The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      18th March 2018
'Compassion' Sunday
Handley Stevens

This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, 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 (Jeremiah 31.33).


     To-day is Passion Sunday.  This evening we shall be caught up in Bach’s dramatic setting of the Passion according to St John.  Next Sunday the passion narrative will be read at the Parish Eucharist, and will remain the focus of our devotion right up to Good Friday.  For these two weeks we scarcely raise our eyes to look beyond the tragic events which culminate in the crucifixion and death of our Lord.  With the disciples we are bewildered, frightened and lost.  With his mother we stand weeping in the darkness at the foot of the cross; with Joseph and Nicodemus we lay to rest his broken, blood-stained body as best we can, and turn sorrowfully away.  The time between Passion Sunday and Good Friday is perhaps the saddest, bleakest season in the whole of the Christian year.  


     Yet these events are at the very heart of the good news about God.  Vicious and sad as they are, they are central to our belief in a God, who loves each one of us so much, that he was willing to give his life for us, willing to accept death at the hands of sinful men and women, so that in Him the love of God, which could not die, might triumph over all that is evil to draw us with Him into the joy and safety of His Father’s love.


Our readings this morning offer some clues as to how this miracle of Love may have been brought about.  The prophet Jeremiah knows how impossible it has proved for the people of Israel to maintain their special relationship with God on the basis of the old covenant which depended not just on God’s good will, which would never change, but on their own good behaviour, which would continually let them down (Gen 15, Ex 19.5).  Seeing their failure, he has prophesied the doom of exile, which has duly overtaken them.  Now he foresees that one day God will find a new and better way for them to respond to His love; in place of a set of laws inscribed on stone tablets, He will put his law within them and write it on their hearts.  They won’t have to learn it any more from one another; knowledge and compliance will be internalised; the relationship between God and his people will be unimpaired; all will know the law, and all will obey it.       


     The Jews understand these prophecies as referring to the end of time, but as Christians we see their fulfilment in the work of the Holy Spirit, which dwells within our hearts, showing us how to keep God’s law, inspiring and empowering us to do so, continually picking us up and restoring us when we fall.  Our New Testament reading explains that Jesus, having been made perfect by humble obedience to His Father’s will through all that he suffered, has now become the source of eternal salvation for all who love and seek to follow  him. Writing to a community of Jews accustomed to the intervention of a High Priest to mediate God’s presence to them, the author of the book of Hebrews suggests that Jesus has become such a High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek.  So what’s that all about?   


Melchizedek is a shadowy figure who makes a cameo appearance in the book of Genesis.  He performs a priestly function in blessing Abraham, making no further appearance, but he is cited in one of the psalms pointing to the coming of Messiah, where ‘the Lord says to my lord: You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek’ (Ps 110.1,4).  The reference to Melchizedek may not clinch the argument for you, but it helps the writer of Hebrews to develop his thesis, under which the self-sacrifice of Christ, the culmination of his earthly mission, seals with his own blood the promise of the new covenant, which Jesus inaugurates and guarantees for us as both Priest and Offering.  Melchizedek doesn’t do it for me either.  There’s a hint of QED – Quod Erat Demonstrandum – in the use of handy proof texts which fails to convince me, but I thought you might want to know what it was all about.


     We are, it seems to me, on firmer ground in recognising that in Christ the new covenant was fully and perfectly realised.  He was totally obedient to His Father’s will, as if the law of God were written on his heart.  The way of the new covenant became for Him the Way of the Cross.  Moreover, the gift to us of the Holy Spirit, His Spirit, means that we too can know God’s will for our lives, and be empowered to do it.  As St Paul puts it in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians, ‘if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation’ (2 Cor.5.17)


Easier said than done, you may be thinking, but those of us who have been studying this Lent the little book by Rowan Williams entitled ‘Being Disciples’ have at least been offered some clues both about how we might set about it, and what it might entail.  As Rowan puts it, ‘being disciples means being called to see others from the perspective of an eternal and unflinching love’.  Our understanding of Forgiveness has been expanded and illuminated by the notion that what lies at the root of a forgiving relationship is our mutual recognition of the human dignity of the other.  If we grasp that, and explore what it means, we shall find it easier both to forgive and to receive forgiveness, and even to forgive ourselves within the embrace of God’s love for us.


     Likewise our concept of Holiness has been made so much warmer and more attractive by the notion that truly holy people make others feel not inadequate because we aren’t good enough, but better than we are. Seeing the world through their eyes, we glimpse opportunities for love and service which shed a new light on the landscape, and above all generate joy in those we love and serve, and even in ourselves.


     Rowan Williams begins his little book by reminding us that the ancient practice of discipleship was based on sitting at the Master’s feet, staying with him, absorbing his way of life.  This is how the Christian disciple learns to live in accordance with the new covenant, as Jesus did.   For Jesus himself, the perfect alignment of his will with that of his Father meant taking the way of the Cross, the Passion as we call it.  As his disciples, we are called to spend time, as Rowan puts it, looking at Jesus, looking at the gospel, exploring with him where human beings are, what their needs are, what they are calling us to do, how we may help them to realise their full human dignity. In a word, we could begin by celebrating today and every day as our Compassion Sunday.


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