Zechariah 9:9-12; John 17:1-5,13-23

Palm Sunday

St Barbara’s 24.03.2024

Rev Tulo Raistrick

I’m not always the greatest lover of poetry. I confess I sometimes find poems hard to understand. And I have the greatest admiration for our GCSE English students in the congregation who have to learn and write about no fewer than 18 poems for their exams. But there are occasions when poems can hit a note mere prose can’t, whether a soaring love sonnet at a wedding or a more reflective poem at a funeral.

The most memorable poem I have ever heard recited was in a dingy hall in Soweto in South Africa, spoken by a young man, a couple of years before the end of apartheid. In a booming voice, that got louder and louder, at the beginning of each stanza he would declaim “Now is the time… now is the time for our liberation, now is the time for justice, now is the time for our freedom”. And with each repeated phrase the audience would cheer.

I’ve been reminded of that spine-tingling moment this week as I have been looking at Jesus’ prayer that comes at the end of the last supper, just before Jesus’ arrest in the garden of Gethsemane. For his prayer begins, “Father, the hour has come”. These are not words of resignation or regret, but of hope and determination. Throughout John’s Gospel, and throughout the final words to his disciples that we have been focusing on during our sermons in Lent, there is a sense of his life building to a crescendo, that the next few hours will be ones of culmination and fulfilment. “My hour has come… now is the time.” We see it too in the events of Palm Sunday that we have been remembering this morning – Jesus riding into Jerusalem, and for the first time being openly acknowledged as Messiah and king, even if one whose purpose and kingship is not properly understood. 

We are approaching the moment that all of Jesus’ life has been focused towards, the moment when the Son will be glorified, and God will be glorified in him. That that moment is the crucifixion should shock us even now. That that which was a symbol of humiliation and physical torture and death becomes the place where Christ’s purpose is fulfilled, where  God’s glory is made known, was almost inconceivable back then, and is one we still struggle to fully comprehend today.

But it is in the utter darkness of the cross that Christ’s light burns at its brightest. It is the place where love, mercy, forgiveness triumph. As our Lent Group was reflecting this week, it is the place where Christ carries the whole weight of our sins and the sins of the world, and deals with them.

And so for us, in our own darkness, in our struggles, with those things we wrestle with, perhaps known only to ourselves, we can look to the cross on which Christ died, and know that the weight of our struggles and our sins is carried by God himself. That the darkness can be redeemed. That redemption is possible. That the hour has come, now is the time. Christ urges us not to walk away from the cross until we have found the hope that is there.

Jesus’ prayer reveals not only his purpose. It reveals his concerns for his disciples and those who will come to believe in him. His prayer reveals an anticipation, an expectation, that his followers will lead distinctive lives, that they will be in the world, but not of it.

Throughout John’s gospel, the term “the world” has been a bit of a shorthand for a bigger concept. He doesn’t mean the physical globe or all the people living in it. No. What John means here by the world is those that reject God, those who choose darkness over light, hatred over love. The “world” stands for all those situations, people, things that hinder and oppose the work and love of God. And so Jesus prays that all who follow him will be distinctive from this, will follow in his footsteps of love and forgiveness, truth and justice, that they will be salt and light, making a difference, working for good.

It reminds me of my boss in South Africa, back those  30 years ago. As a black teenager he had been cycling his bicycle when a white driver had run into him and dragged him along the road for a hundred yards before leaving him for dead. He was later found, taken to hospital and his life was saved, though he had to have his leg amputated. He could have lived his life with a burning anger and resentment towards the person who had hit him, and to the white community in general which had created a context where such behaviour could be permissible, but instead he committed himself to being in the world, but not of it, of fighting against injustice and racism with a burning passion, whilst refusing to be conformed to the patterns of the world that insisted this could only be done through anger and desires for vengeance. He tried to live a distinctive life.

It was not an easy task. Not everyone wants love and goodness to triumph. For him, many in the white community opposed his call for justice; and many in the black community felt love was not a strong enough response.

No wonder then that we find Jesus praying for protection for those who will follow him. This is a hard road. Jesus may have been feted by the crowds on Palm Sunday, but even as he rode into the city there were those already plotting his death.

I wonder, where can we stand up for love and right today? Are we in situations where we need to speak truth to power, or show love to the loveless. Jesus’ assumption was that his followers would stand out, be seen to be different, because they loved and did what was right, even when the cost was high. That’s why he prayed for their protection. Am I, are we, ready to do that?

Jesus not only prays for his purpose; he not only prays for the protection of his disciples; he prays, too, for the unity of the Church. He prays that all who come to believe in him will be one, just as the Father and he are one. That is a remarkable prayer. There can be no other relationship in the entire cosmos closer than that between God the Father and God the Son – a relationship in which there is total love and selflessness, a relationship where there are no barriers of sin or selfishness to get in the way. He prays that the way that Christians relate to one another may be like that.

We know that we fall far short of that. Palm Sunday always leaves me feeling somewhat uneasy. What happened to all those cheering crowds? Five days later, another crowd would be baying for Jesus’ blood. Where were Palm Sunday’s crowd? Hiding? Part of the Good Friday crowd? We don’t know for sure, but we do know they weren’t a united, cohesive group, speaking up in defence of Jesus. They were scattered, no doubt divided.

We today are not any better. I remember visiting a church in north Wales a number of years ago where the week before there had been a fist fight in the congregation between the minister and the head of the mission committee during a service, which had led to a police restraining order. Or a Baptist church up in the north-east of England where the minister told me that the church was so divided that if it rained on the following Tuesday evening he would be out of his job, because only those who opposed him would turn up to vote. Whether at a local or a national level, unity is something we struggle with.

And yet it is something important enough for Jesus to pray for in his final recorded prayer for his disciples. We may not be able to do much about the unity of the world-wide church, but we can all work for unity at our local level. Are there fellow Christians that we have fallen out with? What can we do to rebuild love with them? Are there fellow Christians who we are in disagreement with? How can we work at building respectful understanding?

Christ’s prayer reminds us of what matters to him and what should matter to us. It reminds us that in the cross we see the glory of Christ revealed and the light in all our darknesses made known. It reminds us that Christ calls us to live distinctive lives of love and forgiveness, and that he will support us when living that way comes at a cost. And it reminds us that he longs for us to be united with him and united with one another.

May Jesus’ final words to his disciples of hope, love and peace be the template for all our lives.