Apr 012012
 

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. The crowd answered him, "We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?" Jesus said to them, "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light." After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

John 12:20-36

In twenty-first Century America, we tend to point to political problems as a way of explaining the injustice that is around us. When we become conscious of suffering, or oppression, or extreme poverty, we tend to point to the absence of a proper political solution. The answers may be different for each of us. Some might pose libertarian solutions to global poverty, others socialistic ones. But all of us look to the language of politics to explain what is happening.

Not so in John's day. For the people of this time and place, the root of the world's problems was principally a spiritual one. The world suffered under the burden of injustice, they believed, because there were "principalities and powers" who ruled the Earth in place of the Creator God. Political authorities were also responsible, of course, but they were more like collaborators than the true villains. The hope of the Jewish community was that, some day, these "powers" would be displaced by God, so that justice could be restored to the world.

Today's text is about that event. When some Greeks from out of town ask to see Jesus, they seem to be little more than tourists hoping to satisfy their curiosity. But, to the writer of John, their expression of a desire to see Jesus demonstrates that something much more important is happening. The time has come for the rest of the world – those outside the small Jewish state where Jesus lived and taught – to "see" God's new king.

 The world is ready to see so, of course(!), "the time has come." And the leader of the powers is about to be driven out (v. 31).

 As we will see later, this will not happen all at once, but the cross will mark the beginning of the end it will mean certain defeat for the spiritual forces that work injustice in our world.

For Reflection: Do you view injustice as a political problem, a spiritual problem, or both? How might your approach to responding to injustice change if you understood it as both a spiritual and a political issue?

Mar 312012
 

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!" Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: "Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!" His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, "You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!"

John 12:12-19

For the next eight days, I invite you to join me in a journey through the last week of Jesus’ life, as it is experienced through the Gospel of John. To fully hear this story, we will need to be prepared to look below its surface. If we are not careful in this way, and only read on the surface, we will experience little more than a tragic account of how a peaceful revolutionary was put to death by a group of frightened, but powerful men.

We will also need to look beyond what we might expect. We have all been conditioned to think of the stories that are told during Holy Week as stories about  how God is offering up a sacrifice so that our personal sins can be forgiven. Without a doubt, forgiveness of sins – for all people – will be an important theme. However, as important as the forgiveness of sins is, what is happening here is much bigger even than forgiveness. This is a story – as today’s text tells us – about how Jesus, God’s representative, becomes King.

The story begins with a demonstration  in which Jesus’ followers recognize his Kingly authority. This limited demonstration, however, is only a precursor to what is to come in human history. The prophetic words that interpret this event come from his own enemies’ lips: “Look! The whole world has gone after him!”

On Palm Sunday, we follow their advice to “look” – both backwards and forwards. Backwards, to the events in the gospels and to the tradition of the Church in celebrating this day. And forwards, to the day when – as Paul puts it – every knee bows and every tongue confesses Jesus’ kingly authority.

The story we hear this week will climax with the most powerful empire on Earth declaring, ironically, that Jesus is “King of the Jews,” and it will end in a poignant moment in which a skeptic proclaims Jesus to have both the political authority of the Emperor and the divine authority of God.

For many, the experience of Holy Week is about Jesus’ suffering and death, and how we should be grateful for his sacrifice. This is an important and valid experience during Holy Week. But if you are walking through this week with John, it is only part of the picture. In this gospel, we are invited from start to finish to attend a coronation in which God’s chosen King comes into power.

For reflection: How does the theme of coronation change the way you think of Holy Week? What do you expect to experience as you see this week through the eyes of John’s gospel?

[Note: The interpretation of John that you will encounter this week hardly originated with me. NT Wright and Scot McKnight have played a huge role in shaping my perspective on the "big picture" story of scripture, and I am grateful for the work they have done. Scot's book on this subject is The King Jesus Gospel. NT Wright's recent book How God Became King also addresses the subject.]

Mar 312010
 

Every year, during Holy Week, the atonement wars seem to heat up in the media and in the blogosphere. Its a regrettable situation. Of all times of year, Holy Week is hardly an appropriate season to strike up a debate over whether penal substitution is or is not the definitive explanation for Christ's atoning work. For that reason, while I'm not interested in bashing penal substitution (or any other atonement theory) in this post. I do think that there is a question that is worth asking when it comes to the atonement:

What did Jesus have to say about the meaning of his death?

