Lent V, Year B
Ps 51:1-12 or Ps 119:9-16
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, "You are my Son, today I have begotten you"; as he says also in another place, "You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek." In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, 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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. "Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say–’Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Jesus as the rejected and crucified Son of Man has popped up again and again in our lectionary readings, from Advent through Lent and of course, on through Holy Week when we ‘celebrate’ the death and resurrection of Jesus. The death of Jesus is not a theme imposed upon the text. It permeates the text and is the hermeneutic by which the text gives itself to be understood. We cannot emphasize this enough.
It is commonplace to read the gospels through the same royal ideology with which we regard the gods of mythology. In this view, Jesus is no more than a god stretched to the “Nth” value. Jesus is stronger, mightier, more powerful and demonstrates that power as Judge, Jury and Executioner at the eschaton. Therefore, we must live in fear and have a healthy respect for the moral judgments of this God.
The gospels do not move in this direction. The first thing the gospels do is point us to a dying and forgiving Jesus. He is the one who announces the character of the Creator, a character so different from the gods of religion. This abba abounds in love, overflows with joy for his children and gives them all good gifts. This God, the maker of heaven and earth is, for Jesus, the wonderful life giving God. Sin, death and the devil are only his business in relation to his redemptive work on our behalf. In him there is no shadow of turning, in him there is no darkness at all. In short, God does not have a shadow side.
With apologies to our Calvinist friends, we question any notion that separates the revelation of the Father from the person of Jesus (as in the so-called extra Calvinisticum). We also note the problem of Luther’s ‘deus absconditus (hidden God). This is the derived Platonic god that has haunted Christianity from the second century.
[An issue that faced Luther and Calvin was the looming authority of Augustine and his doctrine of election. No matter which way you slice it, the dualism that has permeated this doctrine and its influence has created havoc for the Reformers and their heirs, indeed all in the West. Little wonder that our God feels, looks and acts just like all the other gods.]
While there is certainly mystery and wonder in the Creator abba, there are no secrets, no hidden agendas. Everything is revealed. And what is revealed? That our God can kick the you know what out of the other gods, as in the story of Elijah and the priests of Ba’al? If that is the God that Jesus reveals, then why did Jesus not call down legions of angels at his arrest? If this is so, why did God not deliver Jesus from the clutches of the angry mob and their rulers? If this is so, then why, when God raised Jesus from the dead, did Jesus not come back and smite his enemies? Why in the world would he appear to his disciples announcing “Peace’, the very message he announced before he died? No, this retaliatory god is not the abba of Jesus, nor the God in whom we believe.
Some might say “Jesus’ role as judge won’t come until the End.” But if Jesus is ‘the same yesterday, today and forever,’ at what point will we finally realize that this “Judge Jesus” is as two faced as Janus? When will we discern that all of our christological and theological problems occur when we insist on seeing Jesus through the lens of the gods of religion rather than seeing the gods of religion and their violence exposed in the cross?
What are we being shown in the gospel? We are shown our own propensity for mimetic conflict and its resolution through scapegoating violence, and God’s transformation of this mechanism for our salvation. Some may object and say that this does not speak to their situation. They’re not violent, they were not there when Jesus died. These folks believe that they would never have harmed Jesus, they would have listened and obeyed. But the proof in the pudding is in the fact that we continue to treat others just like we would treat Jesus. We all have our scapegoats; people we would prefer to see removed from the planet. We have all tasted hate.
This Son of Man who is exalted is for us the preeminent sign of the glory of God. But users of this website are unlikely to be able to identify with him as the victim, without first seeing themselves and their own mimetic tendencies in the mob and in the rulers. (Those who can reasonably see themselves in the victim probably don’t have internet access.) As we have pointed out previously, this way of reading the gospels has been aptly described as a ‘repentant reading.’ (Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred). Using this hermeneutical insight in tandem with Bonhoeffer’s “view from below,” we came away with a hermeneutic in which human suffering plays as important a role as any ‘historical-critical’ insight.
Today we call upon three authors for their insights into our text.
