"Now the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified"
With these words Jesus responded to Andrew and Philip who came to tell him that "among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks" who said "they should like to see Jesus."
The reply of Jesus, at first sight, seems inconsequential. Was Jesus ready to meet the Greeks?
However, as we ponder it, there are two possible interpretations of the Lord’s reply, which would make his answer relevant to the request. The first contains a warning that the message of his ministry may not be what the Greeks expected and may contradict their philosophical mindset. For what Jesus said was: "Anyone who loves his life loses it". He illuminates this sentence with a striking example: "Unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies it remains a single grain, but if it dies it yields a rich harvest."
Is Jesus warning the Greeks that they would find the cross a madness? St Paul, after his visit to Athens, could write in his first letter to the Corinthians that "we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles."
We recall that Peter himself found the suggestion of Our Lord’s death at the hands of his enemies as an "obstacle". He had advised his master that it must not be like this, only to receive that memorable rebuke, "Get behind me Satan!" (Mark 8, 32-33)
On the other hand this chance meeting with those beyond the physical and cultural boundaries of Israel gave Jesus the opportunity to point to the universality of his mission: "When I am lifted up from the earth I shall draw all men to myself."
"Being lifted up," in this context, is clearly a reference to his death on the cross, as the evangelist notes.
Was Jesus therefore addressing his disciples and indicating that the interest of the Greeks was consonant with his mission, Jesus seeing beyond this chance encounter, to the way in which, in the future through Greek thought and over Roman roads, the Gospel message would be carried and interpreted for countless people?
At any rate if Jesus met those Greeks – and there is no suggestion in the text that he did not – the message would be uncompromising. The cross was central. It will be by way of the cross, contradicting as it might seem human wisdom, that the Father’s name is glorified.
The writer to the Hebrews, in the extract read as our second lesson, provides the key, the hermeneutic to interpret what Jesus was saying: "During his life on earth Christ offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears to the One (his Father) who had the power to save Him out of death, and he submitted so humbly (to His Father’s will) that His prayer was heard."
This was the sacrifice which sealed the new covenant, prophesied by Jeremiah, as we read in our first scriptural passage: "It is the Lord who speaks ... I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel, but not like the one I made with their ancestors."
In what ways was this new covenant to differ from the old we are free to ask? The reality will replace the prefigurement; the one who represents all mankind carrying the burden of our sins, sacrifices himself instead of by the vicarious offering of animals; and the new law which this covenant inaugurates will not be found inscribed on tablets of stone, but on the human heart:
"Deep within them I will plant my law, writing it on their hearts."
What then is the place of law in human society – in that society which God wills and Jesus came to establish?
St Paul was at pains, in his letter to the Romans, to state and demonstrate that salvation did not come through law, even the Law of Moses, but through faith in Christ Jesus. And in his letter to the Galatians, he says: "The law was thus put in charge of us until Christ should come, when we might be justified through faith." (Gal: 3 21-24)
I am not intent on giving you a treatise on law and faith, even were I well qualified to do so. I simply want to posit the question: What, in our society, once said to be Christian and now in many respects post-Christian, do we expect of law – I mean positive law, not that law written on our hearts which we might describe as natural law. What is the role of law in our society?
It is, I suppose as it has always been to defend the inalienable rights of its citizens; to ensure appropriate regulations for the management of the economy; to ensure that the sick and the poor are cared for; to provide universal education and so forth.
It is certainly not the role of law to recreate our society according to passing fashions and ideologies, nor to redefine nature whether in terms of persons and their rights or its natural institutions. We live in a culture of human rights which appear to be ever more in need of codification and protection. And I wonder why; I do not think society of itself ought to be more needful than before of law and laws, unless, of course, we can no longer rely on the generality of citizens to act virtuously and according to conscience.
Governments seem to think it necessary to cover almost every aspect of human behaviour with law, and consequently to require the judiciary to be engaged in interpreting and applying these laws, leaving me with the impression that those preoccupied in this manner feel that unless human behaviour is so minutely governed, society will dissolve into moral chaos. And I wonder whether there is perhaps reason for such fear?
But it should not be so: "I will plant my law deep within them, writing it on their hearts." That is what a Christian society aims towards, and what the Church offers the body politic – providing for those who absorb its message, education in virtue and formation in conscience.
St Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "I do speak words of wisdom, but not a wisdom belonging to this present age or to its governing powers already in decline; I speak God’s hidden wisdom, His secret purpose framed from the very beginning to bring us to our destined glory."
Her Majesty the Queen, in her first formal meeting to mark her jubilee, hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, remarked on the gift which people of faith brought to society and was specifically referring to the wisdom inherited not only among those who follow Christ but in the other faith communities too. The gift of wisdom which faith brings to public life was the core also of the Holy Father’s message during his visit to the United Kingdom in 2010.
He memorably said at Westminster Hall: "Religion is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation."
He added: "In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalisation of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance.
There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere."
One cannot help remark that those voices are growing ever louder in our country, that attempted marginalisation is becoming ever more acute and we are witnessing the transformation of tolerance into a kind of tyranny in which religious views are the only ones which seem unworthy of respect and acceptance.
Perhaps I may be forgiven – as I come towards the end of my own active episcopate – for quoting what I said in a homily I gave 10 years ago on the eve of my enthronement as Archbishop of Glasgow to the Church representatives and civic guests who attended the event ...
Referring to the changes facing society I said: "I hope we will be allowed to make our own contribution to these analyses and syntheses. I would like to think that the voice of the Church, articulated through its leaders, will not be
disregarded as a voice from the distant past, as if the past had no relevance to the present, but is heeded as a witness to a tradition of wisdom and a expertise gained over 2000 years of dealing with humanity."
That remains my hope.
Governments which fail to take into account the wisdom that is handed down generation to generation in communities of faith or fail to underscore the right and duty of following informed conscience on the part of citizens will, it seems, inevitably find themselves attempting to be wise by creating ever more legislation and requiring judges to interpret it according to the mores of the day.
But how can you legislate to ensure heartless opportunists do not rob the backpack of an already assaulted young man whose bike has been stolen? – as in the mid summer London riots. Or at the other end of the scale, how can you require a judge to state where exactly the right of conscientious objection ceases in regard to what Lady Smith referred to as its "manifestations", as in the case of the two senior Catholic midwives who were apparently expected to act contrary to their own vocation and convictions, to "supervise, delegate and support staff" involved in the abortion of babies?
Perhaps with some consistency the same authorities seem ready to redefine marriage without any reference to children, or to the natural law written on the heart of mankind, putting the claim of "equality and diversity" on a higher level than faith and reason, and ultimately asserting the moral equivalence between marriage and same sex unions, contrary to the virtue of chastity.
Our society will descend further into ethical confusion and moral disintegration the more that those in Government and the judiciary slip society’s moorings from the capstans of virtue.
The Church speaks of natural law – a recognition of what we owe one another in our shared humanity, when in Pope St Gregory’s memorable phrase, we "see life whole" Or more to the point of today’s lesson, when we recognise the law written by the finger of a loving God on our very hearts by the grace of Him who said: "Now sentence is being passed on this world; now the prince of this world is to be overthrown. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself." (John, 12:33)