Material for Worship on the Fifth Sunday in Lent

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”.

Today is known as Passion Sunday, writes Ven Peter Potter. It is a kind of curtain raiser to the events of Palm Sunday and Holy Week. In modern English, the word passion denotes intense feeling, generally love, whether for another person, a football team or a political cause. It actually derives, however, from the Latin passio, “I suffer”. The word compassion (literally “suffering with”) retains this meaning, for a compassionate person enters into the suffering of another and tries to sooth it.

The German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a poem about how our suffering and God’s are interconnected. Let us follow the words as David plays the tune:

We turn to God when we are sorely pressed;
we pray for help, and ask for peace and bread;
we seek release from illness, guilt and death:
all people do, in faith or unbelief.
We turn to God when he is sorely pressed,
and find him poor, scorned, without roof and bread,
bowed under weight of weakness, sin and death:
faith stands by God in his dark hour of grief.

God turns to us when we are sorely pressed,
and feeds our souls and bodies with his bread;
for one and all Christ gives himself in death:
through his forgiveness sin will find relief.
Words, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. English translation (c) SCM-Canterbury Press

Jeremiah’s prophecy tells us we can come to God in penitence and confess our sins because we have confidence in his compassion for us. Take a moment to consider what you need to bring to God in penitence today and then listen to Jeremiah 31, 31-34, read by Tom.

But why does “passion” encompass both suffering and love? The events of Holy Week show us how Jesus allows himself to be given over (i.e., passively) to pain out of love for sinful humanity. In other words, he suffers in order to gain a new and better order of things. In the same way we are being urged to put up with the restrictions of lockdown for the sake of the public as a whole. This is more than self-interest; it is literally an act of compassion. “We are all in it together” actually has a spiritual as well as a moral dimension. Today’s Gospel reading (John 12, 20-33) is about some Greeks (probably Greek-speaking Jews who had travelled to Jerusalem for the Passover festival) asking to be introduced to Jesus. Jesus, however, does not directly answer their request but starts talking about wheat dying and growing. We listen to Alison reading the passage.

Why didn’t Jesus just say to Andrew and Philip, “OK, bring them here”? Did they actually get to see Jesus? We don’t know, but Jesus’ answer is surely saying that not only these Greeks, contemporaries of Jesus and his disciples, saw Jesus but that we can too in our day and in the circumstances of our lives. When we encounter situations like a grain of wheat lying in the ground apparently dead but then growing and bearing fruit, then we see Jesus. Suffering (as was soon to occur when Jesus was “lifted up from the earth” on the cross) does not have to be a dead end but can be a new beginning.

To go back to passion – love hurts, as the saying has it. One of my favourite hymns is Morning glory, starlit sky, which has the lines:

‘and the nails and crown of thorns
tell of what God’s love must be.’

It’s a great hymn, with echoes of Paul’s song about love in 1 Corinthians 13. The author W.H. (Bill) Vanstone laboured long and hard in a rather unpromising parish in the north of England. He described his experiences in a book called Love’s endeavour, love’s expense. By expending his love for his parishioners shoots of growth appeared as a result of his endeavours. Here are the words played by David.

Morning glory, starlit sky,
soaring music, scholar’s truth,
flight of swallows, autumn leaves,
memory’s treasure, grace of youth:
Open are the gifts of God,
gifts of love to mind and sense;
hidden is love’s agony,
love’s endeavour, love’s expense.
Love that gives, gives ever more,
gives with zeal, with eager hands,
spares not, keeps not, all outpours,
ventures all its all expends.
Drained is love in making full,
bound in setting others free,
poor in making many rich,
weak in giving power to be.
Therefore, he who shows us God
helpless hangs upon the tree;
and the nails and crown of thorns
tell of what God’s love must be.
Here is God: no monarch he,
throned in easy state to reign;
here is God, whose arms of love
aching, spent, the world sustain.

Love hurts because, the more we love someone, the more we find it hard to bear when they are in trouble and we are willing to bear pain and make sacrifices for their sake. The lessons of Passiontide and Holy Week can be our guide and comfort as the weeks of lockdown still stretch ahead before us.

The Collect for Lent 5
Merciful God,
look upon your family as we travel to the foot of the cross:
and, by your great goodness, guide us in body;
that, by your protection,
we may also be preserved in heart and mind;
through Jesus Christ, our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, world without end. Amen.

Let us pray that Christ shall be glorified in the Church and in the world.
Lord, we pray for the peace of the world, especially in …. and other places of conflict and oppression; for places where crops die and do not bear fruit because of the effects of climate change; for governments and aid agencies in their task to bring relief to the suffering and needy.
Bless all who work to spread the Gospel and offer their lives in its service. … Guide the seekers after truth, that they may see your Son amidst the changes and chances of this life.
Have mercy on all who suffer in body, mind or spirit, especially … May they hear your words of comfort, be sustained in their affliction and find new life after loss.
We pray for those who have died to this world, especially … May they grow into the new life of heaven where joy is endless and where what has been offered on earth comes to perfect fruition.

Father, accept the payers we offer in the name of Christ, lifted on the cross for our salvation.