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Sunday, April 2, 2017 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Jesus and the Crowds
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Who would have thought that you would take this uncredentialed Galilean rabbi to become the pivot of newness in the world? . . . We ask for freedom and courage to move out from our nicely arranged patterns of security into dangerous places of newness where we fear to go. Cross us by the cross, that we may be Easter marked.
Walter Brueggemann, “The Pivot of Hope,” Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth
Several times in the last few weeks, I have actively wondered why I thought it was a good idea to follow Jesus through the Gospel of John during this season of Lent. After all, the Gospel of John has its challenges. For one thing, it feels like we have been preaching Good Friday for the last couple of weeks and we have not even gotten to Palm Sunday yet. But even more difficult for us postmodern readers and hearers of the text is how the Gospel writer talks about “the Jews.”
Now if you have been following along in your own Bible, you have undoubtedly noticed that I will often change the phrase “the Jews” to either “the religious authorities” or to “Jesus’ opponents.” But since we will stay in this Gospel of John through Easter Sunday, we need to address up front what we now understand this Gospel to mean when it talks about “the Jews.”
Let’s first say what it does not mean. This Gospel is not saying that Jewish people are the enemy of Christian people. Jesus was a Jewish man. Furthermore, this Gospel is not saying that all the Jewish people killed Jesus. There is not some universal stain against all those who share Jesus’ Jewish religious tradition.
We have to say that out loud because, as you know, the Christian church has an awful and violent history of using this particular Gospel as a rationale for anti-Semitism and for committing violent acts against Jewish people. In our history, Good Friday became a day on which Christian violence against Jewish people greatly increased. And so we must say no to such a grievous, dangerous misinterpretation.
When we sink down into the Gospel of John and get a fuller understanding of the historical time period in which it was written, we discover that the Gospel writer was addressing his own Jewish Christian religious community, which had been expelled from the synagogue for reasons that are not entirely known. But in her excellent book The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, Jewish New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine claims there were a variety of good reasons that would have led to their expulsion. For example, she writes, considering this Gospel was probably written down around the year 90 CE, it might have been that Jews feared being associated with Christians, even Jewish Christians, because they could be rounded up and persecuted alongside them. And that is just one possibility (pp. 102–110).
Regardless of the reasons, though, the expulsion clearly angered the Gospel writer a great deal, an anger we see expressed in his generalized language about “the Jews.” Frankly, John’s language sounds like reactionary rhetoric, something we understand far too well in our own day and time. Clearly the Gospel writer had an agenda, an anger toward those whom he felt had betrayed him and his community.
As we apply that historical perspective to our text today, we realize it means we cannot simply make the trial of Jesus only about “the Jews,” as John would write. We cannot claim the cries of “Crucify him” were only about them, the religious authorities, Jesus’ Jewish opponents. No, the story of what happened to and with Jesus is not just about them. It is also about us. More particularly, this Lent, I have been pondering if one way it is about us is because what happened to and with Jesus was also a result of something we all know quite well: a prevalent narrative of fear.
A few moments ago, I mentioned that one reason John and his community might have been expelled from the synagogue was because the Jewish people did not want to be associated with the early Christians and caught up in the web of persecution at the hands of Rome. They were afraid. But that fear of what could happen if they were associated with Jesus and his followers emerged much earlier. Harvard Divinity professor Francois Bovon points this out as he focuses on the actions of the Jewish religious leaders in the Gospel of John. He reflects how, in chapter 11, they basically said that if they kept letting Jesus go unchecked, then inevitably his preaching, his ability to gather crowds, and his proclamation that God’s kingdom was arriving in him would strongly provoke Rome.
In response to that kind of provocation, the Romans would undoubtedly try to destroy the Jewish people’s holy place as well as their entire nation. In other words, Bovon posits the Jewish religious leaders portrayed in this Gospel had very good reasons for wishing to retain order and to avoid any further disturbance instigated by Jesus (Francois Boyon, The Last Days of Jesus, pp. 32–33). They were afraid for their people. Part of their task, then, was to do their very best to keep out of Rome’s crosshairs. To them, that meant they had to get rid of the threat. They had to get rid of Jesus.
Now, we know that the religious authorities also had other reasons for wanting to get rid of Jesus. As Rabbi Limmer from Chicago Sinai Congregation remarked to me this week, the rabbi Jesus challenged those religious leaders whose work had become corrupt, who tended to be more about self-preservation than service. Furthermore, Jesus did proclaim what they considered to be blasphemous: that he was God’s Son, that God’s reign was coming near in him. We cannot overlook Jesus’ proclamation and provocative behavior while considering the religious leaders’ motivations for pursuing Jesus in order to make a case against him.
Yet perhaps it is because the narrative of fear surrounds us so tightly these days that I also don’t think we can overlook the power of fear and the role fear played both with the religious authorities as well as with the crowd itself. Fear even held power over Jesus’ own disciples. Why else did they scatter? Why else would Peter deny knowing Jesus and deny being one of his disciples?
