Do you remember those WWJD bracelets everyone was wearing around in the early- to mid-2000s? “What Would Jesus Do?” It’s an important question. But, perhaps a better question is: What would we do?
What would we do if we encountered the resurrected Lord? If we really saw, face-to-face, His power in this world?
Our reading in the Gospel of John, unfortunately, gives us a pretty clear idea — and by “us” I mean, collectively, the body of those who proclaim themselves Christian, particularly in America.
In John 11:45-53 we catch up with Jesus just after He has resurrected his friend, Lazarus.
Earlier in John 11, Jesus told the disciples he was glad he wasn’t there to save his dear friend Lazarus before he died, “so that you may believe” — so that in raising Lazarus, Jesus could reveal the power God brings to the world through Christ, which would soon be revealed at the cross.
When Jesus encounters Lazarus’ grieving sister, Martha, he tells her “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Jesus condenses for Martha, and for us, the core of Christian faith: have faith in Christ, and walk with Him into eternal life. And then, he asks Martha, and us, that all-important question: “Do you believe this?”
This question also is posed to the religious leaders of the day, and to the religious leaders of our day. “Do you believe this?”
What would we do? What would we do if we had the chance to stand there, at the open door of Lazarus’ empty tomb? At the empty tomb on Easter morning? “Do you believe this?” What would we answer?
As Christians, we know the answer we should give. We know the answer we want to give. It springs readily to our lips. But, what is the answer, when we must risk everything we have in the world in order to say “Yes.” We must pause, and walk a few steps beside the Sadducees, and again consider our answer.
When the Sadducees saw Jesus raise Lazarus, their response was not joyous. They’d just been presented with Christ’s ability to conquer death — a dim foreshadowing of His Easter victory over death for all time.
This is the fulfillment of all they, as faithful religious leaders, have been waiting for, being played out before their very eyes. They are seeing the Messiah at work, conquering death.
But they cannot see the truth before their eyes. They are blinded by fear of another kind of loss. Seeing Lazarus raised, they moan and cry:
“What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”
The Sadducees, you see, were very wealthy. They were drawn from the creamiest of the cream of the crop of Jewish high society. They controlled the temple, and its lucrative taxes. They were greatly admired. They had great power. They had, in short, a great deal to lose, in the terms of this world, in the following of this Jesus.
While Christ, in his radical Love — love that paid no heed to title, power and riches — meant life, and death to sin and death for all humanity, to the Sadducees he meant the upending of their order. He meant the risk of all their power, their titles and wealth. To follow Jesus, for them, was to risk all they had.
Weighing the risks, Caiaphas, the high priest, hatches the beginning of the plot that ends at Golgotha, and Jesus’ crucifixion. In Caiaphas’ reasoning, drawing from an earlier rabbinical text, “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
It’s simple math, to Caiaphas. Better to kill this Jesus, than to risk the temple. Better to kill this Jesus, than risk the riches gathered in God’s name. And if you must choose between nation and Jesus, well, better to kill this Jesus. In the ways of this world, Caiaphas’ math makes complete sense.
It is easy to look with a harsh eye on Caiaphas and the Sadducees. But, we must remember, though they have seen signs, they still live before the Resurrection. In their hearts, Jesus is a rogue rabbi — capable of powerful signs, yes — but still, only a man. To them, he will die on the cross, and that will be that. They have yet to be taught the lesson of His empty tomb.
But, what excuse do we have? We live in the world of the Risen Lord. We live in the light of the Resurrection. And yet, are we still using the calculus of Caiaphas?
If we take a hard look at our churches, and at Christianity today, what account can we give of our faith? What answer can we give, when we must risk all our worldly power, our temples and treasure, to say yes to that question: “Do you believe this?”
When we see an opportunity to serve Christ in His children, can we say we’re willing to risk our church, any more than the Sadducees were willing to risk the temple?
If we must risk bankrupting the church, to see and follow Him in the “least of these,” His children, do we step forward boldly? Or do we carefully weigh whether it would not be better to let Him slip by, rather than risk our investment accounts, our insurance policies and our treasured possessions?
And, when truly following the example of Jesus goes against our national pride, our “us first” protectionism and our partisan preferences — which do we choose? Do we set aside the worldly to follow Christ? Or do we attempt to wrap Christ in our preferences, to make Him into something less than what He is — in our image, rather than as God Incarnate?
Perhaps you can say clearly and honestly in each of these cases that you would set aside all to follow Christ. I wish I could so plainly state as much. But, if we’re honest, in our churches today, I think we have to do far too much hemming and hawing to explain how we’re following Christ. Mind you, we don’t do it too radically. Not too far. Not too fast. Not too much. Not to the extent we risk that the powers of this world will “destroy both our holy place and our nation.”
We are on the doorstep of Holy Week. At this time in our Lenten journey, Jesus is approaching Jerusalem. We want so desperately to welcome Him as a king remade in our own image. The king of our bank accounts. The king of our politics. The king that would add to, and never ask us to give up our power, wealth and comfort.
But, Jesus has not set His feet toward Jerusalem to be that kind of king. He is making this final journey to enter triumphantly — in a triumph that will pour out His blood, His life, to lead and love us.
What will we risk to follow Him? If we call ourselves Christian, our path is to take up our cross, and join Him in this final journey. We’re called to join Him, and die to anything that is holding us back. Jesus already has told us:
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”
Surrender all and gain all. Hold onto this world, and die in it. Let go of it, and rise with Christ. This is an answer we must give, for the question we cannot escape: “Do you believe this?”
Oh dear Lord Christ, we walk with you now, on these last steps toward Jerusalem. The end and the beginning of our journey are there. Help us, dear Savior, to search our hearts for anything of this world holding us back from you. Give us the courage and strength to leave on the roadside, to abandon there, anything we treasure above you, that our hearts may walk with you unfettered into the Way of the Cross. And, thus unburdened, let us take up the cross, and follow you into glory, to serve God and our neighbor, in radical, self-outpouring love. Amen.