April 8, 2018 – Pastor John McNeill
If any particular events commemorated on the Christian calendar could claim centrality it would be the Crucifixion and resurrection. But what do they mean?
There’s a story I found quite interesting by an ancient pagan named Philostratus about a murder in Ephesus in the 100’s AD. Appolonius of Tyana was a celebrated pagan prophet and miracle worker. This was written to defend paganism against the rising popularity of Christianity.
In Ephesus at the time there was a social crisis. There was substantial social disorder in Ephesus. Social cohesion had broken down and the city was in an uproar. But Appolonius, pagan prophet and miracle was ready to help.
This is a terrible story. Frightening. We don’t like to even think about such things. We want to avert our eyes. But we can learn from it. But remember, it was written to celebrate what happened.
We can learn that when people are disordered and at odds with each other, whether it be a city, or a group, they can find order and renewed stability by finding a scapegoat around whom they can come for unity and renewed purpose. When rivalry and fear within a group reach a certain point, focusing on an external threat is a way to restore common cause and fresh solidarity for effective collective action.
Again, this was written as a defense of paganism. Pagans did not give up. Christians had given up sacrifice and this was a novel development. How will they maintain social order?
This story about Ephesus is really just an extreme version of a very ordinary sort of story.
It is not at all unusual for a group of people to band together against another person – even an innocent person. It’s most obvious in children as one is sorted out to be marginalized or even bullied. The unity that is created or restored is in proportion to the power of the exclusion. Rivalries among adolescents for position threaten to destroy relationships within the social group and those threatened relationships can be restored from the threat of the rivalry by ganging up on one member of the group, or some outsider to the group.
Of course, there is always a reason that the in-group can identify – mannerism, clothes, too smart, not smart enough, too good, not good enough. It’s easy to see among children, but we don’t like to look at it. We want to avert our eyes – or stop it if we can.
As adults we know that this is wrong. But we are still at least tempted to do it, or are sometimes caught up in it unawares. We find justifications for it: other people’s poor behavior, or mistaken ideology or opinions. And we will very quickly condemn others whom we take to be scapegoating or excluding unfairly. And we turn around and use that as a reason to exclude or scapegoat them
Now it is really very difficult to catch oneself doing it, because we always want to avert our eyes from it. One of the subtle ways we scapegoat is by gossiping. Gossiping always unites at least 2 people against a 3rd. This is true whether the gossip is accurate or not.
Yes, crucifixion, which can seem so distant is really very close to us. It is embedded at least in our temptation, if not our behavior, and we want to avert our eyes.
The crucifixion is an extreme instance of scapegoating in an historical context in which both the occupying Romans and the nervous Jewish leadership decide to make common cause by scapegoating Jesus and stir up the people in Jerusalem against him so that they will choose to release Barabbas instead of Jesus.
Now what is particularly interesting about the Bible is that the Bible does not avert its eyes. In fact, about 1/3 of the Gospels are devoted to the events of Holy Week and Easter.
In fact, the Gospels in particular, and the Bible in general, are unusual among ancient religious literature in just this regard:
- The Bible does not avert its eyes from the innocent victim
- The Bible takes the side of the victim of collective violence.
Actually, this is something unique about the Bible. The late scholar Rene Girard has made an important study and collection of discoveries about violence and the sacred. If we examine the stories or myths of other religious traditions we find that, like the story of Appolonius of Tyana these stories take the side of the mob against the singled-out victim.
But then they do something else. They cover up the murder of the human being – saying either it was actually a demon or it actually wasn’t a murder at all: it was a sacrifice. Regular reenactments of these events or stories become part of the religious practice of sacrifice.
The gospels, on the other hand, do not allow us to avert our eyes. And they expose the principles and process on which unanimity and social order is built by taking the side of the innocent victim.
The authorities assume that they will simply get rid of Jesus who has stirred up trouble. They incite and encourage the mob against him. They will unify the people and the city against Jesus. Even the disciples will fall away.
As Caiaphis, the High Priest says: it is expedient that one man should die for the nation. This is the cold logic of expendable victims. No wonder we want to avert our eyes.
So why did Jesus have to die? As St. Paul tells us, the foolishness of God is wiser than mortal wisdom. The weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
As Jesus, fully human and fully divine, is drawn into the machinery of sacrifice, he is too big for the scapegoating mechanism to digest him.
The crime of the murder of this innocent one cannot be covered up, for taken into death, Christ explodes the realm of death and the gates of hell come crashing down.
Why did Jesus have to die? To expose scapegoating, to put an end to sacrifice, to defeat the powers of sin and death so that we might be freed from scapegoating and exclusion and condemnation. To take humanity’s sin on himself and transform it by his love into the power of life and liberation.
