Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

Filter By:

            Often in the Gospel of John, very often, in fact, somebody will say something that, unbeknownst to him or her, has a meaning that is not at all the simple one they intended, but which is profound and far reaching. The most famous example is the high priest Caiaphas plotting Jesus’ death and replying to the objections that this would be killing an innocent man. “It is better,” Caiaphas says, “that one man die than all the people.” His intent was utilitarian. He thought that it would be better to kill one innocent man than get the Romans mad and have them slaughter a whole lot of people. But, for reasons that totally escaped Caiaphas, Jesus’ death really was for the people, and saved them from death. It just wasn’t the sort of death, in both Jesus’ case and that of the people, that Caiaphas had been thinking about.

            A similar situation occurs on Palm Sunday, when, while watching the parade where Jesus is celebrated as he enters Jerusalem, the Pharisees say: “You see, you can do nothing. Look the whole world has gone after him.” What they really mean to do is to express their regret that they hadn’t tried earlier to kill Jesus and Lazarus, whose resurrection at Jesus’ hands was the reason for the crowd’s excitement. Now, they rue, it is too late. Killing the two of them now could be very difficult, because the crowd’s enthusiasm has become an effective shield for Jesus. That is what they meant. But there is also a way to see what they say as a prophecy. The one that they want to kill is the savior of the world. The conversion of the world in the years after the Resurrection could well be the real case of the whole world going after him. They are only worried about the crowd in Jerusalem, but after the Resurrection, it is really the whole world that has gone after him.

            Yet, if so, we have to admit that the real import of that prophecy is not clear. It is not at all clear, when all is said and done, that the reversal isn’t in the other direction, which is to say, that, in the end, the Pharisees really had nothing to worry about. They thought they lost on Palm Sunday. Then, they thought they won on Good Friday, only really to lose on Easter. But maybe things have been reversed yet again. As we look around, maybe the crowd has changed its mind one more time. As we look around, at least in our neck of the woods, the whole world has not gone after him. The parade of Palm Sunday gets smaller all the time.

            Things are further complicated insofar as the crowd following Jesus is not always a good thing, at least as far as either Jesus or John see it. The crowd’s adulation is not a marker of success. For example, some chapters earlier, after Jesus performs the miracle of feeding the five thousand out in the wilderness, they pursue him to the other side of the lake when he crosses the Lake of Galilee. They do so, because they want to make him their king. But he knows what that is worth. They only want to crown him because he gave them bread. One suspects that he is equally suspicious of their intentions when they are waving palms at him as he enters Jerusalem. As John tells it, they are excited because he has raised Lazarus from the dead. So, another miracle, another attempt to crown him. And, in both cases, there is the same final result. In the first case, when Jesus teaches the crowd what the miracle of feeding them really means, that is, that he is the bread of life, they quickly desert him. He is not surprised when they do. Nor was he surprised at all, I suspect, in the second case, when the crowd deserted him during this Holy Week and he went alone to his death, betrayed.

            No Gospel writer is more suspicious of the crowd and what it wants than John is, even though all of the Gospel writers are baffled by the incredulity of the very people that Jesus wants to help. There is no question that John thinks that Jesus on the cross is stretching out his arms to embrace the whole world. He says as much. But no writer is more overtly aware that, in the end, the whole world does not go after him. For John, Jesus is a dividing line. There are those who love the light, and flock to him, the light of all people. On the other hand, there are those that don’t love the light. They turn their back on him. Jesus, knowing that he always seemed to cause this division, might himself well have told the Pharisees who worried that the whole world was chasing after him not to worry about it. It would not last long. It never did. Only a few faithful would remain.

            Yet, what he does, he does for the whole world. For that reason, the question that truly has to puzzle all of us is “What does the world want?” We are never really sure. Sometimes the world follows him, the one who is the life and light of all people, the way, the truth, and the life. Good. But often when it does follow him, it doesn’t do so for the best reasons. And, frequently, it quickly and easily deserts him, which most likely happens because it never followed for the best reasons in the first place. What the world seems to want is not always what it should want; as a result, it doesn’t always get what it really needs.

            That is the situation that we find ourselves in today. At one point in the Western world, we could claim something like universal belief. Everybody believed, and Christianity had become Christendom; it embraced the whole of the Western world. Although Christianity today is the fastest growing religion in the world as a whole, especially in Asia and Africa, it is no longer the case that everybody believes, especially in our neck of the woods. It is not the case that very many of the people around us even have the faintest idea of what Christian faith is about, other than the stuff that the media dishes out about fringe elements. So, we might well ask, “What does the world want?”