Is today’s text a bit like the Gethsemane story of the Synoptics? Raymond Brown offers additional evidence for the historical credibility of the Fourth Gospel. Regarding this text Brown says, “We need not jump to the conclusion that John presents us with a dismembered form of the Synoptic agony scene. It is quite probable that Jesus underwent an experience of agony in the face of death as described in the Synoptic scene, for this is not the type of incident the primitive Church would invent about its glorified master. Yet, since there were no witnesses to report the prayer of Jesus during the agony (the disciples were asleep at a distance), the tendency would be to fill in the skeletal framework of the Gethsemane scene with prayers and sayings uttered by Jesus at other times. Therefore, the Johannine picture where such prayers and sayings are scattered may actually be closer to the original situation than the more organized Synoptic scene.” (Brown, The Gospel according to John)
Our point in citing Brown is two-fold. First we believe that the Synoptic tradition is shaped by the apocalyptic orientation of the early Church. Kasemann suggests that ‘apocalyptic is the mother of early Christianity,” and we are inclined to agree (New Testament Questions for Today) But, Jesus was not the apocalyptist that scholarship of the last 100 years has tried to make him out to be. Apocalyptic is language that Jesus employs, but he uses it as a meta-map and is constantly out of step with what the general populace and the ruling authorities believe regarding apocalyptic events. Therefore, the Johannine portrait of Jesus shares much with those portraits of Jesus that debunk the ‘apocalyptic Jesus’, e.g., Marcus Borg’s Jesus: A New Vision or Raymund Schwager’s Jesus Of Nazareth: How He Understood His Life. Neither of these authors use the Johannine Gospel as they both write within the bounds of the modern critical consensus that only the Synoptics may be used to discern the historical Jesus. Given this, it is all the more important to note the conjunction between the portrait of Jesus in John and some contemporary work on Jesus, for as we have observed all along, both John and Mark share the same core perspective.
We do not often reflect on the experience of Jesus’ rejection and suffering. It will always be difficult to understand Jesus’ ‘agony’ as long as we continue reading the gospel from the perspective of the one that persecutes, the one who lashes out. Brown’s observation that Jesus had a ‘real experience of agony’ makes simple sense. Anyone who has undergone tremendous loss knows the soul-searching questions that are asked during this time of crisis. Jesus’ response here and in the Synoptics, even if heavily edited and mediated through layers of tradition, indicates a real person struggling with real issues and questions.
With regard to the prayer itself, we turn to B.F. Westcott: “If then the words be taken as a prayer for deliverance it is important to notice the exact form in which it is expressed. The petition is for deliverance out of and not for deliverance from the crisis of trial. So that the sense appears to be ‘bring me safely out of the conflict’ (Heb 5:7), and not simply ‘keep me from entering into it.’ Thus the words are the true answer to the preceding question. ‘In whatever way it may be thy will to try me, save me out of the deep of affliction.’ There is complete trust even in the depth of sorrow. (St. John).
Finally, we quote F.F. Bruce with gratitude for his insight:
“In its final reaction to him, the world would pass judgment on itself and reveal its true character: who then would stand for him and who would be against him? But the world’s judgment on Jesus, directed by the sinister spirit-ruler (archon) of the present order, would be overruled in a higher court; that spirit-ruler himself would be dislodged, for universal authority and judgment have been vested by the Father in the Son (John 3:35; 5:19-29), and the present order is about to be replaced by the eternal dominion of life and truth (17:2; 18:37f). It is from the cross of Jesus that the true light shines brightest; men declare themselves to be sons of light or sons of darkness according as they come to that light or avoid it, and this is the ‘krisis’ (cf. 3:19-21, 12:45F). The ‘archon’ of this world is the adversary of the Son, but finds no accusation to bring against him (cf. 14:30). He is the adversary also of those who believe in the Son, but against his accusations they are to receive the powerful aid of the Paraclete, whose presence will be to them the evidence that ‘the ruler of this world has been judged’ (16:11). That ruler’s dethronement, then is effected by the death and resurrection of the Son and confirmed by the coming of the Spirit.” (The Gospel of John)
As we approach Holy Week, we are aware of the power of violence regardless of the scale, from domestic conflicts to international wars. From the school bully to the boorish tyrant we are reminded that violence is a poison. Our contemporary problem is that violence is seen as the remedy to violence. It is both poison and remedy (pharmakon and pharmakos). The simple logic we use with our children when we raise our voices or our hands is applied on a grand scale in our modern world. I am bigger than you, I can beat you up, I can hurt you. Therefore you must refrain from violence.
To preach the cross of the Son of Man is to reject this way of thinking. This is the satanic way, the way judged in the cross of Jesus. The death of Jesus did not solve any problems for the religious authorities. In a scant thirty years they would find their authority crushed by the Romans. What the death of Jesus did do was produce a movement that would learn to live together. And for all of their disagreements, they would learn to love one another and care for one another and in many cases, be exiled or executed for their faith in this anti-god (remember that the most leveled charge against the early Christians was that they were atheists).
The world can no longer afford for the Church to hide the Gospel under a bushel. The gospels are encouraging us all of the time to reconsider what it is we think we have learned about Jesus and his God. May God show us mercy when we say things about him that may well be true of all the other gods but are not true to His revelation in Jesus.
From our perspective it is really simple: we are either interpreting the text sacrificially or we are interpreting it non-sacrificially. It doesn’t matter whether we are conservative, liberal, left, right or center, RC, Nazarene, Lutheran, Anglican or anything else. We either read the biblical text ‘from below’ or ‘from above.’ We either join the mad chorus of victimage and announce the wrath of God or we join the victim and announce the salvation of God.
It’s all about what you interpret, how you interpret it, why you interpret it, where you interpret it and when you interpret it. We pray that the Trinitarian discussions of the twentieth century will pay off in christological conversations in the twenty-first century mirroring the fourth and fifth centuries of the early church.
