Passion Sunday – what do you care about?
I don't suppose that when you awoke this morning, your first thought was – this is Passion Sunday.
In our Church it is not an important day. We concentrate on Palm Sunday next week. But in the Roman Catholic Church and to a lesser extent in the Anglican and Lutheran Churches, Passion Sunday is regarded and observed. For them the two weeks of Passiontide begin today, the first week being known as "Passion Week," and the second week being known as "Holy Week."
For those in different churches from ours, this day, Passion Sunday, memorialises the increasing antipathy against Christ from the Jews who would not accept Him and accused Him of sorcery and of being blasphemous and possessed by a devil. In these churches, where liturgy is prominent, today, statues and sacred images (except for the Stations of the Cross) are veiled with purple cloth and they remain covered until Holy Saturday, at which point Lent ends and Eastertide begins. Catholics cover statues and icons, etc., in their homes for the same time period (the cloth shouldn't be translucent or decorated in any way). This veiling of the statues and icons stems from the Gospel reading of Passion Sunday (John 8:46-59), at the end of which the Jews take up stones to cast at Jesus, Who hides Himself away. The veiling also symbolizes the fact that Christ's Divinity was hidden at the time of His Passion and death, the very essence of Passion tide.
Protestant Christianity is very different indeed. A couple of weeks ago I accepted an invitation to attend St Kentigern's Academy Feast Day. It is Mass followed by lunch. I had a funeral to conduct in the early afternoon so I intended just staying for the Mass. I wore my clerical collar out of respect. The pupil escorting me from the main door thought that I was a priest coming to con-celebrate and so he led me into the new Archbishop of Edinburgh and St Andrews Leo Cushley's robing room. Father Lawson from Bathgate was there also. After some pleasantries I realised that I was in the wrong place and explained why I had been brought there. I added - “But – I can help you out if you want”. Archbishop Cushley replied, “I'll ordain you and you can help us out”.
The Mass proceeded. Father Holuka had organised the pupils to play their parts. The Archbishop gave a homily – a short talk – hardly a sermon in our sense of the world. I thought it was an opportunity missed to challenge and inspire these pupils. But it was simple and pastoral, on the three things of Lent, prayer, fasting, alms-giving. The Archbishop and the two priests con-celebrated, taking a sip of wine and a wafer each. Then the entire school and staff came down to the front and received only the wafer. The school choir was excellent and the prayers were mostly what we could accept ourselves.
What struck me forcibly was the contrast between this secondary school and the state schools in Scotland. Can you imagine every pupil and staff member at Bathgate Academy receiving Holy Communion? It could never happen. We have lost out on the Christian nurture of young people - almost completely. The Church of Scotland has recently done a deal with the humanists to replace the term 'Religious Observance' with 'Time for Reflection' in Scottish schools. In April Life & Work, the Convener of the Church & Society Council writes, 'the Council believes that external visitors to schools must, in their work in schools, abide by the school's Equality and Diversity Policy. You know what that means?
That is where we are. We have lost the plot. Passion Sunday? What do you care about? What do you care about most? Who do you care about? Who do you care about most? Where does Jesus fit it? Is he near the top or just an afterthought in your life? Do you care about Jesus? Do you care about His Church? Do you care about this Church? Do you care enough?
In the Gospel read to us earlier we learn again of Jesus turning towards and making his way to Jerusalem. It wasn't just a day out. He knew what was going top happen to Him. The text says 'They were on their way to Jerusalem with Jesus leading the way'. Jesus was out on His own and alone. No-one else understood. It is strange to say but the Son of God while on earth was mostly alone perhaps even lonely. He overcame this by prayer and by the inward strength and power of the Holy Spirit. But personally and socially, for all he had the disciples, Jesus was alone most of the time. The text says the disciples were astonished – no doubt this means at Jesus' bravery and resolution, heading deliberately and strategically towards trouble. We are told that those who followed were afraid. These were the outer circle of Jesus' travelling congregation including the women. They were probably afraid for Jesus as well as for themselves. Everyone knew what happened to anyone who challenged the authorities in those days. There was no mercy.
Jesus took a break and sat the disciples down; the text mentions specifically The Twelve. Jesus took them aside and told only them the details of what would happen to Him in Jerusalem. He did not spare them. But He ended on a very positive note Three days later he will rise. It is very cryptic. Enigmatic. Is that all Jesus said about His resurrection at that moment? Did he explain how this was going to happen? Did he reassure them that they would be the first to know? The text does not tell us. But surely it is an edited version of that conversation. Jesus must have taken some time to try to calm the tensions and worries. It is John's Gospel that spells this out for us in chapters 14, 15, 16 and 17. 'Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am'. 'When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning'.
Here however, the discussion seems to have been a bit more frenetic and desperate. Two of the disciples James and John ask to have a word with Jesus by themselves. They give Jesus His place and they address Him with respect. 'Teacher'. They didn't say 'Haw Jesus – gonnae gie us a meenuite?' They didn't say 'Mate – a word in your ear'. But then they made an extraordinary demand and it was a demand; it was not a polite request. We want you to do for us whatever we ask. They sought agreement in principle first – that Jesus would answer anything they asked for positively before telling him what it was they actually wanted. 'Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory'. That was what James and John seemed to care about - themselves and their future and their prestige and their position and their ascendancy over the other disciples. There is only one John listed among The Twelve Disciples in Mark chapter 3 and so this must be the one who became the beloved disciple, who wrote John's Gospel and the Book of Revelation. So perhaps this was not just so self-seeking as it appears. The text says 'in your glory' and that suggests a deeper perception of Jesus' future after his resurrection rather than a sit down top of the table status as a ruler of Israel. This must have actually happened and the record of this conversation must be true because it is not flattering to James and John in the first instance of reading. But maybe they were asking in a roundabout way to share in Jesus' suffering so that they could share in His glory. They were saying – we will go with you – all the way – whatever it takes – and – afterwards – we will be close to you again. Maybe.
Jesus' reply to them by way of a question suggests that this might be the better interpretation. 'Do you know what you are letting yourselves in for?' says Jesus. Do you want to share my awful fate? And James and John replied that they did understand and that they were ready and willing to die with Jesus so that they might rise with Him. Jesus then suggest that James and John will indeed share His suffering. But we know that they did not. Only Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem. However, James' fate is described in Acts 12: 2. 'It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword'. All tradition confirms that John was not martyred. He lived to a good old age. John's Gospel itself tells us as much.
'Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumour spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”' This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.
But Revelation 1 tells us in John's own words that he did not escape suffering for Jesus. 'I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus'. John was, for some months in 95 AD, a slave in the salt mines of Patmos. Today Patmos is a destination for Christian pilgrimage. Visitors can see the cave where John is said to have received his Revelation (the Cave of the Apocalypse), and several monasteries on the island are dedicated to Saint John. This is Passion Sunday - what do you care about? Who do you care about? Have a care for Jesus Christ. He is worth it. More than any other.