Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Bible Study on John: Ch. 18-20--The Passion

We started off today with a question: Looking at the Gospel of John, Chapters 18-20, what are your reactions taking our common experience of the Passion narrative in context as a liturgical experience that we share?

I hoped to take us out of the idea that we are reading and thinking about a text. The Good Friday recitation of the Passion (in parts, perhaps even sung/chanted) in most parishes is not so much a reflection on words read from a page but an experience that we share! This is not just a story, but a tale in which we are also players and witnesses. It may be that these events transpired millenia ago, but on Good Friday they are real. We are remembering the common experience of Jesus, crucified. The emotions, reactions and responses are our emotions, reactions and responses-even though we were not then, we are there with Jesus as he makes his way to, and through, the hour appointed for him.

That is the important thing about John's Gospel to me, and one that I am coming to pretty late in life. I have always seen John as a theological position paper, if you will. Someone is attempting to make a case to me for the reality that Jesus is the incarnate LOGOS of God, the Son, the Heir and the one who calls us to a unique relationship with God outside of the way Israel has known God in the past. This is a new thing rising up from the old--there might even be some tinges of super cession involved. The "Jews" come off looking bad, the Romans are mighty pawns to be manipulated and the Disciples are hapless witnesses-soon to be heirs-of Jesus ascending to prominence as Messiah. Soon, according to the Gospel, the Church will be the repository of the Truth in Jesus...at least, that was how I saw it when I was at my most cynical.

Now, I am not so sure about John. His Jesus is certainly the incarnate Word. No doubt about that...but as I read the Gospel again for the first time, I am seeing the crafting of a promise from God fulfilled for a delivering Messiah that is actually able to subvert the systems of a world that is actively seeking to either reject, or control, ANYONE claiming to be a deliverer. The rules are being exceeded, and Jesus is adamantine in his way of being. You cannot avoid either being for, or against, his agenda and the in breaking kingdom of God. If you are for it, then your heart is about to be broken-even as Jesus is about to be broken on the Cross. If you are against him, then you are about to assume that by doing away with this agent of irritation you will be shut of him-and that is a great and serious error.

We moved on from the liturgical reflection to another question-Who is Malchus?

He was a slave in the household of the high priest. Simon Peter, during Jesus' arrest, draws a knife and cuts off Malchus' ear. Jesus chides Peter, and the rest of his disciples. The path of violence will only ignite a firestorm. There won't be deliverance with an armed insurrection. This is Jesus' hour, not Peter's. This is Jesus' cup to drink from, and no one else's. Why?

The answer is a complex one, and we spent a majority of our time talking about how Jesus seems to move and speak with such purpose in these two chapters. He has chance after opportunity to degrade the level of conflict around him. He receives several chances to reject the "fate" we know awaits all enemies of Rome-messiahs who are not Caesar, particularly. He doesn't flinch under the weight of rejection by the religious authorities and he does not bow to the will of the crowd/mob craving his death with cries of, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Instead, he seems to set his spirit firmly on the idea that what God intends for the Word-death and through death, life-should come to pass, even if it means his own earthly end.

How many times, when you have experienced conflict in work, class, family or group of friends, has the yoke of blame/fear/acrimony/etc. fallen on you? How many times have you placed it on someone else's shoulders? This sort of projection allows for a great deal of energy to be released. It is always easier to have someone to blame, to suppress, to dehumanize in order to feel that all is right with the world. Hang all that negativity around someone's neck and send them off into exile and perhaps they will take all that junk with them. One ancient liturgy had the people hanging representations of their sins around the neck of a goat that would then be driven off into the desert. Once the scapegoat is gone...the sins go away too, right? Sure, until they come back again. This is an endless, human cycle. It's how we too often spend our time with the freedom of choices that God has given us. Get rid of the "bad" guy so us "good" guys can live in peace. That works only for a short time; but Jesus is working a line that just might break the cycles of pain and projection forever. That is, if we allow it.

One critical awareness to keep hold of as we move through the Passion: At his arrest in 18: 4-9, Jesus' voice and presence is enough to cause everyone around him to fall back and to the ground. There can be no doubt that he not only chooses this path-despite his might and meekness-he also intends to go it alone. This path is one that will break the cycles of violence; just like an alcoholic coming to sobriety, or a killer confessing so that the truth will be known even after justice is visited on him. Jesus is not subject to the powers of the world, but subjects himself in order that all might be free, forever.

It doesn't explain away the horror we witness in the Passion, and it doesn't really justify it to our satisfaction. What it does do, I am becoming convinced, is open a portal of understanding that just might get us to a place of being able to put off the yokes that the powers of the world would have us think are part of our God-created being (they are not) and instead assume a posture of being committed to a new life in a new creation that is balanced and solely oriented on God's will-versus our own. Jesus is not just challenging "the system." He is rewriting the script from page one.

Examples? Look at Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu...Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth; they, in their generation, came to understand that if systems of oppression are to be broken they can't be broken with the same violence that supports their existence. Gandhi was a lawyer in South Africa who decided that racism and political/imperial oppression were evils to be addressed directly-but without violence. How did he resist the British when he returned to India? He picked cotton, spun it into thread, wove the thread into a garment he wore and refused to accept that Great Britain had power over him to force him to buy his clothes made from cloth in English mills that was woven from cotton picked by his fellow countryfolk. He walked to the sea (rejecting British public transportation) in order to break the law and make salt by hand-challenging the British mandate that salt could only be made under license from the Crown. He didn't blow anyone up. He didn't execute anyone, or demand the death of anyone. He simply insisted on being free from oppression. It could have meant his death, and many did die who refused to resist violence and instead chose nonviolence.

But, as MLK, Jr. and Tutu and all others in this century who "fought" for Civil Rights-Jesus' mandate that freedom comes not from violence but from rising above it-there is a sensibility that is profoundly holy being expressed.

Why the Cross? There is no greater scandal in Roman-or perhaps even contemporary-physical domination. I can show I have power over you by nailing you to a board. You will suffer defeat and anyone who witnesses your suffering will understand my might, and my right to claim power over you and anyone else who challenges my strength. In the Passion, strength is overcome by weakness. Death is overcome, eventually, by life.

Still, we need to address why we have to come back and experience Good Friday over and over again. Well, let's be honest: we need to come back to this awe-full thing because that which is in and of us that perpetuates the insult of the cross continues to this day. In most of our inner portrait galleries where the visages of people we have known hang there is a "rogue's gallery," I am sure. These are the portraits we paint and install of people who have threatened, challenged, upset, hurt or destroyed us. These are the portraits we paint of people whom we THINK have threatened, challenged,upset, hurt or destroyed us. We might even hang some of those pictures out in the world. We also have to be honest and acknowledge that others have our portrait hanging in their galleries.

Jesus' journey to the Cross challenges us to do two things: to put down the cycles of violence and rejection that make filling those galleries such an easy task; and to admit that there is truth in the distorted images of ourselves that we would like to reject-but that people would love to hang on our noses so that the world can see how terrible we really are. The Passion cuts through all of that hot mess and puts us into a new place. as we stand at the foot of the cross and mourn along with Mary and the beloved disciple we also get the opportunity to look through that horror to a grace that was before time, in time and with us through all time. You can kill the Body...but not the Word-not for long, anyway. Simple enough to say...but the challenge is to live that reality out in our lives, even as Jesus did in his death.

Next week...the Resurrection....really!

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