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Passion Sunday (29 March A.D. 2020)

Psalm 86; Jeremiah 31:27-37; John 12:20-33  

Friends, on this Passion Sunday, we enter into ‘Deep Lent’ – the last two weeks of this 40 day journey to Easter. This year has, of course, been a particularly intense season of Lent – in this pandemic we have all been driven into the wilderness with Christ to an extent we’ve never before experienced. And while there’s no telling when our time in this desert of self-isolation and social distancing will end, today our downcast gaze is lifted up to behold the Cross – the true sign of our ultimate triumph, healing and hope.  

John 12:20-33  

In our Gospel today, Jesus explains the significance of His impending death on the Cross with these memorable words: 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.  

In His crucifixion, death and resurrection, Jesus is like a grain of wheat that is planted into the earth so as to spring up to new life with an abundant yield for all the world. St. Paul describes Christ as the firstfruits of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:23). In agriculture, the firstfruit is the first sample of the crop to be harvested, which indicates and guarantees the nature and quality of the rest of the crop to come.  

Friends, as those who belong to Christ, we are the rest of His crop to come; and therefore His pattern of death and resurrection, planting and growing, is the same for us. As Jesus says: Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Striking words.  

To love your life in this sense means to value things like your pleasures, comforts, accomplishments and security more than God. So then to hate your life in this world means the willingness to give it all up for God, to detach ourselves from these things, or to re-prioritize our lives so as to make these things secondary to God.  

We might call this self-relinquishment or self-renunciation - a dying to ourselves and our attachments so that we can live more fully in love and service to God. Often this self-renunciation is a voluntary Christian discipline, something we choose to do or are inspired to do by the Spirit - but this year, in this pandemic, it has been imposed upon all of us, has it not?  

We have all had to give up at least something of our lives – our jobs, our financial security, our health perhaps, our social interaction with friends and family, our daily routines, our churches, our vacations, our pleasures and comforts. What have you had to give up? Or rather, what has been taken away from you?  

Something has been away from all of us - the real question is whether we will grasp and resist as they are pulled away. Or will we let go so as to receive something new? Or will we let go in the hope that we will eventually receive these things back, but in such a way that we will then cling to them less tightly?  Or, to return to the agricultural image from our readings today, our lives and the things we value are being buried – the question is whether we will mourn for them as though at a graveside, or whether we will see this as a time of sowing and planting. Will we allow this burial, this planting, to take place in the hope and expectation that something new and better will spring up?  

Jeremiah 31:27-37  

In our first reading for today from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, we hear these words: The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the seed of my people. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. These days are surely coming. 

Jeremiah spoke these words at the time of the fall of Jerusalem, when the city and people of God were under siege from the Babylonians – a conquest that brought death, disease, destruction, famine and exile. But even in the midst of this disaster – far more severe than what we are now experiencing – God promised that He would not forsake His covenant people, that though they would uprooted in Exile, He would plant them in the land again.  

There’s that pattern again: death and resurrection; planting and growing; the sowing of seed that springs up to new life.  

The new life that Jeremiah foretold was a new covenant – a new and more intimate way of relating to God that involved nothing less than a new heart for His people. Thus says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. In other words, we will be so thoroughly transformed that our innermost motivation of mind, will, emotion and spirit will be renewed and reoriented to God. He will take from us our old selfish heart of stone and give us a new heart of flesh, one that beats with new vigor and circulates new and eternal life.

So friends, the major question for us during this pandemic is this: how will our hearts be changed? Will our hearts be softened and renewed by this crisis? Or like Pharoah in the Exodus, will we harden our hearts once the Lord gives relief?   

  • Will we finally give up our modern human illusion of self-sufficiency, the vain notion that we can control and manage the world to remove all threats to our well-being?
  • Will this time of relative scarcity and restriction teach us an enduring self-restraint and the ability to delay our gratifications?         
  • Will the pandemic make us more or less addicted to social media and technology?
  • Will self-isolation and social distancing permanently isolate us from our neighbours, or will the longing for each other bring us closer together?
  • With our churches closed, will we learn to pray to God in our hearts and homes?
  • Most importantly of all: will we – and all the world - come out of this pandemic with a deepened knowledge of God and a renewed dependence on Him?  

That is the challenge set before us during this time of trial - Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.  In Christ, we can have hope that there will be a lasting, positive change from this, that He use this time to further His reign and diminish that of the Devil, the world and our sinful desires.

As Christians we are called to proclaim and embody this hope, to show forth His pattern of self-sacrifice, to lay down our lives and attachments so as to take up a new and abundant life with God.  

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.  

Friends, Jesus Christ’s self-sacrifice once for all on the Cross is first and foremost something done for us, for the redemption of the world. But once we receive the saving benefits of this sacrifice by faith, it’s also something done in us, in our hearts and minds and lives, year by year, Sunday to Sunday, day after day. Our faithful and thankful acceptance of Christ’s work for us must also change us, it must transform and renew our hearts. That is the new covenant He inaugurated on the Cross by His blood.  

This year's Passiontide is not just for our own private religious devotion, a season in our own peculiar Church calendar. The pandemic has thrust Passiontide upon the whole world and all peoples. So may we then receive new hearts to be renewed in witness to the One who was lifted up on the Cross to draw all people to Himself.  

All nations you have made shall come and worship you, O Lord, and shall glorify your Name. (Ps. 86:9)


Artwork: Salvador Dali, Christ of St. John of the Cross, 1951. Oil on canvass, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.

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