Holy Trinity Church

Anglican worship in Geneva

Sermon for Passion Sunday on Sunday 17 March 2024

‘Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will be my servant also”. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour’ (John 12.26)

Today is Passion Sunday, the start of Passiontide which is the two-week period in the Church’s year which leads up to Easter. It marks a significant change in the tempo of Lent as we now anticipate in earnest, the forthcoming Passion of Jesus.

This Sunday also marks a point when we are asked to deepen our commitment to Jesus and to think seriously what following Him might mean to us.  Yesterday at our Chaplaincy Quiet Day at Bossey Ecumenical Institute, we explored the three stages of following Christ: responding to the call of Christ and setting out; following faithfully on the journey; and being willing to journey with Him through his Passion to the joy of his resurrection life at Easter.

Following Jesus is not cost-free and it is not something we can do, with any integrity, as a pleasurable ‘bolt-on’ in our lives. The German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”. In Bonhoeffer’s case, this was tragically true as he was martyred by the Nazis. But for every Christian, if we offer our lives to Christ., then He bids us follow him on his journey. As we heard in our gospel today, Jesus said to his disciples,” Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also”

Each Lent, is, in a way, a microcosm of that journey we undertake with Jesus which is our life’s work and purpose. And it is a rich time if we enter into it fully, that we draw closer to Him and learn in new and deeper ways what it means to be His disciple. And the further into Lent we get, if we are prepared to hold on in there and go where Jesus leads, we begin to grasp what it will mean for us.

This Sunday, if we imagine our life’s journey with Christ as a road, there is a sudden shift. As we’ve travelled with Christ through the first weeks of Lent, perhaps offering more time in prayer, studying the Bible, worship and acts of self-denial, our senses, our alertness to Christ’s call have been sharpened. Last Sunday, Mothering Sunday, we were granted a time of refreshment to gather ourselves. Now the road has taken a sudden bend and as we follow it around, suddenly in the distance, the Cross looms into sight.

It’s a sight which will shake Jesus himself and it is a sight which should shake us as well. Because it is a sight which tells us of the cost of being a disciple of Jesus, but, as we will see, if we can share with Jesus his resolve to enter in the Passion which lay ahead, so too we can hope for the Easter glory which lies beyond.

In St John’s Gospel, there is a sudden catalyst which brings home to Jesus the reality of what is going to happen.  That catalyst is the sudden arrival of some Greek visitors to Jerusalem who seek out Philip, one of the disciples, and ask to see Jesus.  Philip in turn, tells his brother Andrew and the two of them go see Jesus to share with him this request.

But Jesus’ response is very strange. He doesn’t say, “Oh I’d be delighted to see them, – bring them in” – or “Not today, tell them to try next week when things are quieter”. Instead, he appears to go off at a tangent, uttering these words, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified”. He goes on to speak of the need for the grain of wheat to fall to the ground and die if it is to bear fruit. What on earth is going on?

I believe we have a clue in what Jesus says next. For he exclaims, “Now is my soul   troubled.  And what should I say – “Father, save me from this hour?”.  For the arrival of the Greeks and their request to see Jesus is a prophetic act. It is one which has been mirrored at the time of Jesus’ birth, wise men come from the East asking to see the King whom they know will be born imminently. They represent, if you will, the rest of the world and now, these Greeks, representing symbolically, all the Gentiles, come asking to see Jesus.

For Jesus this is a moment of profound realisation and also of choice. Realisation that this is indeed the moment of truth – he has rounded the corner and suddenly the Cross has loomed into sight. But also the moment of choice – in which he experiences a premonition of that agony which he will enter into in the Garden of Gethsemane – whether to flee that fate whilst there is still an opportunity to do so, or to accept it.

We then see the choice he has made as he utters these words, “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name”. And at this point, he hears a voice from heaven of affirmation, “I have glorified it and I will glorify it again”.  From this point on, Jesus’s focus now lies towards Jerusalem – that city which he knows has murdered the prophets and he knows is where he will encounter his Passion.

For his disciples, they too now have to make the choice whether to follow Jesus or not. As we see from the Gospel accounts, at this stage, they physically follow him and yet spiritually they don’t. For they are unable to grasp, or perhaps unable at some very deep and visceral level to accept the reality of what Jesus is saying to them – that the way in which God’s kingdom will become a reality on earth is through the Cross and this way alone.

And we, as disciples of Jesus are called to choose.  Are we willing to put our trust in Him and follow where He leads us, regardless of the cost? Or are we not?  For if we are going to live our lives with integrity so that at the end of our earthly life we know we have served Christ faithfully – we have to make that choice.  It is all or nothing.  There are no half –measures with God.  It doesn’t mean everything we do will go right or that we don’t make serious mistakes.  But what matters is our absolute commitment to try – to say to Christ, “Yes” – I believe and I trust you – help me to follow you faithfully”.

And only in that way, can we bear fruit in our lives – that fruit which Jesus tells us all his disciples are called to bear – the fruit which will last. But we will only do this if we are prepared to do embrace at a very fundamental level what it means to be His disciple. This means being prepared to do the following:

Firstly, to stick closely to Jesus in the way he is leading us. This calls for us to listen, to be attentive through prayer, through studying the scriptures, thorugh learning from each other and listen in the silence so that we learn to hear and recognise his call.

We need to be willing to be open to change and above all to a change of focus away from ourselves and towards Christ. We heard in our reading from the prophet Jeremiah this morning, how God promises to write a new covenant and law, not this time, on tablet of stone, but in the very heart and souls of his people.  In other words, so they were open and responsive to his love and his call in their lives.  In the same way, God is calling us to allow ourselves to be vulnerable – to turn from our obstinate attempts at self-sufficiency, and instead to allow His love and his purpose for our lives to rule in our hearts and minds so we may grow and become more Christ-like.

 And this is likely to involved suffering. Jesus’ image of the grain of wheat falling to the ground and dying if it is to bear fruit is a profoundly important image of what our lives, rooted on Christ, are about. As we enter more deeply into Jesus’ Passion in the fortnight leading up to Good Friday and Easter, we will see, more each day, how that love of God for us, expressed in our covenantal relationship with Him, will ultimately be expressed in His sacrifice for us in Jesus’ Crucifixion so that we may be set free to lead a Christ-life life centred on the risen Christ.

We also know that is we really want to follow Christ, to grow and to become more Christ-like, it may well be costly and in ways we do not expect. For as we grow in God’s God and compassion, so our antennae to the needs are suffering of others in increased and we are increasingly stirred to do something about it. Yet out of the pain and suffering we may experience, new life and hope will be born.

Both the psalms and Jesus’ own teaching particularly in St John’s Gospel, tell us of the importance of being rooted and growing in God so that in time, we may be fruitful.  If we can faithfully make Christ visible in some way, we may, in turn, trigger a deep desire in others, like those Greeks who came to Philip, so that they too exclaim, “We want to see Jesus”. How amazing it will be if, by God’s grace and the ways we live out God’s love in practice, others may glimpse Jesus and be hungry for more!

And we may be amazed at how God can make us fruitful even when we feel horribly inadequate.  I love the way in which the theologian Tom Wright describes this:

‘The seed is the Word of God, and however unworthy and muddled the one who sows it, it remains God’s word, and it will do its work, never failing to astonish us with its abundant productivity’ (‘Finding God in the Psalms’ P189).

May God, who can work in us infinitely more than we can imagine, help us to journey faithfully with Christ through his Passion to the glory of His resurrection.