A Sermon for Sunday: Fifth Sunday in Lent | Revd Dr Robert Wilson

Posted by

Passion Sunday

“Which of you shall convince me of sin? If I say the truth to you why do you not believe me? He that is of God heareth the words of God. Therefore you hear them not because you are not of God.”

Today is Passion Sunday and we now approach the final and most solemn part of the season of Lent. The Gospel is from Jesus’ final challenge to the Jewish nation at the Feast of Tabernacles, a few months before the Passover at which he met his death. It lays bare the challenge posed by Jesus’ self claim and the divisions that this caused, a conflict so great that it ultimately led to his death. What is most remarkable is the statement “Which of you shall convince me of sin?” It is usually the case that the greater the person bears the characteristics of saintliness the greater is their consciousness of sin. For example, St. Paul spoke of himself as the “chief of sinners” and those who have sought to follow Christ with such fervour and devotion that we call them saints have often been those who are most acutely conscious of their own failings and imperfections. The greater the sense of the holiness and majesty of God the greater the sense of our own unworthiness. But with the claims of Jesus it is otherwise. There is no sign of the same consciousness of personal sin that marks the lives of saints. It is true that he constantly states that he does not seek his own glory, but he makes extraordinary claims that the decisive moment in history, the coming of the Kingdom of God among men has now dawned, and people must decide for or against him. For many of his contemporaries these claims sounded blasphemous.

What astonished his contemporaries was the authority with which he acted. He went around not simply talking about God, but claiming to be his representative upon earth, acting and speaking for him. He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes (Matthew 7:29). “What manner of a man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him” (Matthew 8:27). “Never man spake like this man” (John 7:46). Many saw him as a prophet, like one of the old prophets. Yet, as many also saw, his own self claim was greater than that of a prophet. The prophets had looked forward to the age of the new covenant when sins would be forgiven. Jesus proclaimed that this age was being inaugurated in his own person and ministry. The prophets prefaced their utterance with “Thus saith the Lord”, but Jesus said, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, but I say to you”. He thus said in his own name what the Law of Moses said in God’s name. It was not so much the content of his teaching (though many found that scandalous enough) but the authority with which Jesus spoke. “Think not that I am come to destroy the Law and the Prophets, I am not come to destroy but to fulfil” (Matthew 5:17). He claimed to be the full, final and definitive revealer of God’s will. In his coming the Kingdom of God is made present. He says that man’s attitude to him will decide God’s attitude to them on the last day. He proclaims rest for the weary and the heavy laden, and that he alone knows the Father and the Father knows him (Matthew 11:27-30).

Jesus was condemned for blasphemy, for making himself equal with God. Jesus replied that he did not claim anything for himself on his own authority, but everything for what the Father was accomplishing through him. He and the Father are utterly identified, for they are one in action, but not identical, for the Father is Father and not Son. “The Son can do nothing by himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things sover he doeth these also doeth the Son likewise. For the Father loveth the Son and sheweth him all things whatsoever he doeth…. He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father that sent him” (John 5: 19-23). To have met him is to have been met and judged by God. To have seen him is to have seen the Father (John 14:9).

It is important to emphasise this point because it is often supposed that we can set aside the distinctive Christian claims about Jesus and say that he was simply a good, if at some points misguided, man who taught many valuable things about doing to others as we would have them do unto us. But the self claim of Jesus, unless it is actually true, is very difficult to reconcile with the view that he was simply a great moral teacher. That was not the response his contemporaries gave when they heard his claims. They either responded with hatred, terror or adoration. It is this that marks Christianity out from other religions. They claim to offer good advice about the right ethical framework with which to base our lives, but none of them make the claims that Jesus made about himself.

It is instructive to consider how the great leaders of other religions would have responded to the claims of Jesus. Confucius would probably have said that questions of this sort were not in accordance with nature. The Buddha would have said that he was still living in the veil of an illusion. Mohammed would have responded, like many of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, with the charge of blasphemy. A syncretistic religion like Hinduism would  see Jesus as merely one of many incarnations of the divine and be scandalised by the Christian faith in Jesus as the only begotten Son of the Father who came to bring forgiveness in his own words and mighty works, but above all in his saving death.

Hence, it will not do to say that Jesus was simply a great teacher on a par with the teachers of other religions. They only offered good advice. By contrast, Jesus offered not only good advice, but good news, the good news of salvation through his life, death and resurrection. His self claim challenged his contemporaries and it challenges us today. To reject it is to say that Jesus was a false prophet and a blasphemer, who claimed an authority that he did not rightly have. To accept it is to acknowledge that Jesus is indeed who he said he was, the Word made flesh who dwelt among us and revealed his glory, the glory of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Leave a Reply