Love's DemandMarch 16, 1997, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Have you ever asked yourself why it was necessary for Jesus to suffer and die? Wasn't there some easier way? Shouldn't God have been able to find a less cruel means to accomplish the salvation of the world? And how is it that what happened to Jesus in his passion and death should somehow be for us? These are the questions which today's lessons raise for us.
In today's gospel lesson Jesus' public ministry comes to a close. As he says, "Now the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified." That term is used in a very particular way on the lips of Jesus in John's gospel; it has to do with God's glory, God's presence.1 What is about to take place is going to reveal God present in Jesus in a way, that once complete, will quite literally draw all people to himself.
But glorification will encompass more than Jesus' death, as he reveals in this brief parable: "...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." The agricultural image is plain enough for any school child who has ever planted a seed in a jar and watched it sprout. New life emerges from the seed's death, and produces life that is far more abundant and glorious than the initial seed. What is to emerge from his death is a new kind of life abundant and glorious -- resurrection. But it is about more than coming back to life, as Jesus had raised Lazarus or Jarius' daughter. They would die again. This resurrection is about exaltation. In the language of our epistle lesson today, Jesus' glorification is not only about his resurrection but also his ordination and installation as high priest.
I'm afraid the meaning of that is lost on most of us. Living in a predominately Protestant ethos, most of us have little understanding or appreciation for what a priest does, much less why a High Priest is necessary. So let us take a moment to refurbish the image. What is it a priest does? A priest makes offerings to God on behalf of the people. That is part of any priest's task. A priest does for us before God what you and I are powerless to do -- represents us, acts for us, on our behalf. In what is to come, that is precisely what Jesus will do -- offer himself to God on behalf of God's people. You and I have been so saturated with the Protestant principle of the priesthood of all believers that we instinctively say, "Why do I need that, I can do that myself." The point is, that until Jesus was installed as high priest that was simply not possible. Human life was not able to stand in the presence of God on its own behalf without being consumed. You remember that even the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies -- God's dwelling place in the Temple -- only one time a year, there to make atonement for the people only after atonement had been made for him. Jesus who has remained sinless through death, had in his glorification entered the Holy of Holies. He stands in God's presence on humankind's behalf. Without that no one could have contact with God. Because he is there in the God-head, anyone can cry out to God and be heard. That is what he means when he says "No one can come to the Father except through me."2 Whether someone confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior or not, if they experience God's presence in their lives -- whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, universalist, whatever -- it has happened only because the risen Christ has returned to the God-head to open the door that it might happen. The barrier between the Divine and the human is gone, anyone can approach God directly, because the Son of Man has been glorified. Installed as eternal High Priest, even now he makes atonement for us -- doing what needs to be done so that you and I might be at one with God. When you and I are joined to him in the waters of baptism we stand before God with him as his sisters and brothers.
Over the years, the dominant notion in Christian theology has focused on Jesus's suffering and death as a sacrifice offered to the Father, in one of three theories of how Christ gave his life over to eternal death in place of our lives. Listen to the hymnody of the church, and see how these images of Christ's priesthood are woven in, line after line. But there is more to priesthood than the offering of sacrifices to God. A priest also mediates the presence of one to the other as a means of establishing a relationship, in this case a relationship of reconciliation. Not only does the priest represent the people before God, the priest represents God before the people. In the priest's person, the two are reconciled. Jesus as the Son of Man -- the title he exclusively uses of himself -- stands before God as one of us, on our behalf. But he also stands among us the Son of God, as nothing less than God's glory, God's presence among us. You have heard me say it before, all of God that could be contained in human form was present in Jesus. Not only does he reveal God to us, his coming to us reveals the fact that God is pursuing us, seeking us, welcoming us, striving to be at-one with us.
The theological word is atonement. The problem with most theories of atonement is that they have focused only on Jesus' death as ransom, substitution, or moral model, and failed to see that atonement was first made by God when becoming one with us in the incarnation.3 Then and there, at Bethlehem, God covered the breach created by human rebellion and sin, by coming to us in one we could comprehend -- a human life -- in order that we might live in relationship with God and God's reign. Jesus' entire life was atonement as he constantly crossed the gulf to announce sin forgiven, reached out and raised people to new life, proclaimed that salvation had come into people's lives, and welcomed and encouraged his listeners to live into the reign of God. In each of those moments he revealed God's glory, mediated God's presence in people's lives, enacted God's love for us, demonstrated God's desire to live life in relationship with us. Jesus is the new covenant. He inaugurates the new relationship promised by the prophet Jeremiah. In contemporary language, Jesus was the conduit through whom the people around him experienced God present to heal, restore, give and share life, a covenant written in a human life rather than cut on stone.
