Lent 5... Lift High the Cross

Welcome back... The texts take it up a notch as we move closer to Holy Week.

Jeremiah 31:31 -34: “The days are surely coming…”  This is the assigned OT reading for Reformation Sunday, and as a senior at Gettysburg seminary, I had the honor of reading this at the Luther Festival eucharist on Wednesday evening, October 26, 1977, in a packed chapel on our campus (Wearing my favorite pair of overalls and flannel shirt – under my cassock and surplice, of course).

The text is all about washing away the sacrificial cult – wherein righteous violence against a chosen victim somehow placated God and restored the community to wholeness - and replacing it with a rule of law, tempered by a cult of the heart.   A good theory, but difficult to put into practice. The Hebrews tried, and failed. Our desire for retribution, for vengeance, has proven to be too strong. And, the law has been corrupted to allow violence to remain its silent partner, which meant that it was powerless to move the human enterprise forward.

Jesus is part of this prophetic trajectory, allowing himself to become what theologically is understood as the ‘last’ victim of this system; an outrageous death that would undo this unholy and unhealthy alliance of law and violence and mark the advent of the new age.

Hebrews 5: 5 – 10: “Today you are my Son…” This always jumps off the page for me. Quite a contrast from John’s gospel last week where Jesus is depicted as the pre-existing Logos, the eternal Son, who comes down from heaven to set the world aright before returning.  Hebrews makes the point that this ‘adopted son – or, ‘appointed’ as the text reads, not from heaven or born through divine intervention -  then “suffered in the time of his flesh… and learned obedience through what he suffered.” I rather like Rev. Paul Nuechterlein’s take on this as meaning “that Christ suffered because he was obedient. Christ entered this world of mimetic rivalry as one who was not caught up in it. His obedience to the Father consisted in doing his will without falling into rivalry. The world cannot abide such obedience, and that is why he suffered.” (http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-b/lent5b/)

John 12: 20 - 33:  Gil Bailie  (Violence Unveiled, p. 226 ;and the surrounding context) makes the argument that for John, the crucifixion and resurrection are the same thing. Repeatedly in John’s Gospel, Jesus remarks that when he is lifted up - meaning when he was hung o the cross – that he would draw all of humanity to himself. It is why the dying Jesus can say, “It is accomplished.”  What?

I think look back to Hebrews. What is accomplished is the undermining of the old system once and for all. This is what Jesus boldy proclaims just before: “Now sentence is being passed on this world; now the prince of this world is to be overthrown. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all men to myself.” Game over. Gain, quoting Bailie, “The crucifixion both “accomplishes” the decisive demystification of the demonic powers and inaugurates the historical epoch in which these powers — and the social and psychological structures based upon them — will undergo a progressive delegitimization, as the Crucified One gradually draws all of humanity to himself. As Rudolf Schnackenburg put it, “The ruler of the world encounters the final rejection, loses his sphere of influence, becomes powerless — over those who look up in faith to the crucified Jesus and let themselves be ‘drawn’ to him.”

I see in this M.L. King’s remarks about the long arc of history bending toward justice. The world clings to the system that has worked – for those who manipulate it – but as the other Luther writes, for lo, ‘their doom is sure.” In the words of Whittaker Chambers, “But from the moment of the crucifixion onward, the Holy Spirit would be at work in the world, slowly giving the victim’s voice the ability, to sweep away the logic of the mind, the logic of history, the logic of politics, and whatever contemporary myths might lend violence a momentary aura of righteousness. However formidable the structures of the sacrificial system might be, however beguilingly and discretely these structures might resort to their scapegoating mechanisms, relentlessly the Spirit would “show the world how wrong it was,” gradually leading humanity to ‘the complete truth.’”

One that would – in the words of John’s Jesus – set us free. This past week, as I watched thousands of students leave school in protest of the escalating violence in our nation, I wonder if we are at last entering that moment when the powers of darkness are finally overthrown.