Sunday, 11 March 2012

Why did Jesus die? (A rather political answer)

(A sermon for Lent 3B, 11/3/12, at Hodge Hill Church)

The longer I go on as a parent, the more I realise that children’s questions need to be taken with utter seriousness.

In the last few years of my previous job, every Easter we’d invite classes of primary school children to church to ‘experience’ the Easter story. And at the end of every session, there’d be at least one child who asked the same question: ‘why did Jesus die?’

And every time, it was clear that the traditional answer – ‘to save us from our sins’, or something similar – just didn’t work. Just try it – with the nearest child to hand. I’m willing to bet that, like me, the succession of ‘why?’ questions that follows ends up in a great tangled mess, with you saying things that either don’t make any sense, or that you actually have great trouble believing yourself.

The thing is, that’s just not the kind of ‘why?’ question that the children are really asking. When they ask, ‘why did Jesus die?’, they’re asking, ‘what did he do to get him crucified? Especially,’ and you can almost see the cogs whirring in their heads, ‘as we’d been led to believe by you grown-ups that he was ever so nice and kind and good and well-behaved…?!’

It really is a much more interesting question. And if we dare to explore it, it inevitably brings us to today’s gospel reading [John 2:13-22]...

If you want a short answer (and forgive me for descending into the ‘vernacular’ for a moment), then Jesus died because he pissed people off. Powerful people especially, but also what our politicians today fondly call ‘ordinary, hard-working people’ too – people, that is, a bit like you and me.

But I’m guessing you’re interested in a slightly longer answer. Jesus died, I suggest, because of three things he did...

1. Jesus made friends with the wrong kind of people

  • Just think of the kind of people Jesus shared meals with, and called to follow him: the ‘tax-collectors and sinners’, in the gospels’ words; the hot-headed freedom fighters, the uneducated fishermen.
  • Just think of the kind of people he touched: the lepers, the ‘demon-possessed’, the sick, the dead – all those officially deemed ‘unclean’.
  • Just think of the kind of people he talked to with respect: children, women, foreigners…

Jesus made friends with the wrong kind of people – and that made the ‘respectable’ and ‘religious’ types uneasy. Envious. Angry…

And then we get to today’s reading…

2. Jesus went right to the heart of his nation’s power and turned it upside-down

Why the Temple?

  • It was the place not just of religious power, but of political power too.
  • It was a place built by the rich & powerful, on the backs of the poor & powerless.
  • It was a place caught up in ‘the market’ – where ‘transactions’ were the rules of the game: having to buy God’s favour with costly sacrifices, having to pay the extortionate Temple tax every year, and getting ripped off by the money-changers in the process.
  • And it was a place that excluded. Its walls and courtyards made a series of concentric rings, like the skins of an onion, designed to keep at arm’s length, or outside completely, those who couldn’t afford its prices, those who were deemed ‘unclean’, women, disabled people, foreigners… exactly those people who Jesus called his friends.

That’s why Jesus came to the Temple. And he got angry. And he placed himself, his body, right in the middle of its business, literally ‘in harm’s way’, to face down and challenge, to disrupt its ‘business as usual’, to clear a space for something completely different to happen…

  • A bit like 81-year-old Shirley, who chained herself to the railings outside the House of Lords, angry at the government’s selling off the NHS to private companies.
  • Or the chain of wheelchair-users blocking Oxford Circus, angry at savage cuts to disability living allowance.
  • Or like the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp, until a couple of weeks ago outside St Paul’s Cathedral, angry at the power of international markets to make the rich richer and the poor powerless. And like the Christians who were dragged from the cathedral steps by Police as they knelt in prayer on the night of the camp’s eviction.
  • Or like Chris, Martin & Susan, 3 Roman Catholics who cut through the fence of the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire last year, and fixed a sign to it saying ‘open for disarmament – all welcome’…

Jesus dared to challenge, to disrupt ‘business as usual’, to put himself – his body – literally in harm’s way, fully knowing what the consequences would be. And he cleared a space, for something completely different to happen...

Listen to these words of St. Augustine of Hippo, 4th Century teacher of the faith: "Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are Anger and Courage: Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are."

I’d want to add a third ‘daughter’ – Imagination – to see what a different world might look like. A glimpse of the possible – of the kingdom of God.

It’s no coincidence that just before today’s gospel reading, just before Jesus comes to the Temple, he’s making the wine flow freely at the wedding in Cana, ‘the first of Jesus’ signs’, as John calls it. Which brings me to my third reason why Jesus died…

3. Jesus played by different rules – or better, he started a completely different game – and the powerful just didn’t ‘get’ it…

  • At Cana, Jesus shows the power of celebration – using the stone jugs for water for the rituals of purification, to pour out the best wine anyone had ever tasted.
  • At Cana, Jesus changed the game from ‘run out’, ‘not enough’, to ‘overflowing’, ‘too much!’. Suddenly we’re in a different ‘economy’ – one of gift, grace, abundant generosity.
  • And at Cana, Jesus showed us a different society – where no one is left out, no one is deemed ‘unclean’ or ‘underserving’, no one is excluded because they can’t afford it… and no one is in charge of who gets what…

So why did Jesus die?

  • Because he made friends with the wrong kind of people
  • Because he went right to the nation’s centre of power and dared to disrupt its ‘business as usual’
  • And because he started a new game that those in power just didn’t ‘get’...

And what about us?

  • Here in Hodge Hill, we might well feel a long way from the centres of power in our country. Even in England’s ‘second city’, we might well feel rather on the edge of things. But there may well, in the coming years, be places in our own community, lines in the sand right here in Hodge Hill, that will demand our presence, our bodies, to stand or kneel in solidarity with our neighbours, and against the forces which seek to exclude, deprive and demean them.
  • And in the mean time, let’s get on with making friends, as Jesus did, with all the ‘wrong’ kinds of people, the kind of people our current government apparently class as not worthy of respect or value, but who our God counts, and knows, and loves as made in his image. Let’s find opportunities, through what we do as a church, and through who we meet as neighbours, to cross boundaries, open arms, share meals, make friends, break down divides…
  • And as we edge closer to Easter, let’s use these days of Lent, and beyond, to get trained up in the utterly different game that we call ‘the kingdom of God’, where passion and compassion, gift and abundant generosity, vulnerability and trust, celebration and friendship are the only rules we need – and where, like a seed that has been dead and buried, hope springs up and blossoms from seemingly barren ground.

1 comment:

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Brian says he's glad to hear Jesus was pissing people off who were not very nice.