Chapter and Verse: John 11:38-53
The Temple authorities of Jesus’ time, found Jesus subversively, infuriatingly, terrifyingly difficult to cope with. So does the Christian Church. Institutions are inevitably concerned with their own survival, reputation and flourishing, while Jesus calls his would-be followers to “deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow”. Inconveniently for the institutional church that bears his name, Jesus makes it the criterion for faithful discipleship. Or, to put it slightly differently, the church is most authentically the church when it bears the scars of cross-shaped living and ministry in the world.
The raising of Lazarus is one of John’s pre-Easter Easter stories: it concludes by shedding light on the meaning and inevitability of Jesus’ forthcoming death at the instigation of the Sanhedrin.
The religious leaders cannot celebrate Jesus as God among them, because they cannot cope with the God whom Jesus reveals. Jesus is the grace and truth of God incarnate – Light and Love on legs – and they discover that this isn’t actually the God they signed up for. He is not good for the institution.
And so we eavesdrop on an extraordinary reputation management meeting of the Sanhedrin (v47-50). In response to the raising of Lazarus, their desperate concern is to preserve their “holy place and nation” – the things of the past that have made them what they are. It isn’t the Romans that most threaten these, but Jesus himself: resurrection is the founding event of the New Creation, overturning the old order.
Caiaphas urges them to sacrifice Jesus in order to keep the Romans sweet. He bases the security of the institution on the graces of the Roman invaders, rather than on the God who raises the dead. And if an innocent man has to die “on behalf of the nation”, so be it.
This political calculation by the Temple guardians betrays everything the “holy place” stands for. The Temple has been turned from a “sign of the Kingdom” into a religious institution that props up and is propped up by the Empire. It is prepared to sacrifice the bringer of the New World on the altar (or cross) of Empire to prevent transformation.
We need to recognise that the most seductive of temptations we face is to assume that being church means we speak with and for Jesus, rather than being challenged and criticised by him.
According to the missiologist, David Bosch, the Christian Church sold its gospel inheritance in 313, when Constantine brought Christianity into the hierarchy of the Roman Empire. The church swapped sides, from being a persecuted sect living out the Way of the Cross, to sitting at the Emperor’s side, ruling the Empire.
This is a church complicit with the Inquisition, the slave trade, Apartheid and the Holocaust. This is a church that sees reporting paedophile priests as more dangerous than child abuse.
This is church has forgotten that it owes an account of itself to its Lord, whose life and ministry led to the cross. The theologian Jürgen Moltmann puts it this way: “There is an inner criterion of all theology, and of every church that claims to be Christian, and this criterion goes far beyond all political, ideological and psychological criticism from outside. It is the crucified Christ himself. When churches… appeal to him – which they must, if they are to be Christian – then they are appealing to the one who judges them most severely and liberates them most radically from lies and vanity, from the struggle for power and from fear.”
May we discover this to be true.
Lawrence Moore is director of the Windermere Centre – a United Reformed Church resource centre for learning
This article was published in the May 2013 edition of Reform.
Read more articles by Lawrence Moore