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Wednesday in Holy Week – Br. Robert L'Esperance

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robertJohn 13:21-32

“After he had received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” (1)

There is sad irony that Christ’s crucifixion has served to set-up new victims even after the sacrifice of the ultimate victim. Finding scapegoats has a long and shameful history. For centuries, humanity has tried to find someone to blame for what we cannot fathom or comprehend. It seems to me that when we think of the crucifixion we often try to understand who should take the blame: whether the proverbial “Jews” of John’s gospel, the Romans, the chief priests and the elders, the Pharisees, or maybe, today, we can blame Judas.

At first glance the story we are reading this week comes off with a whole cast of evil characters. Except that we miss the whole point of the story if we try to sniff out its cause. I think that we have victimized Judas and all the rest of them long enough.

I have been guilty of the pack mentality. I have often embraced a view of Christ’s Passion that falls neatly into the idea of Jesus as suffering victim; of Jesus as having suffered and died for us so as to allow both our social and religious identity to be maintained “by fixing on someone or some group who can be thrown out, anathematized, [and] cursed. [What Thomas Merton called] “The semi-conscious group dynamic of ganging up against someone [that] leads to a sense of unity. [A] kind of unity [that is utterly dependent on] ‘the cursed one’ to be able to maintain itself.”(2)

Many of us have indeed been used to viewing Jesus as the sacrificial victim. I was raised on the concept. I suspect that many of us continue in that view. Jesus seen as cursed by God so that we can be saved. It works for lots of us, keeping the crucifixion at a safe distance, not challenging preconceived notions of who is in and who is out; who is right and who is wrong. We know who the bad guys are; everything appears as black and white, with no shades of gray to disturb the pattern.

I am incapable of explaining the mysterious drama that we commemorate this week. But, I don’t think that my inability to explain frees me from the necessity of trying to understand. This afternoon, I would like to suggest an alternate view of this incomprehensible act of Jesus’ death on the cross. A view that by making us vulnerable ourselves puts us at much greater risk; but worth taking because it contains the promise of eternal life.

What if we were to consider an alternate view that says that Jesus’ death on the cross is a continuation of Jesus teaching us? Jesus again teaching us about the original purpose and nature of God’s creation. That rather than another in a long series of attempts to satisfy some imagined blood-lust by our Creator, that rather than “saving-victim” we were to consider Jesus’ death on the cross as the final explosion of the myth of sacrifice as the ultimate way to get it right with God. What if the crucifixion were that great and utterly gratuitous expression of God’s love for us showing us that it is possible for us to live as Jesus lived? I mean to live precisely as though death were not.

In John’s gospel, Jesus freely chose to go to his death. Despite Judas, Caiaphas and Pilate’s pivotal roles in the drama, neither his disciple, the leaders of the Jews nor the Roman authorities were his true rivals. Jesus’ only true rival in this drama was the myth of death so firmly planted in human consciousness. The death-giving notion that sin must be death-dealing rather than life-giving; the notion that our relationship with God hangs on a very tenuous thread, that we only get a limited number of chances to make it right, and that only a properly performed sacrifice will get us more chances.

Jesus knew that the only way to explode this myth was to undermine it by entering into it. To willingly choose to lose to those who needed to win to teach us that we will live even when we seem to lose. To prove to us that we will live even when we seem to die. To defeat the myth from within by showing us that ultimately God has nothing to do with death or with our sacrifices. That the lie that we are all subject to a death sentence is part of that great lie planted by that greatest of all Great Liars.

Now the power of Jesus contained in being able to lose goes way beyond any need to win. The power of losing is precisely the power of God because it says that Jesus loved us so much that he was willing to lose to teach us that we can be free of any compulsion to win. We can be freed of a compulsion for victims and sacrifice. That he went to his death voluntarily was incomprehensible to both his friends and foes. In that willing embrace of death Jesus willingly lost to our mistaken need to survive by creating human victims, “in order to show that no one ever need create victims to survive again.” (3)

What Jesus shows us in his death is the power of one who does not know death, “for whom death is not something, with which he is in rivalry, in short, it was the power of God.”(4) I say this was Jesus’ teaching to us because his losing to death was not done to appease the Father but to get through to us. To help us finally get it; here is where the notion of Jesus’ “once- for- all” sacrifice finds its place, to help us understand that we do not have to live our lives as death’s victims that we can live as though death does not matter because it doesn’t. The crucifixion is precisely God’s gift to us because it is something done solely for our benefit and not as propitiation to a wrathful sacrifice-hungry deity. A “once-for-all” sacrifice because it makes our need for future sacrifice totally unnecessary and unreasonable.

