the Great was the son of Philip of Macedon.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, some Greeks are in Jerusalem for the Festival – the Festival of Passover, which begins next Saturday night (27 March) for this year, and which for Christians becomes Easter. These Greeks, we are told, wish to see Jesus; so, it is only natural that they should go to Philip and ask him to help them get through the crowds to see Jesus.

Every Greek would have expected that someone with the name Philip would speak Greek. Finding Philip in the crowd must have been like finding your local TD outside the Dáil and asking him to bring you into Leinster House to meet the Taoiseach.

Philip thinks about what to do. But instead of going to Jesus, he goes to Andrew, who is yet another disciple with a Greek name. Perhaps those Greek visitors, those Greek pilgrims or tourists, think they are in with the in-crowd. They have found not one, but two Greek-speakers among the disciples.

But the story is bewildering. We are not told whether they ever get to see Jesus.

Are they simply looking for the first century equivalent of a ‘selfie’ – wanting not so much to see Jesus but to be seen with Jesus, without listening to Jesus, still less without the commitment involved in following Jesus?

Do they hear his call, ‘follow me’ (John 12: 26)?

In this Gospel reading, we are in the days before Palm Sunday, and the days before Passover. The Sabbath immediately preceding Passover is known as Shabbat haGadol (שבת הגדול), the ‘Great Sabbath.’ This year, this Sabbath falls next Saturday (27 March 2021.) The haftarah or prophetic portion read on that Sabbath (Malachi 3: 4-24) speaks of the ‘great day’ of God on which the Messiah will appear.

Malachi is an anonymous prophet – the name Malachi simply means ‘my messenger.’ But in this passage, he also says:

You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What do we profit by keeping his command or by going about as mourners before the Lord of hosts? Now we count the arrogant happy; evildoers not only prosper, but when they put God to the test they escape’ (Malachi 3: 14-15).

Whether that portion had already become established as a reading by the time Saint John’s Gospel was written, the Sabbath before the Passover was already one that was imbued with expectations of the appearance of the Messiah, and the readers of this Gospel, at this stage, would expect to hear Jesus speaking about those who have turned away from serving God.

So Christ reminds those who are listening to him in this Gospel reading that those who love him must serve, and ‘whoever serves me must follow me’ (John 12: 26).

But then, on the other hand, are Philip and Andrew like power brokers? Do they take advantage of their positions to control access to Christ, instead of inviting others to follow Christ?

The mission of Israel was to be a light to the gentiles. But in questioning, doubting – perhaps even denying – that those Greeks should have access to Christ too, are Philip and Andrew denying the mission and purpose of their own people, the reason they are freed at Passover from slavery in Egypt?

Are they, perhaps, denying the mission and witness of Christ, the inclusivity of Christ?

Do they behave as if Christ is only for them, their culture, their people, and not for all, irrespective of cultural or ethnic origins, language, background or gender?

In the second part of this Gospel story, we are pointed not just to the Cross, but to the resurrection. This is not just a story for Lent, but a story filled with the Easter promise of the Resurrection.

In the long run, the conclusion to this story is found in the experience of Greeks visiting Jerusalem after the Resurrection, just 50 days later, at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit is poured out on devout people of every nation, and the disciples find they are heard by each one present in their own language.

It becomes a foundational experience for the Church.

Saint Paul finds it so transforming that he reminds his readers: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ’ (Galatians 3: 28).

Am I like Philip and Andrew, too comfortable with a Christ who fits my own cultural comforts, my own demands and expectations?

Do I all to easily lock Christ away in my own ‘churchiness,’ to the point that the stone might never have been rolled away from the tomb on Easter morning?

What prejudices from the past do I use to dress up my image of Christ today?

If Saint Paul is right …. then Christ reaches out too to those who are marginalised in our society because of their gender, sexuality, colour, language or religious background.

In Christ there is no Catholic nor Protestant, no male and female, no black and white, no gay and straight.

And every time I reduce Christ to my own comfortable categories I keep him behind that stone rolled across the tomb.

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

‘Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow’ (Psalm 51: 10) … the White Tower has become an emblem of Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 12: 20-33 (NRSVA):

20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, 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. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

27 ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say — “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ 30 Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’ … Saint Philip (left) in a stained-glass window in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical colour: Violet.

The canticle Gloria is omitted in Lent.

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God,
you sent your Son to reconcile us to yourself and to one another.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus,
you heal the wounds of sin and division.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
through you we put to death the sins of the body – and live.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day (Lent V):

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.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

Now in union with Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near through the shedding of Christ's blood; for he is our peace. (Ephesians 2: 17)

Preface:

Through Jesus Christ our Saviour,
who, for the redemption of the world,
humbled himself to death on the cross;
that, being lifted up from the earth,
he might draw all people to himself:

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.

Blessing:

Christ draw you to himself
and grant that you find in his cross a sure ground for faith,
a firm support for hope,
and the assurance of sins forgiven:

‘Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow’ (Psalm 51: 8) … snow in Cloister Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hymns:

125, Hail to the Lord’s anointed (CD 8)
656, Nearer, my God, to thee (CD 38)

Strolling on the seafront in Thessaloniki, leading to the White Tower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.



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