The Message of the Suffering Servant
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, April 5, 2015
The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (12:1-18)
The most popular reading material in first century Palestine was the Book of Daniel with all its apocalyptic language and imagery. The brutality of the Roman Empire drove the people to long for a Messiah that would destroy the Empire and restore the Kingdom of David. It is not hard to see why the crowd in Jerusalem was so excited when they heard that Jesus raised Lazarus. The cruelty of Rome was extreme. Surely this man who could raise the dead would be the one to destroy Rome.
But Jesus did not come for that. His kingdom, he said, was not of this world. The crowds either forgot that or did not know it, just like many Christians today who seem to have conveniently forgotten His message. There is another of his teachings that is forgotten, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” We Christians, in this country, know nothing about being persecuted. Ask the Syrians! And yet that’s just part of it, folks, but that’s a subject for another time.
The glory of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem faded quickly into disappointment, acrimony and political intrigue. His teaching in the Temple did not satisfy the apocalyptic hunger. He was intent on suffering and dying and not in tearing down one empire for the building of another.
His voluntary suffering and death puts to death our ideas about establishing Christian kingdoms even though we never seem to cease falling into that temptation. This power seeking, empire-building faith is not faith at all, it is ideology and nothing is further from the Gospel than ideology.
I want to quote to you some words that might shock you from the writings of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom about how the Church should conduct herself in society. In other words, to follow the example of her Lord.
"It seems to me, and I am personally convinced, that the Church must never speak from a position of strength. [These are shocking words.] It ought not to be one of the forces influencing this or that state. The Church ought to be, if you will, just as powerless as God himself, which does not coerce but which calls and unveils the beauty and the truth of things without imposing them. As soon as the Church begins to exercise power, it loses its most profound characteristic which is divine love [i.e.] the understanding of those it is called to save and not to smash…"
Just as “powerless” as was Jesus who was led like a lamb to slaughter without a word of self-defense. Nowhere does Jesus command us to rule like autocrats forcing our views, morals and doctrines on anyone. If his kingdom were of this world, then he would have done so himself. In fact, he resisted this temptation in the wilderness when Satan showed him all the kingdoms of earth and offered them to him to rule. He resisted this temptation and we must also resist it. If we were to be offered all three branches of government on a silver platter, we should refuse as Jesus did. Because His kingdom is not of this world He teaches the opposite way - the way of self-sacrifice even to the point of death. If we follow him, then we will not make demands on our neighbors. We do so out of fear and desire, the two surest signs that we have not yet embraced the Gospel and come to believe in Jesus. Ideology, even in Christian terms, is idolatry.
Hear these words from Pope Francis, who has emerged as a fresh voice with a fresh message, “Let’s follow Jesus rather than our ideas.” In other words, the Gospel over ideology. He writes:
“In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness…ideologies are rigid, always…And when a Christian becomes a disciple of…ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of (an) attitude of thought… For this reason Jesus said to them: ‘You have taken away the key of knowledge.’ The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge…these close the door with many requirements.
... The faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens, ideology chases away the people…distances the people and distances the Church from the people. But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. It is an illness, but it is not new… Already the Apostle John, in his first Letter, spoke of this: Christians who lose the faith and prefer…ideologies.
The key that opens the door to the faith is prayer.... When a Christian does not pray, this happens. And his witness is an arrogant witness.... He who does not pray is arrogant, is proud, is sure of himself. He is not humble. He seeks his own advancement. Instead, when a Christian prays, he is not far from the faith; he speaks with Jesus."
We come to Holy Week to pray; to conquer our self-interest and to die with Christ. Our journey through Holy Week is a journey into humility, into weakness, into the death of ego, into our transformation by love into the likeness of God who humbled himself even unto death on the Cross. Holy Week is about the one needful thing: the purification of the heart and the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. It is the laying aside of ideology, of self-interest, of judgment. Jesus allowed himself to be judged and judged unjustly at that! And any time we judge others it is always unjust because to judge someone justly means we know everything about them and have gazed into the mystery of their lives and this we can never do!
In one of my favorite quotes from Dostoevsky, he beautifully states the paradox of the Gospel that Christian ideologues have such a hard time accepting. This comes from CRIME AND PUNISHMENT:
“Then Christ will say to us, 'Come you also! Come you drunkards! Come you weaklings! Come you depraved!' And he will say to us, 'Vile creatures, you in the image of the beast and you who bear his mark. All the same, you come too!' And the wise and prudent will say, 'Lord, why are you welcoming them?” And he will say, 'O wise and prudent, I am welcoming them because not one of them has ever judged himself worthy. And he will stretch out his arms to us, and we shall fall at his feet, and burst into sobs, and then we shall understand everything, everything! Lord, your kingdom come!”
Holy Week teaches us what we must do and how we must live to follow Christ. And what is that? We must love as he did, even to death. Mother Gavrilia said it beautifully. She asked the Lord what she should do. “The answer was: God is not interested in where you are or what you do...He is interested only in the quality and quantity of the love you give. Nothing else. Nothing else." This is not ideology, this is the Gospel.