Thus far in Lent we have looked at passages that relate primarily to the saving work of Christ in his death and resurrection. Our text today continues this theme but takes us back a step, to the garden in Gethsemane. But it also takes us into the present by affirming that we have a mediator in the present before the Father, the Christus praesens.
It is one thing to say that Christ died for our sins. All Christians affirm this in one way or another. But the work of Christ is not limited to the past, nor to the eschatological horizon of the future. Jesus acted in a priestly manner not only in his life and death but also now acts as our priest in his session at the right hand of God.
When we approach God, we do not approach a God who is distant or unfeeling, lofty and beyond our concerns. Our God is no watchmaker who creates the universe and sets it in motion, witnessing human history with the detachment of a scientific observer. Nor is our God remote, so far out there that human life, human choices, human interactions, human relations do not matter to her/him. Our God has taken on our flesh and blood, lived in poverty and marginalization, was killed as a common criminal. Our God knows the struggles, pains and heartaches as well as the joys, elations and jubilations of human experience. In short, while we have a God who is unlike us (in that God is not bound to the mimetic contagion of violence), we also confess that we have a God who is like us in every way, who knows the human experience fully and completely.
Christ’s mediatory work was not something he conjured up one day. He did not say, “I think I will function as a high priest, as one who has the right to enter the presence of divinity and atone for sin.” Rather he was called to that task by the One who sent him, thus our author cites Psalm 2:7 as an indication that Jesus’ priestly work was a vocation given him by God. In all he does, he does as a fulfillment of God’s will not his own and this includes his intercession on our behalf. This is significant for it affirms that Jesus’ work for us is not to be seen as something he does while the Father would wish instead to crush and burn us; what he does he does at the urging of the entire Godhead.
Just a few verses previous (4:14-16 NIV) our author says,
“14Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. 16Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
Both this text and our text today are an assertion that it is one who is truly and most assuredly human who sits at the right hand of God, not some demi-God, nor a super-hero, nor one who appears to be human but isn’t. No! The one who is enthroned in heaven is the one who has taken on the complete totality of human life and experience, there is nothing about being human that is alien to him.
More so, our author alludes to the Gethsemane story as paradigmatic for what it meant for Jesus to experience the fullness of life in the fact that he did not want to die. Like us, he desired not to take the path that awaits each human. Unlike us, the text does not say he feared death (which we do, as those bound over to the darkness of mistrust and anxiety about our relation to the eternal, cf, Heb 2:14-15). Rather, death would not have been his choice. But it was either death or holy war, there was no other way out. He could have called legions of angels and brought about an eschatological climax to his ministry that would have played right into the hands of the evil one or he could take the path of non-resistance. For our sakes, he chose the latter out of obedience to his Father’s will. For this reason, his choice to forego violent retaliation, his prayers for vindication were heard. His choice to not resist evil for evil was the Father’s will. Jesus died not because God wanted Jesus to die, nor because God willed Jesus to die, nor because Jesus wanted to die, but because we killed him, we wanted Jesus to die. He gave his life to us and for us.
Our author concludes by saying that Jesus’ priesthood is thus different from the priesthood of the sacrificial system, the Aaronic priesthood. This priesthood was invested with life-taking, while Jesus’ priesthood was about life-giving (or as our author puts it “he offered himself.”). The writer of Hebrews avoids for the most part language related to the sacrificial life taking of another (θυω θυσια and it’s cognates) and opts for the language of self-giving (φερω αυαφερω, προσφερο, διαφερω). This linguistic shift is all important in this epistle for it underscores that while sacrificial language is used, it is used to subvert the sacrificial process. By comparing Jesus to Melchizedek (which is amplified in 7:1-10), our author intends us to understand that Jesus’ relation to the mechanism of sacred violence, the sacrificial substitutionary process is not to be understood in a direct typological manner, but now in a new way, inverted from the inside out.
I refer readers to my essay “Sacrificial Language in Hebrews” in Violence Renounced edited by Willard Swartley (Pandora, 2000) for my Girardian interpretation of Hebrews, the linguistic shift and the role of the peacemaking priesthood of Jesus.
Have you noticed that most church prayers and indeed the prayers of so many beloved Christians are expressions of wishes, dreams, hoping against hope? Have you noticed that when so many people pray they lack confidence that God hears them? Have you noticed that so many pray as though God had a hearing problem?
Our text today is our assurance that when we pray we are heard. We are also assured that as we make the kinds of choices Jesus made, to renounce the desire for revenge, retaliation, retribution, vengeance or violence, we are heard and, like him, will be vindicated. Our times of sorrow, when we speak of God and are persecuted, hunted down, cast out and scapegoated, will come to an end, there will not only be resurrection but exaltation. We live in this hope, it is our life’s blood and it is what enables us to forgive our enemies and love all with whom we come in contact. It is the source of our power when we pray for we know that we are following in the steps of one who has already been there the trail blazer of our faith, Jesus Christ.