Whenever I hear today’s Gospel read, I think about the 24 hours that Kathy Hall spent in labor delivering our son, Oliver. It was a difficult labor, and nothing anyone did seemed to make it any easier or bring it more quickly to conclusion. After about 7 or 8 hours of chaotic contractions, Kathy turned to me and said, “You know, I wish I could just get on a bus and go home.”
Eventually things worked out and our son was born. But it was a hard 24 hours, and every time I come up against some difficult challenge that I would just as soon walk away from, I remember Kathy’s remark. “I wish I could just get on a bus and go home.”
We are, today, together in the early part of Holy Week, the week during which Jesus could have gotten on a bus and gone home but didn’t. A New Testament archaeologist friend of mine says that, if you’ve spent any time in Jerusalem, you know that Jesus could have just walked out of the garden into the Kidron valley and gone off to start a new life in India or Japan or any of those countries which claim that he in fact did that. But the testimony of the Gospels is that Jesus did not do that. He did not slip away into the Kidron valley. He did not get on a bus and go home. Instead, it is the testimony of our tradition that he stayed faithful to seeing through the predicament in which he found himself.
"Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say-- `Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name."—John 12
Everything in Jesus’s life and ministry has led him to “this hour.” And as tempted as he is to say, in his understandable human panic “Father, save me from this hour!” he chooses instead to say something else: “Father, glorify your name.”
One of the most arresting moments in both the novel and the movie No Country for Old Men occurs when the seemingly psychotic but philosophically consistent Anton Chigurh enters a gas station and asks the proprietor to flip a coin on a bet. “I didn't put nothin' up.” Says the man. “Yes, you did,” says Chigurh. “You've been putting it up your whole life you just didn't know it. You know what date is on this coin?” The proprietor answers, “No.” Chigurh replies, “1958. It's been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it's here. And it's either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.” If you don’t know what happens next, read the book or ask [Seabury’s resident movie expert] Donna Iolango.
Like a coin that has been traveling twenty-two years to get to this life and death interaction, the ministry of Jesus has been rolling inexorably toward a confrontation with the systems of the world which resist him. The Fourth Gospel portrays that confrontation in extremely stark oppositions: light and darkness, life and death. You and I might use some different terms: compassion versus indifference, justice versus oppression, openness versus exclusion, truth versus lies. The problem which Jesus presents to the authorities is two-fold. Not only is he, as the light of the world, a compelling alternative to the lies by which most human systems are governed; it’s also that his very light exposes the falsity and corruption of what it is they represent. So Jesus comes to this hour neither by bad luck nor bad planning. He comes to this hour because, being who he is, he cannot help but pose a challenge to the very foundation of the systems which oppose him. He has to be eliminated. If he slips away, gets on the bus, he ceases to be the light, the life, the compassion, the justice, the openness, the truth. If he stays faithful both to the logic of his life and the exigencies of this moment, he will glorify the name of the One he calls his father and we call God.
“You've been putting it up your whole life you just didn't know it,” might be the best epigraph for Tuesday in Holy Week. Because, of course, this sacred drama is not only about Jesus; it is about us. In the same way that the logic of Jesus’s life led him to “this hour,” so the logic of each one of our lives leads us, inexorably to the moral and vocational and relational choices that we will be asked to make in our hours. To say that is not in any way to argue for some kind of Christianized idea of fate. But it is to argue, as Ralph Waldo Emerson argued in his great essay, “Compensation”, that character is in fact destiny. Listen to what Emerson says:
The law holds with equal sureness for all right action. Love, and you shall be loved. All love is mathematically just, as much as the two sides of an algebraic equation. The good man has absolute good, which like fire turns every thing to its own nature, so that you cannot do him any harm. [“Compensation” in Essays, First Series]
To speak in twenty-first century English and not nineteenth, Emerson is reminding us that we become what we become by being, over the course of a life, who we are. The gift of being Jesus over a lifetime is that you get to be Jesus; the penalty of being Donald Trump . . .well, you can figure it out.
On this Tuesday in Holy Week, we are walking, with Jesus, through Jerusalem on the way to the cross. At any moment, Jesus could have slipped away, gotten on the bus, but for reasons that have everything to do with who he was, he did not. It’s not that Jesus was “fated” to go to the cross. Nor was it that he somehow courted martyrdom. Rather, he realized that the inexorable trajectory of his life had to bring him to this moment, and to be anything or anyone other than who he was would have been to abrogate the course of his entire life.
On this Tuesday in Holy Week, the Gospel asks us—separately and together—this question. What is the inexorable trajectory of your life? What have you cared about, stood for, worked for, worried about, given yourself over to during the days and years that bring you to this moment? How can you be faithful to your passions and commitments in the work that God is calling you to now? What is so central to your understanding of yourself that without it you cease to be you? It is the answer to this question that the Gospel for Tuesday in Holy Week asks you to claim and carry forward to Good Friday and Easter.
The church always demands sacrifice from its members and its leaders, but it is a grave mistake to think that God wants you to be someone other than who you have been leading up to the present moment. What should we say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that you have come to this hour. Instead we say, “Father, glorify your name." Amen.