In Preparation for Holy Week

“A little knowledge is a wonderful thing,” as the saying goes.

During my long years at Sunday School I used my little knowledge to ask the cleverest questions that I could think of, to try to cause confusion amongst my Sunday School teachers.  It had never occurred to me that any other little boys had ever asked similar questions before me.  At my real school I learnt that in the time of Jesus people believed that the world was flat, and that when it rained, holes opened in the sky for water to be poured through.  I was fascinated by this!

So when I was not asking difficult questions about how Adam and Eve managed to populate the whole world, or how all those animals really fitted into Noah’s Ark, I asked questions about Jesus and the world in which he lived.

“Did Jesus think that the world was flat?  Did Jesus think that rain was poured through holes in the sky?”

My well-meaning, but frustrated Sunday School teacher used to say to me, “if he did not know, he only had to ask his father in order to find out.”

It was much more recently that I discovered that the Early Church struggled for hundreds of years to answer questions like the ones that I put to my Sunday School teacher.   They were a little more sophisticated than my questions, which after all were only intended to irritate and annoy, but at their heart they related (at least in part) to what Jesus knew, and how he knew it.

The first Christians were also Jews.  The Old Testament, their scriptures, described the world in which they believed they lived.  It spoke of the God who had created them, and a messiah who would come to save them.  After Jesus’ death and resurrection these first Christians searched the pages of the Old Testament to try to discover who we was.  They found glimpses in the sayings of the prophets which resonated with their experience of Jesus, but they also knew that there was much more to Jesus than they could find in the scrolls of the Old Testament.

When we struggle with issues of faith, we instinctively turn to our Bibles, and to the tradition of the Church to find out what they have to say to guide us.  But for the first Christians, who lived without these things (it took over three years for the Bible to be brought together) there were few reference points to guide them.  So when they spoke about Jesus, after he had ascended, they had to experiment with what they said until what they said seemed to be agreeable to the whole Church.

They knew from their experience of Jesus that he was human – he had lived with them, eaten with them, shared his life with them.  But they also came to talk about him as more than human, as being God-like.  And, of course, this was a totally new category for them, there were precedents in their Jewish heritage for talking about anyone in this way.  Over time, through reflection, and prayer and debate their view of Jesus became better formed for them.  Hundreds of years after Jesus, the Church came to a point where they could say that God was human, but not created; that he was conceived by God, but born of a woman, that he was not a second god, but part of his Father, with the Holy Spirit – what they came to describe as the Trinity.  They had plenty of mishaps along the way.  A man Nestorian, and his followers, believed that Jesus was really two people in one body – a God person, and a human person.  At another point, some Christians taught that Jesus only appeared to be human, and that this was really a mirage, he was not actually human at all.  Arius, probably the most famous of the thinkers about Jesus who the Church says got it wrong, taught that Jesus was a kind of second-class god, and not really connected to the creator of the world at all.

It is easy for us in some ways to look back at the early period of the life of the Church and wonder how they came up with so many strange ideas.  But of course, we only think that they are strange because other ideas, like the way that we understand the Trinity, and the dual nature of Christ as both human and divine, over took the ideas, and became known as the truth.  Christians in the first few hundred years after Jesus started with a little knowledge and a few experiences; and over time, and with faith, began to make propositions about who Jesus was, and how Jesus was – until they agreed on those statements of faith which made most sense to them – and that is where our Creeds come from.

Throughout the history of the Church (and not just in that early period) people have genuinely struggled to understand how Jesus was both God and man.

They have struggled because there is no blue-print for it, and because it is quite outside our own experience of life.

Humans live in a world of three epochs.  We recognise the past, as something which we can learn from; we live in the present as the current moment in which we act; and we fix our hopes that things can be better in the future.  Living as a human, is about living in these three realities – one which has been, one which is now, and one which is yet to come.  But the experience of being God, as far as we can imagine, is outside of those restrictions.  The past and the present and future are all one for the eternal creator of the world.  This tension, between being human and divine, bubbles up every now and again as we read the Gospels.  And the account which we heard this morning from the Gospel of John is one of those examples.

The event is triggered by some Greeks who come to Philip and ask if they can see Jesus.  The word “Greeks” here is shorthand.  It does not literally mean “Greeks”, it means “everyone who is not Jewish.”  Given that most of the world spoke Greek, it refers to everyone who is not Jewish, rather than to people from a specific place.  Did you notice that we never find out if the Greeks get to meet Jesus or not, the story does not tell us.  But what becomes quickly apparent, is that the arrival of these foreigners, in Jerusalem, at the time of the festival, is enough of a sign for Jesus that he knows that things are coming to their conclusion.  When the whole world is searching for Jesus – and that is what these foreigners signify – then things are about to start moving quickly.  We might suspect that the events in this encounter did not happen exactly as the writers of John’s Gospel portray them in the story.  The writers of the Gospel, like us, knew the ending before they started to write down the beginning.    (The only reason it occurred to anyone to write down the stories of Jesus, many years later, was because they knew that he had been raised from the dead.)

