Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 10 April
10 April 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Sub-Dean and Canon Treasurer and Almoner
We do not have to look very far in our newspapers to see signs in our world of conflict. Libya still seems far from a peaceful solution, other Arab countries are facing extraordinary upheavals, the relationship between Israeli and Palestinians remains tense, the potential for conflict between North and South Korea is a continuing threat. And then, even closer to home, we know that conflict and sometimes even violence can disfigure local communities or even that potentially most intimate of groups, the family. Conflict, with peoples dividing on ethnic, or political, or more personal grounds, seems to be endemic to the human condition. And our response can be all too easy, for most of the time we want to take sides, to divide the world into goodies and baddies, and we then fall prey to that easy temptation of demonising those whom we see to be the opposition.
Now it is in the context of such a world that we can look at the second reading for this morning, and note that it, too, starts with ethnic conflict. The passage tells us that it was Greeks who came to meet Jesus. In New Testament times Greeks and Jews were in many ways as different as chalk from cheese, their philosophy and outlook were markedly different, and nationalistically minded Jews would have had little to do with Greeks, even with Greek proselytes to Judaism as it seems were the ones in this morning’s gospel. Yet Jesus transcends that ethnic divide, and at the end of this morning’s passage we hear him say ‘I, when I am lifted up, will draw all men unto myself,’ or as I think we can translate it in these more gender-aware days ‘will draw all people unto myself.’
The author of John’s gospel sees Jesus’s significance going beyond being simply a Jewish reformer to being someone of universal meaning. But the route to that is telling. ‘When I am lifted up’ may be taken to mean when he was lifted up in glory, yet for John that moment was rooted in history, for when Jesus was lifted up as far as John was concerned, it was on a cross. In other words John is saying that when Jesus was crucified that was his moment of glory, and it was so not just for the Jews, but it was done for all. The message of the cross is universal, all will be drawn to him, not just Jews but Greeks, and we might add, not just Jews but Arabs, not just white but black, not just men but women, and I think we might even dare to say not just Sunnis but Shiites as well. Although, God forgive us, the church has sometimes forgotten that, and even turned the cross itself into a symbol that divides rather than unites, Jesus’s message of the cross speaks not to our tribalism, even to our Christian tribalism, but to the humanity we share with all. He shows all the true way of transcending conflict and finding glory.
But then how? What does that really mean, and how can the cross work in healing divisions?
Well, years ago in the 1970s when I was a University Chaplain I took a party of undergraduates to visit Northern Ireland during the troubles there and we met a Church of Ireland Bishop who had been involved in establishing contact with the IRA in secret talks to try to find if there was any basis for a peace. Whether that was politically wise or not is not for me to judge, although I have no doubt about the seriousness and genuineness of his motivation, but when it became public that he had been involved in these talks he was subjected to a vicious campaign of vilification, including threatening phone-calls all through the night. And he said to our group when we met him, ‘but then Christians above all people ought to know that reconciliation is a costly business.’
If a conflict is to be overcome it normally means that someone must bear more than their fair share of the pain of that situation. In any conflict, whether between nations, or groups within a nation, or parties in a warring marriage, if each side insists on their rights, if each side adopts a morally self-righteous stance and seeks for glory only by forcibly achieving a victory then normally the tensions will increase, the pattern of tit-for-tat reprisals and mutual recrimination will continue, and the conflict will only get worse.
There will be no healing, and so no glory worth having, without a cross. It is only when one side voluntarily sacrifices some of its ‘rights’ and seeks for peace that there is any hope of it coming about. And that applies at almost every level, international, national, and personal. Jesus draws all people unto himself by enduring the cross, by not standing out for his rights but by taking upon himself the painful consequences of human sin. And one of the ways in which the cross has the potential to heal is because it shows that mechanism by which conflicts can be overcome; the path of self-sacrifice.
And I suggest that is a message of which the church needs constantly to remind itself. For, as I said at the beginning, in conflicts the temptation is always to become a crusader on one side, and, worse still, then to make Jesus a sort of mascot, and to narrow the focus of the cross down on to what he has done for Christians. But in dying on the cross Jesus drew all people unto himself, and in committing ourselves to following him we commit ourselves to a similar programme. Any church or any group of Christian people that really wants to be an agent of reconciliation and peace in a world of conflicts must be one that is prepared to take the cross into its own life, which means resisting the temptation to take sides, but to try to see the conflict from both points of view, and then to see what the path of self-sacrifice might entail to bring about peace.
Today is Passion Sunday, when by tradition the church reflects on the coming period of Easter and moves from the general repentance of Lent to the more specific preparation for good Friday and Easter. It is an important staging post on the liturgical following of Christ to his cross. But perhaps our prayer today should be that it may not just be liturgical, but actual in our lives as well.