Questions and Encounters:
How Can You Say the Son of Man Must Be Lifted Up?
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church
On April 13th, 2014
Today I continue my sermon series on questions and encounters with Jesus by reflecting on the Gospel of John’s version of Palm Sunday—and then what happened right after the Palm Sunday parade in John’s narrative. Andrew and Philip come across some Greek-speakers who are there for the festival of the Passover—and they ask to see Jesus. As you hear the story, and you’ll hear it a little differently today, listen for what happens when Andrew and Philip come and tell him that the Greeks want to see Jesus. As I’ve asked you to do before, listen for the questions that are asked in the reading—and that you yourself might ask of the reading.
The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
the King of Israel!’
Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:
‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!’
His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!’
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘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. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.
‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘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. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, ‘We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.’
After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.
It could be argued that Jesus really missed an opportunity that day. Oh, I know, how could one man with a ragtag bunch of followers be a match for the gathered forces of the Roman occupiers of Palestine or the controlling power of the temple authorities and their lackeys? Both groups in their own way were quite willing to quash those who would oppose them. But Jesus was building up a real head of steam. He was riding a PR juggernaut. The Palm Sunday parade could have been great launching pad. The Jewish authorities themselves worried that “the whole world has gone after him.” This could have been the time for him to really make his move, to marshal his forces, as it were, to be a little clearer about things if he were really a man who believed in revolution by any means necessary, even violence, to come out and say it.
John’s Gospel allows that the disciples were a little confused about the whole Palm Sunday entrance. They did not understand these things at first, John says. Of course they didn’t understand these things. Things like why he came in on a donkey rather than a mighty steed like the Romans would have. I mean, if you’re going to bring in a kingdom, then kick butt and take names. And for God’s sake, find yourself a real horse to ride in on, not a donkey.
The disciples knew their scriptures, and later after he died, they remembered that passage from Zechariah that said that God’s promised Deliverer would come in on a donkey. And that’s what Jesus did. But why not a horse? If you’re God’s promised deliverer, hey, if you are the embodiment of God’s priorities, God somehow enrobed in human flesh, the Creator of the Universe in human form, why don’t you fix things, like, right now? Why don’t you make everything better? Put an end to the pain and oppression? Put an end to all suffering? And why, for Christ’s sake, would you suffer yourself, if you are God?
That, by the way, is really the question of this day, which is known as Palm/Passion Sunday. It’s not just the question of this day, but of this whole Holy Week.
It’s the question the crowds ask Jesus after he says (to the disciples, in words the gathered multitude apparently overhear) “The hour has come for the son of Man to be glorified. And what should I say, Father save me from this hour?
No, it is for this reason I have come to this hour… And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
To that last statement, the crowds wonder aloud, “How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?”
Now there are at least three things you have to understand about that question.
First, most scholars agree that to be lifted up, in John’s Gospel, doesn’t mean to ascend to heaven in some glorious scene. It means to be nailed to a cross on the ground and to have that cross lifted up into public and humiliating view. There’s something about lifting that cross, John’s Gospel affirms, that will draw all people to Jesus.
Second, the question uses the term Son of Man, which had become sort of an analog for the Messiah, the Christ, the promised Deliverer sent from God.
And finally, it uses the word must. Not might be, not could possibly be, not in all likelihood will be, but must be. It is a necessity, not just a distinct possibility that the Son of Man be lifted up.
How can you say that the Son of Man, the promised deliverer from God, must be lifted up?
There are a number of ways that people in the Christian tradition have answered that question over the years, and all of them are in their own way, theories of what is known as the atonement, the way Jesus’ death (and resurrection) makes us one with God.
Some say Jesus must be lifted up on a cross to fulfill a passage from Hebrew scripture that says that a man will be hung on a tree.
Some say that Jesus must be lifted up on a cross to provide individually issued divine fire insurance for those who believe in their heads and hearts that he died for their personal sins (which ignores the I will draw all people to myself part, but hey).
Some say that Jesus must be lifted up on a cross to fulfill what frankly amounts to a bit of bloodlust on the part of God. The idea, and to be fair it has scriptural warrant, is that some innocent blood must be shed in sacrifice for the grievous nature of human sinfulness, and once that little detail, based in the Hebrew sacrificial system, is taken care of, then everything is good.
