Palm Sunday - Choral Evensong (1)

  • Preacher

    The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove

  • Readings

    John 12.12-26

Crucified by the City, Holy Week Address by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove

My question to us all this Holy Week is simply this. What does the cross of Jesus Christ mean for us in the year of our Lord 2019? What does Golgotha represent in the concentric worlds we live in – our communities of faith, family and friendships, in our places of daily work and activity, in the arenas of politics, society and nation, and in the largest of environments that we inhabit: our planet itself, indeed, the very cosmos? What does it stand for on the stage where the great public dramas are played out that govern the tides of history, a question that’s perhaps especially pertinent at this time in our nation’s life. And what does it stand for in the intimacy of our personal lives and relationships, how we are being shaped as human beings, as men and women of God? 

I put the question this way because I’m convinced that in Holy Week, we need to prise open our perspectives beyond our immediate concerns as people of faith. It’s natural to want to ask what it means for each of us to claim that “Jesus died for our sins”, a truth we gladly embrace not only at this time of year but every day of our lives. But that’s not all there is to Holy Week. As the best-known verse in the Bible affirms, the larger truth is that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”. The world, kosmos in Greek – the whole creation - nothing less, says St John, is the sphere of God’s activity giving himself in love. 

So I want to explore with you how we might “read” aspects of the cross in these concentric worlds that we live in, from the personal to the cosmic and everything in between. I’m going to do this by reflecting on St John’s passion narrative, this story that takes up almost half of the Fourth Gospel. How St John depicts the passion story as moving in and out of different settings and contexts is very striking. Some are huge and public, some are personal and intimate. All are essential to the story. All are necessary for us. 

Perhaps I should add that I came to faith as a teenager more than half a century ago when I sang with the school choral society in a performance of Bach’s St John Passion. So this narrative has immense personal significance for me. I offer this week’s reflections in the hope that the cross may draw us into its heart of love so that we worship the King of Glory and the King of Peace who suffers and is enthroned there.

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On Palm Sunday, we enter the first of this series of worlds, the city. Jesus arrives at Jerusalem, the destination that has been in his sights all through his ministry. Or we should say, in St John, arrives back in the city, for this is not his first visit. As a devout Jew he would “go up” from Galilee to the pilgrim feasts, and on one of them, Passover, memorably turned the traders out of the temple. This gives the Fourth Gospel a distinctively urban feel. This Jesus is not the Jewish Mediterranean peasant so much as the poet and prophet who calls out in the public quarters of religion and trade and politics, who walks the streets and squares of the city in search of people who might be open to life-changing encounters.

As in the other gospels, Palm Sunday means crowds and hosannas. The passion is inaugurated with the man on the donkey being acclaimed as King of Israel and blessed in the name of the Lord. “See, the world has gone after him!” Cities are places where enthusiasms flourish and things “trend”. Today the moment belongs to Jesus. But even on this festive day, there’s an undertow, a sense that all is not quite what it seems. Jesus starts speaking about his “hour” that is coming, about being “glorified”, about the grain of wheat that must fall into the ground and die, about not loving your life so much that you aren’t willing to lose it. The crucifixion is already anticipated in this story. In the midst of life we are in death. 

Holy Week tells us a story about how the Son of Man comes to his city to die. Here he will be tried, condemned, mocked, ridiculed, led out to crucifixion. In another gospel he weeps over Jerusalem: its pain is his pain, God’s pain. In St John the emphasis is on the city’s great refusal: “he came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him”. He portrays the priests, the crowd, the lawyers, the soldiers as relentlessly hostile, determined to push an already sceptical Pilate into putting Jesus to death. Cities can be like that. One moment it’s cries of acclaim to the coming King. The next it’s “We have no king but Caesar”. One moment hosanna. The next, crucify!

You could say that in St John, it’s the city that crucifies Jesus. For all that they are places of civilisation, wealth and progress, cities also harbour secrets and lies, the collusions that protect people from even knowing much of the time that they are doing harm. Cities are hiding places for the unjust who care nothing for truth. It’s not that injustices and atrocities don’t happen anywhere else. But all that makes a city a marvellous convergence of good energies, a pinnacle of human achievement, also enables falsehood and wrong to achieve a critical mass. The good always has a shadow. And that shadow falls across Jesus as men of the city converge on him to thrust him out like the scapegoat. “It is expedient that one man should die for the people” says that calculating, world-weary, ice-cold man of the city, the high priest Caiaphas. 

Although I now live in remote and rural Northumberland, I am a Londoner by birth and upbringing. I love cities and I love London. I believe in cities, and want to say that God believes in them too, and loves them – Jerusalem, Babylon, Athens, Rome, London. Cities should be good places and are for many people. So when a city becomes a place of violence, when politics are corrupted, when people are forgotten or neglected, when governance is stubborn and self-serving, when God’s poor are not heard and suffer at the hands of the privileged, when the blood of innocents is shed, when the city aggrandises itself and sucks all wealth and power into itself and away from the weak, well then, God weeps over it. God weeps for every moment when it crucifies Jesus afresh, when once again in any age he suffers in those he calls in St Matthew “the least of these my brothers and sisters”. 

Palm Sunday is the Sunday of the Cross. This afternoon our focus moves from the celebrations of the morning to the destiny that awaits this King. Our hearts are heavy with impending betrayal, suffering and passion. And yet we also come with lightness in our hearts because Good Friday is not only for sorrow but also, and especially, for forgiveness, release, promise, new life. I wonder if we can, in our imaginations, walk out of the city to Golgotha not only as men and women looking for reconciliation but also as citizens, people of the city who bring the city with us, its triumphs and disasters, its glory and its shadow, its promise and its pain, all that makes it good and all that is corrupt and compromised. Perhaps we can come to this place where God has finished the work of redemption and glimpse how the city could be reframed, reimagined, redeemed, how it could begin to glow with the reflected light of celestial city of peace, Jerusalem the golden. 

Yes, the city has crucified Jesus and we are part of it. But that is not the end of the story.