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The Life of the Party

Text: John 12:20-33


“Now, isn’t he the life of the party?!”

I can imagine more than a few people asking that sarcastic question as they left the Passover festival in Jerusalem. A second question would rapidly follow: “How did he ever get on the guest list anyway?”  

         In John’s Gospel, Jesus talks a lot and he just can’t seem to stay on topic. He’s like that crazy uncle you ask to pass the salt at dinner and he goes on for thirty minutes about a global conspiracy theory. Who wants to invite Uncle Crazy to any party?

         At this Passover party in Jerusalem, Philip asks Jesus to come meet some new fans and what does Jesus do? He starts a long, winding soliloquy on death, “Now is the time for the Son of Man to be glorified.” At the height of his popularity and at one of the biggest parties of the year, Jesus goes on and on about death, a topic that everyone wants to discuss at a party, right?

And, to be clear. Jesus is not simply having a private, inappropriate moment to talk about getting our affairs in order before the roll is called up yonder. No, it is much more complex. He is talking about what his death has to do with the world’s life. And the “world” for Jesus is far more than territory outlined on any map; it is all of life, seen and unseen, and for Jesus, this “world” is under siege by the grip of violence. Only a few days after the Passover party, Jesus will tell his friends, “I have conquered the world.” So, says Crazy Uncle Jesus hanging from the cross!  

         In the middle of his party soliloquy, God’s voice from heaven sings a “glory hallelujah” song. It is a song about the death and resurrection of Jesus and what that means for the “world” God so loves. The lyrics of the song speak to how God is at work in Jesus to break the grip of violence in the world. It is a song that means those who trust in this Jesus are free to love the world, to live boldly in the world, but no longer to have to buy into the lie that violence produces peace in the world.

  A few years ago, I was driving through the desolate backroads of Georgia. I was scanning the billboards in front of rural churches to keep myself awake. Most billboards used tired, old religious clichés to tell me how Jesus is going to save me from eternal disaster by dying a violent death on the cross. Using this pre-technology twitter, the billboards made Jesus out to be the consummate religious good luck charm to keep me a cool distance from the fiery licks of Hell.

The Jesus advertised on these church billboards could care less about the here and now, about this world, about how you and I treat our families, much less about how immigrants are treated, or how we care for precious air or water or land or how and whether we engage in war or whether massive wealth should be held by only a select few, because according to these billboards all these things are passing away and the only thing that really matters is me and Jesus.

        The billboard Jesus worshiped by much of American Christianity today is exactly the Jesus that the party planners in Jerusalem had hoped would show up – the Jesus that the world could control, the Jesus who would keep everything about our relationship with God totally private and vertical and “spiritual.” They were looking for the Jesus who would speak only when spoken to and would heal only after completing all the requisite Temple paperwork and would forgive only after someone had shown proper remorse, the Jesus who would never think twice of talking about death at a party.  

  As for me, if that is the Jesus people are looking for, I’ll pass. I’ll gladly miss that party. No, I want to meet the Jesus that John introduces in his Gospel, the Jesus that the “Greeks” wanted to meet at the Passover Festival and about whom God sings, “Glory, glory, hallelujah.” I want to meet the Jesus who not only loves a party, who not only loves me, but who also loves you and loves the very ones you and I do not love, the Jesus who loves the world – not simply the green earth, sky and seas, but all that is under siege, held captive to violence, the Jesus who does not say, “Blessed are the vindicators” but instead, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

  The Jesus who comes to the Passover party in Jerusalem insists that God loves this broken world and he keeps telling that truth to anyone who will listen until he finally announces from the cross, “It is finished.” And that announcement begs the question: what is finished? Read the whole of John’s Gospel and it is clear that the world’s multi-trillion-dollar contract with violence is finished; it is null and void.

Just days before the cross, Jesus promises his friends, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” Why? Because the world traffics in violence and can only stammer or wink when it talks about peace. In the cross and resurrection, Jesus’ “glory” for John, the impotence of violence is exposed for the lie that it is.

It is high time for the church to listen to the “Glory, glory, hallelujah” sung from heaven, to see that the “me and my” Jesus we meet on country church billboards and across American Christianity today is a weak and impotent caricature of Jesus at John’s party. The Jesus at John’s party has not saved you or me, or better yet, the world, through violence, because violence is never redemptive.  

Chuck Campbell, argues: “This myth [of redemptive violence] plays itself out everywhere in our culture. We see it in the old, almost archetypal, Popeye cartoons in which Popeye restores order by eating his spinach and beating up Bluto. We see it in video games and movies that train our children in this myth from their earliest days. More seriously, we see it in the death penalty, in acts of terrorism, and in nations’ responses to terrorism. Many of us have trouble even imagining an alternative to this myth – a grim signal of our captivity to it” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol., 143).

After years of suffering the horrors of apartheid, Archbishop Desmund Tutu does not spout, “Look out my white South African kin, now it is our turn.” Long ago, Tutu met Jesus at the party and he never stopped following him. Despite the very real horrors of apartheid, Tutu writes: “If we are to truly understand that God loves all of us, we must recognize that [God] loves our enemies, too. God does not share our hatred, no matter what the offense we have endured . . . And our prejudices, regardless of whether they are based on religion, race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else, are absolutely and utterly ridiculous in God’s eyes” (God Has a Dream, 43-44). The Archbishop knows that the Jesus at John’s party does not redeem the world through violence; he redeems those who turn to him from buying into the myth of redemptive violence.

In a world riddled with violence in Haiti, in Gaza, in the Ukraine, in political discourse, in schools with children taking shelter in “active shooter drills,” in abusive homes, in increasing violent rhetoric, I want to Jesus to teach me not to glory in the cross, a Roman execution tool of horror, but to glory in him, to glory in the resurrection, to glory in God who raised him to new life  even though the world did its best to keep him in the ground.

I want Jesus to teach me to stop glorifying violence, justifying violence, making Jesus the cross-bearing poster boy for violence. I want Jesus to draw me and all the world toward him and draw me away from all those lessons I have been taught about the virtues of violence and the necessity of violence and even the valor of violence.

I want to meet that Jesus. I want you to meet that Jesus. I want this world to meet that Jesus. I want the church to meet that Jesus for it is that Jesus who is one true life of the party!

                  AMEN  

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