Read and Hear Martha’s Sermon from March 25, 2012
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St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church
March 25, 2012
Jer. 31:31-34; Ps. 119:9-16; Heb. 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
It’s been a painful couple of weeks in the news. Last week there was the killing of 16 civilians, many of them children, by an American soldier in Afghanistan. And then the killing of Jewish children in Toulouse, France. An unarmed 17-year-old African American is gunned down in Sanford, Florida by a self-styled neighborhood vigilante, which happened almost a month ago, but just came to light last week. We’ve suffered some unexpected losses in Belfast in the last couple of weeks that has brought grief to parts of our community.
All of this real and present reality might cause us to ask ourselves what this new covenant in Jeremiah is all about. God has written God’s law on our hearts, God has promised that we are God’s people, that sins are forgotten, yet it’s hard to see that anything has changed. At times it seems as though the human race just passes through its endless cycle of tragedy, violence, pain and stupidity. In some ways the world seems even more dangerous.
And now we come to the fifth Sunday in Lent. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, when we observe Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and begin the journey to the cross. But, while the entry into Jerusalem comes next week in our liturgical calendar, in the Gospel of John it has just happened. (We have to hold time lightly in the church.) Today’s gospel passage finds Jesus in Jerusalem. Jesus is drawing crowds, huge ones, people longing to see and hear him, and those plotting to destroy him. The tension is mounting. Some Greeks come to two of the disciples and say “we wish to see Jesus.” These Greeks are probably diaspora Jews, but the other point made here is the growing universal reach of Jesus. And Jesus responds by talking about the cross. He is interpreting the cross ahead of time. “You want to see me? This is what you will see. The cross.”
We too might say “we wish to see Jesus,” hoping everything will be hunky-dory from then on. We don’t really want to be pointed to the cross. We can get hung up on the cross. We’re always in need of revisiting what it means. There it stands, the central symbol of Christian faith. It is iconic, recognizable anywhere in the world. And yet, how are we to understand it? How can something so bad make things right? I’ve said before that medieval notions of a substitutionary atonement – another life offered up as some kind of quid pro quo, a sacrifice for our sins that some how sets it all to rights – makes no sense. I know that this may be what some of you have been taught. But Christ came, not to glorify sacrifice or perpetuate it, but to put an end to it. This passage in John is all about the cross, and Jesus isn’t saying anything like “I’m going to die on the cross because you’ve all been so bad that I have to be offered up as a sacrifice for your sins.” Think about that: it has echoes of so-called redemptive violence that may sound familiar to us – our criminal justice system has much of this kind of thinking behind it — punishment that is supposed to be cleansing but in fact just continues the cycle of violence. That’s not at all what is going on here.
In fact, John is not concerned with the forgiveness of individual sins.i That’s not what the cross is about. So what is the cross, for John?
We start with this simple reality: Jesus dies. Jesus, God incarnate, dies. This is a historical fact, the death of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross. Jesus dies because he was human, and humans die. Our God becomes human, lives the life of a human and dies a human. Imagine, if you will, an alternative, a Hollywood ending. Just before the end, before the beating and the mocking and the crown of thorns, before the long, hot struggle to Golgotha dragging his own huge cross on his back, before the agony and the pain and the feeling that God had forsaken him, Jesus gets rescued. Just as one of the thieves who was crucified with him, just as the crowd below cried out to him to do: “If you are God, why don’t you save yourself?!” Imagine a chorus of angels does indeed come down and he ascends to glory, as he eventually does, but skips all the pain.
What good would that Jesus be, to any of us? We suffer too. We all have crosses, and sometimes they flatten us. We suffer debilitating illnesses, or have the pain of watching someone we love suffer. We have a friend is a drug addict. We lose our job and with it our sense of who we are. A parent has Alzheimer’s. We don’t have children or a partner when we hunger for them, or we have children and a partner and they break our hearts. We all struggle with loss and pain, or own, and the world’s. Not because we’ve done something wrong, but just because we are alive, and it is all part of being alive. We don’t need that suffering glorified, and that’s not what Jesus does. Jesus lives and dies and by living and dying enters fully into what it means to be human. So Jesus tells his hearers “I will die.” But his death is not the end, not for him, not for his hearers and not for us. The cross is not the end, and while it’s necessary, it’s not the point. It’s not the ultimate event of God’s revelation. The cross is always in the context of the sweep of the resurrection and the ascension. Jesus says in today’s gospel, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
The words “earth” and “world” are important here and need to be properly understood. They don’t mean the natural world. Jesus isn’t making a distinction between the physical and the spiritual, or earth and heaven. In the words of theologian Charles Campbell, “The “world” [here] is “a superhuman reality, concretely embodied in structures and institutions, that aggressively shapes human life and seeks to hold human beings captive to its ways.”ii He suggests that a better translation might be “the System,” as in “now is the judgment of this system.” “And this system is driven by a force whose ways are domination, violence, and death.”iii We are slaves to it too. Maybe through consumerism, or the myth of redemptive violence, or structures and institutions and ways of thinking that pit us against each other. Jesus, throughout his human journey, enacts his freedom from the system and its ways of violence and domination. Jesus dies a political death. The cross was the Roman Empire’s way of punishing insurgents, rebels, and enemies of the state. Jesus’ death on the cross exposes the system for what it is, an opponent of God’s purposes. Once see this, we are free to die to the life that the system has shaped, and free to live a life fully and freely, shaped by Jesus.
And this is where our texts today come together. What looks like a moment of utter hopelessness is God acting through the whole story of Jesus to save the whole world. The text from Jeremiah reminds us of God’s intimacy, God’s passionate commitment to creation and to each one of us. God is to be found, not in laws, or in a book, but in relationship.
In this time of our own suffering and the world’s, the cross, and its place in God’s plan, reminds us that we live in a time, not of hopelessness, but of promise. It is a promise both fulfilled in Jesus, and as yet unfulfilled. That’s the function of promise, that it invites us to imagine a future that is not yet here. What’s tremendous is that it creates the possibility of imagining.
Our response to sin and suffering is often to annihilate it. God’s response is different. It is to redeem it, even if it takes death and incarnation.iv This is God’s “yes” to humanity’s “no,” and it is this that makes our “yes” possible. This is the call of discipleship that is intimately extended to each one of us. Our job, as disciples, is not only – or even perhaps mainly — to draw people to Jesus, but to draw people along side what Jesus is doing. To see and make known that God is always at work redeeming the world, and to join in, with joy. May it be so. Amen.
i Charles L. Campbell, Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 2., 141.
ii Campbell, 141.
ii Campbell, 143.
iv “Sermon Brainwave,” lectionary podcast for Lent V from www.workingpreacher.org