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Passion Sunday - What is your heart's desire?

Sermon Preached at St Augustine's, Queen's Gate, 25/03/2007
Revd Sue Groom, Director of Deanery Licensed Ministers

Passion Sunday (5th Sunday of Lent)
Readings: Philippians 3:4-11; John 12:1-8

Let me tell you a story about the great nineteenth-century Anglican pastor, poet and theologian John Keble. When he was a young don in Oxford, during the early years of the century, he was the college bursar. Then, as indeed now, few clergy were trained in the art of balancing columns of figures. In one particular year Keble’s accounts were stubbornly out of balance by nearly two thousand pounds... Eventually the mystery was solved. Having written the date at the top of the page, he had added the number of the year – it must have been somewhere around 1820 – into one of the columns of figures.

There are many methods of creative accounting, but as far as I understand it, balancing the books is usually a matter of putting together a number of items on the credit side, and another number of items (often more!) on the debit side, and then calculating to see how close they come. This is the metaphor Paul is using in the passage from his letter to the Philippians we heard a few moments ago. This is how Tom Wright (Bishop of Durham and NT scholar) translates verses 7 and 8:

‘Does that sound as though my account was well in credit? Well, maybe; but whatever I had written in on the profit side, I calculated it instead as loss – because of the Messiah. Yes, I know that’s weird, but there’s more: I calculate everything as a loss, because knowing King Jesus as my Lord is worth far more than everything else put together! In fact, because of the Messiah I’ve suffered the loss of everything, and I now calculate it as trash, so that my profit may be the Messiah.’

Do you hear the echoes of the poem about the Messiah, Jesus, in chapter two of Philippians?

Who, though in God’s form, did not
Regard his equality with God
As something he ought to exploit.

Instead, he emptied himself,
And received the form of a slave,
Being born in the likeness of humans.

And, then, having human appearance,
He humbled himself, and became
Obedient even to death,
Yes, even the death of the cross.

And so God has greatly exalted him,
And to him in his favour has given
The name which is over all names:

That now at the name of Jesus
Every knee under heaven shall bow –
On earth, too, and under the earth;

And every tongue shall confess
That Jesus, Messiah, is Lord,
To the glory of God, the father.

Jesus didn’t regard the huge advantage he had, equality with God, as something to be exploited, rather he interpreted it as a vocation, a vocation that entailed death on a cross. That is why God exalted him.

Similarly, Paul didn’t regard the huge privileges he had within his community - as a circumscribed Jew, a member of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, and a Pharisee - Paul didn’t regard these huge privileges as things to be exploited, rather he discovered that in Jesus the true meaning of being a member of God’s covenant people lay in suffering and death. Hence Paul’s overriding desire to ‘know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.’

This isn’t to say that Paul was against being a circumscribed Jew, or a Pharisee, or that he was against the good things in life like friends, good food, music and beauty. What Paul is saying is that all of these, absolutely everything, pales into insignificance when you know Christ and his gift of life. What mattered to Paul more than anything else was knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.

Saint Francis of Assisi is perhaps best known as the patron saint of ecology. This may be because of the way he preached to the birds and animals. He was a real troubadour, full of the joy of life, a clown, but also someone who considered himself to be married to Lady Poverty and who took the gospel very literally. In the year 1224 he spent forty days fasting and praying on Mount La Verna. During that time he is said to have asked God for two things: ‘to feel the pain of the Passion and to feel in his heart the love which made it bearable.’ Francis received the stigmata, the gifts of the wounds of Christ, on what we know as Holy Cross Day, September 14th. We don’t know exactly what happened. Brother Leo was there, but he was disobeying Francis and in effect spying on him! It seems that Francis was granted his deepest desire. He suffered great pain and bore open wounds until the day he died more than two years later.

The abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire 200 years ago owes much to William Wilberforce. After his conversion to Christianity he claimed that God had given him two great objectives: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners. His dedication to abolition never slackened, however it took its toll on his life: it almost certainly broke his health and it hastened his death.

On this, Passion Sunday, we are challenged to ask ourselves, both as individuals and as a church family, what matters to us more than anything else?

What are we praying for during these forty days of Lent?

As we recall how much Christ was willing to suffer so that we might live, we ask ourselves, what are we willing to sacrifice that others might live?

Acknowledgements and Bibliography
As with any sermon, various ideas come together over a period of time and it isn't always possible to retrace my steps to every source of inspiration. I am particularly indebted here, however, to Tom Wright's Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters - Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon (SPCK, 2002) and will gladly acknowledge any other sources if brought to my attention. Thank you.

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