The Fifth Sunday in Lent
E. Bevan Stanley
March 21, 2021
Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is a kind of perversity that pervades the universe. If you do anything, if you exert any kind of effort to accomplish anything, you find that there emerge brand new forces that inhibit the accomplishment of your goal. This law of the universe takes many forms. In physics, as you try to make an object go faster and faster, there is more and more wind resistance. In fact, the resistance increases with the square of the velocity of the object. Then there is the more everyday kind of experience. I go to fix the sconce light in my daughter’s room. I try putting in a new light bulb, but that doesn’t work. Then I try changing the switch. That means taking the fixture off the wall. Then it turns out that the switch part is so set in the fixture that it has to come out of the fixture, but that means disconnecting the wires in the wall, and then pulling them through the little pipe in the fixture. They are old wires and break as I am pulling them through. Now I know I’ll need a new switch. I buy a new switch, but it doesn’t fit. Finally, my wife takes the fixture to a repair shop. When fixture is repaired, all I have to do is put it back on the wall. That means I should turn off the circuit breaker. However, there is no indication which circuit breaker is the right one. The panel is in the basement the light on the second floor. So for every circuit breaker, I have to turn off the breaker, climb two flights of stairs, test the circuit, and then go back to the basement and try the next one. You know which breaker was the correct one. This form of the law of perversity is called, “One thing leads to another.”
Then there is the form that shows up in human relationships. Any parent knows that telling a kid in a bad mood to cheer up is not likely to do any good. The more reasonable and self-controlled you are the worse they get.
There is a solution to this problem of resistances. It is a kind of universal Jujitsu. Jujitsu is a Japanese form of martial arts in which the force of the opponent is not resisted but made use of to overcome the opponent. Somehow you make yourself one with the opponent’s force. So with the grouchy child, you say, “Gee, life really is terrible. There is nothing any fun, and everything is bor-ring”. You should probably be far more depressed and obnoxious than you are.” The kid will either hit you or start to laugh. Maybe both. In the case, of the wind resistance, engineers are always trying to design, not just more powerful engines, but more aero-dynamic bodies for vehicles. Make the vehicle blend into the wind.
In the case of the light, you accommodate yourself to the logic of it. There is no way of comprehending the entire project from the start. You give yourself to the process. You do each step as it comes.
In all of these, there is in one way or another a kind of giving yourself to the opposing force. This is also the way of the non-violent resistance practiced by Gandhi. It is the way of Mother Teresa in giving herself to the poverty and illness of Calcutta. In the spiritual life it is the way of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross: distractions cannot be overcome; one must let them wash over and past. Like swimming in the surf. To swim against the breakers one must dive into them and join the water.
Today’s collect, which is by the way one of the best in the Prayer Book, has some of the same ideas. It asks that God help us align our desires with God’s. It is not a request to make us stronger or more determined or more self-disciplined. It is a request that God’s will should be written in our hears, to borrow Jeremiah’s phrase.
So it is that when Jesus comes to overcome evil, he does not do so by bring a greater force. Rather he allows evil to exert its full force against himself. In one remarkable text, Paul goes so far as to say that Jesus became sin for us. By so joining in sin, he overcomes sin; by so joining with death, he tramples down death by death.
“Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” The way Jesus wins is by losing. He gets himself arrested, mocked, falsely convicted, killed and buried. He doesn’t even defend himself at the trial. And Satan, grinning with delight and eagerness, falls on his face carried away by his own might.
And now notice that there are two ways to take this remark of Jesus. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” One way (and this is probably the original meaning) is to understand it as referring to his resurrection and ascension. Once I have been planted like a seed and the new shoot sprouts up, then people will follow my way. When the victory is shown people will follow. It is a proclamation of approaching victory. “Now shall the ruler of this world be cast out.”
The other way, the way of the editor of this text, is to understand the lifting up as Jesus being lifted up on the cross. This is to see the offering of himself, the suffering love, to be attractive to us who so desperately seek to be loved.
I think it is both. That the lifting up on the cross is God defeating Satan with a cosmic act of jujitsu. And consequently the cross and the resurrection are essentially the same thing.
And this brings us to the last meaning of this phrase, the evangelical. For if Jesus is attractive both because he loves beyond all cost or counting, and because he is victorious over every evil and every enemy, then, when we lift him up in our praises in worship, and when we lift him up in our witness in our lives, then he will even in this day draw all people to himself.
Starting next Sunday, we begin the most important week of the liturgical year. We shall remember, and in some cases actually reenact, the events that changed the face of the earth. The liturgies are the way we remember our common story, they tell us who we are as a people, as a Church. They tell us who this man from Nazareth was and why he came. It is a splendid time to invite someone to come – either a friend who may not know much about Christianity at all, or perhaps a relative or friend who used to come but has drifted away. Let us lift up Jesus and give him the chance to draw all people to himself. And then we too, like the Greeks in today’s Gospel, will truly see Jesus.