3 Wednesday After receiving the bread…
Isaiah 50, Psalm 70, Hebrews 12, John 13.21-32
We have been following the readings for each of the days of Holy Week. We said that every day of Holy Week is a revealing of the risen Son of God. The passion is the unfurling of the resurrection, and the resurrection is our glimpse of the ascent of man to God. On Monday we said that all creation is filled with glory of God. This glory does not impose itself on us, but one sign of it is the presence of the Christian people. They are here to pray for the world and to speak back on its behalf to God; together they make up the Church, the house that is filled with the glory of God.
Yesterday we said that the Son of God has entered the creation. He has handed himself over to us. He has been dropped into the earth like a single seed, and we are there soil he has been dropped into. What will we make of him? Will this seed survive our handling, will it germinate and produce a crop and a harvest?
Today, we hear again from the Gospel of John, and from Isaiah and the Book of Hebrews. We will learn that what we have received we also pass on, so we must investigate some of the giving and taking and passing on of which the gospel consists. Christ has given himself, and he has taken us. Now we are able to give ourselves away, and take one another. We can now do this because we are given by God to one another, and given through time into one another’s hands.
Let us hear John first.
1. Taking hold of Christ
Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night. When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.’ John 13.21-32
One of the disciples was about to hand Christ over, and all the disciples were about to give him up. And yet this is how the Son of man has been glorified. How does this disaster produces this glory?
In Christ is hidden the whole human race and with it the whole future of the world. The whole world has been given to us, into our hands. This world consists of all other people. This world of other people has been put into our hands. We can take it, or we can leave it, receive or refuse it. God has put his own reputation, his glory, and himself in our hands. So he has put his own future into our hands, and with it our future. Hidden in Christ is the future and destiny of creation as a whole. All these are bound up with our reception of Christ.
We may wish to give up on ourselves, but Christ has determined that we should not do so. However much we may give way to despair and be determined not to accept our life, and are determined to hold out against the other people thrust upon us, Christ will not give up on us. He will stop us destroying either ourselves or one another.
Christ serves a hard apprenticeship for us, and a long wooing. And we have taken him, for, as we saw yesterday, we took hold of Christ, seized him and put him to death. This is the narrative set out in Holy Week. Determined to take events into our own hands, and to close down on the question of our future, we seized the Son, in whom the whole identity of the world is concealed, and we intend to make an end of him and so get rid of the endlessly nagging question of our identity. ‘You with the help of wicked men put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead’ (Acts 2.23-4) taking him out of our grasp again. Our future remains open, because he keeps it open against all our attempts to close down on it.
We laid our hands on him, but God took him out of our grip and now the situation is reversed, for we are in his hands. He is Lord, revealed to be so by the resurrection. But we cannot grasp him, cannot make himself to us or in any way command. His body and presence is no longer at our beck and call. But nothing can stop him appearing. All over the world little groups of people are gathered together by Christ, taken out of the power of other masters and established as witnesses of his power to overcome all divisions and to prevent all premature closures.
2. We receive the saints and the tradition
We hand Christ over in the positive sense every time we meet to celebrate his victory and to commend him to the world. We get this from our second reading, from the Book of Hebrews 12 – ‘We are surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses’. These are the clouds on which the Son of Man comes. They were also despised and endured it, for God chose they are ‘what is low and despised in the world’ (1 Corinthians 1.28)
These witnesses have passed on a great treasure to us, and they have done so at their own cost. They have put it into our hands. They have been waiting for us, and they are not complete until we have joined them. First in line is the people of Israel who have spoken to us through the Old Testament. They intend to be our companions.
We have received this faith from them. Christ may only be known within that community that the Spirit sanctifies for the purpose. Christ cannot be isolated or separated from the whole people of God. We cannot not detach our knowledge of Christ from the present life of this community, its worship, sacraments and gifts and offices. The saints and teachers of the Church are not dead, because the Holy Spirit has pressed them into our service, and they are made good for us now. Each of the teachers recognised by the Church represents a bundle of skills which we need in order to be able to pass something on to this present generation.
