April 6, 2014, Year A, 5th Sunday in Lent
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Jesus wept.” That is the RSV version of John 11:35. It is the shortest verse in all of the Bible and has been the choice for scripture memorization assignments of Sunday School slackers for a millennia. It is also a great verse for a glimpse of the humanness of Jesus Christ, particularly in St. John’s gospel, which tends to hover just above the world as it seems. “Jesus wept.” His friend, Lazarus, is dead, and he wept. “See how he loved him!” they said, seeing the tears. It is a very human scene.
It might even be more human that it seems. The word used in the Greek is not agape. Jesus is not displaying the selfless, divine form of love, but the word used is philia, the Greek word for love meaning friendship, brotherly affection. The poignancy of Jesus’ humanness is important to hold onto as we continue our Lenten trudge towards Jerusalem, towards the cross and towards the revelation of Christ’s full nature.
The whole of this story story, the story of Jesus, is a very human story. A composite of the gospel narrative begins so plainly with an expectant mother. The way she got that way was a little peculiar, but an expectant mother, everyone in this room’s story began that way. There is birth, youth, and then a man experiencing a profound awakening as to the reality and closeness of God and God’s kingdom. Simultaneously Jesus has an equally profound awakening to the overwhelming forces of evil, of empire, collaboration, domesticated religion, of mammon that alienates people; from His contemporaries way back then all the way to us sitting in this room right now, in this very moment, evil has been afoot in the world. Jesus knew fully that forces of evil that distract and alienate us from God were real, but certainly not more real or inevitable than the very true and very powerful knowledge that God loves us indelibly and that it is not supposed to be this way, evil and empire and mammon, but that there is another way, a Kingdom way, a way that it is supposed to be. The story of Jesus may be fantastic, but it is a very human story.
And leading up to this particular moment in the story, the death and raising of Lazarus, Jesus had performed miracles, healings, and exorcisms, teaching and preaching. Crowds were developing everywhere he went. Today we are in Chapter 11 of St. John’s gospel. In Chapter 10, immediately before our scene today, Jesus declared himself the Good Shepard and His enemies picked up stones to stone him and he slipped across Jordan to where John had been Baptizing before his execution. This is so human, two cases of it; someone gets too popular, starts distracting or detracting from the powers of empire and it can get dicey for them. That brings us to this scene, the scene of Lazarus’ death.
The key to this story though, the story of Lazarus, may not have much to do with Lazarus himself. Sure, it is a sledgehammer-like foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death and resurrection; of course it is the culmination of a series of increasingly monumentous miracles, proving that He was in fact who He said He was, the Son of God. Yes on both accounts. But what is really important in this story happens just after our Lectionary reading ends this morning. It was a long one. Maybe the Deacon’s union filed a grievance?
Our reading ends, “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in Him.” Fair enough; who wouldn’t believe after a miracle of that proportion? But the humanness of the story continues, for some of the people who saw it, who saw Lazarus standing after four days in the grave, they went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. The Pharisees were getting increasingly nervous about this messianic non-violent rabble-rouser. A violent rebel, like Barabbas, easy; crucify’em for sedition, you live by the sword you die by the sword… I guess that had not been said yet, but who would find existential fault in executing a violent revolutionary? But a non-violent revolutionary, a popular, healing and feeding and preaching and teaching and righteous non-violent revolutionary messiah who spoke with authority and who had a groundswell of popular support and was in direct opposition to the collaborationist’s tenuous grip on the control of the people… now that is a problem if you are one of the collaborators. They were (rightfully) afraid that Jesus was going to spoil it for them, and that “…the Romans will come and destroy our temple and our nation.” (That is verse 48). And you know what, they were right. If they, the Pharisees and Sanhedrin who supported Herod’s puppet government, if they lost control of things the Romans would come in. By 66 they did lose control and Rome did destroy the temple and the nation with the desolating sacrilege of Pompey’s legions. They had every reason to fear Jesus.
Now here is where Caiaphas was more right than he could possibly have known. He was the chief priest, the one the council, the Sanhedrin answered to, the second most powerful non-Roman in Israel. He had everything to lose if things crumbled, if Jesus tipped the scales and Rome was to intervene. “You know nothing!” he says. “You do not understand that it is expedient to have one man die for the people then to have the whole nation destroyed… So from that day on they planned to put him to death.” Jesus already had his eyes on Jerusalem, it was the very human fear of Caiaphas led Jesus to his place before Pilate, to the long hard walk up that hill, to the death of one for many on the cross.
“… it is expedient to have one man die for the people then to have the whole nation destroyed.” Expedient means convenient, useful. It is ends justifies the means kind of thinking. It is the easy way out kind of thinking. It is the kind of thinking that enables climate change denial; that allows GM to overlook a recall for how many years; that allows the CIA to obfuscate the Senate’s torture investigation. It allows us to step over the un-housed folks on every corner and remember that unemployment below 5% is “bad” for the economy. That is empire thinking. We are all captured by it in small ways and large. What we need, what our world thirsts for is Kingdom thinking. That is what the death of Jesus Christ is really about.
Now were are not going to delve into the theology of sacrificial atonement today… I’m saving that light and happy topic for Holy Week. I want to stick to the humanness of this story. And by that I mean the reality of it, the “I don’t know if it happened this way but I know this story is true” reality of it. The story of Jesus Christ is unique, obviously. It is the story of the Messiah, the chosen one of a chosen people, our Lord and Savior. But a core fantastic fabulousness of the Christian story of God is that God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth fully entered that very creation as part of it. Jesus Christ was born, lived, breathed, ate, had friends, taught, healed, wept, suffered, died. All the same profane activities that make up our days and our lives. Proclaiming the Realpolitic of Christ’s message is not missing the point, it is a central point of his very, very human nature. Christ came among us to show that things are not supposed to be the way they are, empire it not the answer. Christ came among us to proclaim that God is here, right now; that the Kingdom of God is at hand, right now! And the path to it is very, very clear and it is right there at Christ’s side, cross over your shoulder, knowing that sometimes it does take the life of one to save a nation, or a world. That is the key humanness of this story as change, real, meaningful change in this world does to often take very human sacrifices like the one made by our Lord and Savior. His sacrifice had other meanings and consequences, we’ll talk about that the week after next, but sacrifice is real, and it is required of all of us in sometimes small, in sometimes enormous ways. Now following the will of God may not, God willing, require your death like the death of Jesus was required; but it absolutely will take giving up your life as you know it. That is what God asks of us. AMEN.