I said earlier that this view, if you choose to adopt it, will put you at great risk and it will. The risk, as I imagine it, is the complete lack of any assurance that you and I will not end up as victims ourselves. But, in and through his death on the cross, Jesus has handed us that “once-for-all” sword giving us power to sever the Gordian knot that binds us to the twin illusions of death and the doom of sin.

It can, I believe, free us from any need to bow to the power of death allowing us to claim life and love as our own.

  1. James Alison. Faith Beyond Resentment. New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company, 2001, p. 147.
  2. James Alison. “Contemplation in a World of Violence: Girard, Merton, Tolle,” A talk given at Downside Abbey, Bath, October 3, 2001, p.iii.
  3. James Alison, On Being Liked. New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company, 2003, p. 40.
  4. Alison, p. 41.

Many of the ideas expressed in this sermon have their source in the writings of René Girard especially in his works on mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism.

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27 Comments

  1. Pam on April 12, 2017 at 15:21

    I know this is an emerging viewpoint, one that I have embraced fully. The idea of a vengeful, punitive God, one who demands a blood sacrifice, just doesn’t fit with my experience of a loving, life-giving God.

  2. Verlinda on April 12, 2017 at 12:28

    Thank you for this message of power and hope in this dark week and in this dark world.

  3. Maureen on April 12, 2017 at 09:00

    Throughout my life I have wondered why I have chosen not to become a victim of my life circumstances. There was a knowing each time that would arise as the challenges intensified and I asked …would I make it through ..would and where would Love arrive. This sermon lifted and freed me from a a lifetime of fear based religion Thank you Br. Robert for a new beautiful meaning and understanding of Jesus’s life

  4. Rhode on April 12, 2017 at 08:43

    Jesus asked 3 times in the garden, under extreme duress, if God could possibly remove the cross looming before him.
    ‘Not my will but thine be done’ ….as Jesus bowed not only to the Father but to us.
    God knew we would need a saviour and knew we would need to see the exacting cost of our human selfishness. In Jesus’s acceptance of the weight of our sins God gives us the road back to himself, forever honoring Jesus’s great gift, forever robbing death and the grave of any victory. There is no greater love ..no better sacrifice.

  5. SusanMarie on April 12, 2017 at 08:41

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for having the courage to speak the truth about Jesus’ death on the cross. So many of us were taught (wrongly) that Jesus “died for our sins” and thus we are “saved.” No, no, no! Our salvation has always been secure simply because God loves us! Jesus’ role in our salvation was to show us how to live–all the way through death so that we can keep on living! It is so very difficult to have this conversation with most Christians because we have been brainwashed to believe in this “sacrifice.” Adjusting our way of thinking–no, turning it all upside down and inside–out is just too hard for most people. I commented on another sermon that if we don’t let go of this need of victimization to make things “right,” we will continue to hurt and kill each other, because in this twisted thinking, SOMEONE has to be blamed and SOMEONE has to be hurt or die for us to feel something has been accomplished and justified! I noticed that your references are from James Alison. He has done wonderful work on this topic, as have Richard Rohr and others. To those who still struggle with this, please read one of the books by James Alison. Please read with care and an open heart the “Suffering Servant” passages from Isaiah. And read, for instance, Micah 6:6-8, which ends with the words, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” These are the words that Jesus put into action. He never promoted sacrifice. He died to show us how to live and that death doesn’t have to be feared as the END. He died to show us that winning is not the ultimate goal. If Jesus sacrificed anything, it was his pride, his false self, any desire to win or be popular or to be loved or even liked.
    My apologies for such a long comment; I have become quite passionate about this issue. Blessings & Love to all!

    • Rhode on April 12, 2017 at 09:44

      I read this after I posted my comment below and want to say thank you so much for this beautiful post.

  6. Lisa on April 3, 2015 at 12:29

    As I read through this sermon, I think of Martin Luther King, Jr. He lived his life knowing of the risks – assuming those risks because his call from God to lead to freedom for people propelled him in a way that death was not a deterrent. Jesus giving us the example – that death is not to be feared, we can live on after death – the message, the example we lived can be powerful.

