John Passion Extra Content: Sermon and Intercession Summary by John Butt
Erdmann Neumeister's Epistolische Nachlese was published in Hamburg in 1720, where he was pastor at St Jacob's church. As the title page records, the sermons printed in this collection were originally preached at the royal court church in Weissenfels (a court very close to Bach, since this is where his second wife had worked, and he himself held an honorary Kapellmeister position there from 1729). Neumeister provides sermons based on the Epistles for each Sunday and feast day, and adds a series of six Passion sermons.
The sermon presented here is the last of the six, designed for Good Friday, and it is based around the sixth ‘enemy', death (the other five, as presented in previous sermons, were Godly wrath, sin, God's judgment, hell and the devil). Each sermon is based on the founding of a spiritual ‘city of refuge', thus creating an analogy with the Old Testament provision of six such cities in Israel and Judea, where no blood vengeance was permitted. This last, a ‘city of refuge' from death, is thus likened to the sixth in Jewish tradition, Hebron, which was the most important city after Jerusalem, and where Abraham settled.
Neumeister's style is generally clear and direct (he was a staunch supporter of Lutheran Orthodoxy and thus very much against the overly emotional style of some Pietist preachers). Nevertheless, there are many poetic elements in his presentation, such as resonating quotations from Scripture and several complete verses from Lutheran chorales. Moreover, the writing becomes more poetic and emotionally charged towards the end, as if to prevent any flagging on the part of the potential listener. His adherence to classical rhetorical principles is very clear: the sermon opens with a call to attention (what rhetoricians would call the Exordium), quoting the first verse of ‘Jesu deine Passion' and introducing the topic of this final sermon in the series, death. Just as in Bach's Passion itself, Neumeister presents both the sadness one feels at Jesus's death, particularly as he is taking on the sins of mankind, but also the joy that salvation from sin will bring.
After this brief introduction comes the pulpit hymn, which in turn introduces the main topic of the sermon: this is from 2 Timothy 1, 10 (‘But is now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel' in the KJV). As is typical in sermons of this type, this quotation is soon counterposed with other Pauline texts (including the obvious ‘Since by man came death'). It also comes with warnings of what will happen to those who don't believe, those who will be denied everlasting life in blessedness and sent to hell (this element, which reappears at several junctures could be considered the confutatio, the rhetorician's presentation of opposing arguments).
Next follows a short history of the cities of refuge and the need to found a new spiritual Hebron as a refuge from the penalty of death. Now, with a topical chorale, the main biblical text, and the image of a spiritual refuge in place, the central discussion of the sermon can proceed (divisio). This is based around three questions: where is our spiritual security to be found, how is it to succeed, and what leads us towards it?
The answer to the first question lies directly in the Passion of Jesus who gave his life as a ‘guilt offering' (this relates directly to the Anselmic ‘satisfaction' theory of atonement, which was prevalent in Lutheran theology and clear in much of the John Passion, from the very first aria aria onwards). Interestingly, Neumeister also mentions here the image of Jesus being crowned with praise and glory (c.f. the opening chorus of Bach's Passion). This relates to one of the earliest traditions of atonement, Christus Victor, Jesus as victorious, as is depicted in much early iconography. Another chorale text, familiar in Bach's oeuvre, is introduced here, the third verse of ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden', which concerns Jesus's defeat of death. God thus lifts the guilty punishment of death, taking away the poison just like a doctor would do. At this point there comes an anecdote that is one of the few points in the sermon that betrays its ‘pre-enlightened' historical position. For Neumeister gives us a colourful description of a snake pit in the Italian dukedom of Dracciano. Following ancient folklore, those with leprosy apparently enter the pit and the snakes lick and suck away their leprosy without otherwise harming them. This is immediately counterposed with the great Johannine utterance ‘I am the resurrection and the life...' (John 11.25).
Neumeister's second question concerns how our security is to be achieved. This relates directly to our behavior on earth, which should follow the life and way of Christ. With him in our heart there is a part of ‘heaven on earth', even though we might not understand how all this works in our present state as children of God. In typically Pauline fashion, we are exhorted to give up the ‘will of the flesh' and live a holy life in Christ. The third and final question asks what leads us to our salvation, something which is easily answered by Neumeister: the Gospel itself. Belief in this, with the knowledge that Jesus has already paid the price of sin, means that we attain the city of refuge, against which even the most deadly poison will have no effect. Without this we die in sin and unbelief.
The sermon draws to a conclusion with increasingly poetic commentary and chorales (e.g. ‘Jesu, meines Lebens Leben'). An ecstatic list of how cheerfully the righteous in Scripture meet their deaths leads to the repeated quotation of the Timothy text (thus linking the conclusion - peroratio - to the opening). The threat of those living according to the flesh dying by the flesh is repeated again, together with a new anecdote, this time drawn from Adam Olearius's travels to Persia: as his ship threatened to sink in a storm he linked arms with his companion Mandesloh, so that they would die together as they had lived. How much stronger, Neumeister affirms, is the linking of Jesus with the believer's soul? The sermon is brought to a close with the opening verse of ‘Jesu, deine Passion', followed by the verse ‘Jesu, der du warest tod', that which features in Bach's aria in the John Passion, ‘Mein teurer Heiland'.
Intercession, taken from from Agenda, Das ist: Kirchen-Ordnung (Leipzig, 1539; 1748 edition), pp. 164-5.
This begins with the metaphor of the church as a body, of which Christ is the head. Thus we should pray for each other and all the various components of the body, to be ruled by God, strengthened in faith, and that each should love one's neighbour.
Next the various parts of the spiritual body are prayed for in turn: first the worldly authority of the Holy Roman Emperor, then all Christian monarchs and especially those of the house of Saxony. For these, we pray for a long life, health, and temporal and eternal welfare. Grace and unity are desired for all officers and councilors so that they may eradicate immorality and ensure Christian peace and calm. Then the prayer turns to our enemies and opponents, imploring that they cease their strife and live in peace and meekness. All those who live in tribulation are to live in peace, all should trust God and his holy spirit and understand the way of his will and, finally, our bodies should be fed through the fruits of the earth - all through Jesus Christ, who died and suffered on our account.