Passion Sunday (The Fifth Sunday in Lent) (sermon)

The Sacrifice of Isaac, Armenian Illuminated Gospel, c. 1455
The Sacrifice of Isaac, Armenian Illuminated Gospel, c. 1455

Hebrews 9:11-15       John 8:46-59


How much more shall the blood of Christ…
purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

Lent is a time of pilgrimage for us in heart and mind to go to Jerusalem with Jesus.  We are going with him all the way to the Cross.

It is traditionally a time in Anglican churches when the cross on the altar is veiled in purple – as mentioned in our first hymn [The Royal banners forward go].  These words come from the 6th century – “The royal banners forward go, the cross shines forth in mystic glow”.  By its sudden absence when veiled, we notice the cross more!  In our case we have yet to obtain an altar cross – something we hope to remedy soon!

This morning there is an intensification, in the Gospel reading (John 8:49-59), of the battle between Jesus and the religious authorities as Jesus comes to the climax of his earthly ministry.  Remember, the pilgrimage with Jesus to Resurrection and new life must pass first through the violence done to Him on the Cross.

This morning we are confronted more directly with what lies behind the events that led to the crucifixion of Jesus.


This morning’s Gospel reading is the culmination of a dialogue between Jesus and the Jewish authorities which begins with Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem at the Feast of Tabernacles – the feast of lights.  And Jesus has been performing miracles of healings and also teaching in the Temple that he is the Light of the world [Jn 8:12] and many people are excited and glad to hear him.

It is one of the functions of the hierarchy in every religion, to guard the faith and to ensure that it is passed on to each generation undiminished (e.g. St Paul, the Ordinal, the services for the ordination of priests, promise this).  So when these Jewish teachers of the Law hear all this excitement around Jesus, they are right to want to find out if he is teaching the faith truly or is corrupting the faith.

Some of them do it with the right spirit – such as Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who came to Jesus by night, away from the heat of the politics, he earnestly desired to understand Jesus.

But in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus and the Pharisees have an outright confrontation.  Jesus loves them.  He responds with perfect clarity to their questioning, neither holding back his criticism, nor failing to take them seriously – he answers with perfect clarity their questions.

But it ends up with this painful conclusion at the encounter – the Pharisees conclude: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”

To suggest he is a Samaritan, it meant to be an insult.  Samaritans were seen by Jews as polluted, their religion impure, mixed with the Assyrians who had invaded in the 8th century BC and settled in that area.  But Jesus does not respond to this supposed insult – he in fact was as interested in saving the Samaritans as the Jews and often used them as examples of right thinking and loving in his parables.

But Jesus does reject their calling him demon possessed.  It is an insult to him and to the Father who sent him.  Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus is unconcerned with seeking his own glory – it is the Father who glorifies him, through the miracles and His wisdom which is more profound and that gladdens the heart.

Why are these Pharisees so angry with him?

Jesus has shamed them – he has humiliated them before others.  Every time they send delegations to him the delegations end up tongue tied.  Jesus does this shaming to no others but those who put themselves forward falsely as spiritual leaders.  In the passages before today’s Gospel Jesus has called these Pharisees “slaves of sin”, and having “no truth in them”, and being “sons of the devil”, “liars” – claiming they know the truth and yet not recognizing the Truth when He is standing before them.

Shame can make us respond with anger, out of self defence, we try to restore our sense of dignity.  We hate being in that place of shame…

But there is something deeper at work here – Jesus sees that they are questioning him with the purpose of finding out enough in his words to have him put to death.  They have a real hatred of Jesus, which is giving way to murder in their hearts.  Why?

There is something primordial in their hatred.  It brings us all the way back to the story of Cain and Abel – the first sons of the first couple, Adam and Eve.

There is an older brother, Cain, and a younger brother, Abel.  As Genesis reads:

Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brothr Abel and killed him.

The offering that Jesus is coming to bring, His very self, and without sin, is greater than the offering that the Jews are making in the Temple – and they are envious.  Paul points to this in this morning’s Epistle:

if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. 

These Jewish authorities are right to see that what Jesus is bringing about will change things radically.  It is a radical, but at the same time the fulfilment of all that they have believed and been promised.  They see the seriousness of what he is doing – and instead of embracing Him, they utterly reject Him.

Jesus concludes this morning’s Gospel, by stating plainly that he is God in the flesh – “before Abraham was, I am.”  Jesus is using the divine name that God used to refer to himself when asked by Moses, who are you?  Tell the people, “I am” has sent you.  God said,  “I am who I am.”  Jesus is saying that He Is God, from before time and He was there when Abraham lived 2000 year ago.

The religious teachers picked up stones to throw at Jesus, following the Law to put to death anyone claiming to be God.  They understand what he is saying.  But they don’t follow the very same Law that says they should never do this in the Temple.  This is not a cool headed rational judgement according to the Law, but they are overwhelmed with envy and it leads them to desire murder, which they will achieve later through the Roman authorities.


What is the lesson here for ourselves as we come to the last part of our pilgrimage to the Cross with Jesus, other than that the Pharisees were envious of Jesus – of His better sacrifice?

Anger is an emotion we all know in our souls.  It is a gift of God to spur us to action when we perceive an injustice is done to us or those around us.  There are good ways to express anger.

But anger can also have other roots because we are fallen – both our insight about what is right and just can be clouded by sin, and our motivations for anger might not be justice at all but envy.  Envy is to hate the good in another because it shows us up.

  • Envy can be at the root of anti-Semitism – many Jewish people have prospered. Envy can be at the root of racism, one race envying the virtues of another.  Envy can be at the root of Communism – the envy of the poor for those who have more.  Envy can be at the root of wars between nations.  Is it not envy at work in the sustained attacks on the institution of marriage and family life in the modern world?
  • And within families, envy can be the root of destructive behaviours between siblings or children and parents – the Bible is full of examples – Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, Jacob and Esau, David and his brothers, David and Saul. Surely we know it in our own families.  It can leave scars that take a lifetime to work through and heal.

If we find ourselves entering into a place of resentment, of bitterness, and hatred towards another, or the desire to destroy what is good and true and beautiful in another – then we place ourselves with the Pharisees in seeking to destroy God Himself.

The gift of the Law, the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, the religious practices of the Old Covenant, were not enough for these Pharisees, these teachers, to be transformed inwardly – the became white-washed tombs full of dead men’s bones – looked good on the outside but were corrupt inside.  When confronted with the Truth they utterly rejected Him.

Our inner conscience must be transformed – that we might see what truly is just and right and good and beautiful – and that we might rejoice in it wherever we see it.  This inner transformation happens by the Blood of Jesus in ways too mysterious to understand.

Jesus walks through these final days of his earthly life, with utter clarity, as he goes to the Cross.  His actions are unveiling the hidden thoughts in our hearts – His passion is meant to uncover them that we might repent and be healed.  And as we respond in faith to Him, we are transformed into His image.  And we will find ourselves walking this same path, being crucified with Him, experiencing the hatred and envy of others.  But instead of bitterness arising in us, we grow in compassion.

Let us now prepare ourselves, as we put before our eyes, in the Holy Communion, Jesus’ death on the Cross, and receive His risen life to follow Him on this holy path.

Amen +

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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2