Passion Sunday 2023 – Castle Acre
Today is Passion Sunday, the fifth Sunday of Lent when we turn toward the central event of Holy Week, the Crucifixion. From today crosses and crucifixes in churches will be veiled. The word Passion comes from the Latin verb patior, passus sum ‘ to suffer, to bear, to endure’, in fact the same derivation of the idea of patience, and patient. This is the short final period of Jesus’s life, which next week will see him arrive in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover with his disciples, received by cheering crowds who love his use of a young colt, referring to the arrival of the Messiah – ironically not a visual reference, but reality coming to effect before their eyes. These same excited crowds will later on in the week be the self-same voices who turn on Jesus, who succumb to the false accusations of the religious leaders, and despite Pilate’s statement that he found no crime in this young preacher and healer, they call for his Crucifixion and the release of the criminal Barabbas. And the week of course also includes the falling away of those closest to Jesus, the betrayal by Judas, the denial by Peter, the fear of the disciples as the crowds bay for blood and the world closes in around them. Innocent, and largely abandoned, having patiently stayed true to his calling Jesus is condemned to a terrible death. In the midst of this injustice Jesus does not resort to blame or anger, he calls on God to forgive those who condemned him, how can they possibly know what they do? And through this whole week which on the face of it looks like an unstoppable movement toward utter failure and tragedy, there is at its heart Jesus’s passion, His patient waiting on God. In hindsight we can see that so much of what Jesus had always taught about the need to be prepared to lose one’s life both metaphorically and literally, in order to truly live, how in the midst of seeming failure we can often be closest to God’s purpose for us. Jesus’s willingness to bear his burden for humanity, to endure this total rejection of his love and life’s works, and ultimately his willingness to trust God and to suffer the agonies of the Cross, all this forms the period we now start to reflect on --- the Passion.
In our Gospel Jesus is receives a message from his close friends Mary and Martha, concerning their brother Lazarus who is reported gravely ill, and in need of Jesus’s healing help. To everyone’s surprise Jesus does not stop what He is doing and go to Lazarus, he stays where He is for two more days, saying that the illness will not end in death. Yet He quickly receives the news that Lazarus has indeed died, much to the grief of his sisters all of whom Jesus loved and was very close to. To the disciples this looked like confirmation of their call to attend the sick man, and now all was over, and Jesus who had healed so many had not been there for his close friend, and yet Jesus still insists that Lazarus sleeps, and He will go to wake him – not unreasonably His followers were shocked.
On arrival Jesus finds Lazarus had in accord with Jewish custom already been buried in his tomb, and around him his loved ones were in deep grief, indeed many had come from Jerusalem too to grieve with the sisters. The ever direct Martha hears he is near and goes out to meet Jesus, she confronts Him saying that if He had been there her brother would still be alive, but even at this stage she believes Jesus has the power to bring some solace, even though she cannot understand what that might be. Jesus says he will rise, and like many Jews Martha agrees that at the last day with all the righteous Lazarus will indeed rise. But Jesus counters by saying ‘ I am the Resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me will never die’. Mary also runs to confront Jesus with her distress that He had not come to save her brother, overcome with rears and grief.
Jesus then goes to the tomb, and in the shortest sentence in the bible ‘ Jesus wept’, for even when there is faith in resurrection the power and desolation of death is no less overwhelming. Jesus calls for the stone to be removed, but is warned that after four days the smell will be bad, He bids them continue to have faith. Jesus thanks God before the tomb of His friend that His prayers will be heard and calls Lazarus out from the tomb, and he emerges still wrapped in the cloths that he was buried in. And as the Gospel reports many believed in Him that day, even the Jews who had come from Jerusalem.
It isn’t hard to see so many parallels here with Jesus’s own resurrection story that John reports, but of course there is a very important difference, one that at this point couldn’t have been understood by the grateful sisters, and the astonished crowd. Lazarus had in fact been brought back to the same life that he had temporarily lost, he was in truth revivified not resurrected. Jesus when He rises from the grave does so to move on to the life of eternity, to begin the life of all those who are resurrected in the presence of God for ever. Lazarus, although it isn’t reported in scripture would of course carry on his life until as we all must one day die again. Only after that death would he faith in Jesus bring him the eternal resurrection life that Jesus own rising made clear. The human temptation is to want our loved ones, even ourselves not to die, the promise of eternal life doesn’t give a free pass, our lives our bounded by eternity and mystery, but out hope lies in the resurrection of Jesus, and His conquering of death itself.
This Passiontide we can look around the world and see many for whom the reality of suffering, of walking with Jesus in his weeks of Passion are very real indeed. At the heart of this Passiontide, the time of patient waiting on God, is a willingness to endure, to suffer, a profound trust that God’s purpose is nothing short of the defeat of evil and sin, and the making real a world based on love, compassion and service. Beyond the pain and the suffering lies the hope of salvation and life everlasting. As we recall the patient trustful suffering of Jesus’s Passiontide, let’s hold up to God all those walking paths of Passion, praying for deliverance, for the triumph of love and hope over darkness and evil.