March 25, 2012

John 12:20-33

In the Lectionary Story Bible that I read from with the children this morning, there’s a note to parents and leaders just after today’s readings. “Each of the Gospels,” it explains, “tells the key story of Jesus’ crucifixion… The sixth Sunday in Lent was traditionally observed as ‘Palm Sunday” focusing on the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In order that people may also hear the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, many churches focus this Sunday on the story of Jesus’ death as well.”

And here’s the warning to parents and leaders: “Please read this story carefully before you share it with children. Some of them may find it upsetting.” Some of them may find it upsetting. Imagine that! It’s the story of Jesus – and they’ve heard about him often enough. He’s the one who loves children and welcomes them. He’s the one who heals people and multiplies a feast so that everyone is well fed. He’s the one that they are told loves them, and they are encouraged to love him also.

And now, in this rather upsetting story, Jesus is being unjustly accused, unfairly arrested, shockingly tortured, and ultimately killed on a cross. It’s not surprising that some children might be upset. Some adults might get riled up by it too, if we’re paying attention.

I think the problem is that we’ve gotten so used to the death of Jesus. We’ve come to expect it, and even to accept it. It doesn’t shock or horrify us anymore. And we’ve gotten quite used to calling the day he died “Good Friday.”

Compared to the other accounts of Jesus’ death in the synoptic Gospels, the author of John’s Gospel portrays Jesus as very strong and confident as he goes to the cross. The Jesus of Mark and Matthew’s Gospels is clearly upset. He cries out to God from the cross, saying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus maintains his composure, praying that God will forgive those who are crucifying him and then just before he dies, crying out to God to receive his spirit.

But in John’s account, Jesus speaks to his mother and the beloved disciple and tells them, essentially, to look after each other. And then after requesting a sip of wine, he declares “It is finished,” he bows his head, and he dies. Jesus had a job to do, a mission to be accomplished, and it is finished. He has completed it. Today’s Gospel reading points towards that mission and invites us to ponder how Jesus’ death accomplished it.

Clearly, in our Gospel reading, Jesus is not looking forward to the completion of his mission. He may know exactly what he’s doing, and he may know that it has to be done, but he’s certainly not excited about it. He’s troubled by what is going to happen next. He’s tempted to back out of the plan. But he knows that this has always been his mission, and he wants to glorify God.

Jesus has gone up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover with his disciples. And among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks, John’s Gospel tells us. They came to Philip… and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.

And that’s how Jesus knew that it was time. When Philip and Andrew come to him and tell him that some Greeks wish to see him, Jesus somehow knows that the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. There isn’t a lot of explanation about how he knows that it’s time. But for some reason, when these Greeks come wanting to see him, he knows that everyone needs to see him. And the only way to accomplish that is for Jesus to die so that he can draw all people to [himself].

Jesus tries to explain it to his first disciples, and we listen in and try to understand as well: Very truly, I tell you, Jesus says, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

We hear it all the time… Jesus died for us. Jesus died to save us. Jesus died and was raised so that we might have life. But what do we mean when we say this? Why did Jesus’ feel that his death was necessary? How did Jesus’ death somehow draw all people to himself? In what sense is Jesus’ death for us, or to save us?

The fact is that different churches and different theologians explain it in different ways. In fact, the four Gospels explain it different ways, and the apostle Paul has a different take on it too. But for today, let’s look at John’s perspective. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus is like a grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies. And because it dies, it bears much fruit. Jesus has to die, John’s Gospel argues, because when he dies, and when he is lifted up for all people to see, he will draw all people to himself. He will draw all people to God.

In a reflection on this text in “Feasting on the Word,” Charles Campbell argues that John is not really concerned with the forgiveness of individual sins. John isn’t saying that Jesus had to die so that God would forgive you for the bad things you’ve done. Nor does John proclaim a form of substitutionary atonement, through which Jesus takes on the divine punishment that human beings deserve, in order to relieve us of our condemnation and guilt.

In John’s Gospel, as Campbell explains it, Jesus’ crucifixion judges “the world” and drives out the “ruler of the world.” That’s what Jesus’ death accomplishes. That’s the work that Jesus dreads, and knows he has to do, and finally completes just as he dies. “It is finished,” he proclaims from the cross. The “ruler of the world” has been driven out, and all people are free to come to God and to rest in God’s love.

To make sense of what is happening here, Campbell compares Jesus’ crucifixion to an exorcism. The fallen world that exists in estrangement from God is judged. And it is found to be driven, not by the will of God, but by a spirit or force (the ruler of the world) whose ways are domination, violence, and death. That evil force is identified, and grabbed hold of, and cast out – like a demon being cast out of a tormented individual.

Walter Wink identifies violence as an important aspect of the world that is judged by Jesus’ work on the cross. Wink talks about the “myth of redemptive violence” as a primary myth of the corrupted world that we live in. According this myth, the way to bring order out of chaos is through violently defeating “the other.” And the way to deal with threats from enemies is by violently eliminating them – as the world seeks to do with Jesus.

This myth plays itself out everywhere in our culture. We see it in the old, almost archetypal, Popeye cartoons in which Popeye restores order by eating his spinach and beating up Brutus. We see it in video games and movies that train our children in this myth from their earliest days. More seriously, we see it in the death penalty, in acts of terrorism, and in nations’ responses to terrorism. Many of us have trouble even imagining alternatives to this myth – a grim signal of our captivity to it.

Throughout his journey to the cross, Jesus enacts his freedom from this myth of redemptive violence. He does this by refusing to respond in the world’s violent terms. Indeed, in his trial before Pilate, Jesus suggests that violence, which he rejects, is central to the ways of the fallen world. In response to Pilate’s questioning, Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over… But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Jesus’ rejection of violence is precisely what distinguishes his way from the way of the world.

On the cross, Jesus publicly and dramatically judges the world by exposing it for what it is. And by exposing it, Jesus “casts out” its driving spirit. For once we have seen the fallen world for what it is, we begin to be set free from its captivating ways. We are set free to die to a life shaped by violence and domination, in order to live fully and freely in the way of Jesus.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent campaigns illustrate Jesus’ work. When the white “powers-that-be” turned the hoses and dogs on the marchers – and the images were splashed across television – the reality of white racism was graphically and publicly exposed for all to see.

And King knew exactly what he was doing: “Let them get their dogs,” he shouted, “and let them get the hose, and we will leave them standing before their God and the world spattered with the blood and reeking with the stench of their Negro brothers.” It is necessary, he continued, “to bring these issues to the surface, to bring them out into the open where everybody can see them.” And King was to some degree successful. Once exposed, the spirit of racism began to lose some of its power over many people.

This is what happens on the cross. Jesus exposes the fallen world, and by exposing it he judges it and casts out its ruler. It’s not a pleasant story. It’s one that might well be upsetting to some children, and to some adults too when we pause to think about what happened to Jesus – about what he had to do in order to draw all people to God.

But as we continue this Lenten journey towards Good Friday and the cross, let us be mindful of those forces of domination, violence, and death that Jesus died to overcome. He died to overcome them, to unseat them from power, and we are no longer ruled by them. We are free to turn away from them and to turn towards his way. So with the help of God’s Spirit within us, let us follow the way of Jesus – his way of love, and forgiveness, and even sacrifice in the midst of a violent world. Amen.