A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 6, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 11: 45-57
Genesis 22: 9-14
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. 47 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. 48 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.” 49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” 51 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, 52 and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. 53 So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
54 Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples.
55 Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. 56 They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?” 57 Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him. 
For the last four weeks we have stepped through chapter 11 of John's Gospel, taking into consideration, step by step, the specific details of the story surrounding the raising of Lazarus from the dead. We've wondered why it was that Jesus waited so long, waiting for Lazarus to die before heading down to help, we celebrated Martha, saying the words, being the person to affirm Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world. . . the one. We looked at Jesus weeping, wondering whether his tears were of compassion mixed with frustration over the words of faith but not the inner reality of faith being expressed by people. Then we looked at the miracle itself, thinking about what it would be like to hear from Lazarus, to hear his perspective. . . The raising of Lazarus is an amazing miracle, the culmination of this gospel, and the turning point, and since it is a turning point, this high point should be followed by the lowest of the low, and it does. This morning's reading encapsulates all of the cynicism that marks the worst of what human beings are. . . because it is here we hedge our bets, and sell Jesus short, and then sell Jesus out. . . it marks the beginning of the end.
"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." What does all this mean? How can we control this? I don't feel safe. It disturbs way too much. We need to get this under control because this is completely out of control. It is up to us after all to keep the peace, and preserve our piece of it, it is not about us, it is about the nation after all our holy place. . . . We need to do something now. Have you ever that type of talk. . . if not you should watch the news more. From sun up to sun down you hear it. . . it may not be exactly the same, but it rings of the same truth. . . .take control of this, do something about that, now is the time to get it all under control, preserve your status quo. We must do whatever it takes. . . and look at what it takes. "It is better for one man to be destroyed than to have the whole nation destroyed." Aha. . . there it is, a statement that some may call, "The greater good." And afterall we are not the one, always someone else is.
Caiaphas says it. . . and it says that he did not say it on his own. . . because obviously it is a prophetic statement. . . he is telling the rest of the Jesus story, here a bunch of chapters early. But. . . he doesn't know it. . . and I don't think he's in on the plan. He isn't knowingly sacrificing Jesus is he? I've never heard the story told that way. . . no it's like in Jesus Christ Superstar. . . WE NEED A MORE PERMANENT SOLUTION TO THE PROBLEM. . . . he's out for his own interest, and from a purely practical standpoint, it is better for one to die than all. . . and sacrifice is certainly part of what Jesus does, part of his definition of love, for God so loved the world. . . to what to save, to give eternal life, and to sacrifice. . . but is it Caiaphas' call to place someone in that role? It is better for the nation than the one, as long as you aren't the one.
Now in human history there have been many ones. . . people cast aside for the "good" of the nation, the greater good. . . .Human sacrifice is not something that is new to Jesus Christ, martyrdom is not something new. Think about Volcano’s and ritual sacrifices of innocents, think about undesirables placed on the outside as a buffer for attack. Ancient literature is filled with stories about such sacrifices, and they are often, the sacrifice is forced into it. People were shocked in this last season of Game of Thrones when one of the characters sacrificed his own daughter to appease the gods so that he could win a battle. . . . but that is a story not only from the fictional fantasy world of westeros, but from our own legends and history. Homer tells us of Agamemnon, the king of the Greeks, the leader of the greatest army that had ever been assembled, the great army that fought on the beaches of Troy for ten years before eventually being victorious. . . and Agamemnon was told by a priest that if he sacrificed his daughter, his own daughter, their ships would arrive in Troy safely, and he does it. . . in the bulletin I put another selection from Homer, this time from The Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew have to sail between the Scylla and the Charybdis. The Scylla is a giant sea monster with 6 heads, picture six heads at the end of six long aggressive necks. . . and the Charybdis is a maelstrom, a great whirl pool . . . Odysseus, constantly praised for his practical wisdom, is forced to sacrifice many of his men, so that he and the rest of the ship can go through. He has to sail just close enough to the Charybdis to get through without being sucked in, but that means he has to be close enough to the Scylla for it to devour many of his men. . . he is praised and celebrated for his wisdom and practical sense . . it was a situation where he had to do it, afterall. . the show must go on and it is better to sacrifice some so that others may live. . . some gave all, all gave some. . . it is how we remember our soldiers. . . it is better that some die to preserve the nation. . . again though others. . . someone else is the some, someone else is the one.
