Clashes with authority have featured widely in the news of the past week: the ongoing tragedy in Syria; the dismantling of the St. Paul’s protest camp; anti-Putin protests in Russia; Jenny Tonge’s comments on Israel; and Len McCluskey’s call for civil disobedience during the Olympics.
Regardless of your views about each of those, where would be without voices of confrontation, protest and prophecy? And how often are we those voices, rather than mere mutterers on the sidelines? In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus begins to talk about his forthcoming death. As he made clear to his followers, their allegiance to him would be no easy option: it could cost them dearly. For Jesus himself, it wasn’t just that there might be danger ahead: he intended to walk straight into it. The inevitable clash with the political, social and religious authorities made his death a certainty. Paradoxically, however, for Jesus, this was to be the way that led to a new kind of life, the influence of which would prove to be everlasting.
The death of Jesus has been crucial to Christianity from the very beginning. Paul, writing earlier than the Gospels, proclaimed the heart of the Christian message to be ‘Christ crucified’. All four Gospels climax with several chapters about the final week of Jesus’ life, and then the details of his death. This death is central not only to the whole of the New Testament, but is also highlighted in church liturgy, not least in this service of the Eucharist. Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes in glory.
When I first began studying theology, one of the areas that really fascinated me was the distinction between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus – often referred to as the historical Jesus on the one hand, and the Christ of faith on the other. Both are to be affirmed, but it is important to see how they differ significantly from each other. The pre-Easter Jesus refers to the historical figure of the past – a Galilean Jew, a flesh and blood human being, whose life had a beginning and an end, like all of us. This Jesus doesn’t exist any more: he is dead and gone. To say this is not to deny Easter, but it recognises that what Easter means is not that a flesh and blood Jesus still lives somewhere. The post-Easter Jesus refers to what Jesus became after his death in Christian experience, reflection and tradition. Whether it be your patron, Mary Magdalene, in the garden, Paul on the road to Damascus, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, or the apostles on the lakeside, it is beyond question that some of his followers experienced Jesus after his death, albeit in a radically new way. They had been alongside the pre-Easter Jesus as a human being, indeed as a remarkable human being, but nonetheless as somebody who could only be in one place at a time. After his death, they experienced him very differently. The post-Easter Jesus is no longer a physical figure constrained by time and space; he can appear anywhere, pass through walls, be unrecognised, and suddenly vanish. Experiences like these led to convictions that Jesus is not simply a figure of the past, dead and gone, but a living reality of the present. More than that, experiences of the post-Easter Jesus led to a second conviction that Jesus is not only somehow still with us, but is a divine reality.
The distinction between the pre-Easter and the post-Easter Jesus matters greatly, because when we don’t make it, everything that is said about the post-Easter Jesus is projected back on to the pre-Easter Jesus. That means that even as a human being, he had divine powers which meant he could walk on water, change water into wine, and raise Lazarus from the dead. That’s certainly the notion I grew up with, and I guess many of you did, too. But all of that would make the pre-Easter Jesus more than human and therefore not really human in the way we understand it.
The core of Jesus’ being was the ‘Kingdom of God’ which refers not to an afterlife, but to a way of living life in the present. This kingdom is the very model of justice, truth, righteousness and peace, but establishing it meant challenging the prevailing powers-that-be, eating with outcasts, associating with the ritually impure and those of dubious repute. So, at Passover, Jesus took this message to Jerusalem, the traditional centre of the Jewish people – but in his time it was ruled by a high priest and aristocratic class who owed their positions of power to Rome. There he engaged in subversive and provocative actions, such as entering the city on a donkey; criticising the Temple leaders for having made God’s house a den of thieves, collaborators with Rome and exploiters of ordinary people; squaring up to the authorities in a series of verbal conflicts, prophesying that Jerusalem and the Temple would be destroyed because they did not know the things that make for peace, and so on. Unsurprisingly, he was arrested and crucified, a Roman form of capital punishment reserved for those who dared to challenge imperial authority.
If Jesus is the decisive revelation of the character and passion of God, as his followers have affirmed from the beginning, what does his life tell us about God? In Jesus’ compassion for the marginalised, we see God’s compassionate and embracing character. In Jesus’ passion for the kingdom of God, we see God’s passion for a transformed world in which justice, righteousness and truth reign, and in which no one is an outcast. God’s character and passion as we see them in Jesus also have a confrontational dimension: they include the indictment of what gets in the way of the welfare and well-being of all people, and of all creation. I don’t know about you, but I struggle with the notion of Jesus’ death as a payment for sin, or as satisfying some requirement for blood on the part of a morally suspect Father God. However, it makes a lot of sense to me to speak of Jesus giving his life because of his love for others, and his passion for justice and a different and better kind of world – a world transformed. And isn’t that transformation what the followers of Jesus are also called to, in every age? Here is where the pre- and post-Easter Jesuses come together.
Poor old Peter! In Mark’s Gospel account, he had only just told Jesus ‘You are the Messiah’. Now, in the passage we’ve just heard, Jesus turns on Peter with some real aggression. But perhaps that was because Jesus thought that Peter risked losing sight of his vision of the kingdom. Perhaps Jesus was telling him, and perhaps Jesus continues to tell us, that a world transformed and, crucially, our own lives transformed, may cost us a great deal, maybe even everything. Paradoxically, however, it is in that sort of letting go, that sort of offering, that a new kind of life can emerge. Some might call it resurrection.
It’s quite a comfort to know that even the beloved Peter – Jesus’ right-hand man – was capable of missing the point, because I think I often miss it, too, not least when it challenges my own comfort. What things do we need to confront and do battle with today, in our own lives, in our society, in our world, so that peace, justice, truth and righteousness stand a chance, and the outsiders can become insiders? As one writer put it, the sorting out you are called to in Lent is analogous to inviting Jesus as a guest into your house. You may not mind him merely puffing up a few cushions, but what do you do when you realise he is intent on restructuring the whole house? You can’t throw him out, so you look around the house, find a suitable cupboard, clear it out, decorate it (sparing no expense), get a good strong lock on it – and put Jesus inside. Outside you can have a lamp and flowers, and each time you pass, bow reverently. So, you now have Jesus under control and he cannot interfere any more. Only one problem: we all know what happened the last time they tried to secure Jesus by rolling a stone over the entrance to his tomb…..and thanks be to God for that!