I put before you a generic movie plot. By generic I mean the storyline is similar to many action movies we have all seen before but I am not referring to any specific one of them. Let’s say there is a small town in the middle of the country. Let’s say it is a happy place with hard working people and families who all know each other and help each other out. Let’s also say it is a one-industry town and it manufactures tires for cars. It is a good place to live and it is full of upstanding citizens.
Then one day an outsider buys the factory. The outsider is wealthy and just wants to make more money. He refits the factory and it now makes toxic chemicals that pollute the town and the countryside. The new owner fires many of the old employees and uses strong-arm tactics to deny paying them any severance or even pension benefits. What is worse the outsider is also buying up other properties and businesses in the town in order to wield influence so that he may keep illegally polluting the area. The outsider hires thugs to intimidate and attack the locals who stand up against him. The outsider uses this influence to gain control of the local government. In a very short time the town is transformed and it has become an ugly, dangerous and poisonous place to live.
At this point in steps our hero Bob. Bob used to work at the factory and was one of those fired by the outsider. But, Bob’s tipping point was when his wife was beaten up by some of the thugs because she dared to speak out at a town meeting. What we didn’t know about Bob, until now, is that he was a former Special Ops officer in the army. Bob takes out the arms and weapons he will need from the old tool shed and forms a small posse of like-minded towns folk. He gives an inspiring speech to the posse and says, “It is time we take our town back and we take it back tonight”! Bob and his band of followers do just that and we in the movie theatre cheer as one by one the thugs and finally the villainous outsider are done away with in gruesome and fitting fashion.
I offer this generic plot to you because it has a great deal to do with the unfolding storyline we hear in the Gospel of John today. In this Gospel narrative Jesus has just humbly yet triumphantly entered Jerusalem - humbly upon a donkey and triumphantly to the shouts of Hosanna! As his disciples gather around him in this climatic turn of events, Jesus delivers a short but inspiring speech. Like Bob in our movie Jesus rallies his followers. In fact Jesus says, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out”. Surely he means the Roman oppressors, or the Gentile and Jewish collaborators or the religious authorities who want Jesus to die; they will be thrown out. And when they are we will all cheer, as these villains will be, one by one, done away with in gruesome and fitting fashion.
However, this is not the intent of the speech Jesus gives, it is not the message he imparts and it is not the kind of future he foresees. In this speech Jesus is talking about his crucifixion and what it means for his disciples and what it means for us today. The author of the Gospel of John wants us to look at the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion in a very particular way, perhaps even in a surprising way. Many theologians and even the Apostle Paul contend that Christ’s death on the cross was for the reason of substitutionary atonement. Substitutionary atonement is a fancy phrase meaning that Jesus died on the cross to get rid of all our sins. It means that Jesus, in dying, takes on the punishment that should have been given by God to a sinful humanity and therefore relieving us of that burden. In the Gospel of John we hear something quite different. In the Gospel of John Jesus dies on the cross in order to drive out the ruler of the world, and it is to the ruler of the world where we now turn our attention and how, in fact, this ruler will be driven out.
In this Gospel passage it is crucial to understand an accurate translation of words, “the world”. In the original Greek the word is “kosmos” and this does not mean the physical earth that God created, rather it refers to the part of the world that has fallen away from the loving and peaceful plan of God. It is a part of the world that is hostile to the establishment of God’s kingdom here on earth. In this sense “kosmos” refers to a real force in society that vigorously forms our lives and constantly seeks to pull us away from the love of God. A modern way of translating the word “kosmos” might be to call it the system. “Kosmos” then, is the system, and the ruler of the world is the force that keeps it going. The Gospel of John therefore says that the crucifixion is the expulsion of this evil force, this evil spirit as it is judged and thrown out by way of the cross.
There are many aspects to the system that draw us from God. It could be the materialism and greed that has led the top one percent of the world’s population to have more money that all the rest of the population world combined. It could be the belief that hierarchy is innately and genetically a human characteristic and as such as there must be winners and there also must be losers who are forever under the heal of domination. However, the aspect I would like to focus upon is what the modern theologian Walter Wink coined as “the myth of redemptive violence” in his book The Powers That Be. Walter Wink said that this myth is at the core of the system. The myth of redemptive violence is fairly simple in its logic – it says that the way to overcome oppression or domination or injustice is to react violently against it and crush it completely. If an enemy is opposing you, the myth says, you should simply and forcefully eliminate the enemy. In our imaginary action film the hero Bob is clearly a believer in redemptive violence. Bob eliminates his enemies in a gruesome and fitting fashion and we cheer him on. In truth we should not underestimate the powerful hold redemptive violence has on our society. How many of us discreetly cheer as we watch the video of a drone dropping bombs on suspected terrorists?
From the onset of his ministry to his celebrated entrance into Jerusalem to his tortured walk down the Vila Della Rosa and to the rising of his cross, Jesus rejected the system and clearly denounced redemptive violence of any sort. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus instructs his followers to put down their swords because that is not the way God defeats the system. On the cross Jesus defies and defeats the system by not giving into it and by showing us what it really is – the system is the evil of hate, the evil of ignorance, the evil of intolerance and the evil of violent retribution. While on the cross Jesus is mocked; his adversaries yell out, “If you are the King of the Jews save yourself”. What he is really doing, the Gospel of John is saying, is saving all of us. In the reading today Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”. Jesus says this because he is drawing all of us to the cross; the way of peace and in the process is freeing us from the system thus allowing us to be truly free.
This very month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the civil rights protest march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma Alabama. It became known in the movement as Bloody Sunday. The protesters, led by Martin Luther King Jr. walked across the bridge in defiance of the Governor of Alabama and in favour of equal voting rights. They walked in peace across the bridge literally into the jaws of attack dogs, water cannons and police billy clubs. They peacefully challenged the system and the system beat them up, and in the process the whole world was watching on television and the world was appalled. The march on Selma drew people to the cause of justice and a step toward freedom and peace was achieved.
The cross was and is today a very powerful symbol. In its day it was a sign of the power of the Roman Empire and it was meant to strike fear and terror into those who would dare oppose it. Jesus goes to the cross and changes its meaning altogether. With Jesus it becomes a symbol of non-violence and much, much more. With Jesus the cross becomes an instrument of change that would and still can alter the direction of humanity and the world we live in. Jesus says, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out”. Jesus is saying you defeat might with goodness, you defeat violence with peace and you defeat intolerance and hate with love. It may take time and persistence and it certainly takes courage, but the way of God is the only true way to drive out the system, the ruler of this world, and bring us real freedom at long last.
The Rev. Patrick Blaney