The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.

 

The Result of Revolution

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.

Comments

  1. Shayna says:

    Wow! This is just awesome! A perfect weave (IMHO) of both the politics of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection AND the deeply spiritual aspects of it all. Thanks Rev. Lia…you’ve given me something to think about here in week 5!

    Blessings & Shalom-

    Rev. Shayna Appel

    Townsend Congregational Church; UCC

    Townsend, MA

    An open and affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ.

  2. Carl Gregg says:

    Great commentary. Thanks for sharing. Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about the atonement/crucifixion: “Rosa Parks is an imitator of Christ, not because she suffered for taking her stand (or keeping her seat, in her case), but because she had the courage to believe in her own dignity and fought for it in spite of the conflict that resulted. Nelson Mandela is an imitator of Christ, not because he suffered in prison, but because he held out for peace and justice, and led a nation to resurrection. In each case it is not the suffering that is redemptive, but the courage to pursue justice in the face of pain and evil” (John Mabry, “Crisis and Communion,” 129; http://amzn.to/saZtPc). #MoralExemplar

  3. Lia says:

    Thanks, ya’ll, for the generous thoughts. I love the Mabry quote, @Carl Gregg.

  4. Ken Evers-Hood says:

    Hey Lia, just awesome. To add to your point when Jesus says those who love their life lose it and hate it in this world keep it for eternal life- all of those verbs are present tense. The NRSV effs it up by rendering phulaksei as a future- “will keep it”, as if Jesus is talking about eternal life in the future rather than in the present. But he’s not. He’s talking about the difference his death will make in their present lives- not later, which is always such a big deal in substitutionary atonement. Brilliant stuff!

  5. Lia says:

    Thanks, @Ken Evers-Hood!

    I’ve been expecting to be called a heretic all week, and so far, not one person! Yay!

  6. Grant Bakewell, Jr. says:

    I personally try to read this interpretively through “both-and” eyes (historical-critical AND through the eyes of faith). Given that Jesus was “fully human” (as the Council at Chalcedon concluded) I wonder, but do not know, if the historical Jesus may not have fully comprehended the significance of his own death on a cross, and subsequent resurrection, as the Church later came to understand this as a cosmic event (and not simply as an important personal or historical event) in light of the resurrection itself and the coming of the Holy Spirit. But I also believe the Early Church, including all the apostles and Gospel writers, especially John, DID see the cosmic significance of Jesus’s own life, death, and resurrection, and this was (much) later developed in various atonement theologies. Some Jesus scholars(Borg, Crossan, others)also wonder whether the historical Jesus saw himself (or claimed to be) the Jewish “Messiah”, and this could be one reason Jesus used so many “Son of Man” allusions when the disciples question him, rather than making any direct Messianic claims in most (but not all) of the Gospels. One could thus attribute post-resurection understandings with respect to Jesus as Messiah, and the spiritual and moral significance of his own crucifixion and death on a cross, as good theology on the part of the Gospel writers and the Early Church, but not necessarily as good history (or journalism) per se. What this means for our own faith, today, however seems to be most important. What is the cosmic significance of Jesus own suffering and death on a Cross, and ultimate resurrection, with respect to the later historical witness of Dr. King, Ghandi, Oscar Romero, or even folks like you, me, or the elderly woman with Alzheimers I ministered to last week? In my view, these are the most important questions for our faith: how does our own understanding of Jesus life, teaching, crucifixion, death, and resurrection sustain us in troubling and very challenging times for the world, and our planet? And also how does such faith sustain us and others in the midst of unjust and sometimes inexplicable suffering, loss of moral and rational faculties, and, finally, death? Hopefully our faith, and that we wish to nourish in others, is supported by our best understanding of the historical Jesus, and the church which grew around him in and through the resurrection. Yet finally I agree with Paul: ” that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” (II Cor. 5:19. It is that message of reconciliation, what Jews call “Tikun Olam” which seems to be central for us as followers of Jesus, seekers of Truth, and beloved lovers of God. Peace+

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