Fri 2 Apr 2021
Saint Margaret’s Church
[We were pleased to welcome Mr. John Wilson as our Guest Preacher this day. John is a member of Chaplaincy Council and has been accepted to begin studies for priesthood.]
Growing up, I was quite proud of the fact that I had the most books in the Bible: the Gospel of John, 1John, 2John, 3John, plus Revelation! Never mind that 1st, 2nd and 3rd John are less books than a few paragraphs, or that there are quite a few letters from Paul – none of them bear his name so, obviously, they are automatically disqualified! It wasn’t until later when I moved to Hungary that Moses beat me out, as I discovered that in the Protestant Churches, the Pentateuch (first 5 books in the OT) is referred to as 1Moses, 2Moses, etc. At least in Hungarian. So I’m hanging onto Revelation and have settled for a draw.
In all seriousness though, while some people find John (“the Evangelist”)’s writings difficult, I have always enjoyed them, particularly the Gospel of John. The synoptic gospels somehow remind me of British philosophy, whereas John’s gospel feels more like Continental philosophy – somewhat opaque, convoluted, but also somehow more profound. Furthermore, he often includes fascinating details that the others don’t.
One of these details is worth reflecting on today.
When Jesus is brought to Annas, the father-in-law of the high priest Caiaphas, John notes that Simon Peter and another disciple – presumably John, as he often refers to himself in the 3rd person – followed behind. Here, already, we need to clarify a couple things.
First, despite Peter having drawn first blood, Jesus’ acquiescence to be bound and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane instead of fighting it out was simply too much for the other disciples to handle. Not only that, but as the other Gospel accounts inform us, Jesus even miraculously healed Malchus’ ear!
John indicates that protecting his disciples from arrest was Jesus’ main concern. Which, if you think about, also explains this odd healing. Had Peter ever been put on trial for attempted murder, a simple call for Malchus to the witness stand would have created a bit of a legal conundrum, having both ears fully intact.
Nevertheless, in the instant that Jesus was arrested and bound up, the entire theological framework of the disciples came crashing down, resulting in all but Peter and John deserting him. Like the other two leaders of failed insurrections crucified with Jesus, and Barabbas who was released in a Passover prisoner swap, they were all de facto failed messiahs. (The historical terms used in English – thieves, robbers, bandits, can create the wrong impression of these three. While perhaps small-time rabble-rousers or leaders of bands of terrorists, the crimes they committed were crimes against the state not simple thievery.)
As you probably know, messiah means “anointed” – shorthand for God’s anointed one, the promised deliverer of Israel (as well as the rest of humanity). All the way back in Eden, God promised that eventually one of Eve’s descendants would crush the head of the serpent, thereby restoring the relationship between God, humanity, and his Creation. Over time, as prophesies kept trickling in, the OT picture of this promised messiah developed into a well-established framework for what the messiah would do. By Jesus’ time in the 1st Century, the task was clear. The messiah would lead an armed rebellion that would overcome the occupying Romans and then serve as “Conquering King” in a reconstituted Israel marked by shalom and restored relationship with God and one another. Judging the unrighteous and setting the world to rights, this future kingdom would become, quite literally, heaven on earth.
The challenge is that there were other prophecies as well, such as the passage from Isaiah we just read, describing the “Suffering Servant” nature of the messiah – who would be “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” and by a perversion of justice, ultimately even killed, despite his innocence. Then, as now, it is difficult to square these two sides of the messiah. Some people gravitate toward the atonement for sin that Jesus accomplished on the cross – the spiritual side – while others emphasize the inauguration of the Kingdom of God and restorative justice – the socio-political side. Yet both are intrinsic to the nature of the messiah.
In Jesus’ day, however, the political dimension dominated theological thinking. One could simply not be the true messiah without mounting a successful rebellion against the Romans. Thus, when Jesus was arrested without putting up a fight, in the eyes of the disciples he could no longer be the true messiah. They had completely wasted three years of their life!
I wonder if John might have already started to grasp that Jesus’ messiahship was somehow different, as he was the only one of the 12 who remained faithful to Jesus. But for some reason Peter also decided to follow along as Jesus was brought to Annas. Perhaps Jesus’ rebuke in Caesarea Philippi was finally starting to make sense, that Jesus must be arrested and killed? We simply don’t know.
We also don’t know how John knew the high priest or why he was allowed into the courtyard while Peter was forced to remain outside the gate, another curious detail John includes. Nor is it clear what caused Peter to begin panicking – infamously denying even knowing Jesus when recognized. If they didn’t arrest him in Gethsemane and John was there with him on the inside, why would he suddenly be gripped with fear over being arrested? We simply don’t know. Then again, fear is often irrational.
Perhaps the point John is making is that the exact motivations or particular emotional state is less relevant than the contrast drawn between the different groups of disciples:
One betrayed him
Nine abandoned him
One hesitantly, cautiously, continues following with some bumps along the way
One remains faithful throughout
Today, as we reflect on Jesus’ submission even unto death for our sake, not only is it worth pondering the nature of Jesus’ messiahship in contrast to the ubiquitous false messiahs of our age, but also perhaps the nature of our own discipleship. When we find ourselves really in the thick of it, does Jesus become an afterthought as we cling to other things for safety and security? Do we continue following, albeit haltingly and unwilling to genuinely put ourselves at risk? Or do we remain faithful, unconcerned by the potential danger to our future?
Ironically, as Leslie Newbigin observed so powerfully in Foolishness to the Greeks, “The resurrection is not the reversal of a defeat but the proclamation of a victory.” Whereas the crucifixion of the two insurrectionists on either side of Jesus became proof that they were false messiahs, Jesus’ death on the cross is precisely what grounded his messiahship, and the empty tomb proved its genuineness. In Jesus, we find both the Suffering Servant as well as the Conquering King.
The final intriguing detail John includes, is that the sign Pontius Pilate hangs over Jesus’ head – “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” is written in three languages: Hebrew, Latin and Greek. We’re familiar with the Latin acronym, INRI. What is less familiar, and perhaps undergirded the vociferous Jewish protest to this sign, is the resultant acronym in Hebrew for “ישוע הנוצרי ומלך היהודים” (vocalized Yeshua Hanotsri Wemelek Hayehudim): YHWH, none other than the holy name of God, revealed to Moses in the burning bush. YHWH – “I am” or “I am who I am.” In this text, John repeatedly has Jesus employing this play on words in his answers to his accusers, e.g. „I am he” (18:6). As Jesus drew his final breath, the sign above his head proclaimed, with double irony: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Almighty God.