  7. Ruth West on April 2, 2015 at 00:34

    Br. Robert, I read and reread your sermon, hoping for better understanding. I was taken aback by, what seemed to me, a denial of Jesus being “a sacrificial victim” and sort of “cleaning it up” so no one would be offended by the blood.
    I’m sure you are quite familiar with the scripture which says, “Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin.” That is why the O. T. is filled with sacrifices of animals, the lamb being the best of all. Therefore, we compare Jesus to “the Lamb which takes away the sin of the world.” I think you will agree with the following:
    As Anglicans, we do not believe that, in celebrating the Holy Eucharist, we are re- sacrificing Jesus on the cross, each time we celebrate. Rather, we come, knowing that He gave His life for us “once and for all.” We come to the altar giving ourselves as a LIVING sacrifice. The shedding of blood no longer is necessary. He did that as the supreme, once-for-all sacrifice for our sin and sins. But we cannot erase the word sacrifice from our theological vocabulary.
    May God bless you and all your brothers there.

  8. Margaret Dungan on April 1, 2015 at 22:33

    Thank you Br. Robert for your words. For sometime I have found great difficulty in the idea of a loving God being appeased by the cruel death of his son. I have felt that I would be led to a very different view a new direction.
    It was such a relief to read your words as I had felt very alone in my search. There is much to think about and digest but it brings me great comfort to set out on that path with a fellow traveler.

    Margaret.

  9. Ian on April 1, 2015 at 21:39

    Yes, thank you Br. Robert for this amazing insight into the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, “the final explosion of the myth of sacrifice” and “to live as though death were not.” They are God’s gift and grace.

  10. gwedhen nicholas on April 1, 2015 at 19:13

    That was absolutely amazing. If it were part of my vocabulary, I would say “Way to go Br Robert!”. That was such a freeing sermon, and an incredible way of seeing the crucifixion. I was especially taken with the sixth and seventh paragraphs…. the whole thing really!Thank you very much.
    Gwedhen

  11. Nicki on April 1, 2015 at 17:04

    Thank you Brother Robert for this sermon on the theology I was taught in my 40’s in a college town,, and continued to hear for 22 years until I moved. It took me a long time to get it, and still I cannot give it out to anyone else. Truth is, I don’t believe I’ve heard it for a while, though I’ve been listening for it. Thank you again. I will ponder your words for a while.

  12. Ken on April 1, 2015 at 13:08

    Your reflection is interesting in a liturgical year when we have the Gospel of Mark for Easter. Leaving off both the shorter and longer endings of Mark, the original narrative does not give us a neat, happy, Hollywood ending. If anything it reinforces the call of Jesus’ friends to take up the Way of the Cross-Bearer again and again. In this earliest Gospel it would appear that freed from the fear of death we need to write the ending with our own lives.

  13. jane on April 1, 2015 at 12:46

    LIke all the other thoughtful comments, I agree that your words challenge us to think through the cross and the teaching we have from Jesus. He gave to us freely even through Judas’ betrayal. But i was reading last night that Judas was full of remorse when he realized what would happen to Jesus and his shame made him committ suicide. It is Jesus who takes away our shame, our sins and forgives the one robber on the cross by promises paradise. That’s all part of our hope of eternal life.
    Thank you all for the thought put into this wonderful series.

  14. Daniel on April 1, 2015 at 11:40

    Thank you Br. Robert and to all who have posted…. especially thank you for turning the focus of the Cross from a “transaction” to a continuation of Christ’s teaching. In the same manner as we must forgive seventy times seven, I believe we must take the approach of continual giving. Christ gives, and gives, and gives throughout his ministry (by healing, teaching and encouraging others) and of course through the whole Easter cycle of resurrected life.

    In this context I would (with respect) quibble with the use of the words “to lose” – it is perhaps more a giving in to the will of those who seek his death, knowing that the Father’s will is a stronger call. The Gospel writers are careful to illustrate how there is a choice at every turning point, in every event, in the life of Christ, and His choice is always simply to give.

