Preached by the Rev. John Good at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, April 11, 2010
While the disciples were huddled together behind locked doors in that house in Jerusalem, scared that the enemies of Jesus would find them, another gathering was taking place across town in the palatial residence of Annas and Caiaphus. The high priest had invited the members of Israel’s governing and economic elite to celebrate the third night of Passover by reveling in their victory over the Galilean mystic and his peasant band who had threatened to disrupt the peace of the capital city. A number of the Roman officials, to whom the Jewish elite owed their power, joined them to celebrate the execution of the rabbi who taught a subversive way of life against the one they were living.
Among the good things they were celebrating was the unified submission of the Jewish people to their authority. Hadn’t Caiaphus predicted that the death of one man would save the nation? He knew the untold secret that communities can become united and obedient when the elite can find someone to demonize and victimize. All they had to do was characterize Jesus’ ministry as a threat to their national and religious security to convince the crowds gathered for Passover that he was dangerous. Then it was a simple matter of getting the Roman governor to go along, and they had their victim to unify a mob against him and for them. Making people afraid of so called demons worked to benefit the elite then, and it still works today.
They justified the crucifixion of Jesus by convincing themselves that they were doing God’s will. Like all ancient peoples who believed the gods favored victors rather than victims, the Israeli elite believed their God smiled on them for defeating the Galilean menace. Ever since a Sumerian creation myth identified the origin of civilization with the use of violence to redeem the world from the primal forces of evil, ancient societies believed the victors in any struggle had overcome the evil that threatened their existence. Their victories made them the darlings of the gods. And it did not matter whether or not their victim was actually an evil threat. The victim’s defeat was proof enough that he was a bad guy. No wonder Caiaphus and his cronies thought they had accomplished something good for God by executing Jesus, the evil menace to their social order.
In fact, all succeeding establishments to the Jewish elite have actually underestimated the threat Jesus was and is. His sudden appearance in that room of frightened men was an even bigger challenge to the standard political, economic, and social order than his ministry had been. The disciples who witnessed his appearing could see that Jesus was not just back from the dead; he had been raised to a new glorified life. He had not just cheated death, he had overcome the power of death. Jesus was the first to reveal that death was not more powerful than God, that death would no longer have ultimate control over human lives.
First century Jewish and Roman culture did not completely understand or appreciate the implications of Jesus’ resurrection for their domination systems that used violence to save their societies from evil. But as the years have gone by since that first Easter, we have come to appreciate more and more what God accomplished by that single act of raising Jesus to a new, immortal, and glorified existence.
In the first place, for those who put their trust in Jesus’s resurrection, God has neutralized the chief weapon of domination systems. Systems that depend upon violence to preserve the social order depend upon death being the ultimate threat to those people who would oppose them. Again and again Christians have stood up to such threats because they know death does not have the final say. From the earliest Christian martyrs who began the transformation of the Roman empire, to the Christian inspired nonviolent resistance to racism that changed this country, to the Christian underground in eastern Europe that toppled the Soviet Union’s hegemony, to the Christian witness that ended Apartheid in South Africa, the faithful have transformed the way the world’s nations are governed.
Second, God has revealed his preference for the victim rather than the victor. As much as Caiaphus and the others were congratulating themselves on having done something for God, God did not visit them that night. He came, in the person of the risen Christ, to the victims of official violence—the disciples who felt they were under attack by the authorities. In fact, as so many of the Psalms and stories of the Hebrew Scriptures testify, God has been on the side of the victim since he took Abel's side against Cain. He still is on the victim’s side, as that is revealed by Christian churches who minister to and advocate for the poor and powerless.
Third, rather than redeem the world through violence that roots out evil, God revealed that night in Jerusalem that he will redeem the world with forgiveness. Jesus commissioned his disciples to reconcile all human beings to God by forgiving them for the evil they have done. Forgiveness is still a powerful weapon against those who perpetrate evil. They are completely disarmed when they are forgiven because there is no retaliation against forgiveness. Whenever we see a report in the newspaper or on television of someone forgiving a person who has done violence to them or their family, we see how God’s mercy over comes the power of evil..
I do not have time to explore the many other consequences of Jesus’ resurrection. The three I have given are enough to indicate that God has undermined the domination systems that Caiaphus and his ilk have believed were necessary to save the world from evil. The pity of it is that so many people living today are so scared of the evils they perceive that they still look to political powers that depend on violence to save them.
We have come here, today, to affirm an alternative to violence. Jesus is standing in our midst once again to give us his Spirit and urge us to go into the world proclaiming that his resurrection has made God’s kingdom available to everyone. In God’s kingdom death no longer has the final say, God’s love protects the victims of oppressors and exploiters, and forgiveness overcomes evil. People who trust God and want to live in his kingdom can help transform the domination systems of our world. Let us remember that we are the people who trust God.