Preacher: Charissa Bradstreet, M. Div.
At Epiphany our Palm Sunday service can give you a sense of whiplash. Stepping into the drama of the passion, we begin in the courtyard crying out “Hosannah!” and then before long we are in the church crying out, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” We may be left wondering, “How did we get here? How did joy and worship so quickly devolve into this need to destroy?”
Holy Week allows us to slow the action down, to sit with this story throughout the week, and allow it to catch our attention in new ways.
Tonight’s gospel takes us back to shortly before Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and reveals the beginning of the plot to kill Jesus. There isn’t much action in this part of the story so I have skipped past it previously, but this year there were two interesting elements that caught my attention. One of them relates to the way some people responded to a miracle and how that eventually leads to the cry “Crucify him!” The other element reveals the gospel writer’s perspective that someone could be horribly wrong and yet more wonderfully right than he could ever imagine.
We’ll start with the first bit. Immediately following the miraculous resurrection of Lazarus, the people who are with Mary and Martha have one of two reactions. Some of them respond to the miracle in their midst with amazement and others with fear. Upon seeing Lazarus emerge from his tomb, a group of people are distressed and they go to the chief priests and the Pharisees who call a council meeting to discuss this.
During the meeting, the chief priests and Pharisees say, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” This line of thought strikes me as curious. Their fear and anxiety moves so quickly into catastrophizing. We discussed this passage in our Vestry meeting last week and someone said, “How did they get from Jesus performing miracles and people believing in him to suddenly the Romans are going to destroy our temple and our nation?”
It does seem like there is a crucial missing piece in their logic. Yet these people clearly believe that their survival as a people of God and as a nation are at stake. Elsewhere in the gospels, these leaders are described as jealous, but here they appear really afraid and agitated.
I can relate to feeling really afraid, and when I am agitated, I rarely think logically or imaginatively. So, part of me begins to feel some compassion for these leaders as they watch their world turn upside down. Things are changing and they don’t know what to make of it. They see themselves losing power and influence. They believe the survival of nation and religion are at stake. They are afraid.
The human brain has two incredibly strong impulses. One is for survival; the other is for relationship. While the survival instinct serves us well when we swerve to avoid an oncoming car, it usually serves us less well as we navigate challenges at work or with our spouse or children. And it takes on deeply troubling patterns when fear grows like a contagion across a population, dividing people against each other, causing them to furiously look for someone to blame.
We have seen so much rhetoric in our country, and around the world, that reveals deep seeded fears around survival of nation and religion. We see the blaming of one people group or another; we see laws created to restrict freedoms of others who are perceived as a threat; we see acts of war; and we see justifications and half-truths, and outright lies. And fear begets more fear as the fear-based actions of one group prompts another group to respond with their own fear-based actions, or with contempt.
Last week I was visiting another church and someone calmly said to me, “You know it’s gotten to the point that each morning I wake up and check my computer to see if someone has killed the President yet.” She looked at me and said, “I know that doesn’t sound very Christian, but that’s what I think each morning.”
So, we need practices that keep fear from building into catastrophizing and ultimately, into drastic acts that we assume are essential to our survival. We need practices that help us cultivate the other human instinct, the one that thrusts us deeper into relationship and draws us away from a relentless fixation on self-protection or self-righteousness. We need practices that help us reconcile ourselves with the cross – with a willingness to suffer shame and loss because we find more wisdom in the path of Christ than in the foolishness of the never-ending pursuit of survival at all costs.
I look at the council of chief priests and Pharisees and I recognize the instinct of fear. The High Priest Caiaphas seems to almost recoil at the fear around him. “You know nothing at all!” he proclaims “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” Caiaphas proclaims an expedient solution, and he justifies it by stating that it is a death that will enable the survival of a whole nation. In response to his words the leaders begin to plan how to put Jesus to death. Later, as Jesus is tried before Pilate we will see that the people who had hailed him as Messiah less than a week before are now demanding his crucifixion. Caiaphas spoke and then those around him carried the justification forth, spreading fear and inciting the need for someone to be destroyed so that faith and nation could survive.
It is a dark story. And yet…
And yet, Caiaphas had no idea how wonderfully prophetic he was being. He thought he was making an effective argument for a solution to their troubles. However, the gospel writer tells us, being High Priest his words reflected a deeper truth, the truth of a great glory that was about to unfold through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Through this death and resurrection, the gates would be flung wide to welcome all the children of God, not just a single nation but all those who long to draw near to God.
Though crippled by the limitation of his seeing, Caiaphas nevertheless prophesied, which I find fascinating. It suggests that the voice of the spirit is heard by some whether they understand it or not – or frankly, whether they are actively pursuing the spirit or not. And so, the most unlikely people become ironic prophets. Reading this gospel, we view Caiaphas as an enemy of the way of Jesus, and yet his words contributed to a course of action that would result in glory and redemption.
In the face of actions that cause us to fear, we can go into hiding. We can despair. We can lash out with contempt and seek the destruction of those who threaten us. Or, we can nurture practices of prayer and discernment, practices that allow our fear to dissipate, and our perception to increase. Caiaphas was unwittingly on to something, but he couldn’t see it for what it really was. What if America is becoming great again, but not in the way President Trump envisions?
I wonder if, at this point time, something amazing is being cultivated beneath the surface of all our political turmoil and national fear. As racism and discrimination have become more blatant, I have noticed people seeing with new eyes a kind of privilege that has previously blinded them to more subtle forms of racial and economic injustice. I have seen people attend information sessions so they can learn about the hurdles to immigration and citizenship. I have noticed people becoming civically engaged who previously were too busy to be involved. I have seen pictures of lawyers and advocates rushing to airports to be of service to those being detained. And I have heard stories of crucial dialogues opening between groups who previously didn’t talk to one another.
Our God is continually providing pathways to redemption and renewal. Put another way, God is a midwife who joins us in our birth pangs so that we can recognize the new life that is longing to come into being. What if this nation is actually on the verge of birthing an unimagined level of renewal? What if God has anointed those who are treated as low and despised in the world to provoke in us a deeper capacity to love our neighbor?
Redemption can happen in spite of us, but if we are paying attention, if we are deeply curious and deeply committed to pursuing relationship rather than fear, we have the opportunity to fully, consciously take part in the mystery that is unfolding in our midst. We can allow our souls to participate in glory.
Like the cross of Christ, that glory make look on the surface like shame or loss. But prayer helps us nurture a capacity to discover something deep and important in the midst of suffering.
Let’s not miss out on the redemptive ways the kingdom of heaven is becoming manifest in our midst. Let’s not allow ourselves to be distracted by fear, despair, or contempt for those we blame for our situation. Instead, let us discern where love is taking root and allow ourselves to be transformed. God is always redeeming and resurrecting. How will you choose to participate in the unfolding kingdom of heaven? How might your own heart be transformed?