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Understanding Jesus - Archbishop's sermon at St Michael's College

Sunday 25th March 2012

Archbishop Rowan Williams preached at St Michael's College, Llandaff, during a visit to Wales. The service was the theological college's end of term eucharist, and the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, presided.

A transcript of the Archbishop's sermon follows. 

St Michael's CollegeSermon at St Michael’s College

The Archbishop of Canterbury
Dr Rowan Williams

25 March 2012


The Old Testament Lesson: Jeremiah 31.31-34
The Epistle: Hebrews 5.5-10
The Gospel: John 12:20-33 

The famous Roman Catholic preacher and scholar, Ronald Knox, once remarked that “If I may say it all reverence, St John is a terrible storyteller.”  Again and again in John’s Gospel we have what seems to be a simple question receiving a hugely complicated answer, and this morning’s Gospel sounds, at first, a bit like that.

The Greeks come and say, “We want to see Jesus.”  Philip and Andrew go to tell Jesus, and instead of simply saying, “Bring them in,” Jesus goes into a long discourse about all sorts of things which don’t seem to have very much to do with letting the Greeks meet Him.  But of course, as always in St John, the words are drenched with significance.

‘Seeing’ is one of the key words in St John’s Gospel, right from the start.  Remember when the first disciples are pointed towards Jesus by John the Baptist, they ask him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” and Jesus says, “Come and see.”  And right at the end of the Gospel when Peter and the Beloved Disciple arrive at the empty tomb, they see; they notice; they put things together; they believe.  And St John, here as elsewhere, uses a whole variety of different words in Greek for what we translate by the simple word, ‘see’.

So, in chapter one, when Jesus says, “Come and see,” to the potential disciples, it’s a bit like, “Come and have a look.”  And when they get to the empty tomb, Peter goes in and he ‘notices’ the grave clothes, while the Beloved Disciple goes in and he ‘gets the point’: he sees, and believes.

Interestingly, the word used in this morning’s Gospel is that word used about the Beloved Disciple.  The Greeks come and say, “We want to get the point about Jesus.  We want to see what all this is about,” not just, “We want to wave to the celebrity in the crowd.”  And that perhaps begins to explain why Jesus gives such a long and complex answer to what seems a simple request.

You want to get to the point about what’s going on?  Well, “Watch what’s going to happen in the days ahead,” Jesus is saying, in effect.  Watch the journey of Jesus towards the Cross, towards the moment of glory – which is the same as the moment of suffering.  And when Jesus is lifted up for all to see – lifted on the Cross, visible to the whole world in suffering – then you see the point; then you see what it’s all about.  Because without that lifting up on the Cross, without that public display of God’s reckless compassion, you won’t see Jesus.  You won’t, as we might say today, ‘get’ Jesus.  You won’t see what’s going on.  That’s what is crucial in this passage.

And that’s why Jesus says, “A grain of wheat, if it remains alone, is just a grain of wheat.”  It falls into the ground, it disintegrates and then it bursts into life – and then we see what a grain of wheat is for.  Likewise in his own life and death: this is not just a story of a great teacher and a great hero who comes to an unhappy end; this is a life with purpose, blossoming for the whole world, just as the purpose of a grain of wheat is blossoming into what will eventually make bread for the world.

To see Jesus, to ‘get’ Jesus, is to see that the whole of his life moves to this point so that it’s not just a story for local people alone.  Not just a story for people like Jesus, but a story that opens doors for every human being everywhere.  That’s what it’s all driving to: moving to this point of crisis, of suffering, of lifting up, and exploding to the whole world.  “I will draw all people to myself” – and as the passage ends there we realise, we see, we ‘get’ what’s going on.  The story that began with foreigners turning up asking, “How are we to understand what’s going on?” is answered by the lifting up of Jesus on the cross in such a way that it’s good news for everybody: “Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female,” as another New Testament writer put it.

But in the middle of all this comes the little bit that ought to make us sit up and worry.  “Where I am,” said Jesus, “there will my servant be also.”  Thus far, we’ve been able to look with wonder and delight and gratitude at the miracle of Jesus – Jesus, whose life moves to this point of crisis, Jesus whose life explodes in significance to the whole world.  Wonderful.  Thanks be to God.  Only, here’s the bad news: somehow we are involved in this process as well.  And as one great saint of the 20th century Anglican church, Raymond Raynes of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, said: the risk is always to lock up the drama and sacrifice in the person of Jesus, and not realise this process is happening in us as well – because where he is, we’re going to be.  We, his body; we who are making him seen; we who are trying to convey to the world what’s going on; we who have the responsibility of lifting Him in up in a way that all can see.

And there’s our problem.  Because we can’t just do it by talking about Him – we’ve got to do it by seeing our own lives in the light, in the rhythm, in the harmonics of who He is.  Because we are in Him, inexorably involved in Him by the baptism of our calling: “Where He is, there we shall be”.