Later in this gospel Jesus is going to say, in 15:13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
So what is necessary for love, what is the full definition of love. . . what are the ingredients, in this force, this binding principle, this basis for the very world we live in? I've been studying and building this definition for years, constantly tinkering and adding, and thinking, trying not to confine it too much, but to really come to know what love is, on the deepest level. And if Jesus is our example. . . as this gospel constantly is suggesting, or not suggesting but screaming. . . then one major piece is sacrifice. . . because that is what Jesus does. He makes the words of Caiaphas ring true. He does die so that others may live. . . but Caiaphas is short sighted, he knows not what he is saying, because he thinks he is making a sacrifice to appease the Romans. . . the only power he knows, or fears. . . his sacrifice is according to the world's laws, the practical world. . . the world of power, and force, and control. They knew that sacrifice was an important weapon, but they did not know love, because sacrifice is not the only ingredient. They were missing, had no knowledge of, and completely were ignorant of the other two. For in a world created by a Trinitarian God, the definition of Love, when God is Love. . . should rightly have three parts.
Sacrifice is one. . . I believe Freedom is another. . . and Faith is the third.
Freedom is important within the sacrifice, and that is one thing that Caiaphas is missing. . . he wants to control it, he wants to force it, and by forcing it, he can make someone else do the needed sacrifice. . . he of course is not willing to sacrifice himself for the nation or the holy place, no he wants to force Jesus to be that sacrificial lamb, he thinks that he is bringing Jesus up on charges, that he is pulling the strings. . . but John's gospel and the others are clear on this. Jesus goes to his cross willingly. . . at any point he can change his course. . . but he chooses to submit to it. . . he chooses freely, he chooses to follow the Father’s will, not my will but thine. There is freedom in that, and I believe that love requires such freedom, just as does sacrifice. . . for why would any of it matter, else? Why couldn't God just make us as loving obedient creatures, a perfectly ordered world, where everything is as He created. . . good, lest freedom be in some way important. . . as important, more important, than the troubles and trials of any given moment. . . . This world has seen some devastating things, some painful things, some aspects of it that really just seem horrible, but God allows, lets it happen. . . Why else would Jesus go to the cross if freedom was not important, for if it wasn't he could have simply raised an army, taken over Rome by force and set up that perfect benevolent dictatorship, he doesn't. . . and so I believe therefore that freedom is that important, as important as sacrifice as an ingredient in love. . .
Which leaves faith. . . there is much faith in giving freedom. . . and there is much faith in believing that your sacrifice, the sacrifice of yourself, the complete gift of your all, even your life, for someone else. . . there is great faith in that, that it at matters, that the person for whom you give your all, might give their all back to you, or forward, but that they would be complete, and loved, and so alive, enough to love too. . . not out of guilt, or custom, but completely free, as we've said. . . there is faith in giving freedom. . . imagine the faith that God has in us by giving the love sacrifice of himself on that cross. . . the same sacrifice he does not force Abraham to give. . .
I sang Perhaps Love as the anthem. . . and the words dance around what love is, with “some say”
Oh ! Love to some is like a cloud
To some as strong as steel
For some a way of living
For some a way to feel
And some say love is holding on
And some say letting go
And some say love is everything
Some say they don't know
So perhaps there are many different definitions of love, but if Jesus is our model, if Jesus is our standard. . . consider the definition of love he shows then in its fullness. . . that in order to love, you must be free, in order to love you must in your freedom completely sacrifice, give of your complete self, holding nothing back, not for your own gain but for others, and in order to love you must believe that it matters, because how else could you do it. . . if you didn't believe, then you might as well follow the world’s ways, sacrifice someone else, make someone else be the one? For God so loved the world, love as I have loved, God is Love. . . . look at what Jesus does, in the light of this love, he goes comes not in power, but in humility, not to control, but to teach, to heal, to serve, to set us free, but he doesn't forcefully remove the oppression, for force always, even with the best of intentions, replaces oppression with more oppression, Milton wrote, that force only subdues half a foe, and so it is not sustainable, for he knows that force is not a part of love, not a part of the fabric of the world as it was created, but of the world we have made in sin, so he doesn't force bodies, or minds, but seeks to move hearts, by loving, setting free, and giving not of others, but of his very self, dying on the cross, he believes that it matters, else he would have done it another way, perhaps listening to the devil in the desert, cutting corners, no he goes to the cross, and he does so, because love, not force is the real power in the world. . . he shows us that Love transcends the limitations of this world, even death, imploring us to believe, so that we too, can love, and feel the complete truth about the way this world was made.
Consider that definition of love, when you think about Loving God and Loving neighbor, with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. . . consider that definition of love when you hear “Love is all you need”. . . consider that definition of love even when you say I love you. . . consider that definition of love when you think about the practical necessity of it being better that the one perish to save the nation. . . consider that definition of love when you think about such notions as “the greater good”. . . consider that definition of love when you think about “God is Love” or for God so loved the world, or when you sing O how I love Jesus because he first loved me. . . consider that definition when you think about Jesus leaving the 99 to save, not to sacrifice, but to save the one. . . and because the standard is all, consider that definition of love when you confess your sins. . . . and then after you do, consider that same definition of love, when you are invited, still, personally to come and feast at the table. . . amen..