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John 12:20-33

Lent 5, March 17, 2024

Holy Trinity Cathedral


“The Sacrifice of Love”


When I was a child, there was a movie shoot at the end of the road where I lived.  One day my cat wandered down the block. I had to chase him down and rescue him from the film set.  One of the actors asked me about the striped bundle of indignation yowling in my arms, so I told him in frustration, “If you want this cat, I’ll give him to you.” He declined.  He told me he was shooting a difficult scene in which he had to climb up the outside of my neighbour’s house.  The cat wouldn’t help.  It wasn’t until the movie “Roxanne” came out that I learned I had tried to persuade Steve Martin to take my pet. 


In our gospel reading, Jesus was preparing for his most difficult role. By this time, he had come with his followers into Jerusalem for the third Passover in his public ministry. He was famous.  Daily in the Temple, he was surrounded by crowds who had come to sacrifice at the festival, but stayed to listen to his teaching.  He couldn’t move around freely or to speak privately: every action was being watched by the Jewish authorities.  Maybe that’s why one of his disciples was approached by some Greeks.  Cats could have snuck into the Temple, but if they were Gentile converts, they couldn’t get near Jesus in the holy precincts.  But they wanted to see Jesus, so they sent a message.  The answer, delivered back through Philip, is probably not what they expected, however.  Jesus does not present himself as a teacher of wisdom, or a healer, or a political leader.  The Jesus they are shown is the Son of Man who is to be a sacrifice to God’s glory.


To these seeming outsiders, Jesus emphasizes the role he has accepted.  He uses an example from the natural world instead of the language of Jewish ritual.  He compares his purpose to the work of the farmer planting for harvest: “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” (John 12:24).  The sacrifice comes at the beginning of the growing season, in the commitment to go ahead with the sowing of the seed that had been designated for planting.  If the seed doesn’t go in the ground, there is no hope of a crop.


Jesus is willing to be that seed: to be used rather than saved from the hour that is at hand.  He is obedient to the great plan of salvation.  This is a side of Jesus that is not very comfortable to talk about, even in the Church.  Faith communities identify with the earthly Jesus: his words and ministry.  Christians like the triumph of Easter and the risen Christ.  But this middle bit leading to the events of Holy Week is a struggle: making sense of why Jesus accepted death, and why God allowed it to happen.  Surely if God the Father is all-powerful and all-loving, He would not send His Son to death?  This obedience is disturbing, almost abusive.  Why would God want this?


In the language of the Book of Common Prayer, taken from the letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice: oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world”.  We use these words in the traditional eucharistic prayer.  This is Atonement theology. It speaks of the necessity of finding a way for a holy God to be in right relationship with a people who are estranged and broken.  The bridge to reconciliation demands an act that can appease the One who is wronged. A price must be offered that compensates for the offence.  The trouble is, nothing humans can do or offer can come close to satisfying the judgement on this world.  People can’t do it.  But God can, out of the wealth of love that is divine.  God steps into our flesh as Jesus to fulfil this role.  It’s not God demanding that a human take on this task; it is God giving over to human form to take it on.  God endures the pain to save all that has been created. Obedience to the plan is grounded in loving necessity.


Jesus says, “it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”  Even though his human heart is troubled, his inner being clings to trust in God’s salvation. Not from death, but through death to glory.  He does not pray to be saved from the coming events but that God’s name be glorified.  We affirm this in the prayer that Jesus gives us to follow, “your will be done on earth as in heaven.”  In obedience to the divine will, he is right and one with God.  We ask to be part of this saving purpose.  


This doesn’t mean it is easy going. On the cross, Jesus cries out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as he experiences the desolation of a soul that cannot feel the divine presence.  In the absence, he is completely human; in the giving over, a perfect sacrifice.  Do we want to see and know this Jesus?  He tells his followers, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.  Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.” His way is one of non-violent confrontation, of refusing to participate in dehumanizing systems.  His way is to face death down to break the bonds of fear and sin.  He does it so that we have the strength and courage to follow him.


At three o’clock on some mornings, it is hard to believe that anyone is willing to listen to our desolation.  There may not be a lot of people to call on. Even friends or family who love us have their limits of understanding and tolerance.  This Jesus, who has gone through the suffering of betrayal and rejection, knows our every feeling.  God comes alongside us to bear us up and draw us into love.  We are loved so much that our Lord is willing to take on everything we battle in our inner being.


There is great wisdom and comfort in the teachings and stories of the earthly Jesus.  There is wonderful joy and beauty in the risen Christ.  But this Jesus of the in-between, this uncomfortable Son of Man: he is the one who puts us right with the One who created us and longs to love us fully.  Do you wish to see Jesus?  Come closer to the sacrifice of love.  Amen.