And so we have to think of our lives as moving in the same direction as Jesus.  What looked safe and clear is dissolving.  Our individual sense of ourselves, and the great gifts we bring, and the deep sense of calling, and the exemplary prayer life that we all have – all of that is mysteriously going to dissolve under the pressure of our life in Christ.  What we thought we were good at somehow has to step back, so that God can be good at being God in us, so that Jesus can be alive.

I would hazard a guess that quite a lot of you coming into Theological College have found that the goalposts have shifted; have found that what looked like a satisfying, rewarding, spiritual life has gone to pieces; that you’re actually praying less well, by your own standards, than you used to.  I used to teach in a theological college, and indeed I was at a theological college, so I suspect that’s not just my individual experience.  And the sad news is, that’s going to go on.  Some people feel their spiritual life goes to pieces once they’re ordained; and what that is about is that the pressure of being ‘in Christ’ is always taking us in the direction of Christ.  “Where He is, his servants will be.”  But somehow we are always putting a foot out into the darkness, feeling for his hand and his guidance, trying to learn how to trust that He is ahead of us, even when we don’t see the way, and trying to trust that He is at work in us, even when we can’t begin to see how.

We’re entering today upon Passiontide, and that’s a time when all of this is something we’re bound to be thinking about.  What happens when things are no longer clear?  What happens when our sense of calling, our sense of intimacy with God, fades away?  What happens when all we thought mattered about our Christian identity or our ministerial identity looks as if it’s going to pieces?  Well, that’s when we have to start believing in God – and discovering that we have to believe in God is just something we have to go on discovering, day after day and week after week.

And if ever we get to point of saying, “Well now I really believe in God,” that’s a kind of warning sign; there’s probably a crisis around the next corner.  I’m never done with believing in God; every day of my life I’m learning how to believe in God.  And with every moment, what I thought God was about is like the grain of wheat dropping into the soil, apparently disintegrating and then becoming that little bit more universal; that little bit more credible in a complex and difficult world.

So if we are to be where Jesus is, and if we are to help people see Jesus, ‘get’ Jesus, then that will be part of our discipleship.  As lay people ministering in the Church of God, as ordained people ministering in the Church of God, we are to show that we are still learning faith; learning to believe.  And I don’t mean by that learning to understand the doctrines of faith, though that’s important enough (and one of the great mysteries is that we’re always discovering more depths to the doctrines of creed, not at all that we leave them behind).  It’s just that in our own sense of who we are, and how we work as Christians, we have somehow to convey that more – that sense of moving into the mystery of death and resurrection, of loss and recovery, of darkness and light, which is the movement of Jesus in this season of his Passion.

Jesus says: if people want to see what it’s all about, there are two things that will make it possible – my own entry into darkness, and rising into light; my own passion.  Nothing substitutes for that.  But within that and because of that, what will make this credible will be you.  He says to us: you, my friends, you, my disciples, stumbling along with me, tripping over, falling on your faces because you can’t keep up, discovering that you’ve got to go on.  Discovering that you can start again, repenting and believing in the classical language of the Gospel.”  And, says Jesus to us: if I am to be credible to the world, you must be repentant, believing people; people who are not destroyed by your failures, but who acknowledge them and trust in the leading of God.  “Where I am, there will my servant be also.”

But, if you notice, just a few chapters later, He turns that round in his discourses at the Last Supper when He promises that we will be with Him in the Father’s presence; it’s not just that we’re with Him in his pain and his loss, but we are with Him in his intimacy with the Father.

Well, as we begin this last phase of the journey towards Easter, we can ask ourselves, “What are we seeing?  What are we ‘getting’?”  Not just noticing, not just taking a look at the Cross, not just observing what’s going on; but seeing – getting the point, like the Greeks.  Seeing that here is a story of a life buried and blossoming.

What are we seeing and hearing as we study the familiar gospel accounts, as we hear yet again the story of Jesus’ Passion and triumph?  And then, what are we allowing people to see in us? Confident, slick, religious people who know all the answers and all the formulae?  Or people who, because of Jesus, are learning day after day, again and again, to believe in God as if for the first time?  To convey to those around that believing in God is the most significant and transforming, joyful and terrifying, enterprise that is possible for human beings?  Because the God in whom we are learning to believe day after day is the God who is not afraid to be our God; not afraid to be in the middle of our world of suffering and stress; not afraid to be human with us.  And that is a God we shall never see, in one sense; never fully understand.  Because the mystery of that love is, in the words of Charles Wesley’s great hymn, something before which the first-born seraph falls back uncomprehending – so if first-born seraphs can’t do it, we’re even less likely to.  But learning to believe day after day, because our God is that kind of God – that is the hidden joy of Passiontide.  That is the key at the heart of the proclamation of the Easter Gospel.

So may God help us with those ancient Greeks in Jerusalem to see, to ‘get’, Jesus.  May God help us in our ministries to enable the world to ‘get’ Jesus; to see the mystery exploding to the ends of the Earth, penetrating every corner of the human experience, shedding the love of God on the whole of creation.  Amen.

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