Did Jesus understand the universal implications of his death, and does it matter?
by Lia Scholl
Gospel Reading: John 12:20-33
For Sunday, March 25, 2012: Year B—Lent 5
The Gospel lesson for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (B) gets subtitled by the New International Version as “Jesus predicts his death.” But the supposition that most preachers make is that Jesus not only predicts his death, but he also predicts the universal implications of that death. When he says, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself,” it’s as if Jesus is predicting the salvific nature of his death for all people.
But what if Jesus didn’t understand that universality? What if he’s speaking only to the disciples standing in front of him and only about the immediate results of his impending death?
Did Jesus fully understand his death?
I believe that Jesus predicts his own death in the same manner that Martin Luther King, Jr. predicted his death in 1968, in a sermon entitled, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” King could tell that his death was coming, not because of some sixth sense, or some ability to predict the future, but instead because every revolutionary faces death. When you disrupt the state and the religious rulers, death is nearly inevitable.
When predicting his death, King said, “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.” Like Jesus, he knew that the movement, the revolution, would continue when he was dead. Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
Death by Revolution
Movements are strengthened by the death of their leaders. Jesus would have known this—he’d read about the death of Moses, the death of Jews after the Judean civil war in 96 BCE, and the Maccabean martyrs. And we’ve seen it in our lifetimes, with the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States, Steve Biko in South Africa, and Óscar Romero in El Salvador.
Martyrdom benefits the followers of a movement. When the leader dies, the people around him or her are made, in some way, safer. Perhaps it’s the blowback of public pressure; perhaps the death of the leader is like a release valve of the tension around a revolution. Often times, the death of the leader becomes the catalyst to change.
What kind of revolution did Jesus bring? He brought a revolution of relationship over religion. A rebellion against riches and the exploitation of individuals. A mutiny against judgment and religious superiority.
What does Jesus’ Death Mean to Jesus?
So what if Jesus understood this as the purpose and the outcome of his death, but not the other interpretation? What if Jesus understood martyrdom, but not substitutionary atonement? What if the implications were only for his time? Not for time everlasting? How does that change his words?
When Jesus says, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.” I think he means, “I brought the revolution. I have to see it to the end.” I hear the words of MLK, Jr. here, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.”
The Hardest Question
If Jesus thought he died for the people around him, for the movement he was leading, and was not thinking of a universal atonement, does it diminish his death?
Rev. Lia Scholl serves as pastor at the Richmond Mennonite Fellowship in Richmond, Virginia and is a sex work ally, a Board member at the Red Umbrella Project. Her book, I <3 Sex Workers, is due out in Spring 2012. She blogs at http://roguereverend.com and you can find her at http://twitter.com/roguereverend.