St Stephen Lewisham
28th March 2004
Lent 5: Passion Sunday
This Sunday, the Fifth of Lent used to be called Passion Sunday. Recently Passion Sunday has come to be used as an alternative name for Palm Sunday, but this morning we shall be following the older tradition and using our hearts and minds to think about The Passion of the Christ, whereas next Sunday till Easter we shall be using both our minds, hearts and bodies to act out what happened.
Let’s start with those two words All Clear!
Have you seen that striking set of advertisements for Cancer Research which show pictures of two people hugging each other passionately with the words All Clear! in large type on each advertisement? We are asked to imagine that one of the two people in the picture has just been told that their latest tests have shown that their cancer has been successfully dealt with and that they have been ‘given the "All Clear" by the surgeon. One advert shows a mother and grown-up daughter; another what’s probably a grandchild embracing her grandfather. It’s not clear in either case which of the two has had the cancer successfully treated, but that doesn’t matter because the feeling which both pictures portray can only be described as one of most intense relief and gratitude. The threat of terminal illness, death and bereavement, which hung over the whole family, has suddenly been lifted by the pronouncement of those two glorious words All Clear! Some of us here today have experienced that sense of relief when that message has been given about ourselves or a close relation.
Now, many Christians carry on going to Church week-in week-out without gaining the slightest idea that what has happened to us because of the Passion of Christ is something very much like having had a life-threatening tumour removed and our expectation of eternal life restored by the grace of God.
If you happen to be one of the exceptions, that is to say you’re someone who is really aware of having been ‘saved’, then please be patient with what you are going to hear from me this morning. It’s something you know about already. Just meditate quietly and gratefully on the gift of eternal life which God has given you and me instead of what we deserved, the wages of sin (which is Death).
To help the rest of us understand what the words All Clear! mean, we shall look at some of the verses of the magnificent hymn by Charles Wesley which we shall be singing later on this morning. Please follow it in your service sheet. It’s the Offertory Hymn which begins with the words ‘And can it be…’.
Charles Wesley and his brother John, who were born just under three hundred years ago were both priests who came to have no doubt that the words All Clear applied to them. But they hadn’t always been aware of it. It was only several years after they had been ordained as priests that each of them, within a few days of one another, suddenly, as it were, ‘woke up’ to the fact that being a Christian wasn’t so much a matter of going to church and leading a decent life and working hard for God, as they’d hitherto supposed, but on the contrary was about something which God had done for them in Jesus Christ.
In other words, their true relationship to God was not in the first place that of Sons or even Servants but rather that of dying men who had been saved from certain death by the Sacrifice of God’s own Son on the Cross at Calvary on the first Good Friday.
Certainly servanthood and sonship of God were two experiences that followed from that salvation, but neither would ever have happened if they hadn’t in the first place been saved by him through his atoning death.
In this hymn, Charles Wesley offers us in picture-language some ways of looking at the experience of being saved. Take a look at verse three:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay, Fast bound in sin and nature’s night; Thine eye diffused a quickening ray— I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Wesley imagines himself being in a prison-cell.. In his days it was possible to find oneself in prison for a whole range of offences, including being in debt. It wasn’t always easy either to discover exactly what one had been imprisoned for. In those days there was no Legal Aid and many prisons were full of people who had simply been forgotten. They and their friends may have had a vague idea that they had done something wrong, but to all intents and purposes they had simply ‘disappeared from sight’.
Then suddenly it flashed upon Wesley’s mind that the root of the problem, why he was imprisoned, lay in himself. He, Charles Wesley, like all other men had ‘sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,’ and the answer to this, salvation through faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, was there, so to say, right beside him. Like someone awaking from a bad dream he realised that the first step to freedom was to accept what God in Christ was offering him. My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Keep that last line (‘I rose, went forth and followed thee’) in mind just for a moment and look back to the previous verse:
He left His Father’s throne above So free, so infinite His grace— Emptied Himself of all but love, And bled for Adam’s helpless race: ’Tis mercy all, immense and free, For O my God, it found out me!
‘It found out me’. In company with a great many people today Wesley frequently found himself asking "Who am I?". What possible importance can I be to an Infinite God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth? Well the answer came to him in this dungeon-dream: "You are my son who is lost and is found, was dead and is alive again". Like the father in the parable which we heard last week there was joy in heaven over just one lost sinner who repents. Think again of that woman we heard of in the Gospel this morning. Condemned to death one minute; hearing the words of Jesus "neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more". Can’t you just imagine that sense of relief that we spoke of earlier sweeping over that woman? What other response could she (or we) give than that which we have just heard ‘I rose, went forth and followed thee’.
But two earlier lines in this verse remind us of what it cost him to bring about our release:
Emptied Himself of all but love, And bled for Adam’s helpless race
To understand the full meaning of this we should go back to the Cancer Research advertisement. Just suppose that the only cure for one particular form of cancer was a complete blood transfusion from a perfectly healthy person. That would mean, wouldn’t it, that someone would have deliberately to lose their life in order to save someone else’s? No doubt there have been many examples of people saving others knowing that there was a risk to themselves involved – firemen and lifeboatmen often have to face such a risk. But this is no risk, this is a certainty.
Well, as Saint Paul tells us "It is not easy to die even for a good man – though of course for someone really worthy, a man might be prepared to die – but what proves that God loves us is that Christ died for us while we were still sinners.
So that is what God has done for us when in Christ he "reconciled the world to himself." as Paul says in another place. We are indeed to seek perfection but, as he said in this morning’s second reading:
"I am no longer trying for perfection by my own efforts, the perfection that comes from [keeping] the Law, but I want only the perfection that comes through faith in Christ, and is from God and based on faith. All I want is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and to share his sufferings by reproducing the pattern of his death.
‘All clear! That is the real message of Passion Sunday
Let Charles Wesley have the last word:
No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in Him, is mine; Alive in Him, my living Head, And clothed in righteousness divine, Bold I approach th’eternal throne, And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
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