30 March 2009

Taking on the World

John 12: 20-33

Fifth Sunday in Lent/ 29th March 2009

Last Sunday I offered an unconventional (although, I believe, faithful) reading of John 3:16 & 17. You know the verses, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” And then, verse 17, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

What I didn’t touch upon last week, but will today in the context of this morning’s text from John, is the supreme theological significance of this word, “world.” It’s in John 3 and shows up again in John 12. Jesus says to Andrew and Philip, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” He then hears the voice of his Father, the crowd is amazed, and then Jesus says, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” The world is loved in John 3, but by John 12, life in the world is to be given up, hated, for the world is about to be judged. So what happened to all the love? Where did it go?

It’s still there, I would suggest. What was explicit in John 3 is now implicit in John 12. And the link between them is the use of this word, “the world.” In both places we find forms of the Greek word, kosmos, from which we get, well, cosmos. It literally means “world” or “creation.” And that’s how it’s often understood. We generally use the word to describe the vast expanses of space. “For God so loved the world…,” we think of creation, everybody. But through detailed analysis of how this word was used in the ancient world, particularly in New Testament theology, informed by Greek philosophy, kosmos meant more than just creation. This is critical: “’The world’ here is not synonymous with God’s creation,” on the contrary, “The World” refers to “the fallen realm [within creation] that exists in estrangement from God and is organized in opposition to God’s purposes.[1]

In Jesus’ time it was believed that one’s life was shaped primarily by external forces and circumstances over which one had little or no control, under which one was enslaved. It was the power of these external forces that hindered and destroyed and dehumanized God’s people that caused people to sin. In order for the people to be liberated the powers within creation at odds with God’s purposes of justice and love have to be judged, overcome, and defeated. The kosmos refers to everything within creation that is at odds with, at cross purposes with God’s intent for the liberation and salvation of God’s people, everything that struggles against God’s vision of justice and love and forgiveness, everything that seeks to destroy us or limit our freedom in Christ. In love, the kosmos would have to be defeated, or more correctly, redeemed. To redeem means to buy back.

Hear the profundity of John 3:16 & 17, hear – feel – the earth-shaking claim John is making when we think of kosmos in this light. “For God so loved the kosmos that he gave his Son…,” in other words, that God loved even that which was and is against God. And it’s even stronger in verse seventeen, “Indeed, for God did not send the Son into the kosmos to condemn the kosmos, but in order that the kosmos – remember, all that which is against God! – in order that the kosmos might be saved through him.” Take some time and meditate on this claim for a while. Amazing.

John says it so beautifully in chapter 13, “Having loved his own who were in the world (kosmos), he loved them to the end (13:1b).” Having loved all those bound by the destructive forces of the kosmos, seeing the pain inflicted upon God’s people, he loved them to the end.

This leads us to John 12 with the announcement that Jesus is about to be glorified on a cross. Jesus prays, “Father, glorify your name.” And God replies, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” Then Jesus interprets the meaning of the voice. “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Twice we have the use of kosmos (literally, tou kosmou). What this means is that Jesus’ impending death upon the cross will entail judgment (literally, krisis), crisis, not for those, we might suspect, who do not believe, but for the world; the kosmos is being judge by God. The ruler of this kosmos will be driven out. How? When Jesus takes on the kosmos on the cross, both in the sense of bearing, enduring the kosmos, as well as fighting, battling with love.

The church’s earliest understanding of the cross, one that we have largely forgotten, was that it was a cosmic struggle with the powers that overwhelm our lives, it’s God’s defeat of all the powers in the world that hurt, abuse, dehumanize, and destroy God’s people.[2] Even though Jesus’ death was at the hands of the kosmos, the Son of Man lifted up on the tree was for the redemption of the kosmos, the very kosmos that put him there. This was precisely Paul’s point when he came to see that “In Christ God was reconciling the world (kosmos) to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19).” Salvation means being released from the destructive power of the kosmos. Jesus will then draw all people to himself. The ruler of the kosmos itself will be dethroned and allowed to live in new world – a New Creation – under the reign of the good shepherd who rules and guides his people in love. This early Christian self-understanding is reflected in Revelation, best known from G. F. Handel’s (1689-1759) “Hallelujah Chorus,” in Messiah, where John’s Revelation reads, “The kingdom of this world (kosmos), has now become the kingdom of Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever. (Rev. 11:15).”

