Today is Census Day. Today everyone is required to complete the National Census (in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that is – Scotland has deferred its census until next year). This has taken place every 10 years since 1801 and provides a snapshot of the population. It aims to inform public policy and identify trends. This time we are encouraged to fill it out online, though paper versions are available for those who either don’t have online access or prefer to get a pen out.
This time there are questions about national identity, ethnicity and voluntary ones on religion and sexual orientation. Question 17 intriguingly declares “This question is intentionally blank”, making me wonder what got cut, and the under 16s are invited to jump from question 25 to number 51 which says “there are no more questions” – they get to leave early. There is an option for people to fill in a private census form which will override what anyone else says about them in their household. That enables discrete honesty, if it is needed.
Counting things comes up quite a few times in the Bible. There are the famous ones, as at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, when Mary and Joseph make an improbably long and awkward journey while Mary is heavily pregnant; this is most probably a device in the story so that Jesus can be born in Bethlehem and therefore claim the right identity. It can seem a bit of a pointless plot-line since being David’s son is achieved through Joseph but the story is at pains to point out this is by adoption not natural means. It sets up the cans on the wall so they can be knocked down as the story progresses. Time and again, Jesus subverts expectations, he doesn’t do box ticking in lots of ways, so the gospels subvert this approach subtly right at the beginning. The value of counting stuff very much depends on why you think it matters and as we see time and time again, Jesus has other ideas, points out that we are counting the wrong stuff.
There is an old adage that not everything that can be counted matters and not everything that matters can be counted. It’s a counter to management spreadsheets and targets identifying success or failure solely on defined measurables, useful as these things can be to plan and focus. Quiet conversations don’t necessarily have direct outcomes, but over time they build up to something really important. Much of a priest’s most valuable work is useless for census returns and statistical purposes.
Jesus subverts expectations and easy measurables in our gospel reading this morning (John 12:20-33). Philip met some Greeks visiting for a festival. They said ‘we want to see Jesus’. So he told his mate, Andrew – one of our Patrons here – and together they went to tell Jesus. His reply is rather surprising. He doesn’t say ‘Oh good, more converts for the annual return’. He doesn’t even welcome them in with trumpets and great acclaim, as we might expect. Instead, he goes off on a thread about grains of wheat falling, dying and thereby bearing much fruit. It’s a bit like when he tells his followers elsewhere that if they really want to follow him they have to deny themselves and take up their cross. That doesn’t look so good on the promo leaflets, though you can’t accuse him of mis-selling. You can hear Peter in the background, another of our Patrons, criticising his marketing strategy: “surely not you, Master!”. It’s as if Jesus is trying to put them off, or at least, warn them that this is no easy ride.
And yet, and yet, dying to live, being drawn to the cross is where our faith begins. It is here that we find the bite of life connects with the hope held before us. This is not a shallow marketing ploy, or instant access. This is life being valued much more fully and raw lives given meaning. This is where laws are written on hearts, not checklists, as in our first reading (Jeremiah 31:31-34). They will know God because they have seen, they have stared into the eyes of the one on the cross and found there that love stares back at them, knowing them more fully than they have ever been known before.
Censuses are valuable as long as the questions asked are the right ones and you know what you intend to do with the information. So if you are looking for a Messiah, Jesus fails to meet the expected mark. He’s not actually born of the House of David; he’s adopted into it. He’s not a military leader who will drive out the Romans; he’s nailed to a cross by them and dies. He doesn’t look to restore the fortunes of the political nation; he promotes a Kingdom with a much deeper allegiance. He doesn’t tell people to follow complicated rules; he picks up the theme of Jeremiah where the heart is the true test.
I have theory that we connect with this at a profoundly deep level. There is a point deep within us, which knows when the gospel being proclaimed rings true and when it is just box ticking. Most can’t recite the books of the bible in the right order, neither can I; I don’t have that kind of pub quiz memory. I don’t know my times tables either, but I can work them out – I know how to play with maths, and likewise I know how to play with the building blocks of the good news of Christ even if I have to look up where to find the books of Ruth, Esther and Habakkuk, and I can never remember which comes first – Philippians, Colossians or Ephesians.
What seems to count is Christ in our hearts, inspiring us to live his way, to know that in his passion, his death and resurrection is our hope because that is real life and not idealised, fantasy life. That can speak into Covid which has been with us for a year now, it can hold the grieving parents of a young woman abducted and murdered on a south London street, and it can hold all of the #MeToo connections. It can hold us when we fall short because that is why Christ came, to restore us by grace – the title of a series of Lent Talks I organised through St John’s this year and it was good to see a number of friends from the cathedral join in online.
Christ call us to proclaim his love through our lives in what we think, say and do. Censuses only measure what they ask about. Christ goes deeper into the heart of our living and our dying that he may bring us too into his rising. In so doing, he subverts expectations in so many ways, because they are looking for the wrong things, and thereby he surpasses them too. Our living, our dying, our rising are all held in the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross. God is with us, even, especially in the darkness and most painful moments, holding and redeeming.
And so, in the words of an old prayer:
“We adore you O Christ and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”
Sermon for Lent 5, Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 21st March 2021