March 26th, 2023
Lent 5 A- 2023
So how did we get here?
That is, why does Thomas say, apparently out of the blue,
“Let us also go that we may die with him.”
The lectionary makes what I think is a mistake by omitting a couple of crucial remarks that appear in the text just before today‘s reading. And also, it ends too quickly, so that we miss the building drama, the growing, determined opposition to Jesus by the Judean authorities.
Thomas’ is the third ominous comment within a few verses, signaling a shift in the story from Jesus‘ teaching and the signs that he did up until now, to a new focus on “glory.” You will see that phrase “for the glory of God” again and again from now to the end of the book. For John, Jesus was glorified, and God was glorified in him, in his death and resurrection.
The first hint of the trouble to come is in John 10:31 after Jesus answered a challenge by some of the authorities who asked him directly if he was the Messiah. Jesus answered: “The Father and I are one.”
The next words are: “They took up stones to stone him…”
At the end of this conversation he affirms again: “the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” and then the text reads, “Then they tried to arrest him again but he escaped from their hands.”
In fact he went away across the Jordan where the authorities were not, and where he preached, but did no signs, no miracles.
He knew, and the disciples knew, too, that Jesus was a wanted man.
This is the beginning of the end.
So when today’s reading begins immediately after that, with Jesus safely across the river with his friends, you understand why Thomas knows that returning to Judea, to a village just a couple of miles outside Jerusalem, was a dangerous idea.
In fact the others tried to talk Jesus out of going.
“The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Judean authorities were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’
“If Lazarus has fallen asleep he will be all right.”
So Thomas’ comment, encouraging his friends who clearly knew what a bad idea this was to accompany Jesus, if he was really bound and determined to go to Martha and Mary, was a courageous one: “Let us also go that we may die with him.”
They knew this would not end well no matter what Jesus did or said when he got there. And in fact, it didn’t. Not by any human standards, anyway.
Yes, Jesus expresses his love for Martha, Mary and Lazarus by going to them.
Yes, Martha gets to express her faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the very thing the Judean authorities most fear.
And yes, Jesus raises Lazarus, who has been in the tomb already four days, to life again. Lazarus was really and truly dead. Stinking. And yes, everybody saw it .
But the next verses reveal just how dangerous this was for Jesus, and for Lazarus, too.
This seventh sign was the final straw, the event that convinced the Judean authorities that Jesus was too dangerous to live.
Listen: (v 43-45)
“Many of the Judeans therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
But some of then went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.
So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’
But one of them Caiaphas, who as high priest that year, said to them,
’You know nothing at all. It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’
He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed people of God.
So from that day on they planned to put him to death.”
Now from John’s point of view, Caiaphas was right, even if he did not understand what he was saying. Jesus was in fact about to die for all humanity. But he was murdered because Caiaphas and even the Romans were afraid of him.
This is not hatred. It is fear. The Judean authorities really were terrified of their Roman occupiers and overlords – and for good reason.
You do not have to see them as monsters. They weren’t.
It was their responsibility to try to walk a difficult tightrope: to keep both the restive populace from openly rebelling, as the people, weary of Roman occupation, were always threatening to do, and to keep the Roman authorities willing to at least tolerate Jewish stubbornness, Jewish resistance to worshiping the Emperor, Jewish refusal to just get along with their occupiers and absorb Roman deities, customs and culture.
They were literally afraid. And all too often fear leads people to urge what looks like self-protective violence against “the other.”
You might remember that Caiaphas’ remark, “it is better for one man to die than for the nation to be destroyed” reflects the attitude expressed by J Edgar Hoover too, when he engaged all the powers of the FBI to try to gather enough dirt, to create enough fear and rage against Dr Martin Luther King to get him killed, too.
King had something of the same effect on our country as Jesus did on Judea.
He polarized people by pointing out some uncomfortable truths about our country, and while some people loved him and saw freedom and new life ahead, others were determined to stop what looked to them like the end of their way of life.
Prophets are often hated – and loved.
Cherished and threatened.
Followed and murdered.
And that may be why there are so few of them.
To hear God and to speak for God is not a comfortable vocation.
It wasn’t comfortable for Jesus, either.
You need to think about this as we move towards Palm Sunday, and the drama of Holy Week. Jesus did not die because he was a nice guy.
He died because he was a dangerous one.
He was killed because he frightened everyone who didn’t love him, who couldn’t believe God was a good as Jesus insisted God was, or that God loved with such wild extravagance that even the Romans were included. But no one in power wanted to hear him: not political authorities or religious ones.
He turned everything in their systems upside down.
And he said that God told him to do it.
He claimed to be one with God and that God was in him as he was in God.
Either he was right – or he wasn’t.
There was no middle way to take.
At this point in the story the lines are drawn – Either he is who he says he is, or he isn’t.
And until three days after his death – nobody knew for sure.
People staked their lives on whichever story they believed, whichever story they trusted.
But nobody knew for sure.
Except maybe Lazarus and Mary and Martha.
From this time on, Jesus stayed out of sight.
But he wasn’t out of anybody’s mind.
So I hope you will follow the story as it unfolds over the next two weeks, though Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday – but do it with compassion for the fearful, for the anxious, for the ones who didn’t dare show their faces, for the ones who did – for the plotters and the terrified – for all of them.
They are a lot like us. And if they didn’t make the wisest choices, well, often, neither do we.
But we do know what they didn’t understand, and so our excuses are far fewer.
Let’s just drop them and live faithfully and courageously, and without fear.
We are able, you know.