However, that causes people, rightly, to wrestle with the question—separating out members of the Godhead, which I’m not sure it is wise to do—as to how a truly loving father could send a child to knowingly die a cruel death, even if it is to put an end to something else more horrible still. Before you reject that out of hand, think of the parents over the centuries who watched their young sons or daughters go into war zones in the belief that there was something worth dying for in order to protect, including the freedom and wellbeing of others.
How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?
For my part, I think that the Son of Man had to be lifted up to give us a glimpse into the very beating heart of God. A heart not filled with Old Testament fury at human depravity, the kind of fury that would wipe out the earth in a flood. But a heart that was willing and able to become flesh in a human being who was willing to die to make the point that Love is stronger than death and who knew that this dying would be the seed of a new way of looking at the meaning of life. It would be a seed that would bear fruit again and again.
Christian Wiman, the well known poet and the editor of Poetry magazine, is a deeply thoughtful and profoundly spiritual man. His book of meditations on life, suffering, God, and spirituality entitled My Bright Abyss is already a classic in the field.
Wiman writes with a wisdom that can only come from truly experiencing deep pain, physical and emotional anguish, the pain he’s had to endure as cancer has wracked his body.
In one of Wiman’s essays, he tells the story of Osip Mandelstam, a Russian poet who was banished to Siberia by Josef Stalin and died there, in 1938, at the age of 47. In 1934, at a literary gathering, Mandelstam recited a poem in which referred to Stalin with these words:
His grubworm clutch all oil and vile
His deadweight deadwords, blonk blonk.
Just like that, Mandelstam found himself in Siberia.
Wiman writes: It was the pure lyric spirit of Mandelstam that Stalin couldn’t abide, the free singing soul that Stalin sensed would always slip free of the state’s nets. People who think poetry has no power have a very limited conception of what power means. Even now, in this corporate country, where presidents do not call up poets on the phone, some little lyric is eating into the fat heart of (greed and consumption).
Even now some portion of Mandelstam’s quicksilver spirit gleams and lives in the lines he left behind: “You have stolen my ocean, my swiftness, my soar,
Delivered me to the clutch of unrupturing earth. And for what! The mouth still moves though the man cannot.”[i]
The words, and the power of the ideas, still endure, even though the man has gone to the grave. If the message you are trying to get across, if you are Jesus, is one of love and dignity and respect for all people, all people… If the message you are trying to get across is of our fundamental unity with God and one another… If the message you are trying to get across is one of a call to compassion… then the best way to do that is not through violence of action or speech, it is through radically self-giving love, love which is willing to suffer on behalf of helping another.
I have another thought. Maybe the death of Jesus, the lifting up of Jesus, also functions to draw people to him by giving us a glimpse into how the Divine knows our pain and is with us in our pain, pain which is not easily dispelled, but can somehow be endured when we understand that we are not alone in it.
Christian Wiman again. He writes: I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness cries out My God my God why have you forsaken me? The point of that is that he felt human destitution to an absolute degree. The point is that God is with us, not beyond us in our suffering. I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion. I’m not suggesting that ministering angels are going to come down and comfort you as you die. I’m suggesting that Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering, that Christ’s compassion makes extreme human compassion—to the point of death, even—possible. Human love can reach right into death, then, but not if it is merely human love.[ii]
God identifies with us not just in our joy, but in our deepest darkest moments of pain.
Every so often it happens that I find myself feeling a little bit of anxiety about my kids, about the way the world is changing, about how the church is changing or not changing with it.
I was talking with my Mom last night, and I was sharing just a little anxiety I was feeling about one of my kids. She said, “I know, I’ve been there.” And then she said, “Do you remember Mr. Halsney?”
Mr. Halsney was a friend of my parents when I was much younger, in elementary school. The story my Mom was relating, and I didn’t remember it, was about how Mr. Halsney was about to have open heart surgery. Open heart surgery was a big deal back then (it is still and always a big deal, but back in the 1970’s it was a lot less commonplace).
My Mom said she had been very anxious and stressed about Mr. Halsney’s surgery—and that stress had come to my little brother’s attention. He was four years old at the time. He asked my Mom, “What is the matter, Mommy?” She said, “I’m very worried about Mr. Halsney.” My little four year old brother, who is forty-four now, said, “Mom, don’t worry. God’s got this.” He was four.
In the middle of our pain, our suffering, our anxiety, God not only has this, God is with us in the midst of it. No matter how the surgery turns out.
That’s one reason I can say the Son of Man must be lifted up. Praise be to God. Amen.
[i] Christian Wiman My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York: Straus, Farrar, and Giroux, 2013), pp112-114.
[ii] Ibid. p.155.