The communion of saints is supplying to us in an imperceptible way, life with Christ, who is our hope of resurrection. Now these sanctified persons who constitute Christian history and the Christian tradition supply the perfections of Christ to us. These are the virtues of man in communion with God and therefore also in communion with all men, and together these virtues make up the deposit of faith, which is what the Christian tradition is.
This tradition is a vast treasure and a deep reservoir of ideas about how to be human. We can reach down into it and bring up for our own generation old and new ways of conceptualising our life together and making us a communicating and reasoning society. We are ‘traditors’, ‘tradents’ of this tradition – we pass on what we have received.
3. Betrayal – giving Christ away
But we are also handing Christ over in another sense. ‘‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me’’ (John 13.21). Is our society of ours attempting to give Christ away? Does it consider this faith and its tradition no longer worth having? Is it trying to get rid of the vast resource given to it in the Church ? Is this country that has been so formed and freed by the gospel is now just shrugging it off, dropping it as though it were now valueless? Perhaps this the word that we have to hear: ‘You yourselves do not enter nor do you let those enter who are trying to’ (Matthew 23.14). Can we acquit ourselves here?
Is this perhaps our fault, the fault of the Church for not demonstrating the richness of this faith and tradition? Is it letting us go because we have let him go? Is it because it is because we are no longer worthy hearing or having around, that our society has dismissed the Church and is now pushing it out? Or is it our contemporaries who are making the error here – in mistaking one definition of turning secularity for secularism, or for understanding religion as intrinsically violent? Either way, our own hopes are in Christ, so it is our own hopes that we are surrendering.
So it is not one of us, but all of us, who betray him here, and thereby we let go of our hope of our own futures. We have betrayed him. We betray Christ by withholding some part of the gospel in order to promote some other part, talking up inclusivism, holding back on judgment, perhaps, because it seems to suit the Zeitgeist. We say that we have to buy bread for the poor, abd so turn exchange the gospel of Christ into morality.
Nonetheless the glory of God will out – for his faithfulness to us will be made plain in this. So though we betray and defy God, yet inadvertently and despite ourselves we spread the news of him, so that in this way too it is made plain that Christ is in bondage for us (Philippians).
‘When Judas had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified’.
Poor Judas – the picture of misery, a picture of ourselves. ‘Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’; or, that he should give something to the poor. (John 13.29). ‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?’ As treasurer, it is Judas’ job to prevent us from being profligate. We must recognise ourselves in him, anxiously trying to reduce our exposure to what we cannot control. Judas decided that Jesus stood for something other than Jesus, social amelioration, or liberation, perhaps. Judas represent the utilitarian damage-limitation option. Mary with her pint of nard represents the reckless all-or-nothing option. Shall we be sensible, or reckless? The wisdom of the age, or the wisdom of eternity?
4. The question
On Friday we will see Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, wrestling. He is wrestling with all other men and he is wrestling for all other men. The faithful man is wresting with the faithless: the one faithful man is wrestling with a whole world of faithless men. Faithless Man hears the voices of fear, disbelief and doubt that man can ever really sustain a relationship with God. All creation is testing man to see whether he is up to the task he has been given to leading us all. All creation in ecstasy of doubt and self-doubt, all creation in a dither in a paralysis. Can we do it? Can God do it? Can God really deliver? Can we let God do it? Can we let ourselves be with God?
Adam is told that he, Adam, is the chief wonder in this world and all other creatures are going to look to him and take their lead from him. He is to be the creature who can speak back, the free conversational creature. Adam might well wonder – can I really be this creature who can speak back in freedom? All creation squirms there in an agony of anticipation. What will it become? What is called to? Can God, this voice, really turn some small part of creation into a partner in his work?
In the garden of Eden it is the snake who vocalizes man’s question. They put the charge that this relationship is too ambitious, that it cannot work, that man will never become what God hopes for him. Satan puts the prosecution case: he represents the voice that says that this project is too risky, that it has never been done before, and that there is no cap on its costs. This is the question put by all creation – can this really happen? Can we speak to God? Can we really become the people who can look God in the eye, and speak back and make him glad?
