Crows Nest Uniting Church
Lent 5 • 22 Mar 2015

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Rev. Chris Udy

Most of those
who make the study of the Bible
their life’s work
say that there was a gap
of about 30 years
between the writing of Mark’s gospel
and the time when John’s gospel appeared.
Mark’s gospel was written
some time between the years 66 and 70 AD -
almost 40 years after Jesus died and was raised.
Mark’s gospel is a wartime production;
it was written when the Roman army
was moving south through Galilee to Judea,
threatening the destruction of Jerusalem.
The Temple was under siege,
from both Romans and rebel Jews;
and the Jewish state -
the homeland of the Jewish people -
was almost certainly going
to be broken up and overrun.
Very soon after Mark’s Gospel appeared, by 73AD,
the Temple had been razed,
the last Jewish fortress - at Masada -
had been taken,
more than a million Jewish people had been killed,
Almost 97,000 more
had been captured, enslaved,
and shipped off around the Roman Empire.
(Josephus, War of the Jews VI.9.3)
Mark was being written
while those storm-clouds gathered;
while Jewish people were being urged
to take up arms in violent opposition
to the Romans and their collaborators in Jerusalem -
and Mark’s gospel was written
by Jewish people in Galilee
to Jewish people - Jewish disciples of Jesus -
in Galilee and further down south in Judea -
pleading with them, through the words of Jesus -
not to take that dead-end highway of violence
that would end - as it always does -
in tragedy and destruction,
but to follow the way of Jesus,
the non-military messiah -
a way that would lead
through sacrifice and suffering
to the reign of God with justice and in peace.
By the time Mark’s gospel was being read
the hills around Jerusalem
were full of crosses.
The Jewish historian Josephus
says as many as 500 people every day
were being crucified;
there were so many, he says, that for a while
the Romans ran out of wood
to nail them to -
and in the years that followed
Jewish people carried Mark’s gospel with them
north and west in diaspora -
in refugee dispersion
and suffering dreadful persecution -
expecting at any moment
to be arrested and killed,
having almost no choice but to trust,
with desperate hope, in resurrection.

The gospel of John was written thirty years later.
Many Jewish Christians
had made a home in Ephesus,
on the shores of the Mediterranean
in what is now Turkey -
and there they’d been joined in community
by many Gentiles -
people who mainly spoke Greek
and who’d been converted
through the work of Paul
as well as those disciples who’d survived
the destruction of Jerusalem.
For a little while
it was no longer deadly
to be Jewish -
and although followers of Jesus
had been blamed
for fires that destroyed large parts
of Nero’s Rome in 64AD,
Christians as a separate group
would not be actively and systematically persecuted
for another hundred years.

As John’s gospel was being written
the future looked hopeful and bright.
The way of Jesus had been vindicated -
not only in his own death and resurrection,
but in the survival of his mission.
His gospel was being heard;
his vision was being fulfilled;
his community of followers
had expanded past
their ethnic and religious boundaries -
they were no longer just an isolated Jewish sect,
they included Greeks and Romans,
Asians, Egyptians, Libyans, Arabs,
Cappadocians, Macedonians, Galatians -
and all the rest of that long list of places
we read every year at Pentecost.
They were no longer speaking only Aramaic,
the language Jesus spoke,
now they were preaching
in all the languages of the Empire,
and they were writing their letters and gospels
in Greek - because that was the language of trade -
the language that transcended - or maybe subverted -
the boundaries of politics and race.

Those who first read John’s gospel
were confident, and positive,
stable and secure.
They lived in a city
that was cultured and affluent -
a centre of power and trade -
and the Christians of Ephesus had become,
for a little while,
the mother Church of the movement.
Where Mark and his community
were facing crucifixion,
those who read John’s gospel
were living the resurrection.

That’s why the voice of Jesus
we hear in the gospel of John
is so very different from the other gospels.
When Mark writes of Jesus praying
in the garden on the night before he dies,
he says:
[Jesus] took with him Peter and James and John,
and began to be distressed and agitated.
And he said to them,
“I am deeply grieved, even to death;
remain here, and keep awake.”
And going a little farther,
he threw himself on the ground
and prayed that, if it were possible,
the hour might pass from him.
He said, “Abba, Father,
for you all things are possible;
remove this cup from me;
yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

But today in our reading from John
Jesus seems quite different.
Today we read:
"Now my soul is troubled.
And what should I say--
'Father, save me from this hour'?
No, it is for this reason
that I have come to this hour.
Father, glorify your name."
Then a voice came from heaven,
"I have glorified it, and will glorify it again."

Those who first read John’s gospel knew
that the death of Jesus
was not the end of his mission -
for them his death - his crucifixion -
wasn’t a dreadful possibility
they could easily face tomorrow;
for them his death was the hour
when Jesus won for himself - and also for them -
his ultimate victory over the one John calls
“the ruler of this world”.
For those who first read John’s gospel
Jesus’ way of the cross
isn’t through a dark valley of shadow and fear -
it’s the path of glory,
the road to eternity,
and his death on the cross
is the step that lifts him up
onto the highway of heaven.
“[The] voice [you heard from heaven]
has come for your sake, not for mine”, he says.
“Now is the judgment of this world;
now the ruler of this world will be driven out.
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,
will draw all people to myself.”

