Homily preached by Fr Andrew Wilson
on Tuesday 16th April 2019
Isaiah 49.1–7; Psalm 71.1–8; 1 Corinthians 1.18–31; John 12.20–36
We could sum up today’s Mass readings as “There’s hope for us all!”
The first reading today comes as far as we know from a time of struggle for the people of God, either stranded in Babylon after its collapse, and waiting transportation back to their homeland, after the edict of freedom issued by Cyrus, the new overlord; or it may have been after arriving back in a barren post-war wilderness, that they felt helpless and impotent to rebuild Israel’s fortunes.
The second song of the Suffering Servant of God has always been seen by the Christian community as prefiguring Christ the true and anointed Servant of God. God understands the exhaustion of his messenger, but encourages the prophet to renew his efforts, no longer simply to call Israel back to faithfulness, but to look beyond the narrow confines of his nation, to see that God has a wider plan in calling all nations to himself. So this second servant song is deliberately addressed to the ‘goys’, the foreign nations. God is now establishing his universal reign, in ways that will bring deliverance, and purification for all people.
Paul holds the image of the humiliated and crucified Master before us. Jesus’ suffering and death speak of a radically different sort of wisdom, and power that could transform us.
Finally in the Gospel we glimpse the beginnings of the gathering in of the Gentiles, foreseen by Isaiah. These Gentile Passover pilgrims, who ask to be led to Jesus, are obviously ‘God-fearers’, foreigners who have adopted the Jewish faith. They at least, unlike the Pharisees, are ready to explore whether the claims being made by some that Jesus is the promised messianic King have any ring of truth. They are encouraged by the fact that Philip and Andrew bear Greek names. Philip, John makes it clear, comes from Galilee, a cosmopolitan area on the borderlands of foreign territory. So this Gospel hints at the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. The arrival of the Prince of Peace, whose kingdom will increase until all nations acknowledge him. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and on those who lived in the shades of death a light has shone.”
Again, in the Acts of the Apostles we hear Peter directly using this servant image of Isaiah to identify Jesus as the true “servant” of God. “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus.” One commentator on this ready identification by the first Christians of Jesus as the embodied suffering servant underlines the way in which John in his Gospel repeatedly underscores this theme of obedience and humility. John tells us that:
- Jesus always did the will of the Father (John 4:34; 6:38).
- Jesus never sought to please Himself but always to please the Father (John 5:30).
- Jesus finished the work that God had sent Him to do (John 17:4).
- Jesus came to glorify the Father (John 13:31; 17:4).
And in today’s Gospel Jesus goes on to identify us, his followers, as sharers in his servant-hood – called to the same pattern of sacrificial living – “Where I am there also will my servant be.” The events of this week lay bare our failure to always do the will of God; find us undoing that sacrificial and humble pattern of living we find in Christ find us acting instead to please ourselves first and foremost, not always accomplishing the tasks we are called on to pursue as Christians; looking for our own glory rather than that of our heavenly Father. This week above all calls on us to return to God, repenting of the past, and renewing our readiness to be his faithful servants.
Jesus warns his hearers that judgement has already arrived. The sight of the unveiled cross on Friday will shine its light on our darkness, offer us a glory and wisdom that speaks only of love. In the words of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the hope is that we “come to our senses – come to our true selves”, tread the path back home as the spendthrift son did. This week gives us the chance to “come to our senses”.
The introduction to a contemporary version of the Jewish Passover Seder Meal puts it well when it says of the festival
“We focus on the miraculous deliverance of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage, through peril, and in the face of impossible odds, to the gifts of divine sustenance in the wilderness… a sustenance of both body and soul, and at last into the freedom and beatitude of the holy land. This pilgrimage represents the spiritual journey from darkness into light we must all try to make in the course of our lives. So the Passover service ends not only in joy but also in clarification, a movement from darkness to light – we understand what we had not known, or had forgotten, or had neglected, or had misunderstood before.”
Tonight’s liturgy of reconciliation gives us the chance to get our bearings, find our way home. Rowan Williams reflects on the servant priesthood that the church shares in with its Lord
“The Church is first of all a kind of space cleared by God through Jesus in which people may become what God made them to be (God’s sons and daughters) and that what we have to do about the Church is – not first to organize it as a society, but to inhabit it as a climate or landscape. It is a place where we can see properly – God, God’s creation, ourselves. It is a place, or dimension in the universe that is in some way growing towards being the universe itself in restored relation to God.” (Abp’s website 1185)
It is the time for us to restore our relationship then with God, with our neighbour, and, not least, the relationship with our selves; beginning to “understand what we had not known, or had forgotten, or had neglected, or had misunderstood before.”
Henri Nouwen reflects on Rembrandt’s picture of the parable of the prodigal’s return. He reminds us that ‘self rejection’ (seen in the prodigal’s dismissal of any possibility that his relationship with his father can be restored: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son, Treat me as one of your hired slaves.”), this lack of confidence in God’s forgiveness, says Nouwen, is the greatest bloc to our spiritual growth and well-being.
He writes, “One of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life is to receive God’s forgiveness. There is something in us humans that keeps us clinging to our sins, and prevents us from letting God erase our past, and offer us a completely new beginning. Sometimes it even seems as though I want to prove to God that my darkness is too great to be overcome.” (The Prodigal Son, p. 53, DLT)
We can see ourselves as hopeless. Or of course this week we can try very hard, polish up our mad expectations about ourselves, preoccupied with doing it right, losing sight of the one thing necessary – that we are all stumbling back home. It is God who is our reconciliation, not us. Why else does the father interrupt the well rehearsed script of his wayward son, before he has the chance to deny his sonship, and settle for life as a slave? Why else does the father cut through our clumsy attempts to make amends and restore the ring of sonship that we have so carelessly pawned for lesser things?
This is to be a week of joy as well as of sorrow. As the deacon will sing at the Vigil Mass, “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, that brought the world so great a Redeemer!” Julian of Norwich stretches this point even further, when she reflects on those visions of divine love, given to her as she lay at death’s door, gazing at the Crucifix a small server boy held at the foot of her bed. It helped her to understand that
“Though we sin continuously he loves us endlessly, and so gently does he show us our sin that we repent of it quietly… But this was shown, that in falling and rising again we are always held close in love.“
There is hope for us all.