Sermon On Wednesday of Holy Week 2016

Sermon at Lancaster Priory

The Revd Dr Liz Horwell

So far this week I’ve argued that Jesus died because he was seen as an outsider; and because in coming to earth as a human he willingly subjected himself to the unpredictability of being human. Today I’d like to add into the pot one of the key themes in WH Vanstone’s inspirational book “The Stature of Waiting”.

Vanstone tells us that the word ‘passion’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘suffer’: or ‘allow events to happen’. The passion then describes the time in Jesus’ life when he stopped taking control of the situation and simply allowed people to respond to him as they chose.

So Vanstone says: “’The passion’ is not the pains he endured or the cruel manner in which he was treated by the hands of men but simply the fact that he was exposed to those hands and whatever those hands might do.”

This point is important because many people see God as ALWAYS taking control, always active, never passive; yet if Jesus is the perfect revelation of God’s character, Jesus’ passion demonstrates that being passive is also God-like.

In John’s gospel at the last supper Jesus tells his disciples that his work is now finished (John 17:4) but on the cross he says that “All is finished” (John 19:30). So something beyond work was needed for that completion: and that was his passion, his passivity.

In John’s gospel too, Jesus moves from being active to being passive in the Garden of Gethsemane when Judas hands him over. So Vanstone argues that Jesus’ death was the result of his passion, his ‘allowing events to happen’, but his death wasn’t the purpose of his passion, his “allowing events to happen”.

Until Gethsemane, as I’ve said before, Jesus had chosen to spend the whole of his ministry ‘demonstrating God’s kingdom’ both to individuals and to the people as a whole. And his ‘demonstrating’ invited people to respond. He longed for them to respond by choosing to deepen their relationship with God and work in the cause of justice: but that was their choice, it could never be obligatory.

When Jesus rides into Jerusalem at the start of the last week of his life, he comes to seek a response specifically from the Jewish leaders for he knows that he has to win them over if his message is to succeed (Luke 9:51). And perhaps he hopes that his ‘modest but peaceful’ entrance into the city will persuade the leaders that he’s worth supporting. ‘Modest and peaceful’ entrance, of course, because if he’d wanted to make a show of strength and demonstrate his power, he’d have ridden in on a horse. His entry into Jerusalem was a crunch point though because the authorities could just as likely read into it (and the ecstatic response of the crowds) –that he has become a much bigger threat to their security than any of his healing, teaching, signs and stories so far.

Because until now the Roman authorities had more or less given the Jewish leaders carte blanche to run things the way they wanted. The only proviso was that they ensured the people lived in peace. But if someone (Jesus?) were to start a demonstration, an uprising, the Romans would come down on them all like a ton of bricks: the priests would no longer be allowed to take control and their lives would be far less comfortable – which was most certainly not what they wanted!

So, when Jesus prays in Gethsemane he still hopes that the priests might respond positively, though he knows it’s unlikely. He prays that God might be able to find him another way through this, another way for his message of love to be heard and understood. And until the moment when the priests come into the garden mob-handed there’s still the slim chance they’ll turn themselves around and support him. But in the garden they make their choice and he’ll accept it for what it is: their choice.

So Vanstone argues that

”It wasn’t Jesus’ death that brought us benefits … It was his willingness to spare himself nothing, not even his own life, in the cause of winning the nation to the discipleship of God’s kingdom. He sought from the nation’s leaders that which could not be compelled: the response of discipleship”.

Jesus did the only thing that love can do: it can only offer itself out and wait for a response. With love, action must give way to passion, to waiting for a choice to be made.

Because, as we know, Love is not possessive: it doesn’t insist on its own way; it never uses force. God offers such a love to us: an abundant, free-flowing, bountiful, love: and he waits longingly for us to want to love him in return. Jesus shows us that God’s love is not only active in showing itself, but passive in allowing us to choose what our response will be.

Even so, Love does challenge. Jesus’ entire ministry until his passion involved challenging and counteracting violence and evil. He defended the poor, he raised the status of women and Samaritans; he challenged racism, nationalism, sexism and poverty   those things that bind and oppress; but he did so WITHOUT using force or violence.

If we’re to respond to God’s call with love, then we too must challenge injustice without using force or violence – we need to be inclusive to those who are different from us and those who make us uncomfortable; for only then will we counteract the kind of evil forces that put Jesus on the cross; only then will His work and his passion NOT have been in vain.