But in a world where sin is the norm rather than the exception, and where people want no sovereign in their lives save themselves, in a world ruled by the power of deceit and destruction, it was inevitable that Jesus should encounter forces that sought first to compromise him, and when that did not work, to exterminate him. How should he respond? How is the Son most the Son? By remaining true to himself and true to his Father, regardless of the forms of coercion the ruler of this world would designed to cause him to deny both. And now we are getting closer to answering the question of why it was necessary that he suffer and die. How could he do otherwise without denying both his Father and himself?
And so he says, "Now my soul is troubled." Here we have to deal with a difference in perspective between John's gospel and the authors of the other three. For John, Jesus is so attuned to his Father and his Father's will, that it was unthinkable that Jesus should seek to find another way. Fortunately, the Jesus of the other gospels -- and the one portrayed in our Epistle -- is more human. Though John poses Jesus' request to be saved from this hour as a rhetorical question, so as not to ask that the cup pass him by,4 the epistle lesson echoes the version reported on the three synoptic gospels.5 There, a very human Jesus struggles with what it means to be obedient, crying out in anguish, just as any child would beg a parent to find another way. It is not a moment of unfaithfulness, but simply a child pleading with a parent, saying "If it is possible, find another way."
Yet what other way is possible save being faithful to who they both are. Consequently, whether it is John's negative answer to his rhetorical question, or the synoptics gospel's "nevertheless your will be done!" the result is the same. Jesus remains totally committed to who he is and who his Father is, even if it means suffering. His insistence upon trusting God unwaveringly, even in the face of death, is not only obedience, it is more. Given the suffering his obedience involved, it made him perfect -- God's eternal source of salvation. For as someone has said, in our world, only a God who knows something about suffering will do.
Now hear me carefully. God did not demand that the Son suffer in order to become the savior of the world -- he already was the savior of the world. God sent the son into the world as the savior. It was the world's rejection of the savior which brought on the suffering. And in that rejection, the savior could do no else than suffer if he was to remain true as the Son. That therein he learned obedience is not a statement of what God demanded from Jesus. Rather, it is what Jesus offered to the Father because he was truly the Son. Jesus suffered because he insisted upon being the Son -- it was love's demand -- what his love for his Father and his love for us required. That in such suffering he should learn perfect obedience is simply stating what happens to any woman or man, who in remaining true to themselves must innocently suffer. Innocent suffering willingly borne teaches perfect obedience. But the greater point is this: his innocent suffering was not meaningless. Borne, as it was, fully trusting God, Jesus' suffering was redemptive and salvific, not only for himself but for all the world. How? In bearing it, he drove out the ruler of this world.6
Let me take a moment to extrapolate from the text a point of application that may not yet be apparent to you. Among the many things the text tells us is that innocent suffering -- whether terminal illness, the loss of a loved one, the bearing of humiliation unwarranted, the death of seven junior high girls on the banks of the Jordan -- when borne trusting God, is never meaningless. Such trust in suffering is honored by God in ways that are both redemptive and salvific. For when we turn our focus upon God, in obedient trust, we find the ruler of this world has been driven out, and, find that we are in the Father's embrace.
Through what he suffers, and the obedience he reveals in that suffering, Jesus both drove out the ruler of this world, and was forever appointed by his Father, the supreme and eternal high priest, and the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. Ascended to the God-head, he is able to come to us now, able still to be the conduit through whom we experience the Father, able still to be the high priest who presents us to God as beloved children, his sisters and brothers. He is the one through whom you and I can reach out to God, and find we are touching none other than the Holy.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
- Regina A. Boisclair, "Studying the Lectionary," Homily Service, Vol 29, No. 12, (Silver Spring, MD: The Liturgical Conference, March 1997), p. 34. The word, one of the three forms appears some thirty-seven times in the Gospel of John.
- John 14:6
- For a larger discussion of this, see Gail R. O'Day, The Gospel of John, THE NEW INTERPRETERS' BIBLE, VOL. IX, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 713f.
- Regina A. Boisclair, Op. Cit, p. 35.
- Matthew 26:39; Mark 12:36; Luke 22:42.
- Notice that the very same image appears in the Book of Revelation, where in the vision of the woman, child and dragon, when the dragon attempts to devour the male child born to the woman who is to rule all nations, and instead, the child is "snatched away and taken to God and to his throne," the result is that the dragon (the Devil and Satan) and his angels are driven out of heaven and thrown to the earth. Revelation 12:1-17. Jesus' words "now the ruler of this world will be driven out" means that at his glorification, the power of evil is defeated.
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