As we start the final two weeks of Lent the Gospel reading from John reminds us of what is to happen. Next week we will hear the account of the Passion from St Mark’s gospel in an extended reading, today, we have another one Jesus’ hard sayings noting that he will be lifted up and will draw all people to himself.
We’re used to thinking about Jesus’ death and our hymns this week and next will focus on this aspect of his life. We’re not so used, however, to thinking about why he died and what meaning to put to it. The writer of John’s Gospel, however, does attach a meaning to it. Speaking of the coming hour of his death Jesus says: “now is the judgement of this world, now the ruler of this world is to be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” In case the reader didn’t quite get this as a reference to his crucifixion the editor adds “he said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”
So what does he mean here – and what does it mean for us?
When Jesus spoke of the World, in this context, he is speaking of the world estranged from God; to use a term from St Paul, the powers and principalities that live in rebellion to God. A contemporary translation might use the word “system” when meaning “the world.”
There are systems that run our world – always have been. Some aspects of these systems seem fine and respectable – Free Trade is one topical example. Others are seen as problematic – violence in society, between nations, in countries which don’t restrict gun ownership, former spies and their families being subject to assassination attempts. A few are seen as appalling – abuse, child labour, torture, repression. In our minds, we like to separate them out into ones we think are normal, even good, and ones which we think are bad and harmful – clearly some are more obviously harmful than others.
All of these, and many more, are part of a system that runs our world and has run it since the dawn of humanity. The system’s roots are in our selfishness and our desire to cling to things which are really rags – or maybe our selfishness is rooted in the systems, powers and principalities that seek to rule our world.
The problem is we think much of this is normal. Political debate over the last few weeks has been consumed by Free Trade and how best to ensure it. The Conservative right wish to leave the European Union (itself a Free Trade grouping) to have new free trade deals with other countries, much of the centre left wants to stay with the Free Trade deal we have, whilst those further left have mixed views. Economists tell us that Free Trade is good for countries in the long term and we will all be richer if we’re not paying taxes on imported goods or if the companies we work for make things that can be sold without additional taxation. The problem with Free Trade – and saying this makes me sound either a crank or a militant idiot leftie (take your pick) is that in the short term it can hurt as cheaper goods flood a market from countries which pay their workers less and have lower health and safety standards. This is why Mr Trump wants to put taxes on imported steel in America – to protect American jobs – but, for the same reason, sell us meat which has lower welfare standards than in the EU – chlorinated chicken anyone? It remains to be seen if this works.
What costs us less costs others more; that’s the problem.
- We can have our cheap clothes but at the price of children working in garment factories in the developing world.
- We can have our lovely computers and smart phones but at the price of overworked Chinese labour.
- We can have cheap food at the expense of lower welfare standards for animals.
We know this, we seek to buy goods which are Fairly rather than Freely traded so that the people who grow or produce goods get a fair price. To do that, however, means we have to be a bit less focused on ourselves and pay a bit more. That’s hard.
Violence is another one – we know it’s wrong, we know that we want to live in a society which is safe, where guns are hard to get hold of, where policing is done by consent; yet few of us are truly pacifist. Few of us could stand in the face of violence to a loved one without seeking to intervene and use force. Indeed, the law allows us to use reasonable force to stop an attack. We decry the arms race, the huge amount of money that goes into making weapons of mass destruction but if we live in an area which has many jobs from that industry it’s harder to critique it.
A more difficult example of the systems that seek to control us – consumerism. We all want the latest must have item – whether that’s a tool or a toy – yet they all have built in obsolescence so we have to buy more. Gillette learned years ago that you could sell razors at a loss if you have then a captive market that comes back again and again for blades.
It’s mad but normal. To stand and oppose these things is hard. The system always needs to win.
In his own age Jesus opposed the system – the manifestation of that system looked different – slavery, conquest, war (well maybe war isn’t so different) the use of religion to subdue people. Throughout his ministry Jesus aroused strong opposition. A couple of weeks ago we noted that in John the second thing that Jesus does, after the Wedding at Cana, was to cause the scene in the Temple, to overthrow the tables and drive out the moneylenders and merchants. Lots went on between that episode and today’s – the raising of Lazarus, Mary’s anointing of Jesus – causing such rage in Judas – the triumphal entry into Jerusalem which must have provoked anger and fear in the authorities. Crowds flock to hear Jesus, some plot against him, seeking to bring him down. The system, the status quo, the powers that ruled the world couldn’t cope with this rabble rouser.
It’s not that different now – politicians, of whatever hue – are rubbished if they are seen to deviate from what is safe, normal and containable. The smears take on a life of their own and if the press can find a financial or sexual scandal then careers can be over. Of course, the authorities couldn’t discredit Jesus with a scandal which made life harder for them.
Eventually they get him but can’t execute him so send him to §Pilate, the weak judge, the pragmatic politician. The dialogue between Jesus and Pilate is fascinating. Pilate asks if he was a king. Jesus answers: My kingdom is not of this system, if it were, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But my kingdom is not from here. Pilate doesn’t know what to do with Jesus who stands for truth – something Pilate can’t recognise or define. So, the die was cast and Jesus went to the Cross, meeting violence with a resistance it couldn’t understand.
On the cross, the onlookers thought Jesus had been judged. Instead the Cross is a judgement on and exorcism of the world, the systems of evil that seek to control us, and the One who is behind that System. The Cross isn’t so much about individual sin but about throwing out the ruler of the world, turning the tables, changing the tide. And this becomes clearer on that first Easter Sunday when resurrection finally changes the rules.
But the Cross cost Jesus everything. Not just the indignity of being crucified – a torturously slow death, where the naked prisoner was laughed at and scorned for days. Not just the pain in his body and the pain in his heart as he attends to his mother and closest companion. But the pain of knowing he could have resisted, he could have summoned the angels and used the system’s weapons against it – but then the system would have been perpetuated.
In Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings Frodo, the main character, is given the task of destroying a magical ring of great evil. This is a daunting task and he offers the ring to two others, great wizards, to use for good. Both refuse this offer as accepting the evil ring would slowly turn them evil.
Jesus could have used his power to overthrow the Romans, set up a free Jewish state, eliminated the collaborators but in the end nothing would have changed as the power used would have corrupted him. Instead, the Cross stands in judgement over the systems of this world and is a symbol of hope in the final victory which will come at the end of time when the resurrection of the dead will herald the new creation that is to come.
So Where Does This leave Us
We still have systems which seek to control us, just as they tried to control Jesus. We still have the most unimaginable injustice in our world. As I prepared this sermon I heard an interview with the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the UK who was trying to tell us that things are slowly changing in his country but the interviewer baulked at asking hard questions about religious and sexual freedom, about multi-party democracy, about political repression. The questions that were asked were about the war in Yemen and the highly polished ambassador had no problem in sounding reasonable, part of the system, and respectable.
On the Cross Jesus exposed the powers for what they are and, if we follow him, and view the world through his eyes, we can see through their legitimacy and challenge them.
No longer do death and destruction have the final word, no longer do we need to shrug our shoulders and say nothing can be done. Through the Cross we can see a different world, a world where pain, suffering, abuse, and desolation are no more, through the Cross we can see the world as it really is, and be empowered to change our world now in the anticipation of what it could become.
by the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus,
you lift the suffering world toward hope and transformation
and open the way to eternal salvation.
As we move ever closer to the passion of Christ,
may your law of love be written on our hearts
as he draws all people to himself
revealing your love for the world,
and our part in its transformation. Amen