When Mary suggests that he might do something about the shortage of wine at the wedding in Cana, Jesus appears to rebuff her:
My hour has not yet come.John 2.4
He is referring to the “hour” of his passion and death on the cross – a theme which recurs in this Gospel (John 7.30, 8.20, 12.23-28).
Why does he mention this now?
Jesus knew where his vocation was going to take him. He had read the scriptures of his people, including the binding of Isaac which I explored in an earlier post, the mysterious prophecy of the suffering servant in Isaiah and the psalms of lament over innocent suffering. He knew how things would end. The cross cast a long backward shadow over his life; perhaps, at this moment when his public ministry was about to begin, he felt the oppression of that shadow with particular intensity.
I think he also wanted to connect the three years of his ministry directly with the cross. His teaching, his miracles, his offer of forgiveness and new life, his concern for the poor, his challenge to hypocrisy and injustice, his welcome to the outcasts and rejects of society – all these flow towards the cross and flow from the cross. His ministry depends on the cross and demonstrates the purpose and achievement of the cross. You can’t separate the Kingdom and the atonement. They belong together theologically just as closely as they belong together in the actual life of Jesus. As John puts it in another place:
The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.1 John 3.8
In his ministry and through the cross Jesus is doing one and the same thing: restoring God’s creation, putting right what is wrong and opening the way to fulness of life.
At the end of John’s Gospel Jesus tells Peter how he is going to die. The shadow of the cross hangs over the disciple’s life just as it hung over the life of Jesus.
When I was a teenager my mother took me to an organization called the Vocational Guidance Association. I think she was concerned that I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life (or maybe she’d just seen an advert in the paper). They put me through a series of psychometric tests and produced a written report outlining some suitable career paths. There were several options they thought would work well, as long as I had nothing to do with selling, for which I was obviously completely unsuited.
The final stage of the process was an interview with the man in charge. After a brief chat he stood up behind his desk, picked up the report and handed it to me. As he did so, he asked (as an afterthought or perhaps the fleeting inspiration of the moment): “You haven’t thought of going into the church, have you?” Absolutely not. Whatever else I might do with my life the idea of becoming a clergyperson was outrageous, profoundly unappealing and definitely not going to happen.
Except that, within a decade or so, I was firmly set on precisely that path.
Within a few years of that interview I had come to faith in Jesus Christ during my time at university. From the beginning I had a strong sense of call to ordination (“going into the church”). For a long time I didn’t take this seriously. I thought it was merely the natural response to finding faith for the first time; so I dismissed it. It took me some time to realize that this could actually be a vocation – a call from God. The sense of vocation didn’t go away, so I finally did something about it.
The sense of call was very important, not simply because getting ordained is one of those things you’re not supposed to do without a sense of call, but because the actual experience of ordination and the life that followed from it were not easy. It mattered that the call was a call and not what I would have done if left to myself. The sense of call sustained me through some difficult times.
Christian vocation typically involves a kind of death: death to our plans, death to the easy option and the easy way out. Not just for those called to official leadership in the church but for every disciple.
The point is not that we all have to die a literal martyr’s death. It is rather that we must be willing to allow a certain kind of death to enter into our experience. Paul puts it this way:
… death is at work in us, but life in you.2 Corinthians 4.12
The day I was ordained deacon in St John’s Church, Stratford in the East End of London was a kind of death. At the time I hardly understood what was happening; I just knew this was proving a painful experience in a way I had not expected. A kind of cloud hung over the day. The clothes, the clerical shirt and collar, the robes, the service: it all felt as if something was being taken away from me, as if I was being stripped of my identity. Perhaps indeed I was. There seemed at the time to be a particular fondness in the media for representing the clergy as buffoons – comically detached from reality, spouting nonsense to which nobody was listening. But, despite the fact that being publicly identified with this perception of the Church and the clergy was not something I could enjoy, this was not the heart of the matter. Something deeper was going on.
That “something deeper” began to emerge as I met with the Vicar (my training incumbent and now boss), on Monday morning. We went through what the week would look like. I discovered that, with the exception of Tuesdays (the clergy day off), my life was going to be a relentless round of activity, sometimes from 7am in the morning till 10 or 11pm at night.
I particularly remember the shape of one specially crowded Sunday in the month: it started with the 8am service of Holy Communion at the parish church, followed by a 9.30am service in a church hall at the other end of the parish, followed by the main 10.30am morning service back at the parish church, followed by a hospital service at 4pm, followed by tea and cake at the Vicarage for all those who’d helped with the service, followed by the 6.30pm evening service, followed (finally) at 8pm by the youth group led by my wife and myself. At all these events I was a player, not a spectator, required at different levels to contribute and to lead.
I remember too the regular Friday evening meeting with other local church leaders which sometimes went on till 11pm because one of the clergy liked to talk…
For some people this kind of pressure to move from one public event to another with barely a break is normal. And attending boring and pointless meetings late in the evening is something you have to put up with. Some people thrive on that level of exposure; or the demands of their role have forced them to get used to it. For me it was not normal. I came back to the curate’s house after that first staff meeting thinking to myself: “this is going to kill me”. What I really meant was that my introverted desire for private space was being assaulted head-on. It felt again as if my identity was under attack.
In a sense, it was. I needed to learn to give of myself in ways that I had not been used to. Aspects of what I thought of as myself were being put to death.
There was much about my early experience of public “professional” Christian ministry which was not helpful and not a good model to replicate, but I am grateful to God for it all the same. As I have reflected on it over subsequent years I have gradually come to understand that it was not meaningless or pointless, but, in the providence of God, it was an experience of good death – the kind of death which strips away the false accretions to our identity and, bit by bit, enables us to be more the people we were designed to be.