            Well, I suspect that what the crowd wants now is much the same as it wanted in first century Palestine. It wants miracles, it wants bread, it wants spectacle, it wants authority and group think, and it is willing to follow whoever provides it, even when those aren’t the things that it really needs. Take an example. Not long ago, we proudly proclaimed the triumph of democracy when the Eastern Bloc of Communism fell apart, and we did so more recently during the Arab Spring. To be able to determine one’s own course in life, to have the space to believe and exercise faith are wonderful things.  We thought more and more people were getting what they both wanted and needed. Yet, today we ought to worry a lot about democracy and the institutions necessary to sustain it, such as an intelligent, educated electorate willing to think about the greater good, one willing to delay gratification for long term good. Democracy here and elsewhere is being eroded by becoming an arena for personal charisma; it has become an ongoing television reality show. Fascinated by the spectacle, few can put their phones down for a second and not worry about the news, afraid that they will miss an episode in what is little more than a telenovela. We are constantly pumped up by it, and it doesn’t matter what side one is on. We can’t sit still.  But, truth be told, all that is simply the effect of having wanted in the first place, having valued in the first place, bread, empty displays of authority, and spectacle. It is the same sort of thinking that the crowd used when Jesus multiplied bread and when he performed the miracle of resurrecting Lazarus.

            That example is a matter of our political choices. Religiously, and spiritually, as a culture we are no deeper and we are no wiser. That we aren’t has something to do with our unfortunate political choices. As we worry about the falling rates of belief and church participation, people in churches get anxious about what to do about it. Far too often, those solutions are to treat faith as a consumer product, where people think that what needs to be done is to give the crowd what it wants. Bread, authority, and spectacle are pretty much the answers being provided here, too.

            But that is clearly not what we need. Without doubt, what we want, and what we think we need are actually what Jesus came to save the world from, as well as the crazy violence that those things produce. So, what do we really need? What we need and what the world needs is for all of us to want something different than we do.

            Another way of putting it is that what we need is a “re-education of desire,” which is to say, we need to be reoriented about what we want. That reorientation is a way, a very important way to think about what Holy Week, from Palm Sunday, to Maundy Thursday, to Good Friday, to Easter is all about. We talk about Christ’s sacrifice for the sake of humanity. So it is, but, because what humanity needs is to be able to want what is really valuable and to walk away from what is not so valuable – to walk away from bread, from violence and authoritarianism, from spectacle – sacrifice, if it is to do us any good, has to be a matter of teaching us to want what we really need.

            That above all is what Christ came to do. The prophet Isaiah has the coming messiah say, “The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” He came not just to do something as our agent, something on our behalf; he came to teach us, and by teaching us what we need and what we should want, he does sustain the weary world with a word.

            But how does he do that? Not just by telling them what to want, but in what he did and how he did it, in showing them how to live. “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;” he says.  “I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” Why would that work? Because patience and humility are the only way to reverse the things that the crowd finds valuable. So, instead of spectacle, he taught humility. Instead of authoritarianism, he gave teaching and humble example. Instead of proud self-assertion, he did not hide his face from insult and spitting. Instead of accumulating much bread, he gave himself to be bread to feed the real needs of the people.

            Small wonder that the world, when it found out what he had to offer, turned its back on him. That wasn’t what the world wanted at all. No wonder that it chased after him but then changed its mind when it found out what was being offered. Yet, still, that is what the world needs, and it needs it because that is the sort of life that it was meant for. God created us in the beginning for peace and not violence, for community and not selfishness, for cooperation and thoughtfulness and not authoritarianism, and God created us for beauty and not spectacle.

            It is no surprise that the crowd did change its mind when it found out what was being offered. It is no surprise today that it still chases after the same things and does so just as mindlessly. It makes one wonder if it is ever possible that the world can learn. Yet, because peace and community, and cooperation and beauty and love are what we are meant for, what we are created for, and because all that is what we need, then there is the possibility that the word of Christ in suffering for his people to teach them will someday really penetrate and dwell within them. They were meant for it, and should anyone try it, there is the possibility of success. He will not give up teaching. He will bear us to eternity hoping that we might listen.

            I think you who are sitting here know that. You have found the bread of life and have found that it alone satisfies. So, let me encourage you in what you have found. Rejoice in what you have been given and have courage. Follow where your Lord goes this week. Follow where he leads every day. Should you do that, you, too, may become instruments for teaching the world about what it really needs. Maybe, despite everything, the world will listen. It needs to.