Judas is convinced that it is not possible for man to become the friend of God. this is the conviction personified by Judas. Creation determined that it would rather die and destroy everything than be proved wrong – is personified by Satan. Creation confident in the promise of God, is personified by Christ, and with Christ, by you and me. Man is made for the society of God, that is, to be as free for God has God is free for him. The freedom given to man is the most basic good. It is non-negotiable. All attempts to negotiate himself a smaller freedom prove to be unsuccessful. To say the same thing again – man is made for life with God, and with all the other creatures of God, and freedom is an aspect of life with God. Man may wish for something less, but he may not have anything less than everything. the whole creation is his inheritance. He may not pick a corner of it to define and defend against all other part of creation.
The tree in the garden of Eden that Adam is forbidden is good, and all its fruit is good. But we have a leasehold on it, not a freehold. We cannot grub up that tree and plant another one. We do not make our own good. All our sin is just misplacing what is good: however vicious and convoluted and out of control it becomes, it is simply good, put to the wrong purpose. We can turn the good to the bad to some degree, but all our bad does not make us more interesting, for what is bad is also just banal and boring. We do not become more ourselves by forging everything from scratch. This would turn ourselves a tyrant and make ourselves a threat to all other creatures. In the account we dignify with the name ‘post-modern’ man is in a panic, in a huff and in a rage, hurling whatever he can find at anything he can see.
We are not free to be in this creation without God. We cannot finally be rid of God and get on with unraveling creation. God is the backstop, for in the last resort he will protect the poor from us, and he will protect creation from us.
We may discover what is good, and submit ourselves to it. We do not decide on what criteria we are going to judge people by, but rather we and thereby we learn the criteria of God who considers them good. Christ is now opening us up so we can receive one another as gifts of God, and together become members of his vast company. He insists that we allow ourselves to become vulnerable to one another. All our efforts to reduce our exposure to one another make things worse rather than better. Every human and every encounter is a risk, that might go this way or might go that. So the last word on creation, and the chief creature, man, is that it is good (‘and God saw that it was good’), very good. There is no creation without man, and there is no man without creation. We are creatures of God and so are good. We have the promise of God on this.
5. The resurrection life
The cross is the collision of this faithfulness of Christ and this unfaithfulness, represented by these opponents. Unfaithfulness crashes into faithfulness. But instead of destroying faithfulness, unfaithfulness is itself destroyed. In the person of Christ, creation holds its nerve, remains faithful, and so remains.
Christ does the work here and we are his passengers. We do not comprehend or control Christ or the worshipping company that surrounds him. But this worship and liturgy generates our public activity, and all outward activity is just a particular expression of the liturgy of Christ. When we are dispatched into the work and its weekday activities it is not because the worship service has ended, for the liturgy always carries on above our heads. But we are made into that liturgy so that that worship and service can enter each of the weekday environments and there be the whole truth of God and his people and their worship. Each of us is the whole singing congregation, in miniature, and so that in all our journeying from homes to workplaces and back, and through all the stages of life, we continue to sing to God.
In these talks have pointed to the gathered community of God’s people. Christ considers his people to be part of himself, so that when we see the Church, we see him. Of course the Church is a dark parable of that future glory, but nonetheless that future disguises itself for us in this way. Only if this is so has Christ actually made any difference down here on the ground. Only because the Church on the ground, the visible and institutional Church, is Christ, and is the fact that God has confronted all humankind. It is the whole Christian body that says these things, and it does so in every act of Christian worship, breathing the Spirit of life out for the world.
I have said that in the form of Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem and his passion, the Lord takes on all other earthly powers, overcomes them and re-orders them within the rule of man with God. The passion of Jesus is the form of the ascent of man to God. In Christ we grow up into our full estate. Our resurrection is waiting for us, and with it the resurrection of the whole world. It is our extraordinary privilege to be witnesses to this, and this is why we look forward to every time we say ‘Christ is risen’. Alleluia, Come Lord Jesus.