Since Ash Wednesday we’ve been talking about this season of Lent as a time of preparation. It’s the home stretch for the catechumens preparing for baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter and an excellent time for the community who is journeying with those people and preparing them to remember their own commitments. To reflect on their lives and why they are Christians and what that means in their lives.
We’ve talked about baptism and eucharist and their importance. We’ve talked about scripture and prayer. We’ve talked about grace. We’ve talked about the ways Christians intentionally order their lives so that their practices, their words, and their actions reflect their faith to the world and the God who are both watching. The scripture and the prayers that we’ve heard over the last number of weeks have all aided this. They’re carefully selected in this season to assist with this idea of making ready for the rituals and sacraments and celebrations of Easter.
Today in this large season of Lent—the second longest season of the church year—here we enter into a sort of mini-season that occupies the last two weeks of the season. It’s still Lent but now it’s also Passiontide. When I first started attending church as a young adult, the use of the word “Passion” to refer to this time of year or the section in the Gospels that refer to Christ’s crucifixion was confusing to me. Confusing because that was not the context in which I had learned the use of that word, “passion”. I’ve since learned that it comes from a Latin word that means suffering, so that makes sense, but without that piece of the puzzle I wasn’t quite sure how crucifixion-as-Passion related to the passion on daytime soap operas. (That’s a whole different sermon.)
It’s interesting that in today’s Gospel passage, the way John tells it, Christ broaches the subject of his impending death—his crucifixion—and starts by saying something like “The time has almost come for the Son of Man [that’s Jesus!] to be glorified.” He’s saying that there is going to be some glory attached to the way that Christ dies.
There’s the whole conversation between his followers about how they don’t want Jesus to die and surely this can be avoided and, of course, no, it can’t. (We’ll cover all of that over the next two weeks.) But the connection between Christ’s suffering and death on the Cross and the glory of God is an important one for us to hold on to in this two-week short season of Passiontide.
Why is a short season devoted to this theme of Christ’s suffering on the Cross something that you would want to include as part of a larger season that is about preparing people to become Christians? That seems potentially counter-intuitive. If I was trying to sell you a car I would not open with the fatality statistics of driving a car. I would open with the leather seats and the air conditioning and all of the comfortable, lovely things about the car.
The reason that this is important to include in this season of preparation is because Christians seek to live as Christ. The word Christian means “little Christs” and that’s who we all hope to be every day when we wake up. And we know that we’ll fall short and so we repent and confess and turn to God and then we do it all over again. That’s the pattern of our lives. But in our tradition, it’s very important when we talk about all of these ways through Lent that we try our best to live like Christ. We do this with the aid of things like sacraments and scripture and prayer. But we also understand that in living like Christ we may also be called to die like Christ.
In John’s telling of the Gospel today, Christ says “Where I am, there my follower will be.” So if Christ is hanging on the Cross, his followers ought not to be far away. They may be the women at the foot of the cross, they may be the repentant thief hanging on the cross beside him. To be a follower of Christ doesn’t mean that you’re guaranteed to end up in a painful and unpleasant death, that’s not the case at all, but that you should at least spend a few moments contemplating the consequences of being like Christ in this world. A world that 2000 years ago was not ready to accept Christ and today is often still not ready to accept Christ.
Particularly as the season of Lent was developing in the early years of the Church a very long time ago, it was important that people interested in the faith have this made very clear. Until the year 313 Christianity was either a religion that lived in a grey area in the Roman Empire: occasionally it was illegal and occasionally it was outright persecuted. In any of those circumstances Christians were subject to trial and potentially execution under Roman law. Becoming a Christian meant that you had to recognize that this might be the death of you in a very real and literal sense. The chances of that happening in Canada in 2021 are significantly slimmer than they were in a Roman province in, say, the year 221, but contemplating the consequences of our faith in the rest of our lives is still a worthwhile exercise. Whether for someone contemplating taking this faith on or for those of us who’ve been here for a while, using this season as a time of reflection.
Christ’s death on the Cross is an incredibly important statement by God about the relationship that God wishes to have with humanity. The Crucifixion does a number of things at the same time. Hopefully the Crucifixion does something to change humanity’s mind about God and helps us to believe that God is serious when God professes unconditional, eternal love in this covenant relationship that we have joined ourselves to. But I think also the crucifixion is a statement about God’s willingness to stand in solidarity with the conditions of human existence.
The last year has been one filled with people all over the world crying out one way or another, in protests, in interviews, in art and media, and in outright conflict. They are all saying “The way that we are being made to live is not just. The way that we are being made to live and die is unworthy of our status as human beings.” This gets phrased differently in specific circumstances, but this is the thrust of the thing. Peoples around the world who live in fear and oppression and under threat are saying “This cannot go on we will not stand for this any longer.”
And whenever this happens there is a rush on the part of other people to express support and solidarity with these people protesting. I may not be a member of the group who is pointing out the injustice under which they live but I can say “I see you, I hear what you’re saying, I support what it is you’re saying, and I stand in solidarity with you. I agree that you deserve better.”
It’s really easy for me to say that. I can say it in a sermon and I can say it on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and in conversations and it costs me absolutely nothing. Solidarity is an act that costs. In the Crucifixion God says to the world that God is willing to stand in genuine solidarity, occupying the same place, the same spot, the same injustice and punishment as any of God’s beloved children. Up to and including a gory, shameful, unpleasant public execution. God will go there with us if that is where we find ourselves.
This is also important to contemplate and reflect on for Christians and people who wish to become Christians. Where Christ is, there his followers will be found. Found included in solidarity with people made in the image and likeness of God, beloved by God who, by their fellow humans, are treated as less than worthy.
Worth. Less. Worthless.
I started by saying that it’s interesting in John’s telling of the Gospel how when Christ speaks about the way in which he is to die, he begins by saying that the time will soon come when the Son of Man is to be glorified. Not that the time will soon come when I am going to die in this cruel fashion. The glory of God is the most important piece of what is going to happen.
We know that we are not the disciples in roughly the year 30 having this conversation with Jesus. We know how this story goes. We have this advantage and it is an incredible statement about the grace of God and the love of God for humanity. You will hear much more about this through the season of Easter coming soon. It is incredible that God takes this expression of love and solidarity on the Cross and turns all of the ugliness of human fear and shame and violence and murder—this is our contribution to the divine plan in this moment—into something glorious.
God takes all of the worst that we can come up with and says, “Right, if that’s what you have to contribute to the project, then I guess I’ll make that work.” And in the Crucifixion God turns death and sin on their head, renders them impotent, and makes death—the great fear of humanity—the entry into this stunning beauty that is eternal life. God takes the thing we fear most greatly and, by applying all of our worst impulses, makes it the most beautiful thing in the history of creation: the promise of resurrection and eternal life in perfect union with God.
God will stand in solidarity with humanity wherever our experience takes us. For good and for ill. On the day that we die, whether we die in a horrible way inflicted by our siblings the way Christ did, or whether we die peacefully in our sleep at home surrounded by those we love, God stands with us and turns the fearful gate of death into a doorway into eternal life.
For those preparing for baptism and for everyone reflecting on their faith, the Crucifixion is an ugly moment. God’s love and grace are sufficient to turn it into a moment of the utmost beauty.
Thanks be to God.
Originally preached at Holy Trinity Church, Winnipeg, on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2021.
Thanks to Cole Arthur Riley of blackliturgist.com for her writing and thought on the cost of genuine solidarity.