Fifth Sunday in Lent, rcl yr b, 2021
JEREMIAH 31:31-34; PSALM 51:1-13; HEBREWS 5:5-10; JOHN 12:20-33
I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself
A few weeks ago now, newly inaugurated President Joe Biden, in his inauguration address, did something that made many Christians, and nearly every theologian, listening, turn their head and sharpen their ears and listen even more closely. And every theologian who wasn’t listening would soon know what the others had heard: Joe Biden had quoted St. Augustine.
After which the predictable happened: certain parts of the Catholic press published critical responses, and certain parts of the Catholic press published sympathetic responses. The Anglican press was predictable in its own way. For some, appreciation turned to caution at how Biden had used Augustine; others were recklessly antagonistic; and some, after a brief mention of the content, just reported on which churches were holding inauguration prayer vigils where, and what sort of prayers were being prayed. More befuddled parts of the Christian press just told us what others were saying, and the secular press didn’t say much of substance at all about Augustine, but were also predictably divided when it came to their very different responses to the speech as a whole.
And what was it, exactly, that Biden said? What was this quote from St. Augustine that made so many pay close attention? He said that “[m]any centuries ago, Saint Augustine […] wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.” After this bit about “common objects of love,” Biden made a list of what he thought were common objects of American love: “opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor and yes, the truth.”
At first blush, it hardly sounds controversial at all—and might not be controversial, except for the fractured state of so many political institutions, and the fractured state of the church that had so many irreconcilable responses.
* * *
In our Gospel today, some Greeks approach Philip, one of Jesus’s disciples, and say to him: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” This appears to befuddle Philip a bit, because Philip doesn’t go to Jesus, but instead he goes to Andrew; and Andrew seems a bit reticent too, and will only go to see Jesus if Philip comes along. You can imagine the two of them saying to each other, “you go see him.” “No you go see him.” “No you go see him.” “Ok I’ll go but only if you go too?” “Ok. Let’s go …”
So they tell Jesus, but we don’t find out if Jesus even sees the Greeks, but rather, in the fashion of John’s Gospel, Jesus takes an opportunity to make a bit of a speech.
* * *
There’s some good reason for Philip and Andrew’s anxiety. They would have had questions about the whole situation for which they had no answer. Greeks? Greeks want to see Jesus? What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of Man, the Holy One of Israel promised not in Plato or Aristotle, but in Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
What Philip and Andrew couldn’t imagine, at this point in the story, is the fact that Jesus would be loved not only by themselves, and the faithful remnant of Israel, but by the faithful among all the nations of the world, including the Greeks. And their love for Jesus, and for God, would be shared with peoples who were strange, weird, and not at all like them. Jesus says as much, in what he says in his speech: “when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to myself.”
* * *
Biden would have had a good vantage point from where he gave his Inaugural, to see evidence not of unity, but of a fractured state. Within his field of vision would have been an assembly of well-armed men and women. They were there because Biden stood above the same ground that was host, days before, to a people ready to set right a perceived wrong, with violence and vandalism. Biden was certainly not inheriting a nation united. The evidence is, clearly, that the process of Jesus drawing all people to himself is a promise that has yet to be fulfilled by a long, long stretch. True for America; true around the world; and often true much closer to home.
When Augustine writes of common objects of love, he writes about it as a way of understanding communities. “A commonwealth […],” he writes, is a political community, “a multitude united by a common object of their love.” It’s a good way of understanding all sorts of human community. Forget the US now—that was only practice for questions that are much closer to home. If you were to ask yourself: how is it that I spend my time, how do I spend my money, to what am I most committed? In short: what is it that I love? Even more so, it’s a good question for a community to ask: how do we spend our time as a community, how do we spend our money as a community, and what does this tell us about what we are most committed to? What is it that we love together? Do we have a shared love?
It seems to me that’s a question that would offer real opportunities for deep self-reflection—though be prepared for answers that might be very uncomfortable. Augustine was clear that communities could love the wrong thing, and that they could set their attention on that which would not edify—in fact, on things that would not draw us toward Jesus and his kingdom, but to perdition. A community of thieves, after all, find their shared object of love in their own enrichment at the expense of others outside their community.
And, for Augustine, even the political communities of the world, like Rome, or by extension the United States, or Canada, perhaps even some parts of the church for that matter, might hold together in the short term according to God’s will and Providence, only to eventually unravel. Every community, including the church, is made up of citizens of both the heavenly city, citizens that love God and are drawn into that kingdom—and citizens of the earthly city, that love something else and are drawn elsewhere.
If that’s all become too abstract and technical, let’s bring it home. Let’s think of communities closer to us. Communities like St. John’s perhaps. How would we answer the question: what is it we love? It’s quite likely that we don’t all love God—we are a mixed community too, though Augustine would strongly caution against trying to figure out who’s who. But this question about common objects of love, does help with discernment. What parts of our shared life as a community are oriented toward the love of God, and by extension, oriented toward our neighbours, in the pew and in the community?
Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan finishes Common Objects of Love, his book on this very topic, with Revelation, and the heavenly dance of the saints and the elders and the martyrs, drawn from all nations, in perpetual worship around the throne of the lamb, slaughtered yet standing—the image, in Revelation, of a Jesus who is crucified and risen, reigning in heaven and worthy of worship. O’Donovan commends a posture of alertness and patience “because they are disciplines of attention, focusing on the one representation [the representation of Jesus as the lamb upon the throne] that alone sustains a community of resistance.”
But we could turn just as well to our Gospel. Jesus here, too, is like the lamb upon the throne, slaughtered yet standing; today, in our reading, the throne is the cross, and to see Jesus on the cross is not simply to see an image of suffering. The cross, in John, is an image of agony and glory, all at once. The cross, for us in our reading today, is the place of judgment where loves are perfected by exposing them to the light that burns away the false love that divides, burning them away into the nothingness that they already are.
And by his grace, he gathers us all together by drawing us all together to him: “Now is the judgement of this world,” says Jesus, “now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth [that is, on the cross], will draw all people to myself.
He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”
The Revd Dr Preston DS Parsons