Gerard Sloyan, a 95-year-old Catholic priest from New Jersey, made a statement on which I would like to meditate: “Faith in the cross is the world’s great exorcism. Anything else, whatever its flamboyance, is powerless.” Now let that thought settle in the back of your mind.
This message of Jesus is a message about atonement, but not in the way that atonement is often understood or presented. It is a message about “the System,” or the ways of the world that seek to draw us under its own power and to play by its rules. It is about evil and our search for the means by which evil is overcome. So how do we typically envision that?
Perhaps, when thinking of atonement as a victory over the powers of evil, we think of something like the heroic actions of the sailor man we know as Popeye, who in ransoming his true love, Olive Oil, from the grips of the evil, burly bully Bluto, opens his can of spinach which bulks up his muscles so he can knock him out and then rescue his dame from whatever entrapment Bluto had placed her in. Sometimes that sort of caricature gets read into our understanding of the way in which Christ redeems us or rescues us from evil. Or, more often, we go to the pragmatic side of things and search for how we think we are to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,” as our vows of faith in Christ put it.
To buck the system, in other words, we think we have to play by the rules of the system – which often abides in a cycle of violence. It’s clear, based on the evil we see and experience in the world, that we need an exorcism of the system, and it certainly looks as though the only potential for a successful exorcism is a violent one. The way to bring order out of the chaos of “the System” is through violently defeating the “other.”
The revolution of Jesus as the Son of Man, the Messiah, came to a head, and the sign that the time was nearly there was when a group of Greeks, or outsiders, came to the disciples and wanted to see Jesus. This can be a sermon unto itself. When the “others,” the outcasts, the ones who ain’t our kin, come and want to see Jesus or just want a cup of coffee, how do we respond? Suspicion? Do our defense mechanisms come into play?
When the request makes its way to Jesus, he doesn’t say, “Well, bring them here.” Instead he goes into an odd diatribe of some agricultural reference of a grain of wheat being planted, dying, and bringing about a harvest; then speaks about the honor to be conferred upon those who serve him; and then expresses his inner turmoil about the fact that “this hour” had come and that it would glorify God. And after a mysterious encounter between earth and heaven, between a voice from the sky and Jesus in the flesh that sounded like thunder, Jesus says these words: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Before we get to what he says next let’s think about what this means.
This is a cry of revolution: a seeming appeal for a great exorcism of the evil ruler of the world. Time to overthrow the empire, time to buck the system! This is the point at which it would be oh, so inviting, for everyone to grab their swords and weapons of destruction to take out the enemy. This is what so many had been waiting for! Time to end the evil regime that has oppressed us for years, decades, centuries! Time to, as they say, “open a can” of spinach…or of something else that you’re likely familiar with…and wipe ‘em out!
Now here is the turning point. Jesus is going to buck the system, alright; he will perform the great exorcism, but after he says the time has come for it to happen, he uncovers the means by which it will be done; and that means is not by opening a can, or taking up a sword, but – “I, when I am lifted up from the earth…” – to indicate, as John interprets for us, “the kind of death he was to die.” Now, this is an exorcism that does more than turn heads; it is one that Jesus says will draw the whole world to itself, to a love so amazing, so divine; and this is done not through violence, but through the death of God’s own Son. How odd!
Why didn’t Jesus take up the sword? Why isn’t that the means by which to overcome evil? Walter Wink says something quite remarkable about Jesus’ point here: “Violent revolution fails because it is not revolutionary enough. It changes the rulers but not the rules, the ends but not the means.”
On the contrary, Jesus changes not merely one throne of tyranny for another but changes the entire system. He bucks the system not by playing according to the rules of the system, but by exposing the system for what it is and where it will lead by his own willingness to die at the hands of that very system. Jesus changes not only the end but the means, by appealing to a tradition that sounds equally odd to our modern ears – “being lifted up.”
This is an allusion to the somewhat obscure passage in Numbers 21 when God, so it seemed, sent poisonous snakes into the camp of the Israelites because they complained about having a hard time in the wilderness. But when the Israelites confessed their sins and asked Moses for a means by which to be saved from the poisonous snakes, God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and lift it up on a pole; if a poisonous snake bit an Israelite, she or he could look at the bronze serpent and be healed. Now digging deeply into that passage would uncover some interesting and heavy questions about what in the world is going on there. But where this meets Jesus’ words is that a poison had infiltrated the system of the world and of God’s people. And the means by which to be healed of the poison is not to fight back with poison but to look upon the one who is lifted up, and see the poisonous system for what it is and where it leads.
To use another metaphor, the world is caught up in a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence that operates like a whirlpool. Think of The Hunger Games and you’re really in a no-win situation where the world grimaces at you saying, “May the odds be ever in your favor,” all the while pleading for a bloodbath to keep the system going the way it always has. The human tendency is to think that the way to stop the whirlpool is to react violently by spinning in the opposite direction, or by joining in so long as you’re the last one standing.
But Jesus’ action is something wholly different. His action, as theologian Mark Baker put it, was like that of a rock in a river that absorbs the energy of the whirlpool and stops it. Baker writes:
In a definitive way the cross broke the cycle of increasing alienation and violence because it absorbed the worst act of violence in the world—the killing of God Incarnate. God did not respond to this by lashing out with a vengeful counter blow, but with forgiving love, thus responding to the root causes of a violent society. The ultimate act of hatred was answered with the ultimate act of forgiving love.
What does this look like, practically speaking, for us? Maybe something like this: I was in a covenant group with an elementary school teacher. One day my friend came to our group on edge and broke down before us about a student in his class who was having difficulty at home and appeared to be caught up in a cycle of violence for generation upon generation in his family. My friend looked at the future of this boy and wept over what seemed an inevitability of the continuation of the cycle. But what we were able to encourage our friend to do was, with the help of Christ, to be like the rock for this young man to be drawn in and see an alternative way to be human that doesn’t have to go with the flow nor attempt to fight against it alone. The world needs some rocks, not to be thrown at it, but to stop the whirlpool.
Jesus’ way of bucking the system is this: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
“Faith in the cross is the world’s great exorcism. Anything else, whatever its flamboyance, is powerless.” – Fr. Gerard Sloyan
Oh Christ, who was lifted up and has drawn us unto yourself.
Forgive us of the times when we have caved to the systems of the world and fought using its weapons rather than allowing them to be transformed into plows and pruning hooks.
Help us to mind the good ground and patiently wait for the bearing of fruit that comes not through suspicion or drawing boundaries around which we demarcate “us” from “them,” but through the faithful following of your way of obedience, humility, and putting others before ourselves.
Grant us the freedom that comes with learning the art of “letting go” rather than tightening our grips to the ways that ultimately lead to the destruction of others and ourselves.
May we join your loving embrace of drawing the world to yourself.
In your holy name, Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father, we pray. Amen.