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This Jesus

Kathy Escandell

July 1, 2012
John 3:16-17

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

The Word of the Lord

Thanks be to God.

Brief Statement of Faith, lines 19-26
Unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition, Jesus was crucified, suffering the depths of human pain and giving his life for the sins of the world.  God raised this Jesus from the dead, vindicating his sinless life, breaking the power of sin and evil, delivering us from death to life eternal.

We humans misunderstand so much. Sometimes from ignorance, sometimes from confusion, sometimes from self-interest. But always to our detriment.

And high on the list of what we misunderstand – maybe at the top, certainly right up there – is power.

We think power equals might, brute strength, the ability to control events. We use power tools for big jobs. In basketball, power forwards advance through or over the opposition with force rather than finesse.  During the mid-80’s – the era of the He-Man cartoons, I taught pre-school and every day the playground was populated by 3-year-old boys brandishing imaginary swords and declaiming with all the gravitas they could muster – “By the power of Grayskull, I have the power!” They didn’t have any idea what might come next, but they were determined to claim the power.

What is the point of power?  Our human understanding suggests strongly that the point of power is to get one’s way, to subject other people to our will rather than finding ourselves subjected to theirs. The long and heartbreaking history of human wars and abuse and oppression and genocide shows us the damage we inflict when we understand and employ power as force. Even when the intent is to use power for good, in the human economy of transaction and calculation – power always includes dominance, control.

Today’s section of the Brief Statement of Faith turns our understanding of power upside down. Here we find power exercised not as force and domination, but as love. Deep, vulnerable, strong, suffering love.  The crucifixion and resurrection – the most powerful story the world has ever known – draw us to a place where power has nothing to do with control and everything to do with love.

Jesus — in all that he does and all that he is – demonstrates God’s eternal, determined love. For us and for our salvation, God entered into human life in the particular form of a particular man. For us and for our salvation, that particular man lived by the faithful obedience which led him to death, even death upon a cross. For us and for our salvation, he was betrayed, rejected and killed. And still he loved us.  For us and for our salvation, Jesus put himself into the hands of those who wished him ill, suffered the depths of human pain, and died.

This is not a textbook demonstration of power. But, again, we misunderstand power, and nothing makes that plainer than this story of suffering, death and resurrection which forms the heart of our faith.

“Unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition” –

This follows immediately after the section of the Brief Statement about Jesus’ ministry. The Apostle’s Creed goes directly from “Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary” to “he suffered under Pontius Pilate”, as if nothing of any import happened between those two events. But the Brief Statement outlines and celebrates the ways in which Jesus proclaims and enacts the reign of God. Krystal opened that section for us last week, and now we come to the consequence of Jesus’ ministry of preaching, healing, teaching and forgiving – he is condemned for blasphemy and sedition.

Blasphemy and sedition – judged unacceptable by authorities of both church and state. Blasphemy represents a challenge to religious orthodoxy. The leaders of the Jews heard what Jesus taught, and they said – “You are at odds with our interpretation of the Law. We will stop you.” Sedition means to stir up rebellion against the state. The political leaders of 1st century Israel saw the crowds following this teacher and they said – “Your message undercuts our systems. We will stop you.”  Church and state together condemned and crucified. Because they were jointly the powers of the time, they were convinced that the execution of this charismatic rabbi would end his influence, would remove the threat he posed to their established systems and structures.  And that was certainly a reasonable conviction on their part. All the previous blasphemers and rebels they had condemned and crucified were gone and forgotten, and they fully expected the same result here.

And for a time, their expectation seems correct. Jesus suffers on the cross in the same physical agony experienced by all victims of crucifixion. Jesus dies on the cross. Problem solved. Troublemaker stopped. So it seemed. They could not have been more wrong, but they were operating under the world’s concept of power.

There was an early church controversy over the question of whether Jesus – fully human, fully God – did in fact feel pain on the cross. In the first decades of Christianity, some Gnostics believed that Jesus only “appeared” to be human, and thus only “appeared” to suffer on the cross, but did not actually feel the physical effects of his execution. Others, unable to conceive of the almighty God dying an abject, shameful death, believed that during the crucifixion, the divine identity of Jesus withdrew, leaving only the human Jesus on the cross. The human Jesus died and the divine Christ returned at the resurrection. Both those theologies were declared heretical, and here in our Brief Statement we affirm that the Jesus who is “fully human and fully God” fully experiences the pain, doubt and despair of condemnation and crucifixion.

It takes a powerful love to be willing to endure such an experience.

John’s Gospel account of the crucifixion includes the image of Jesus being offered a wine-soaked sponge. John writes: “When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:30)  Richard Rohr suggests that what Jesus means by “it”, is not his life or his ministry or his pain on the cross – all the ways we usually read that verse – but rather what is finished is the world’s enslavement to sin and death. When Jesus gives up his spirit, death is ultimately defeated, humanity is freed. The estrangement between God and creation which began in the Garden of Eden ends at the Cross of Golgotha.  “It is finished” is often read in tones of despair and defeat, but Rohr offers a different interpretation –this is instead Jesus’ statement of triumph – he has come into the world to save the world and with the vulnerable love of his Incarnation, ministry, suffering and death, he has broken the hold of sin and evil, and brought that salvation.

Certainly, “It is finished” does not refer to the story of Jesus because that story is most emphatically not finished with the crucifixion.

God raised this Jesus from the dead.  The world has never heard better news. This Jesus – the Jesus who proclaimed, preached, taught, blessed, healed, ate, forgave and called. The ministry which he began in Galilee is not over; rather, the risen Jesus sends his disciples to carry that ministry throughout the world. This Jesus – the Jesus who can enter into our suffering because he knows the depths of human suffering. Reformed theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes that Christ took upon himself humiliation and passion so that he could become the brother of the humiliated and forsaken, and bring them God’s embracing presence.

God raised this Jesus from the dead / vindicating his sinless life, / breaking the power of sin and evil, / delivering us from death to life eternal.

The sovereign, eternal, omnipotent God – the God of infinite power – breaks the puny, pathetic presumptuous power of sin and evil, not through might and coercion – although the almighty God certainly has the capacity to annihilate. Instead, God frees us from sin and evil by transforming death into life, even though that transformation comes at great cost. God does not wave a majestic hand from a safe distance or issue an edict from afar, although the almighty God certainly has the capacity to decree. God delivers us from death to life eternal by going through death. It takes a powerful love to pay such a price for us and for our salvation.

Karl Barth writes of “the eternal decision of God’s free love”, and it is that eternal decision, that free love, which lies beneath and before and behind and within the story of this Jesus.

What the world calls power – the authority to impose decisions on others, the force to compel behavior, the resources to influence events – those are real, but temporary. They will not have the final word. God has already spoken the final word; God spoke the final, the eternal word of God’s free love in the first word at the foundations of eternity – in the Word made flesh,in this Jesus who calls us from death to life eternal. This Jesus — the crucified, risen Lord in all his deep, vulnerable, unbreakable, powerful love.