Now, this biblical word-text study, this examination of an antiquarian view of reality might appear academic and abstract. You might think this has nothing to do with your life – but that’s what the kosmos what’s you think, in fact it would prefer we don’t think or talk about it at all, except that the power of the kosmos is all around us and in us. Even though we know at the culmination of time “all shall be well,” in the meantime, as we and the world live into our redemption, there are still plenty of forces in creation that are trying to subvert God’s intention for your life and for creation. New Testament scholar, Walter Wink, aptly describes “the world” as “a superhuman reality concretely embodied in structures and institutions that aggressively shapes human life and seeks to hold human beings captive to its ways.” He likes to translate “the world” as “the System.” And the System is driven by all kinds of forces whose ways are domination, violence, and death.[3] The kosmos is domination, violence, and death.

It’s everything in our hearts, our lives, our relationships, the work that we do, in institutions and corporations and nations that is at odds with God’s vision for the world, a vision given to us most concretely in the life of Jesus Christ. It’s everything in our political or economic systems, cultural and even religious systems that separate us from God, one another, and ourselves. It’s all the choices we make that separate us from God, one another, and ourselves. Just about all the –isms of the world are guilty of this, not one is free from the power of the kosmos. It’s most obvious in those places where life has become cheap or when we’re more worried about money (making it/keeping it) and fail to see the human factor. Look at the kosmos at work in the economic crisis on Wall St., a system of greed that wrecking havoc, inflict untold damage and destruction upon people’s lives. One hundred million people have crossed into poverty, worldwide, as a result of this greed.[4] To hear the disturbing news of what’s happening in Mexico and the United States in our struggle against the drug cartel is a vivid expression of what a far-reaching insidious system looks like, destroying lives and families, communities, even entire cities. Jesus takes on the System, these destructive forces, summed up symbolically in the word, death. And the Spirit of Christ continues to do this.

All of this speaks of the suffering that then comes when one chooses – in love – to take on the System. The kosmos never goes down without a fight. Perhaps this is what Jesus is getting at in the use of the grain of wheat metaphor. It’s really about the suffering Jesus was willing to endure – and the suffering he calls his disciples to take on – when he and we with him, take on the kosmos. He’s talking about his own death which he is willing to do in love because he “hates” what the kosmos has done and is doing to all God’s children. To claim the label “Christian” means we are called to do the same, through him, for him, for the love of the kosmos. There’s no easy way here. So that to die to the world is to remove ourselves out from under everything that oppresses us and tries to make us less than who we are. And this is never easy.

Contemporary writer, Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopalian, gets right to the heart of things. She writes, “What [Jesus] is telling us is that if we do everything in our power to protect our lives as they are – if we successfully prevent change, prevent conflict, prevent pain – then at the end we will find that we had no life at all. But if we hate our lives in this world, which as far as I am concerned can only mean if we hate all the ways we cheapen our lives by chasing comfort, safety, and superiority in this world – if we hate that enough to stop it and start chasing God instead – then there will be no end to the abundance of our lives.”[5]

Jesus had two choices: self-protection, being closed-off from suffering or loving something more than his life, which was his call to self-offering. The choice is either fear or love. Every day we have the same two choices: self-protection, closed-off from suffering (either our own or others) or loving something, someone more than life. It’s the way of suffering love. To choose self-offering inevitably means suffering – for him and for everyone else who chooses this way. There’s no way to get around this. Suffering love is Christ’s way, because it’s God’s way.

For the sake of the world he chased after God and chose to take on the System all the way to Jerusalem. “Having loved his own who were in the kosmos, he loved them to the end.” This is the difficult, painful, and yet exquisitely beautiful, life-giving truth anyone finds who still wishes to see Jesus.

[1] See in particular, Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 13-31, 51-59.

[2] This is known as the Christus Victor theory of the atonement. See Gustav Aulén (1879-1977), Christus Victor: A Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, published in 1931.

[3] Wink.

[4] Cited by the Swiss banker, Prabhu Guptara, on Speaking of Faith, from March 5, 2009: http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2009/rv-wisevoices/transcript.shtml

[5] Barbara Brown Taylor, Preaching Sermons on Suffering: God in Pain (Abingdon, 1998), 62. Also, Kenneth E. Kovacs, “Sermon Reviews,” Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. XX; No.2 (February-March 2009), 77.