The solitude of Jesus on the cross is the more striking in the context of the intensely social period that leads up to Jesus’ arrest. In today’s passage from John’s gospel, we find Jesus with His disciples, approached by others described as “Greeks”. There is a sense of a busy, bustling scene, with Jerusalem filling with devotees gathered from across the eastern Mediterranean region, as the Passover celebrations approach.
In the chapters that follow, Jesus continues to be surrounded by people, but the context is very different. In the intimacy of the Last Supper, Jesus is surrounded by His closest disciples, and He tries to convey to them the meaning of what is about to happen to Him and to them, teaching them in the long farewell discourse, leading them by example in washing their feet, and praying for them in the passage that has become known as Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer”.
In the gospel accounts of Holy Week, the movement is from society solitude: after the intimate companionship of the Last Supper comes the solitude of the Cross.
In the passage we have heard this evening from the Epistle to the Hebrews, we see the same contrast of the social and the solitary in Jesus’ ministry. Just as the High Priest alone passed through the curtain into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, to offer sacrifices for his sins and the sins of his people, so Jesus has passed alone through the curtain into the heavenly sanctuary, to make atonement for us. But this solitude is barely acknowledged in the Epistle to the Hebrews, as the writer’s focus is on the way in which, unlike the High Priest in the Jerusalem Temple, Jesus enters the sanctuary to open “a new and living way” for us.
And so we see that the sacrifice offered by Jesus, the “great priest over the house of God”, is both quantitatively and qualitatively different from the sacrifices offered by the High Priest in the Temple on the Day of Atonement. Quantitatively different, because Jesus’ offers His blood once for all; qualitatively different, because whilst the High Priest offered atonement for sins, Jesus’ blood offers us not only atonement but also access: “…since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus… let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith”. Unlike the High Priest in the Temple, Jesus has entered the Holy of Holies to open a “new and living way” for us all to follow Him there.
I’m reminded of that lovely line from the hymn “Jerusalem the golden”: “I know not, oh I know not, what social joys are there”. The atonement made by Jesus our High Priest not only reconciles humanity to God, but also reconciles us to one another. Many of us, myself included, find it easier to be alone than in company; and yet to whatever extent we may struggle with social situations, we also long for human intimacy and companionship nevertheless. The wonderful hope that we have in Jesus is both a removal of the barriers that separate us from God, and the removal of the barriers that separate us from one another.
The repeated use of “us” and “we” in the Epistle to the Hebrews is striking. And the writer of the Epistle moves effortlessly from speaking of heavenly mysteries to speaking about our life together in the here and now. There is the old joke about church life, that if we find it so difficult to get along with each other now, how are we going to cope together for eternity? It’s silly but it’s also more-or-less true. If we believe the things we say we believe, if we believe that we have been reconciled to God and one another through the blood of Jesus, the great priest over the house of God, what should that mean for our life together now?
The writer of the Epistle writes: “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another”. There is an idea which is quite popular nowadays, that one can be a Christian alone, without meeting with other Christians or participating in corporate worship. This is incomprehensible from the perspective of the Epistle to the Hebrews, just as it is incomprehensible from the perspective of the Last Supper. Jesus has opened a new and living way for us; and perhaps if we took to heart the idea that we are to spend eternity together, we would be more patient, more encouraging and more supportive of one another in the here and now.