Church of England Diocese in Europe

Sermon in Ankara for the Fifth Sunday of Lent (21st March 2021) - The Revd Patrick Irwin

The Book of Jeremiah is not a particularly happy book. It is full of gloom and doom, and on seeing the heading Jeremiah you may have expected a Lenten dose of weeping. Yet the particular passage chosen for today’s first reading is very different from the prophet’s normal style. Here Jeremiah is looking forward to the coming days of hope. God will make a new covenant with his people. This is actually the only occasion in the Old Testament when the term “new covenant” is used. Jeremiah is drawing a contrast with the covenant that God made with his people on Mt Sinai, a covenant that the people of Israel had regularly broken. The new covenant will be written not on tablets of stone as on Mt Sinai but on the hearts of God’s people.

It is not difficult to make a Christian connection to this new covenant. It is in the person of Jesus Christ that forgiveness of sins is to be found and the new covenant is to be enjoyed. Even in the words of institution at the Last Supper, words repeated at every Eucharist, we hear Christ’s words, “this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The forgiveness of our sins makes possible the renewal of our hearts.

Our reading from Hebrews flows on neatly from this. At the beginning of Chapter 5 the author has explained the function of a high priest. He has presented the high priest as God’s representative to the people, particularly in relation to offerings and sacrifices for sin. Now he presents Jesus Christ as a high priest. Quotations from the Old Testament make the case for Jesus’ divinity as the Son of God, and link his priesthood with that of Melchizedek, a priest from the distant past predating the religious settlement of Moses and Aaron. In Genesis Melchizedek is described as a priest of God Most High, who blessed Abraham and brought out bread and wine. Christians came to see this as prefiguring the Eucharist. 

<span style="font-size: 1rem;">Our Gospel passage from John comes after Jesus has entered Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday. He has been followed by the crowd which saw him call Lazarus out of the tomb (a miracle described in the previous chapter). Now some Greeks, probably Greek-speaking Jews, come up and wish to see Jesus. They ask Philip, who tells Andrew and goes with him to Jesus. Their appearance signals the approach of Jesus’ hour of glorification, as the evangelist John regards Jesus’ death. Immediately before this passage John recorded that the Pharisees said to one another, “Look, the world has gone after him.” This simply meant that Jesus had attracted a crowd, but the words carry a deeper meaning, that Jesus was attracting not only his fellow-Jews but also “the world”, including strangers and foreigners. Every reader of the Gospel knew that the real fulfilment of these words was the existence of the Christian church, which had by now far outgrown its Jewish roots.

Jesus momentarily contemplates God’s sparing him his coming death, a brief evocation of the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane which otherwise does not make an appearance in John’s Gospel. Jesus quickly suppresses any uncertainty: God’s name will be glorified in his death. 

“The hour has come,” says Jesus, “for the Son of Man to be glorified.” In traditional Jewish thinking such glorification would have been the splendour accorded the Messiah as he leads his people to heaven. John has a different interpretation. The glorifying of the Son of Man consists in his being lifted up on the cross. We are helped to understand this by a little parable. In dying a grain of wheat bears much fruit. The idea that a seed (and indeed nature itself) dies in the dead season of winter and comes to life in the spring underlies much religious symbolism. Here it illustrates the fact that Jesus’ death, which is also his glorification, must precede the growth that is to follow. 

The Greeks wish to see Jesus. Where should we look to see Jesus? Jesus himself provides the answer. “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” We will see Jesus when we look at him in the Cross. It is there, as John reveals, that we will see him in his glorified splendour. 

The Greeks wish to see Jesus. They do not do so in the sense of having a personal audience. They make their request to Philip, who tells Andrew, and together they tell Jesus. Jesus answered them, we hear, with a discussion of the meaning of his death. We are not told who “them” is, whether it is Andrew and Philip, or also the visiting Greeks. The specific audience is unimportant, as Jesus is speaking generally. We ourselves are included in the “them” to whom Jesus speaks, along with everyone who hears or reads the words of Jesus as recorded by John. John reveals that it is not necessary to see in the literal sense in order to believe. As Jesus says to Thomas as the end of the gospel, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” In a way these Greeks represent us. They come wishing to see Jesus. They do not receive a personal audience with him, but the truth is revealed to them, along with us, in Jesus’ speech explaining the meaning of his death. 

So on this fifth Sunday of Lent, traditionally called Passion Sunday, our readings are preparing us for the drama of Holy Week. Through Christ’s death we have been admitted into a new Covenant with God, a Covenant that is written in our hearts. Christ’s sacrificial death has replaced the rituals of the high priest in the temple at Jerusalem with a new and personal route to God’s mercy and forgiveness. Christ in his death on the Cross, lifted up from the earth, seeks to draw all people to himself. Christ on the Cross is like a magnet. A modern Muslim work of art shows the rows of pilgrims circling the Kaaba at Mecca as metal filings attracted to a magnet. This surely is an image for us Christians to cherish for ourselves. We are drawn together from wherever we happen to be to the one Christ lifted up on the Cross, drawn together and fashioned into his body. So may we prepare ourselves together and individually to celebrate once more the great drama of Holy Week and Easter, to tread once more the road to Calvary and Resurrection.