The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      7th April 2019
Passion Sunday
Jan Rushton

Passion Sunday  Year C  2019       

Readings: Isaiah 43.16-21;   Philippians 3.4b-14;   John 12.1-8


In the Common Worship lectionary which runs over three years, each year highlighting a particular gospel, nevertheless, for this Sunday, Passion Sun-day, for every year A, B, or C the gospel comes from John - the gospel of Je-sus’ glory.


Quite apart from the extreme physical cruelty of this method of execution in-vented by the Persians, to be strung up naked on a cross was also extreme hu-miliation, especially in Jewish culture where nakedness of any sort was shameful.Yet in John’s gospel Jesus declares his crucifixion, the hour of his glory.


Six days before Passover, six days before his execution, Jesus arrives to stay with his close friends in Bethany: Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Filling the house with its fragrance, Mary anoints him with perfume, perfume costing the equivalent of a year’s salary. An extravagance the disciples gasp at, yet one which Jesus receives with love and gratitude as he looks forward knowing all that is to come.


Today, Passion Sunday, the fifth Sunday of Lent,  we turn a corner in our Lenten journey to a focus on the coming passion of our Saviour. This very juncture of dereliction on the cross which is become Christ's glory and our salvation. Here in this death, the possibility of transformation, new life for the world has its beginning.  


In terms of human psychology - we cannot celebrate the resurrection, we cannot feel its triumph if we have not first engaged with Jesus suffering and Passion.   We know the story so well.  We remember it again this evening, next Sunday - Palm Sunday, and on Good Friday.   We know that Christ died for our sins.But before we journey again with Jesus to the cross, we re-flect on what Jesus’ death on the cross means. How can it, how does it effect our salvation, change our lives?


These are no easy questions to answer. Theologians have grappled with them down the centuries, coming up with different ideas and theories: from the early Church Fathers and the doctrine of Christus Victor; to Anselm in the eleventh century and his understanding of the Passion as offering Satisfaction for God’s broken honour. 


‘Christus Victor’ sees Christ triumphant over the power of the Devil. In his willingness to die, in offering himself as a ransom, a ransom to the Devil, Je-sus has defeated Satan, his victory demonstrated in the Resurrection. The thinking behind C S Lewis twentieth century allegorical creation of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where in killing Aslan, the White Witch believes she has triumphed, while in fact, because Aslan has freely chosen to give his life for others, it is he who triumphs over death.


But the notion that the Devil could be owed anything  became an uncom-fortable one. In the strongly hierarchical society of feudal Europe where honour was all, with God was at the top of the pyramid, the idea developed that God’s honour, mightily traduced by our sin, needs ‘Satisfaction’. At the end of the eleventh century, with such thinking in mind, and in an era where the cult of doing penance for absolution from sin was growing, the Italian Benedictine monk, Anselm, ultimately Archbishop of Canterbury, came up with a new doctrine, set out in his book ‘Why God Became Man’. There is no penance sufficient to restore the traduced honour of almighty God that finite humanity can offer. Only a divine sacrifice is great enough to do justice for the crime. Yet that sacrifice must come from us, offered by a human agent. Therefore God sends his only Son to take on human form, and sacrificing himself for us, his death ‘satisfies’ God’s honour. The theology of the Book of Common Prayer. Note here, the change of direction: the ransom is no long-er to be paid to the Devil, rather the penalty is paid to God.


In its own day such thinking was not held as entirely satisfactory - even as Protestant Reformers would go on to embrace an even more rigorous form of the theory: Penal Substitution.  An understanding that Jesus takes on the punishment which is our due. The twelfth century French philosopher and theologian, Peter Abelard born fifty years after Anselm, and famous for his love of Heloise, rejected notions of satisfaction and substitution. Anselm had declared: I do not seek to understand that I may believe  but believe that I might understand. Abelard took the reverse approach, seeing that it is doubt and human reason which leads us into grasping our faith.  Thus in his com-mentary on Romans, he laid out a new and different theory of atonement, where the movement of grace is firmly from God to humanity.


Put simply, for Abelard, as we perceive the depths of God’s love for us re-vealed in Christ’s passion, our hearts are set ablaze with love for Christ, and we are drawn away from sin. This change of heart is not something we can achieve for ourselves, it is the work of God in the power of the Holy Spirit within us.  And can have nothing to do with paying a legal penalty, 

since according to Paul, Christ has done away with bondage to the Law.


Both Anselm and Abelard have moved away from the notion of ‘Ransom’. The difference between the two: the one places his emphasis on justice, re-tributive justice, the other on love - and restorative justice.  Anselm’s think-ing was taken up by the Reformers, Abelard’s by the Enlightenment.


We need to recognise that these understandings are theories, theories of our rational but finite minds - and as such all are limited, shaped by the overarch-ing mindset of the day. In our scientific age we no longer see the Devil as any serious actor on the stage of God’s creation. In our egalitarian world, the no-tion of the ‘Satisfaction’ of God’s honour, traduced by those beneath God in a powerful hierarchy, is an alien concept. For surely as Abelard pointed out: declaring Christ’s death to be payment of a debt to God’s injured honour, is to belittle God’s love! And in our mindset, in our world of human rights, the re-fusal of degrading punishment, in our world where we consider capital pun-ishment to be wrong, to execute a man - or a woman, as punishment for an-other’s sin, cannot be justice - whoever the innocent party might be, human or divine!


The question roars: what sort of God is it who needs ‘payment’ in blood and guts in order to forgive his creation their failures? What sort of glory can this be? How could this be true of the Father God of Jesus, Jesus who commands Peter to forgive seventy times seven - and that, before any repentance on the part of the culprit!


There is perhaps, a measure of truth in each theory. Certainly Jesus, in his re-sponse to all that was thrown at him, all that he suffered without retaliation, defeated the power of evil to provoke further evil. Showed us a different way of being. Anselm emphasises the central importance of God’s call to live with justice together.  Justice matters. Not because God is concerned about his honour, rather because God is concerned for our well-being, the well-being of every creature God has made. And today we know that Abelard is right, that love, the love which brought Mary to pour out that ointment over Jesus, love is a far more powerful driver than fear, than the threat of punishment, to transform our inner life! Rather than wrathful and desiring punishment, God is heart-broken, distressed by our sin beyond our comprehension - and long-ing to redeem us.  Win us back.


Propositional thinking was the bedrock of the Hellenistic mind, and its search for Truth. But the Hebrew mind understood truth to reside in story! Hence the sophisticated literature of the Hebrew Bible. And Jesus teaching in parables.   In this understanding, as you enter the story, journey with it, you will collide with the Truth. Abelard saw Jesus’ actions, how he chose to live, what he taught, and the death he accepted, the story of his life, as story for us to enter and become part of too.


On Passion Sunday we enter this journey with Jesus. And as we journey, we too, face death. The death of that which is not wholesome in our living - those things to which we so often cling for security, but which in reality hold us back from embracing all the good things God would pour upon us.  Life is complicated, muddled, risky.  Not fair. To take hold of life we cannot avoid the pains of death, whatever death it may be - but in the processes of grief, as we allow ourselves to go down into the depths of our being, then with Christ who meets us there, our lives are being transformed. We will know the free-dom and the joy of resurrection, become stronger, more courageous, more alive.   Amen.

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