Sermon on 31st March 2015

Day: Tuesday in Holy Week

Date: Tuesday 31 March

Theme:‘Interruptions on the Journey’

Film: ‘Ida’ by Pawel Pawlikovski (2013)

Readings: Isa. 49:1-7; 1 Cor. 1:18-31; Jn 12:20-36

‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’ (Jn 12:32)

Those people who saw the film ‘Ida’ on Sunday night at the Gregson will know that it raises many more questions than I can address here. So I will be focussing on just one or two key elements of it tonight…

The film opens with Jesus quite literally ‘lifted up’ in statue form by four novices at a Polish convent. And in my interpretation of the film, it ends with one of those young women — the ‘Ida’ of the film’s title — being ‘drawn’ back to Jesus and the religious life.

In the course of the film, Ida goes on a journey that is both literal and metaphorical. Her literal journey is a quest in search of her only living relative, an aunt, who turns out to be a confident and bohemian secular Jewish woman. Together, the two of them set out on a road trip to find the village where Ida’s parents lived and died, and eventually dig up the remains of their family in some woods where they were killed during the Nazi occupation.

The metaphorical ‘journey’ that Ida makes in the film is a tortuous process of decision. Like every one of us, Ida must decide what kind of life she wants to lead: who she will follow; what she will give herself to. With an aunt who drinks liberally and sleeps with a number of different men, the choice between convent life and the world outside could not be more stark. On her travels with her aunt, Ida experiences music and dances for the first time. with a sweet young man. But there is a cost to this way of life, just as there is in the vows of a religious. Ida witnessess the emptiness and loneliness of her aunt’s life. And she asks the young man what kind of life he foresees for them if they were to become a couple. For Ida, this question is about what she will give her life to, the same question that Jesus raises in verse 24: ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain…’

The name for the distractions and interruptions that punctuate a plot is ‘peripeteia’. We all experience our lives as a sequence of ‘one damn thing after another’. It is very rare that we are ever aware of being faced with a choice of the same degree of clarity as Ida’s dilemma. We tend to experience our lives as a series of interruptions, much more like the one that opens our gospel reading this evening: ‘Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”’ (Jn 12:20-21).

Now, this request threatens to interrupt the journey on which Jesus has embarked. And there are at least three ways in which it functions as a distraction:

  1. There is a potentially racist element because these people are distinguished as ‘Greeks’ rather than ‘Jews’.
  2. There is a question of motivation. Are these Greeks merely curious to see this ‘celebrity’ Jesus, a phenomenon about which they have heard so much.
  3. There is a potential loss of focus, as one by one the disciples of Jesus become involved in the arrival of these strangers (‘Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus’, Jn 12:22). The risk is that the disciples might take their minds off the purpose of Jesus, which the only reason why they are in Jerusalem this Passover in the first place!

The racial or ethnic distraction is brought out by the deliberate reminder that Philip was ‘from Bethsaida in Galilee’. In other words, he is someone who defines himself as Jewish, in contrast to the ‘Greek’ cities of the Decapolis. Here and elsewhere in the gospels, the disciples seem to assume that the ministry of Jesus was primarily for the benefit of Palestinian Jews like themselves. And in the Acts of the Apostles, we read about conflicts between Jewish and Greek Christians (Acts 6:1) in the early Church. Perhaps this reference to ‘Greeks’ is an allusion to these coming divisions?

But Jesus is not put off by differences of race or language. Throughout his ministry, he consistently widens the circles of those whom he addresses (remember the Samaritan woman in John 4). This is in keeping with the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth’ (Isa. 49:7). Jesus says something similar to this in verse 32: ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ And the same thought is taken up in the First Letter of St Paul to the Corinthians: ‘to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks’, Christ crucified is ‘the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Cor. 1:24). Notice that focus on Christ ‘crucified’ (see verse 23) or ‘lifted up’. This is the point, and Jesus does not waste time reminding us of his death in the verses that follow this interruption!

