SERMON: What is this Sunday called?

SERMON: What is this Sunday called?

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Hilary Pearson on 17th March 2024

The prosaic name for today is ‘the fifth Sunday of Lent’.  An older name, still used, is ‘Passion Sunday’.  However, as a child I learned a different name.  My mother taught me a rhyme with the names for Sundays in Lent:

‘Tid, Mid, Misere

Carlin, Palm, Pace Egg Day’.

The first three of these come from the first word of the Latin psalm or canticle for the day.  You all know what Palm Sunday is.  ‘Pace’ is derived from the Latin word for Easter – we still use another variant, paschal, as an adjective, such as the paschal candle.  So ‘Pace Egg Day’ is the Sunday you get Easter eggs.  But what about the name for today, ‘Carlin’?  What is this mysterious word ‘Carlin’?  Carlins are a type of pea, small, hard, dark brown and spherical.  They are also called ‘pigeon peas’ because they were grown by monasteries to feed to the pigeons they kept for eating.  Why this Sunday?  My mother told me the story of how, during the Civil War, the royalist forces in Newcastle were being besieged, no food was getting into Tyneside and the people were hungry.  On this day, a ship was wrecked at the mouth of the Tyne, and its cargo of carlin peas was washed ashore.  People collected them, boiled and ate them, and famine was averted.  According to my internet research, these names for the Sundays of Lent are found only in the North East.

So I will set aside my Geordie roots, and go back to the name Passion Sunday, so called because it is the  start of Passiontide, the last two weeks of Lent.  This is the point where the emphasis of our Lenten observance shifts from Jesus in desert – penitence and self-denial – to Jesus on his way to cross.

Today’s readings set the pattern for these two weeks and our following of the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection starting with Palm Sunday and going through Holy Week to Easter.  There are four interconnected parts to this pattern:

1. Disaster

2. Good coming out of the disaster

3. Action needed to obtain this good for oneself

4. Final outcome – things are better than before the disaster happened, and we see that everything, including apparent disaster, was God’s loving plan.

First, the Gospel reading, in which Jesus predicts his death.  Three weeks ago we heard the passage from Mark in which Jesus foretold his death: the reaction of the disciples, particularly Peter, was to see this as a disaster which had to be prevented.  Jesus’ true nature was then revealed in the Transfiguration.  John’s account of Jesus predicting his death is different in words, timing and the reaction of the disciples. In John it happens after the triumphal entry to Jerusalem and begins with some “Greeks”, probably Greek gentile followers of Judaism, asking to see Jesus.  This might have looked to the disciples like the start of something bigger for Jesus’ mission following the triumph of Palm Sunday, moving beyond the borders of Judea.  Instead, we get two enigmatic statements from Jesus. 

First, he uses the image of a seed, which must be buried and apparently ‘die’ in order to multiply.  He follows this with some very uncomfortable words for his followers.  We have to follow him, whatever it leads to.  If we refuse to be buried like the seed, if we cling onto our life in this world, we lose it.  If instead we are prepared to let go of this life we bear fruit and have eternal life.

Instead of a reaction from the disciples, in John’s account we have Jesus’ own reaction; a very human fear but an absolute acceptance of God’s plan for him.  He is reassured by a heavenly voice; or rather, he tells those with him that this voice was to reassure them.

At the end of this passage, he says that he must be “lifted up from the earth”.  As well as a direct description of crucifixion, this is a reference back to an earlier teaching.  In John 3:14 Jesus says: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.”  This refers to the story in Numbers 21 where the Israelites, as a result of yet another rebellion against God and Moses, were bitten by a plague of venomous snakes.  When they repented, God told Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole; whoever looked at it after being bitten did not die.  Looking in faith at Jesus on the cross will heal the wounds of sin.

Next the Epistle reading from Hebrews.  This gives a reason why Jesus had to die; a reason very much directed to Jews.  The passage references the Day of Atonement, in which the high priest goes alone in to the Holy of Holies in the Temple to make atonement for his sins and the sins of the whole people of Israel.  The writer of Hebrews, clearly well trained in rabbinical thought (although almost certainly not St Paul himself), had a difficulty to overcome – Jesus was of the tribe of Judah, whereas the High Priest, like all Jewish priests, had to belong to the tribe of Levi.  The reference here to Jesus being designated by God as high priest in the order of Melchizedek is explained in the next section of Hebrews.  It is a reference to Genesis 14, in which Abram rescues his nephew Lot from an alliance of local leaders (called ‘kings’) who had captured him.  After winning in battle, we are told the Abram was met by the kings who had been attacked by the alliance, including the mysterious Melchizedek, king of Salem who was “ priest of God Most High”, who brought out bread and wine and blessed Abram.  Abram in return gave him a tenth of all the booty won in the battle.  The writer of Hebrews explains the similarities between Melchizedek and  Christ, reasons why God could make him a High Priest even though he was not a Levite.  Indeed, he was superior to the Levitical High Priest because Christ was sinless so the sacrifice he made, of himself, was a perfect means of atonement.

As a preparation for Easter, I recommend that you read Psalm 51 slowly and prayerfully.  Now that we understand why Jesus had to die, Psalm 51 tells us how we should react – with repentance, sorrow, self-understanding and the desire to praise God for his mercy and teach others to do the same.  Traditionally, this psalm was David’s response after Nathan the prophet delivered God’s reproach for David’s acts of adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and then arranging for Uriah to be killed in battle.  But it does not just apply to big and obvious sins like these of David’s: we offend God just as much through small selfish actions which hurt others.

Finally, the passage from Jeremiah points to the result for those who accept and act.  The verses we heard come towards the end of a prophesy that God will restore Israel and bring them out of captivity.  This prophesy begins with the promise from God that he will be the God of all the tribes of Israel and they will be his people.  After so many failures by Israel to keep the covenant made at Sinai, this restoration will need a new covenant between God and his people. The writer of Hebrews, after the passage we have read today, goes on to quote these words of Jeremiah as showing that Christ was the High Priest of a new covenant. Through Christ, we are also God’s people, so this covenant applies to us.  Instead of trying in our own strength to do the right thing, following a law written in words, God will give us the power to follow the law written on our hearts.  This is through the gift of the Holy Spirit, promised by Christ to those who believe.  We use a little word, ‘grace’, for the enormous benefits God gives to us through Christ when we accept what Jesus did for us.

I want to finish by coming back to the story about carlin peas, because this pattern can be found there as well.  First, we have a fatal disaster – the shipwreck.  From this disaster, good came – food was provided for the starving.  However, the people had to act to benefit from this gift – they had to collect the peas from the beach and cook them.  Result – hunger satisfied, death by starvation prevented.

As we begin Passiontide and start preparing in earnest for Easter, we should keep this pattern in mind.   Here are some practical things we can all do.  First, take time to meditate imaginatively on the crucifixion.  Second, accept at a very personal level what Jesus did for you by dying in that way.  Third, think of the ways you have failed as a follower of Christ, repent and determine to do better, then thank God for what he has done for you.  Fourth, accept God’s help to follow Christ more closely; this is his “amazing grace”.