Most of our understanding of the reasons for the death of Jesus tend to come from two sources – (1) Paul's writings and (2) the book of Hebrews. There are also a few smatterings that come from the Revelation and from the other epistles. Most of the time, however, if you ask someone to show you a place in the Bible where the meaning of Jesus' death is explained, they will head straight to something written by Paul – more often than not, to the early chapters in Romans.

Don't get me wrong. Paul is the great interpreter of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. What he says on the subject needs to be heard. However, before getting to Paul's words, it might be worthwhile to reflect on what Jesus himself thought of his death. He knew full well that he was about to die at the hands of the temple authorities and the Romans when he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He had told his disciples as much. Surely his thoughts about what his death would mean should be given primary consideration when we think about atonement.

To explore this question, lets have a look at the Gospel of Mark, which was the subject of my post on Holy Week meditations a few days ago. Within this book are two key texts that contain Jesus' explanation for his death.

We begin in Mark 10:42, just before the description of Palm Sunday. The disciples, we are told, have been arguing over who will be the more prominent in God's kingdom. Jesus responds like this:

You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

The concept of ransom that is central to this text is similar, but not identical to our own. When we think of ransom, we are probably thinking of money that is paid to cause a kidnapper to release a hostage. Someone is a captive, and, because of the ransom, they are set free. For the original readers of Mark, the idea of ransom relates to slavery: to pay a ransom to a slave owner is to arrange to have the slave set free. In the end, the concepts are identical for purposes of the central point: someone who is captive is set free.

The statement that Jesus is giving his life as a ransom is contrasted with the conduct of the Gentiles. The Gentiles act as tyrants, enslaving and asserting dominion over one another. They struggle with each other for dominance. This order of things, Jesus suggests, is going to be undone by his death.

From what are the "many" being set free? From the consequences of sin? Perhaps, in a sense, you could put it that way. But to fully understand what this freedom is about, you need to first understand that, in Mark, forgiveness of sins does not seem to be a huge barrier to relationship with God. In Chapter 2, for example, Jesus simply pronounces forgiveness on a paralyzed man, and – when his claim that the man has been forgiven is challenged – he backs it up by healing him. It is clear that, even before Jesus' death, God is capable of forgiving sin.

So, again, if forgiveness can be obtained even before Jesus' death, what is it from which people are set free? A parable in which Jesus refers to his own death, in Chapter 12, is helpful in answering this question. This story follows a text in which the people in charge of the temple ask Jesus to describe the authority by which he acted, the day before, in shutting down the business of the temple and condemning them as robbers. In fact, as I suggested in the previous post on the subject, they were effectively robbers – depriving landowners of their rights and taking control over their property (Jesus will later warn people to watch out for them because they "rob widows' houses").

After he is asked this question, Jesus proceeds to tell a parable about a vineyard. The reference to a vineyard is likely intended to remind the crowd of Isaiah 5, where Israel is itself described as a vineyard. Here is the parable:

A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey.  At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard.  But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed.  Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed

He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son. But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’  So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.

What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.  Haven’t you read this scripture: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this,and it is marvelous in our eyes."

We are told by Mark that the temple authorities “realized that he had told this parable against them.” As such, the parable is about how the temple leaders (the tenants) who are in charge of the vineyard (Israel) have failed in their duties. Their killing of the prophets (the servants) will now give way to their killing of Jesus himself (the son). The act of Jesus’ death will then trigger God’s judgment on them, and we will marvel as God makes Jesus (the rejected stone) the Christ (the chief cornerstone). 

To summarize, then, this is how I think Jesus viewed his own death:

  • Jesus believed his duty was to confront and condemn the temple authorities, knowing that this would cause them to kill him.
  • This death would then be the final straw, sealing their fate. As a result of his death, God’s judgment would fall on the temple and those in charge of it.
  • This is good news, because when God acts against the oppressors, he also acts to set free those who are subject to the oppression.

I conclude with two questions:

Does Jesus’ understanding of his death involve us being saved from our sins? As I said above, the answer is “yes, in a sense.” The systems by which one, smaller set of humans dominate and oppress a larger set are the ultimate consequence of our sin. To borrow from the first and second commandment, we do not love God, who does not desire things to be this way, nor our neighbors, whom we oppress. For God to undo this system is to save us all from our sins.

How, exactly, does Jesus death serve to set free the oppressed? Clearly, systems of oppression and domination have continued to exist for the last 2000 years. Here, I think, is where we need Paul desperately. However, to understand Paul properly, we need to see him as picking up on the same theme – the theme of liberation, and then elaborating on it in light of Jesus’ resurrection and the subsequent emergence of the community of Christians. And that, unfortunately, is where I’ll have to leave things off for now.