In this story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, it seems that just about everyone, Pilate included, was afraid. Their own narratives of faith were taken over and displaced by the powerful narrative of fear. And what happens when one is dominated by fear? You do whatever it takes to feel safe. You get rid of the threat. In their case, you get rid of Jesus. Contemporary theologian Chris Bader-Sayre puts it this way:
Just as we long for a diagnosis when we are sick, so we long for a way to name and locate our chaotic fears. Once we have a diagnosis, we know how to respond to our illness. We feel that we can do something. Likewise, once we locate the object or person for our fear, we feel empowered. We can now take tangible steps to make ourselves more safe.
Insecurity is no longer the sad reality of a fallen and vulnerable world; it is the result of “those” people who pose a tangible and definable threat to “us” and our way of life. Indeed, we exist as “us” precisely because we oppose what “they” are and what they do. (Quoted by Michael Kinnamon in The Witness of Religion in an Age of Fear, p. 40)
Get rid of the threat. Do whatever it takes to feel safer. Deny your discipleship. Let the narrative of fear replace the narrative of faith.
In his latest book, The Witness of Religion in an Age of Fear, Michael Kinnamon suggests that we—Americans in 2017—are in the midst of another period in which fear now dominates our national psyche; another period in which the narrative of fear is replacing the narrative of faith, just as it did for those first disciples. Kinnamon quotes a British sociologist who goes so far as to argue that a narrative of fear has actually become the primary framework through which Western societies interpret public experiences, leading to nations marked increasingly by security systems, gated communities, public surveillance, and a steady diet of media stories about dangers immediate or potential. The narrative of fear has become so internalized, this sociologist claims, that being frightened is no longer necessarily even linked to a specific threat. The problem is not that we have fears (some of which may well be warranted). The problem, rather, is that we now live in a state of perpetual fear that affects the way we see the world, creating anxiety in us that is not in proportion to actual danger (The Witness of Religion in an Age of Fear, pp. 17–18).
We see this unfold right before our eyes in this scene from John’s Gospel. Remember from last week that the religious leaders who brought Jesus to Pilate were devout enough to not go into Pilate’s house, lest they be considered unclean and unable to participate in the Passover. Clearly their faith in God held great power in their lives. And yet somehow this state of fear over who Jesus was or over the kind of threat Jesus posed in relationship to Rome started to crowd out their story of faith, at least at that moment.
These devout religious leaders moved from wanting to be faithful to their God of the covenant to uttering their own blasphemous claims: “We have no king but the emperor” they proclaimed in their final attempt to influence Pilate towards crucifixion.
“We have no king but the emperor.” If they had not been so terribly afraid, they would have remembered that was not who they were. Their own Passover liturgy, which they were about to celebrate, claimed outright “We have no king but Yahweh.” Yet when these religious leaders allowed the narrative of fear to define them rather than their narrative of faith, they ended up renouncing their covenant with God and betraying all that made them who they were.
Their heightened state of fear directly affected the way they saw the world. It replaced who they knew themselves to be as God’s people. They wanted to do whatever it took to stay safe. Get rid of the threat. Get rid of Jesus. Even if getting there meant also getting rid of, or at least denying, what they believed to be true. We have no king but the emperor, they devastatingly claimed. So now, Pilate, you have to crucify him.
As I said earlier, this story, though, is not just about them. It is also about us. How is this narrative of fear taking root in us, in our own lives? If Kinnamon is right, then we are all battling it, all the time. What kinds of behaviors do we engage in, what kinds of stereotypes do we feed, egged on by a perpetual state of fear that is becoming so entrenched in us that it’s affecting the way we see everything and everyone?
How is this narrative of fear affecting our faith? Even if our lips say we believe, do our actions testify to the contrary? Do we find ourselves scattering, denying, doing whatever we can to get rid of whatever we feel is threatening us?
Are we, like those religious leaders and like those in the crowd, sometimes so caught up in losing our own sense of power or our way of life or our sense of safety and control that we, too, forget who we are and what it means to be God’s people? Would we have also shouted “Crucify!” if we thought it might remove the threat and keep us safe? Would we agree with former President Richard Nixon, who once famously observed, “People react to fear, not love. They don’t teach that in Sunday school, but it’s true” (The Witness of Religion in an Age of Fear, p. 23).
We are in the season of Lent, so be honest with yourself: how much are you reacting out of fear these days, rather than love? Is the narrative of fear crowding out your narrative of faith on most days than not?
There was, of course, one person in this story who was not afraid. And he was the one who actually had something to be afraid of: pain, suffering, and death. Jesus was the only one in this entire scene from the Gospel of John who stands with courage, who remembers who he is and why he was there. He basically tells Pilate that Pilate has no power over him. He knows what is about to happen to him, and out of great love, he is determined to endure it in order to destroy it. We might even wonder if, as Jesus was handed over and the cries of “Crucify” pierced the air, if he prayed that his courage might one day even give his opponents courage. If he prayed that one day “be not afraid” would not only be heard as a soundtrack for his birth but as a perpetual soundtrack for our lives. For love, not fear, was the only thing Jesus was about. And love, not fear, was the only framework, the only narrative that claimed his life. May it be so for you and for me, for this world. Amen.