The film deals with ethnicity when Ida, who has been raised as a Christian, suddenly discovers her Jewish heritage. This temporarily interrupts her plans of becoming a nun. Jewish identity structures Ida’s experience in meaningful ways, and therefore must be taken seriously. This ‘taking seriously’ is what the film is really about. Yet at the same time, Ida’s Jewish identity opens her up to a whole range of human experiences, including a very complex scene with the man who killed her parents but spared her life. This identity becomes the gateway to a deeper freedom, a position from which she can grow into relationships with other people, including with Jesus Christ. Each of our identities have the capacity to do this, so long as we do not hold on to them to the exclusion of all others, just as Jesus reaches out through his own Jewishness to encounter the Samaritan woman at the well.

The second distraction in this episode is the potential for a genuine encounter with Jesus being downgraded to a form of tourism, just as we read last night: ‘When the great crowd of the Jews learned that [Jesus] was [in Bethany], they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead’ (Jn 12:9). The Greek’s request in today’s gospel (‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’, Jn 12:21), might be nothing more than a ‘sightseeing’ kind of curiosity which is not transformative at all. Throughout the film, Ida carries a postcard with an image of Jesus on it. At one point, her aunt hides the card and laughs as Ida tries to find it. She is testing the kind of relationship that Ida has with ‘seeing’ Jesus.

Last Sunday at our Confirmation service, Bishop Geoff challenged us with the question: ‘when people look at your life, do they see Jesus?’ But my question today is almost the reverse: Do you really want to ‘see’ Jesus, or are you just looking for a sensational experience?

According to Jesus, true seeing leads directly to ‘following’ and ‘serving’ him: ‘Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour’ (Jn 12:26). And the cost of this following and serving will shortly be made explicit, in answer to the Greeks’ request.

But first, there is a third element to the Greek’s interruption. This is a social distraction, when: ‘Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus’ (Jn 12:22). All information used to be communicated in this way, in the days before twitter and facebook. And at its best, this word of mouth communication is still how we hear about a good film or share a joke or a story. It is also how gossip and deception are spread. In this election year, we are even more susceptible than ever to misinformation and distraction from many sources. And in our daily lives, we must beware of the endless chatter of the internet, the media, and one another. Like Jesus, we must keep our eyes focussed on what really matters.

Jesus does not let the arrival of these curious strangers distract him from his mission. As was already foreshadowed on Monday, his mission is his death. And Jesus spells this out in the powerful metaphor: ‘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’ (Jn 12: 24). and he continues with a devastating description of discipleship which echoes similar statements in the other gospels:‘Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life’ (Jn 12: 24-25).

At verse 27 there is another potential distraction from within Jesus himself: ‘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’. Jesus is not to be put off his purpose. This short verse is John’s equivalent to the agony of Jesus in Gethsemane in the other gospels. What comes through very clearly here is the determination of Jesus… to live by his own advice, to deny himself, and to lay down his life in spite of all distractions and interruptions, all inclinations to the contrary. Many centuries later, St John of the Cross would put his finger on the kind of self-renunciation that Jesus shows here: ‘when you stop at the one thing, you cease to open yourself to the All’ (quoted in William James, p. 306f.). Once you start giving yourself for others, you can never stop, because to stop means you have not yet given all.

There is much more to say about this passage, for example that it has Jesus predicting the manner of his death (‘Lifted up’, v. 32) and even more importantly the reason for his death: ‘For your sake’ (v. 30). But for our present purposes it will have to be enough to say that it calls on us to accompany Jesus on this path of self-giving love: ‘Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also’ (Jn 12:26 and cf. v. 35). This is ultimately the decision that Ida comes to, too.

As costly and as painful as this path will be, Jesus calls it ‘honour’ and ‘glory’: ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’ (Jn 12:23, and cf. v. 28) and ‘honour’ (v. 26), ‘Whoever serves me, the Father will honour’.

No wonder that at the end of today’s distractions and the effort of remaining focussed on his coming mission, the evangelist writes: ‘After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them’ (Jn 12:36). We will pick up the narrative from here, tomorrow. Amen