  15. Michael on April 1, 2015 at 11:30

    This feels more sane than some of the notions I was imbued with as a child. Only so many sins and then we are doomed, trying to make a connection of Christ on the cross and a loving and merciful God, and failing completely. Feeling defeated before I even started. Your idea brings hope and a feeling that we are not condemned before we begin. I will ponder this idea

  16. Verlinda on April 1, 2015 at 09:43

    Thank you for sharing these insights. Our culture does seek a winner and a loser, a scapegoat for every bad thing that happens, and the Church has bought into that notion also.

    This powerful meditation sheds new light on the mysteries of Holy Week and speaks to the Judas in all of us, offering hope.

  17. Amelia on April 1, 2015 at 08:46

    I have so enjoyed all of the reflections at SSJE through Lent. Thank you to each of you for your ministry! This sermon was particularly timely as my church was just discussing the cross and theology of sacrifice and looking for meaningful and honest ways to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus.

  18. Marta e. on April 1, 2015 at 07:39

    This is a perfect introduction to Holy Week and the theology of reconciliation, our opportunity to give to others that love and grace that has been given to us, to be able to walk away from conflict with simply a desire to live in a place in a peaceful world that has been given to us through Creation and the Cross. We have been reconciled through Christ, so should work for reconciliation in our own lives as well as in the world, drop by drop, through water, and the Word, and our lives.

    • Marta e. on April 1, 2015 at 07:40

      P.s. Through going to the fountain of living water frequently, daily, even constantly,

  19. Sarah Acland on April 1, 2015 at 07:13

    This is hard to comprehend. I shall have to read it again and again.
    I have always been sickened by the notion of a God who requires a bloody sacrifice to ‘save’ the world. The mystery of Jesus’ death, on which I have meditated so often in perplexity, is made much clearer by these words from Brother Robert. And much more to meditate on. Thank you. This is helpful.

  20. Muriel Akam on April 1, 2015 at 03:58

    Thank you for this view of the the crucifixion. Jesus’ choices are a mystery but his life(and death) is an example to us all to follow. I do ‘get’ it that we should live a life as if death does not matter in that we must live according ,to our principles , follow Christ’s teachings and stand by them . Eternal life will be our reward.

  21. Andrew on April 1, 2015 at 03:34

    Thank you Brother Robert … this is challenging yet totally meaningful and affirming. What resonates the most is the whole concept of being victim and making victims … being a scapegoat and making scapegoats. This is the way of the world … your words challenge that and point to us living our lives without fear and with courage just as our Lord did. Regardless of what happens to us we cannot be defeated by anything life throws at us if we keep this and Christ firmly in our minds.

  22. Marian Free on April 1, 2015 at 01:38

    Thankyou – for this and all the Lenten Studies.
    It seems to me that from the beginning the Johannine Jesus goes head on against the ‘powers’ that bind us to this life. The crucifixion (the place where he is glorified) is the ultimate statement that the earthly, the material has no power over him. He gives up even the “human” aspect of himself so that the divine might be revealed. This is another of our tasks – to put to death those things that bind us to this existence and to let our humanity be overtaken by our divinity.

  23. Melanie Zybala on March 30, 2013 at 22:25

    Thanks for your voice– it’s distinctive. Thanks,too, for a challenging view of Jesus’ death. Please address this again in a furure sermon. I have no comment, no wise words. Jesus’ choices, his life and death, always seem too large to comprehend.

  24. Merrill Ann Gonzales on March 28, 2013 at 18:43

    Thank you for this. I have always felt that Jesus came and lives as a Companion, a Shepherd, if you will on my Path [Way] as I follow the Star [Light] that guides my life…the only possible reason there could be for me being here at all. Sometimes I feel sorry for Judas that he didn’t more fully understand what it was Jesus wished for him…. but maybe he did. Maybe he understood more than we can imagine about his part in all this.

  25. Warren Hicks on March 28, 2013 at 16:09

    This is much along the lines of my reflections on Judas and his ‘call’ in this story. I suspect if it were not him it would have been someone else.

    I just returned from the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, MA where I sat before an icon of Jesus Washing the Apostles’ Feet (c. 1680). Interestingly all 12 of the disciples are present. Eleven of them look toward Jesus, one looks away. Judas, I presume. Does taking our eyes of Jesus in the Passion cause us to miss the last of his ‘continued teaching’ as Br. Robert puts it? I’m beginning to believe that’s exactly what happened then and what we risk happening again to us.

    Thanks for this sermon.

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