Reading: John 11
Today’s reading was a little longer than what we might be used to, however there is a reason for that. The section that talks about how Lazarus was raised from the dead is rarely read with the sections before and after it. We focus on Jesus calling out “Lazarus come out”, which is the most striking part of the narrative, or perhaps we focus on the theology behind what Jesus said to Mary: “I am the Resurrection and the life.” John 11 is full of important things, and it would be possible to spend all of Lent going through things that have been found in this single chapter of John.
You might have noticed that last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday. If not, perhaps you did something for Mardi Gras, which is the day before. Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent. This means that this is the first Sunday in the Lenten period. Lent is a period when people prepare for the death and resurrection of Christ, and this is why I chose this passage. This is where the first Lent really seems to start. Before Jesus goes to heal Lazarus, the disciples are worried that Jesus might not survive the trip. Everybody must be thinking what Thomas said: “Lets go die with Jesus.”
Meanwhile, everything that we have known from childhood happens. Jesus comes, cries out, Lazarus, come out, and he comes out all wrapped up like a mummy. Everybody is excited, everybody talks. News of the event gets to Jesus’ powerful enemies among the Pharisees. The Pharisees mention this in council, and the chief priest called for Jesus to die as a scapegoat to appease the Romans. I find it remarkable that the is the point where it seems everybody knew Jesus was going to die: The disciples saw it coming, and the Judean leaders started planning it.
As readers, 2000 years distant we miss something politically important: the Pharisees consulted with the chief priest, and made this decision with the chief priest. The Chief priest was a Sadducee: Priests were always Sadducees at this time. The Pharisees were a reform party who built new structures apart from the priesthood that they felt was corrupted by foreign influence. While I don’t want to go into the exact nature of the political differences, the point is that the opposing parties got together to plan the death of Jesus. Both of the major religious parties competing for power opposed Jesus. If we go through the gospels, we see that Jesus angered just about everybody who was in power.
If we look at Jesus’ disciples, we learn that not only did Jesus anger powerful people, but his disciples came from diverse ideological backgrounds. Matthew was a tax collector for the occupying Romans, Simon was a zealot, or we would call him a terrorist or an insurgent. Without Jesus, Simon would feel perfectly justified killing Matthew, the Roman collaborator and traitor to his people. With Jesus, they shared a common faith and a common cause that transcended their politics.
For me, the question is: “Why is Jesus so dangerous that the leaders say: `This man must die’?” The question is extended as the same people, both the Romans and the Religious authorities continued to kill the disciples and early Christians. This is a difficult question, because as Justin Martyr points out in the 2nd century, Christians are good people who don’t rise up against the government and who pay their taxes. What did Rome fear of a man, and a people who did nothing but what was required of all good citizens?
One of the reasons Jesus died was for the sake of politics. The Romans, Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and Zealots all had their own political views and agenda. One thing all these groups have in common is the way that they struggle for power. Power is established through fear, hate, and death. The politics of Jesus are unlike the politics of any Earthly kingdom, but, unless you believe in miracles, Jesus seems like a harmless nice guy who knows nothing about the way the world works.
Where the world’s politics teach us to hate, Jesus commands his disciples to love their enemies. Where politics uses fear to manipulate and to establish power, Jesus teaches his disciples to live lives in faith — faith that Christ will always be with us, and no matter what happens, we will also be with Christ. Where politics claims the power of death, Jesus tells Mary: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus goes on to prove that he has power over death. Jesus at this point has disarmed every show of earthly power. He is subversive, he’s brought a kingdom that cannot be conquered by ordinary means. Love defeats hate; faith defeats fear; resurrection defeats death.
Even while early Christians do nothing to disrupt the peace, they are salt and light — as they flavor and enlighten the world, everything changes. We have been salt and light for almost two thousand years, and it is amazing how much the world has changed. In this time, we have learned that all human life has value. It is no longer completely normal to leave unwanted children outside to die. People no longer flock to blood sports to watch people die. While the change seems slow, it is also quite obvious.
It took 300 years for Christianity to go from a persecuted minority to the dominant faith in the Roman empire. The flavor of Christian salt is still within our societies. Even those who reject Christianity embrace what they learned from Christians. The kingdom of heaven is dangerous, because it changes the people. Jesus’ kingdom is dangerous, because the tools of the kingdoms of this world: Fear, hate, and death are powerless against it. The kingdom of heaven remains, no matter who claims the land we stand on.
As we go into lent, let us reflect on Jesus in Judea, moving forward to the crucifixion. Without resurrection, Jesus’ kingdom has no hope of surviving. Because Jesus has power over death, Fear not, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom of Heaven continues forever.