Friday, April 06, 2012

The Power of Powerlessness

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
April 6, 2012

Good Friday
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 22:1-21
Hebrews 10:1-25
Psalm 69:1-23
John 18:1-19:37

The Power of Powerlessness

On Good Friday it’s been the custom since very early in Christian history to read the Passion according the Gospel of John.

It’s a beautiful account, but one that needs to be put into some context. Listening to the story of betrayal and abandonment and calls for crucifixion, we need to remember that Jesus and all of his first followers were Jews. What we are hearing is a tragic conflict within Judaism and among Jews of the First Century. It’s a tragic conflict that has nothing to do with Jews of today or of any other time.

When we cry out “Crucify him!” we’re not standing in for Jewish people of two thousand years ago. No, we’re playing ourselves. We’re being reminded of the ways that we ourselves crucify Jesus when we turn away from his command to love God and to love one another.

Of the four gospels, it’s John who usually depicts Jesus as being most firmly in charge. Frankly, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is depicted as more divine than human. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus never wavers, is never seriously tempted and has a tendency to deliver long, theologically sophisticated speeches to his disciples who struggle to make sense of what he was telling them.

So, in the Gospel of John there is no agony in the garden, there’s no mention of Jesus begging the Father to spare him the abuse and death that lay ahead.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus doesn’t cry out from the cross the heartbreaking opening line of Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

The Evangelist John is determined to make sure we understand that God was among us in Jesus of Nazareth – and that people, people just like us, rejected God and, for a time, it seems, in a sense even killed God.

The Evangelist John was writing near the end of the First Century, a very multicultural time – a time when there were lots of competing religions, each with their own gods. In the religious marketplace back then people could and did shop around for the most powerful god or gods – the gods who in return for sacrifice and loyalty it was believed, or hoped, would bring wealth, the gods who give security, the gods who would bring victory.

In some ways, over the past two thousand years things have changed -and in other ways not so much.

Two thousand years ago, most people would have had no trouble with the notion of someone being both human and divine – it happened often enough in ancient mythology.

Today in our modern, skeptical and, at least to some extent rational, world, the notion of someone being both human and divine is, perhaps, a harder sell.

But, we’re still on the lookout for the gods who will bring us wealth, the gods who will give us security, the gods who will bring us victory.

Today those gods may take the form of complicated financial products or sophisticated and lethal technology. Today those gods may take the form of overconfidence in our own abilities. Today those gods may be our own ruthlessness, our own willingness to see other people as merely things to be used for our own benefit.

In Death of a Salesman, when Willy Loman is losing his job, he says to his boss, “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.”

But, as Willy and so many others have learned, yes, in fact we can and do treat our fellow human beings as pieces of fruit who can be thrown away once we’re done with them.

Considering how human beings were back then and how we are today, it’s no surprise that the Evangelist John depicts the awesome power of God at work in and through Jesus – after all, he raised Lazarus from the dead! John depicts the awesome power of God at work in and through Jesus, so Jesus is firmly in charge, and is a font of profound theological language.

And, yet, the Evangelist John also understands and wants us to understand a great paradox - that the power of God is most clearly seen in the powerlessness of Jesus.

In a recent essay in Newsweek, Andrew Sullivan picks up on this essential truth about the power of Jesus’ powerlessness. Here’s what Sullivan writes about Jesus’ powerful powerlessness:

“Above all: give up power over others, because power, if it is to be effective, ultimately requires the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all other human beings that is at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching.”

I think that’s exactly right.

The Evangelist John tells the story of the Last Supper in a way that gets across the power of Jesus’ powerlessness. In John’s account, Jesus got up from the table, took off his robe and tied a towel around himself. He poured water in a basin and washed the disciples’ feet and dried them with the towel.

Jesus’ lowly service is a profound expression of the power of powerlessness.

And two thousand years later, it’s an act that’s lost none of its power. Each year I’m always moved when at our Compline for Kids service parents and children wash each other’s feet. Each year I see tears in some parents’ eyes as a pretty much powerless child reveals the power of love and service.

But, let’s be honest, the power of powerlessness is not the way of the world. In the First and Twenty-First Centuries most people don’t really buy it or are totally confused when they encounter it.

So, Peter is befuddled by what this means and at first insists that there’s no way that the Lord is going to wash his feet. As usual, Jesus had to explain it to him.

In those last days of Jesus’ earthly lifetime, Peter wasn’t the only one who was befuddled by the power of powerlessness.

Pontius Pilate served as Roman governor of Judea for ten years, a relatively long time. His long tenure indicates that he understood and was very effective in the use of power to keep a troublesome people in line, to keep the higher ups in Rome happy, and to keep himself alive.

No surprise that by all accounts Pilate had a record of great brutality and ruthlessness. John doesn’t emphasize this in his account of Jesus’ passion, though. Instead, John focuses on Pilate’s befuddlement, which in this case seems perfectly plausible.

I mean, how ridiculous that the Jewish authorities brought this nobody from the sticks to him – this nobody who they said claims to be king! And then he even admits to being a king, but a king whose kingdom is not of this world!

We can hear Pilate’s befuddlement when he asks Jesus, “What is truth?”

And we catch the irony of the question because, of course, Truth is standing before him in all his powerless glory.

In the end, Pilate is unable to recognize the power of powerlessness in Christ the King, and, we’re told, washes his hands of the whole affair.

Finally, the greatest sign of the power of powerlessness is Jesus’ death on the cross. Crucifixion was a common and quite effective way to keep people in line. It was an agonizing, terrifying, and humiliating way to die. There were a lot of variations in crucifixion, including how long the crucified stayed alive on the cross. Sometimes they lasted many hours, or maybe even days, while others died relatively quickly.

Jesus seems to have been one of those who died quickly, maybe a sign that the Messiah, the Son of God, was physically weak, not strong enough to survive Roman brutality for very long.

And yet, the power of God is most clearly seen in the powerlessness of Jesus.

Now, that would be a preposterous claim for the Evangelist John or any of us to make without the Resurrection.

Without the Resurrection, the story of Jesus of Nazareth would be just another story of the worldly gods of violence scoring another victory against a man who preached peace and proclaimed forgiveness.

Without the Resurrection, the story of Jesus of Nazareth wouldn’t even be worth telling, really. It would be much more worthwhile to learn more about Pilate.

Yet, we’re here in this place today because for two thousand years people just like us have experienced the power of the Resurrected Christ – the power that transforms our lives, the power to build the kingdom of God right here and now.

The Evangelist John tells us that just before Jesus took his last breath on the cross, he said, “It is finished.”

Jesus has completed his mission of revealing to the world the power of God through powerlessness.

But, our mission continues. As the Body of Christ in the world, our mission is not yet finished.

We are called to build the kingdom of God here and now.

That kingdom won’t be built by worshiping the gods of the world – the gods who may bring security, wealth and victory.

The kingdom will be built by following and imitating the Powerless One, the One who shows us that true power is found in the powerlessness of loving service and sacrifice to God and to one another.

Today may we recognize the power of powerlessness in the crucified Jesus - and may others recognize the power of powerlessness in us.