This exposure does not lead to our condemnation. The exposure of the scapegoating and exclusionary process allows us to repent and take on a new way of life. This is why we are not to avert our eyes from the events of Holy Week in Jerusalem. We need to be sensitized to it, aware of it, so that we can turn away our lives. We do not turn away our eyes so that we may turn away our lives.
So to turn to our Bible reading for this morning, where we are shown the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. It means that his followers have another chance to follow him. In our story this morning, the risen Christ encounters the disciples.
The disciples were imprisoned in their fear of those who crucified Jesus and in despair over their failure to stay with him to the end. They were confused about the events and circumstances of that morning around the empty tomb. In their faithlessness in abandoning him they felt like accomplices to those who put him to death, and they are paralyzed with shame and fear.
And while the disciples might well have expected a scolding or a rebuke, or even punishment or retaliation from Jesus, instead Jesus’ first words to them are “Peace.” They do not need to cower back in fear or confusion about how they let him down, they are not to deny that the crucifixion happened – after all Jesus shows them his wounds – they are not to avert their eyes from the reality of what has happened.
Jesus breathes on them the power of the Holy Spirit, restores the life that God first breathed into our father Adam and our mother Eve at the creation, and gives them a very clear mission.
They are to become that community of believers who begin in their lives the transformation of the world.
They are to overthrow the powers of death, scapegoating, exclusion, and retaliatory violence that scapegoating and sacrifice were supposed to cure, and replace them with the forgiveness and reconciling power of divine love.
Welcome, forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation are to be the bywords of the resurrection way of life they are to weave together.
Why does the resurrection matter? Because it is the second chance God offers the world to receive the Prince of Peace. When we crucified Jesus, we didn’t put an end to God’s life and love. The resurrection is the second chance the world has to receive the Prince of Peace. Not only that, but it demonstrates that God’s power of love and forgiveness is greater than the powers of the sin and death behind his crucifixion.
Taking place on the first day of the week it represents a new creation, a new beginning for humanity in this small group who will live and embody the love and grace of God in real life. Not as a theory or an abstract principle, but to start a new way of life according to Jesus’ teachings about how God calls us to generosity, compassion, mercy, and humble, mutual love.
And here is an interesting touch. Almost immediately the disciples have a chance to go wrong. Thomas was not with them when Jesus first appeared. They might have taken this as an opportunity to strengthen their own bonds by excluding him – especially because he did not just simply believe them. But instead they continue to include him until Jesus can reveal himself to Thomas as well.
Why did Jesus have to die? To expose scapegoating, to put an end to sacrifice, to defeat the powers of sin and death so that we might be freed from scapegoating and exclusion and condemnation. To take our sin on himself and transform it by his love into the power of life and liberation. This exposure does not lead to our condemnation. The exposure of the scapegoating and exclusionary process allows us to repent and take on a new way of life. This is why we are not to avert our eyes from the events of Holy Week in Jerusalem. We do not turn away our eyes so that we may turn away our lives.
Why does the resurrection matter? Because it is the second chance God offers the world to receive the Prince of Peace. When we crucified Jesus, we didn’t put an end to God’s life and love. The resurrection is the second chance we have to receive the Prince of Peace. The resurrection matters because it is Christ’s sign of victory over sin and death and our invitation to life, forgiveness, and reconciliation even in the face of the terrible violence of this world and even the places in our own hearts in which violence, resentment, and bitterness still have a foothold.
I know that there are those who believe that Jesus had to die in order to satisfy the wrath of a God of judgment. I understand that there are those who believe that the core of the Christian faith is that we must believe that Jesus suffered the punishment that we deserve so that we can go to heaven despite our sinfulness. And further, that only by believing this can we be saved from going to hell. I have to tell you that I can’t see how that squares with the proclamation of the Bible.
Instead, the good news of Jesus overturns the age-old claim that violence or punishment or retaliation is necessary to achieve God’s purposes. God’s point is that crucifixions and scapegoating and violence are not the answer.
The answer is to be free of the rivalry, mistrust, envy, resentments, grudges, greed, and violence that stir us up against each other. The gospel solution is a much more radical solution: it demands that we repent, we change, we live new lives based on a trust in a God who cannot be defeated by violence, or sin or death, or anything else in all creation. Yes, Jesus could be killed, but God is stronger than death and will not be defeated by our rebellions.
Our testimony to that is the same testimony as the first disciples who received the Holy Spirit to live together in the world as a living proclamation of the victory of God’s love shown in Jesus Christ.
We as the church have been called to carry out forgiveness by the power and peace of the Holy Spirit.
Cynics and skeptics since the time of Pilate and Herod have said it’s just a dream and it will never work. Disciples live to prove that it can: in this life and in the life to come.