When Judas had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterwards.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.
John 13 31- end
How do we orient ourselves to Holy Week?
Palm Sunday is the natural gateway, and yet that is such a confusing occasion – is it really triumphant or is it a sedate walk to the scaffold or the performance of winning and saving humility? It’s a complicated day and leaves us bewildered before we have started.
This brief passage from John’s gospel gives us a different starting place, one that uses a more directly theological language. It’s after the last supper – which in John is not an occasion for bread and wine but for foot washing, and the small exchange which has just ended with Judas disappearing into the dark of night.
Jesus then speaks a profound contradiction, ‘now the son of man has been glorified’. Not abandoned. Not betrayed. Not lost. Not himself plunged into darkness, but glorified. To be glorified might be thought of as to be bathed in light but while the idea of light is implied, the son of man is not reflecting light at this time. Rather the son of man shines with the uncreated, transfiguring light that is the revealed presence of God. For just as John has no bread and wine at the last supper, so John has no transfiguration. Why? Because for John it is the cross which is both transfiguration and resurrection; it is the cross which is glory, and that process of glorification begins right here when Judas steps out into night, into darkness, into the absence of God, into the nothingness of self-interest and fear. It is when sinful humanity reveals its hopelessness, that God in Christ is revealed in glory. That is the beginning and the ending of Holy Week.
However, there is another theme running here too. There is a narrative still to unfold as well as a fulfilment to witness. The disciples cannot go with Jesus. They cannot enter into this glory. We don’t know why, but the point is reemphasised when Peter expresses his deep and doubtless heartfelt desire and sincere promise of heroic self-sacrifice.
But Jesus is clear. Peter cannot follow. The way of discipleship, the way to learn from Jesus, is not the way of heroic individual effort, but the way of love. In fact, it is the way of learning to love. And learning to love is, obviously, something that you can’t do on your own, or by the determination of self-will. Learning to love is, at the very least, a matter of learning to get on with people, and to share in the give and take, the ups and downs, of real human relationships. And it is so much more than that too. It is to learn the meaning of sacrifice, and commitment and to look for joy not in things that pass but in those that endure, in particular in service and mutuality.
The word learn is not incidental here. It’s at the heart of what it means to be a disciple. Those who think that being a disciple is simply a matter of following Jesus get their comeuppance in this passage. ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’ says Jesus. To be a disciple is not to be follower except in the sense that it is to be close enough to Jesus to learn his priorities and his values. Learn how to love the real people who are around you. Learn to love your neighbours. Learn to love yourself. Learn to love your enemies.
This is the curriculum of discipleship. It is also the agenda for Holy Week, and the method is that we should train our eyes on the passion and the cross and find ways of seeing through them to the resurrection.
Time will take us to Easter, sure enough, but the question we should expect the risen Christ to ask us on Easter morn is not, ‘can you enter into my glory?’, nor ‘did you weep over your sins?’, nor, ‘did you sweat or sleep at Gethsemane?’, nor, ‘did you lament at Golgotha?’ None of this is of much interest in the glorious light of Easter. It is this question that is of supreme importance: ‘Have you learnt how to love?’ ‘Have you learnt to love your neighbour, yourself, your enemy?’ ‘Have you learnt to love the God who is as present in the pain as in the joy, in the abandonment as in the company, and who is revealed in the fullest glory when all around seems to be deep darkness?’
Have you learnt to love? When you have, your discipleship will be complete and you will be able to say with the crucified and glorified Christ, ‘it is finished’. Before that, it is indeed Holy Week and it is indeed night. It is time to learn the meaning and the practice of love.
Delivered as a homily at Compline in King’s College Chapel, 10th April 2017.