Sunday, 15 March 2015

Lifted Up

I want to say something briefly about the paragraph I put in the notice sheet today. There was never going to be a good time to tell you that Jenny and I will be leaving Durham when I retire later this year. It will be hard to say goodbye to all of you and all of this when September comes. But that is not for another 6 months, and that’s still two equinoxes and many festivals away. As we celebrate 12 years here this coming Friday, St Cuthbert’s Day, we are deeply thankful for all that it has meant to live and work among you. Thankfulness is what matters most. That’s why we are here at the eucharist. So let me press on with my sermon.   

‘So must the Son of Man be lifted up’ says the Gospel.

In the New Testament, height is exhilarating and it is ominous.  As an exhilarating word, it means victory, kingship, or simply being near to God.  Jesus ‘ascends’ to take up his throne; he reigns on high; he is ‘above’ all things.  He is transfigured on a mountain; he ascends to his Father from a hill top; he goes up into high remote places to be alone and pray.  The New Testament calls him our ‘high priest’ who has passed through the heavens and has the skies beneath his feet. As an ominous word, however, height can stand for anxiety, threat, even evil.  When the devil tempts Jesus, he takes him up a high mountain, and then up on to a pinnacle of the temple. He has to climb up to do battle with Satan and triumph over evil. One New Testament letter refers to the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places; today’s reading speaks about the ‘ruler of the power of the air’. In the gospels, there is a turning point when Jesus must leave Galilee and ‘go up’ to Jerusalem to face suffering and death.  In the Old Testament, the Hebrews always ‘went up’ to the city and its temple for the joyous pilgrim feasts. When you fly El-Al to Tel Aviv you are ‘going up’: that’s what the name means. But for Jesus at Passover time, ‘going up’ will mean not living but dying. ‘I was glad when they said unto me, let us go to the house of the Lord’. But for Jesus it will be his death sentence.   

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus uses the image of height in a striking way.  ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up’. What is this ‘lifted up’?  Jesus goes on to hint at what it means. ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…’  He gave. In St John, this means the incarnation, the Word made flesh. But it means more than that. It means giving to the fullest extent, loving ‘to the end’.  And if we still do not understand, we need only go to the next occasion Jesus speaks about being ‘lifted up’ when, St John adds: ‘he said this to indicate by what death he would die.’  To be ‘lifted up’ means being crucified. It means toiling slowly and painfully up another of those gospel summits, the hill of Golgotha.  It means being strung up in the sight of heaven and earth.  It means ropes and nails and mocking soldiers and sour wine.  It means the passion of the Christ, his dying and death.  The phrase comes three times in St John’s Gospel, just as three times in St Mark, the Son of Man must be betrayed to sinners and be put to death.  These are the things we begin to think about as on this Refreshment Sunday, Lent moves towards Passiontide as inevitably as Jesus moves toward the cross.

In the crucifixion, Jesus’ ‘hour’ has finally come. At one level it’s the ‘hour’ of disgrace, dishonour. To be lifted up on Golgotha is, paradoxically, to be abased, like humankind in the psalm becoming ‘lower than the angels’, so low as to share the fate of bandits, thieves and murderers; a suffering servant ‘despised and rejected by men’.  Yet in this terrible degradation St John sees something else.  He speaks of it as a kind of splendour, a transfiguration. It’s the paradox only the eyes of faith can discern.  Jesus is ‘lifted up’, he says, because in his humiliation he is exalted as a king on his throne, the one who reigns in triumph on the tree as the ancient passion hymns put it.  St John speaks often about Jesus being ‘glorified’ – and if we were to ask him where most of all we see the glory of the only begotten Son, full of grace and truth, he would not hesitate to answer: here, at the cross, where love is poured out, where God’s self-emptying, begun in the incarnation, is complete.  So the last word of Jesus from the cross is very different from the other gospels.  It isn’t the desolate cry of St Mark, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’; nor the trustful, obedient prayer of St Luke, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’.  It’s a single word in Greek, tetelestai, ‘It is accomplished!’: a shout of victory, for the work of God is finished, and the salvation of the world is assured.

Today we stand near the threshold of Passiontide, and begin to contemplate ‘this thing most wonderful’, Jesus lifted up on the cross for the world.  What does God want of us as we tell once more this strange and wonderful story that will take us through Holy Week and on to the day of resurrection?  I think there is only one thing God wants of us. It is that we should recognise who and what we are by recognising who and what Jesus is.  I mean that we must acknowledge in a new way that we are the subjects of the Son of God who hangs there, and give him our allegiance as our king. Passiontide is a time to ask ourselves: what does it mean to be his disciples, to walk in the way of the cross, to bear witness to the man of sorrows? We need to recall the ashen cross on our foreheads at the beginning of Lent and how we were reminded to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.  It’s time to look forward to renewing our baptism vows at Easter and reawaken the memory of how we were marked with cross when our Christian journey began.  As the earth is renewed at springtime, it’s time for us to renew ourselves as God’s people who belong to the King of love and truth.

We know that it was not the nails that kept him hanging on the cross, but only love. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ ‘Rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us’ says Ephesians of God’s infinite grace towards us. So love must beget love, his love drawing out of us our belief, our faith, and most of all our love for the One who first loved us: On Mothering Sunday, this rich language carries a particular association: the sheer cost of begetting and birthing and nurturing the bundle of life that is each of us. Our mothers carry all their lives the marks of what it cost to bring us into the world. Julian of Norwich knew this when she famously said: ‘Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother; I am the Light and the Grace which is love, I am the One who makes you love’. ‘Love’s endeavour, love’s expense’ is what good mothering means in both its agony and ecstasy. This is how God is, in the wideness of his mercy.

So we gaze on the One we have pierced, high and lifted up in majesty on the cross; we place our hands in his wounded side, and are thankful: for ourselves, indeed, but also on behalf of all humanity, this ‘world’ that God so loved. We shall hear in next week’s gospel how Jesus says: ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself’. One day that great expectation will be fulfilled. The cross seems a strange and lowly place to begin – or do I mean accomplish? - this project of salvation. But the weakness of God is stronger than mortals, his foolishness is wiser than our human wisdom.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man’s mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.

Love has its reasons of which reason knows nothing but faith understands everything. For as Julian said, ‘Love awakens our desire, and then gives itself to us as its ultimate fulfilment and goal.’ And as we come to desire him with all our heart, we learn to be God’s people once again and give our life, our soul, our all to this ‘love so amazing, so divine’.

Durham Cathedral
Lent 4, Refreshment/Mothering Sunday, 15 March 2015 
Ephesians 2.1-10, John 3.14-21

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