With the budding of new leaves each year comes the Lenten season, a time of reflection and preparation in the hope of the rebirth and renewal of spring and the Eastertide that marks it. As Christians of many traditions move through Holy Week, they often focus their attention on John’s Gospel and his unique telling of the culminating events in the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus’ last discourse in John 13–17 provides the symbolic rituals of a foot-washing and a last meal followed by a final teaching for his fledgling and often confused disciples. Through these actions, Jesus likewise both reflects upon their time together and prepares his disciples not only for his coming arrest and death, but also for the reality of his future physical absence and their new mission as shepherds of the community he has forged. As he closes his final prayer, Jesus is ready to face this last task of his earthly mission and depart.
Christian tradition has long identified Jesus’ willing acceptance of these events to come as his “passion.” Although we use this word in many ways in contemporary parlance — from hunger for success or accomplishment to sexual desire — the term comes into English from the Latin word for “suffering.” Christians understand Jesus’ willing suffering, even to the point of sacrificing his own life, to be foundational for understanding him as the Christ. And yet, in the Jewish tradition from which the Gospels arose, messiahs do not get crucified. The expectation for a king like David, who rises to put in place a sovereign nation, or a prophet such as Moses, who brings about an eschatological in-breaking of God’s reign, do not allow for the scandal of capital execution as a common criminal. Thus, the earliest Christians had to struggle with this historical fact both to make sense of their experience of Jesus, as well as to form their own identity as a community of believers. The preservation and telling of this story must, therefore, have had its beginnings in the earliest development of the church. These accounts are called Passion Narratives. But if this is the story of a traditional messiah-king, it is the most stunning political failure in the history of the world. Something else must be going on.
Each evangelist gives his own perspective to illustrate his particular theology, but they all tell the same essential story along the same plotlines: an arrest, a Jewish trial process, a Roman trial process, a crucifixion, burial and an empty tomb (Matthew 26–27, Mark 14–15, Luke 22–23, John 18–19). The Passion Narrative is indeed the climax of the story of the Christ’s mission on earth, and a careful reading of these accounts shows each evangelist intricately weaving the threads of their larger understanding of the good news into a rich fabric that redefines what it means to be the Christ.
Jesus is the promised heir of the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7), but his messiahship is only fully realized also in terms of the Sinai covenant (Exodus 1–35). That covenant, put in place by God through Moses following the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, gave the Ten Commandments and the ensuing laws of the Torah as gifts that guide the people in right relationship with God and with one another. The Torah also provided sacrifice as the means for atonement and reconciliation with God.
The Passion Narratives present Jesus as the Son of God and Son of Man who is the Christ, not by coming down from the cross and living as an earthly king in splendor, but by remaining on the cross to become the one ultimate redeeming sacrifice that atones for all sin for all time. In John’s Gospel, the cross is presented as Jesus’ most significant human experience (contrary to typical Christian understanding). God exalts Jesus in this “lifting up” on the cross.
This same phenomenon of circumventing human understanding and expectation appears in the evangelist’s use of the term “glory” across the Gospel. The glory of God, and the means by which Jesus is glorified (through his crucifixion), flows from the evangelist’s understanding of revelation. Remember, John teaches that God so loved the world that he handed over his only Son (3:16). This handing over is an incredible act of love. Further articulation of this self-gift in love was presented in the last discourse as the revelation of God that Jesus brings. Jesus the Son given to the world loved his own to the end (13:1). The glory of God and God’s glorification of Jesus lies in this gift of the Son that begins with the incarnation (1:1-18), but is not complete until he is lifted up on the cross and hands over his spirit, “It is finished” (19:30).
Jesus is not, it turns out, a political Messiah who revels in victory; rather, the evangelists teach that he is a covenantal Messiah whose kingdom is not of this earth, who is the gift of truth that fulfills the promises of God’s prior covenants and puts in place a new covenant open to all humankind by his very loss (John 1:12-18; 3:16-17; 18:33-38). This new covenantal relationship is built on faith — the faith of Jesus the Christ who, like the Good Shepherd (10:1-21), will lay down his life for his own, and the faith of human beings who go forth in this world in courage by living a life formed by that same sacrificial service.
That loss, however, is not the end of the story. God’s plan continues to defy human expectations and there is always the hope of the empty tomb. Like the first buds of spring, the Easter season brings new life. And the possibilities are boundless.
About the Author: Sherri Brown, PhD, is an assistant professor of New Testament. Her recent publications include God’s Promise: Covenant Relationship in John (2014); “What is Truth? Jesus, Pilate and the Staging of the Dialogue of the Cross in John 18–19,” in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly (2015); and “Water Imagery and the Power and Presence of God in the Gospel of John,” in Theology Today (2015). Forthcoming in 2017 are Interpreting the Gospel and Letters of John, co-written with Francis J. Moloney, SDB, and Johannine Ethics: The Moral World of the Gospel and the Epistles of John, co-edited with Christopher W. Skinner, PhD.