March 29, 2009
Sermon for Passion Sunday 2009 ( Jeremiah 31, 31-34, John 12, 20-33)
About this time last week, I heard that Jade Goody had died. Some of you, especially if you don’t watch a lot of television or read the red-top newspapers may well ask “Who was Jade Goody?”. She was a young woman, with no apparent skills or talent, who gained celebrity status by appearing on Big Brother, a so-called ‘Reality TV’ programme ( which in fact was very far from having any connection with real life!) and behaving badly. After that she made a large amount money by being a ‘celebrity’ and allowing every detail of the ups and downs of her life to be chronicled in the media in return for payment. She was, in short, a very modern media ‘star’, famous for just being herself, and living a life that seemed completely pointless to me and to many other people.
All that changed in August last year, when, live on TV in another ‘reality’ programme, she was told she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. She chose not to retire into privacy for her treatment, but continued to be photographed and to give interviews, so that everyone could see the devastation caused by the treatment – especially the loss of her hair from chemotherapy. One of the results of her openness was that many, many more young women, whose lifestyle put them at risk of developing cervical cancer, started to go for tests for the disease – so her honesty was a factor in saving other lives. Then in February Jade was told her cancer was terminal. She continued to allow her treatment and her decline to be chronicled in the press – in order to provide for her two small sons with the fees she earned, but also as a warning to others.
And she turned her mind to more spiritual things. She married her long term partner and she arranged baptisms for herself and her two sons. When she died last Sunday aged 27, a life which had seemed to be pointless and self indulgent had been transformed. Through her courage and openness in accepting her cancer and turning her situation into a warning for others and a means of providing for those who depended on her, her suffering was a means of redeeming her reputation. After her death, she was praised by people from the Prime Minister down. I saw the end of her life as a modern parable of redemption through suffering.
I could have said “ a modern parable of redemption through passion” because our word passion comes from the Latin word for suffering. Today is Passion Sunday, when we turn our minds yet again to the Passion of Jesus, which we believe brought redemption and eternal life to us, and to everyone who is willing to believe and trust in him and follow his way of sacrificial love.
Our readings today explain how that redemption is achieved.
It is not achieved because of some sort of heavenly bargain between God and Jesus, in which God says “O.K., son, you suffer horribly and give up your life, and I’ll forgive everyone else all their sins and let them into heaven”. That, rather crudely, is the interpretation of Jesus’ Passion which is given the technical name of the ‘Penal Substitution Theory of the Atonement’. This says that God is a God of justice and demands that someone has to pay in blood for all the sins and rebellion of humanity, and Jesus did that for us. The Dean of St Albans, Jeffery John, got into a lot of hot water two years ago by explaining, in a talk on Radio 4, just why this explanation of the atonement was so repulsive. He said ( and I agree with him) “It made God sound like a psychopath. If any human being behaved like this, we’d say he was a monster. It just doesn’t make sense to talk of a nice Jesus down here placating the wrath of a nasty, angry father God in heaven. Jesus is what God is: he is the one who shows us God’s nature. And the most basic truth about God’s nature is that he is love, not wrath and punishment”.
Our readings point us to a different understanding of the Atonement – one which enables us to read the word a different way – as At – One – Ment.
The Old Testament reading shows us the prophet Jeremiah, speaking God’s message of a new beginning after the destruction of Judah and Israel by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Instead of a relationship based on laws and compulsion and penalties, the renewed covenant will be characterised by intimacy, forgiveness and faithfulness. The initiative in this relationship comes from God – he will forgive and forget everything that his people have done wrong. The intimacy will come because no longer will they keep the covenant because society forces them to – the law of God will be written on their hearts. It is important not to misunderstand this. It is not saying they will keep the law because they love God; for the ancient Hebrews, the heart was not a metaphor for the emotions, it was a metaphor for the will. So, to say God’s law would be written on their hearts was to say their wills would be one with God’s. God’s law would be known by them , not because anyone had taught them, but because they were wholly and completely open to God.
And that total oneness with God, that total obedience and submission to God’s will, no matter what the personal cost, that complete dedication of everything to the glory of God is what we see in the life and death of Jesus. The Gentiles who came said “Sir, we want to see Jesus,” and when he was lifted up on the cross, all people, both Jews and Gentiles were able to see Jesus as the one whose life and teaching and pain and passion proclaimed and glorified the God whose name is Compassion and Love.
Sometimes John’s Gospel can be quite difficult to understand and interpret, and this passage is no exception. I find it helps to remember that John was not writing a historical account of Jesus’ life or an accurate record of his words. Rather he was writing a theological and philosophical reflection on what the life and death of Jesus had come to mean to him after many years of meditation. So, he compares Jesus’ death and resurrection to the wheat seed falling into the ground. In one sense the seed is destroyed in the ground; but in another it’s death produces abundant new life. This comparison says that Jesus’ human body is destroyed by death; but death also frees him from the restrictions of the body, which limit him to one place, one time and one culture, so that he is available as the way to oneness with God for all people in all places and all time. As Brian Wren’s Easter hymn proclaims it: “Christ is alive! No longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing, here and now, and touching every place and time.”
There is also the passage about those who love this life will lose it, but those who hate their life in this world will keep it for ever. Are we meant to hate life, when it has been given to us by God? No, that is not what this means. The contrast is being made between those whose whole life is devoted to worldly pleasures – who will lose everything in the end; and those who pay less attention to such things, who sit light to the pleasures of this world, who can separate themselves from worldly pursuits and give more attention to the things of the spirit. It is they who are being promised eternal life.
And there is the puzzling assertion that “Now is the judgement of this world and the ruler of this world is being driven out.” How does judgement fit with a God of love? How can we believe that Satan has been driven out when there is so much evil and tragedy in the world? The judgement this speaks of is not on individuals, but on the evil forces that bring darkness to people; and Jesus’ death inaugurates the victory over Satan, but that victory still has to be claimed by Christians as they follow Jesus’ way in their lives and struggle in his name against the forces of darkness.
As we Christians do that, we will find that obedience to God, oneness with God, and glorifying God may bring us our own experience of passion. We will live through that passion, though, with the knowledge that God in Christ has been through such an experience before us, and lives through it again beside us, and with the faith and trust that God’s gracious activity in Jesus has already secured redemption for us.
Atonement is at the same time very complicated and very simple. The more I read the Scriptures, and think about the life and death of Jesus, and the more I am helped to understand what they teach by the writing of wise and spiritually gifted teachers like our Dean, the more often I am humbled by the realisation of how little we humans understand about the Divine Love who is at the depth of our being. And the more I am driven to accept that, as Paul said in his 1st letter to Corinth, the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of this world.
And what of Jade Goody? I now know that the judgement which I and others made about her life, that it was trivial and pointless, was wrong. Because of the way she accepted her illness and used it to publicise the risk of cancer of the cervix to others, she has probably saved many lives; because she used the mass media to speak about her wedding and her baptism, and her wish to have her sons baptised, she has done more to bring the sacraments of the Christian faith into the awareness of people who would never go near a church, or listen to a sermon, than any publicity campaign of the church. And it is precisely because of her trivial, celebrity lifestyle that her death was able to communicate with so many thousands of people who couldn’t be reached any other way. Perhaps, just perhaps, in the wisdom and foolishness of God, the whole purpose of her life was to die publicly and to die well.
So, may she rest in peace. Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord; and let light perpetual shine upon her. Amen.