So there is a sense that the events that John’s Gospel depicts are highly choreographed, they are written to compel Christians to keep on following, and to encourage non-Christians to start following this extraordinary man Jesus.  So the text is peppered with reminders about what the point of the big story is.

The whole of the Gospel of John is shaped by the cross, not just the bit at the end.  And the writers of the Gospel remind their readers continually what the point of the story is all about.

A new cycle is unfolding in the action.  Just as Andrew had met Jesus in the opening stories of the Gospel, and then gone to get his brother Peter; now Philip goes to get Andrew to let him know that these foreigners are searching Jesus out as well.  It is as if the opening calling stories of John’s Gospel are now about to be played out again, but this time with Gentiles, with people representing the rest of the world.  All this gives a clear message to Jesus that the hour has come.  And in John’s Gospel that phrase “the hour” is kept especially to describe the moment of his glory on the cross.

So Jesus, realising what is going on, tells a story.  He reminds his disciples that things have to die in order to live.  Just as grain dies in order to bear new fruit, so he must die, and so must his followers if they want to live forever in the eternal life of God’s love.  But all is not as triumphant as it may seem at first sight.  If we look carefully at what is going on, Jesus’ response to all of this is surprising.

Is he proud that people have sought him out?  The Gospel writers do not say that.  Is he exhilarated that things are coming to their conclusion?  I do not think so.  Is he ready to meet the moment with his head held high, well eventually maybe, but not yet.The Gospel writers describe his response instead, as “being troubled.”  And if we read on in the passage, the crowd is troubled as well, because this is not what they expect their messiah to do.  He is supposed to be a very human leader who will stay to overthrow the current rulers: he is not supposed to die.  Knowing the future is much more God-like than it is human-like.  Being troubled is much more human-like than it is God-like.  It is all very confusing!

In the other Gospels Jesus is not troubled until he reaches the Garden of Gethsemene, but in John’s Gospel there is a foretaste of this troubledness much earlier.  Some of the people who have thought about this most deeply, want to suggest to us that these glimpses of the humanity of Christ are deeply authentic.  These theologians remind us that because the Gospels were written so long after the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, (that whilst they are reliable as a whole), they may portray Jesus too much through the eyes of people who know how the story ends.  They suggest to us that it was irresistible for the Gospel readers to portray Jesus’ God-ness, over and above his human-ness.  Which brings us back to the question of what Jesus really knew.

“Could it be,” these thinkers argue, “that Jesus did not know what was going to happen next after all, that he was so immersed in what it meant to be human, that he shared with us (really and truly) the fundamental human reality of not knowing the future?”  That really, the predictions which Jesus makes about his own death, have been added into our Gospel narratives to keep us fixed on the end of the story, rather than really being the reality of what was going on at the time.  Well, I suspect some of us will be instinctively excited about that kind of possibility, and others of us will be instinctively sure that that was not how things were.  Whatever our own view, I want to invite us this Easter to enter into a kind of holy imagination about all of this.  Because, as  this morning’s Gospel heralds so clearly, things are about to move a lot faster.  When we meet next Sunday, Jesus will be entering Jerusalem, and the final days of his life – which we live together each year in Holy Week – will be upon us once again.

We don’t know what Jesus knew in advance about the final days of his life.  This is ultimately the mystery of our faith in the one who is both God and man.   But we do know that his disciples, ordinary humans like you and me, were unaware of the future until it became the present.  When Jesus rode into Jerusalem they did not know whether there was about to be a revolution.  When he hung on the cross they did not know that he would be with them again in a few days time.  And that is most significant for us because it is, of course, how we live our lives day by day.

We do not know what will happen tomorrow.  Our faith gives us no grounds whatsoever to predict the future with any certainty.  But our faith does give us hope that for everything that comes to an end for us, something new will begin.  My suggestion is that we might try to grapple with these final days of Jesus’ life this year, with the holy imagination that we do not know what will happen next: to live through Holy Week as if we did not know the end of the story.

  • To enter into Palm Sunday not sure what will happen next.
  • To live with the shock of Jesus sharing his body and his blood with us for the first time on Maundy Thursday.
  • To encounter the cross as if it were ultimate failure and hopelessness, and not the gateway to resurrection.
  • To have to continue to live on Holy Saturday, unaware that the power of the resurrection was about to break through.

Will you make a commitment to that journey?  To live Holy Week as we live every week of our lives, not with certainty but with the hope which comes through our faith?  To begin next Sunday, Palm Sunday, by seeing this story again through the faith which you and I seek to live out every day?  Not knowing the future, but trusting in hope?