Many things can change in 30 years.
The world can be a very different place
depending on the way we see our future.
Days that loom up on us
with challenges that seem
insurmountable, impossible,
terrible and terminal -
can become our time of liberation, awakening,
salvation and redemption.
Suffering and sadness that threaten
to drain our lives of colour and meaning
can become windows of revelation,
moments of life so rich and deep
that they provide the light by which we see.
But often we can only see those things
when the events are complete.
What we see in the morning
is not what we fear in the night;
and sometimes we can hold on
to who we are and what we have
with such fear and desperation
that we never see a new thing has begun.

Those who first read Mark’s gospel
looked for a fulfilment
that could only come
when they had followed Jesus
on his way of the cross
through death to resurrection.
The gospel they read
was intended to give them guidance and courage -
to warn them against violent rebellion
and to give them strength
when the hour of trial came
and the apocalypse of war
and the Empire’s retribution overtook them.
They thought their future
was only secure in heaven -
and they looked for God’s fulfilment only there.

But even while they were facing their doom -
even as the Church in Galilee and Judea
was under such terrible threat,
a seed had been sown
through the work of Paul
and other apostles who first travelled north and west,
speaking - first in synagogues to Jewish folk,
but also in homes and in markets,
in places gentiles could also hear their message.
The seed was in people like Philip,
a man whose name is Greek,
and who, we heard from John today,
was approached by some Greek people
asking to see Jesus.
John says Philip first told Andrew,
then Andrew and Philip, together,
went to seek out Jesus.
The writer of John’s gospel
is a careful writer -
he uses words and images very intentionally -
so why would he not simply have Philip
go to Jesus himself?
Why would he be keen
to include Andrew -
the first disciple to follow Jesus
and a man with a Jewish name -
why would he be keen
to have them come to Jesus together?
Maybe because, for John,
it was in their being together -
Philip with Andrew, the Gentile with the Jew,
that the work Jesus began
would be continued,
and the glory of God’s kingdom would be revealed.
So when they came to Jesus
Jesus said:
“The hour has come for the Son of Man
to be glorified.
Very truly, I tell you,
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.
Those who love their life lose it,
and those who hate their life in this world
will keep it for eternal life.”

The single seed had been sown -
the life of Jesus had been given away,
and those who read John’s gospel knew
that it had already borne fruit.
It was when both Philip and Andrew -
Gentile and Jew together -
came to Jesus
that the glory of God was revealed.
It was in communities like Ephesus,
communities where people of every language and race
came to Jesus - worshipped Jesus - together,
that the world could see what Jesus had achieved.

The way of the cross in Mark
is very different from the way of the cross in John.
Mark is facing Good Friday
and needs courage in crucifixion;
John is living on Easter Day -
he knows the joy and power of resurrection.

So where does that leave us?
All of us - personally and at our own time -
have to face Good Fridays;
all of us need the courage and hope
we hear in Mark’s voice of Jesus.
Suffering and sadness, pain and death
are not the end of the way for any of us,
and they can never mean
that God has abandoned us.
God is with us in all our crucifixions,
and when we die,
we follow the path Jesus walked before us.

All of us also need to hear
the voice of Jesus in John -
the voice that tells us to celebrate
life that germinates when something dies.
The glory of God shines through our differences;
the kingdom of God is a hybrid -
it isn’t preserved in our purity
or protected by our correctness -
it springs to life when we bring things together -
when we fall in love,
when we make babies and form families,
when we build community,
when we look for what might work
instead of trying to stay safe;
when we gather people ‘round tables
to share a meal and a story,
when we don’t let race, or class,
or gender, or religion,
blind us to the image of God among us.

Personally - and at our own time -
we come to crucifixion and resurrection,
and we draw on the resources of faith to face them.
But together - as a congregation -
we also find ourselves
moving between Mark’s way of the cross and John’s.
We might not be caught
in the trials of persecution -
it isn’t illegal or dangerous to be Christian -
but neither do we see our future
with the confidence and assurance of John.
We’re at a different point,
and if we were asked,
we’d probably tell the story of Jesus
in a different way
and from a different perspective.
Maybe, as a community,
we’re not in Easter at all -
maybe we’re still on the road
from Galilee to Jerusalem;
or maybe we’re further on, awaiting Pentecost.

Next week is Palm Sunday,
and we begin to take those final steps
on the way of the cross with Jesus.
So can I invite you,
not only to think about what that means
for you and for your discipleship of Jesus -
but what it means for us all -
what it means for us together -
what kind of Gospel do we write
to reveal the glory of God?
How do we describe the way of the cross
to encourage and inspire
and to warn and guide
those who face the future with us?