The Death of Innocence
For centuries theologians have been arguing as to whether Jesus was truly divine or simply human. Was he God with skin on, walking around with a head full of eternal wisdom; or was he human, learning, growing, making human mistakes? There are those who try to bridge the argument by saying he was perfect humanity. In my mind, that’s just plain cheating. The very definition of humanity is that we are limited and therefore cannot be perfect.
Here’s my take on it. I believe the idea behind the whole incarnation of God, of God coming to us as a child at Christmas, was to become one of us. In doing so, God has shown us the holy within the common, the sacred within the mundane. Notwithstanding, part of what it is to be human is not to know all the answers, not to always know how to act or respond. Discerning, learning, growing is a huge part of what it means to be human.
That being said, I believe that Jesus grew and learned as we do. I believe he learned compassion from his mother; learned devotion from a father who, at an angel’s word, took Jesus and raised him as his own.
I think he learned uncompromising faith from both of them.
I can also envision this. The day Jesus hung up his nail apron, he walked out that door into the world, his heart full of love and his head full of ideologies. He walked into the world, as most young people do, with the naive intent that he could make the world a better place to live.
He had gown up in poverty. He felt the empty gnaw of repression in his own stomach, saw how fear diminished his parents, saw his neighbours’ needs ignored, their lives dispensable to religion and government. All he wanted to do is embrace these children of God. How could that fail? Who could resist being loved?
And, for awhile, no one. Disciples laid down their nets. Villagers opened their homes to him. And why not? He heard the voice of the one lone beggar crying out at the side the road while daily, the masses had walked on by. He spent the time to talk with the woman at the well, felt the desperate touch of a woman who stretched her weary arm through a crowd just in the hope, and hope alone, that he could heal her. He ate at tables where no other respectable person would eat. Even Zacchaeus climbed down a tree to invite him to dinner.
Lately, however, things are not going as well. His teacher, mentor, friend and distant cousin, John the Baptist, had been arrested by Herod.
Jesus has just sent his disciples out on their first mission field. He sits alone as he receives the news that John has been killed. I believe on this day Jesus experienced the death of innocence as we all do, that time when the world becomes much larger than we ever thought; when the bubble of our ideologies bursts and we realize we are not going to fix the world; that we are not even making a little dent in things; the day we understand that our lives are not just going to turn out the way we thought.
John had done nothing wrong. He had only spoken the truth. Herod should not have married his brother Philip’s wife, especially since Philip had no desire to divorce her. Herod had abused his God given authority as King for his own desires.
Today, Jesus learns that the truth doesn’t always set you free, that the rules of right and wrong simply don’t apply to everyone. Apparently, if you are the sole authority, you don’t have to be accountable to yourself. After all, if Trump commits a crime that anyone else would be indicted for, he can simply pardon himself. The day you understand that, that the world doesn’t play fair, nor are all people held under the same morals and ethics, is the day innocence dies.
Sitting alone, head bowed in grief and prayer may have been the moment a great wisdom was revealed to Jesus. “What does it profit a person if they gain the whole world and lose their own souls?” Maybe the harsh realities of life came to him and he thought of his disciples out there spreading the good news. Maybe it wasn’t as easy as just shaking the dust off your feet when people didn’t agree with you. Had he put them in danger’s way? I wonder if through the fog of grief he saw the repercussions of his actions in new light? I wonder if he saw a cross; if, for the first time, he understood that being the ‘sacrificial lamb may mean more than he living a life of an itinerate, living hand to mouth; that maybe there was blood on the wool of this lamb.
This, my friends, is the simple truth of the gospel this morning.
Sometimes death wins. There are times we pray to God with all the desperation of Jesus in Golgotha but to no avail. I am sure that, while John was in prison, Jesus’ soul was full of prayers. But not even Jesus could work a miracle to save him. Sometimes we pray just as hard for those who have cancer, and sometimes they go into remission and sometimes they don’t.
Sometimes we pray just as hard for those who have cancer and they go into remission and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we ask God for something in the confidence of our faith and all our words seem to be nothing more than echoes down an empty hallway. We appease ourselves with clichés like: “There is a reason for everything” or “God’s wisdom is greater than ours and we shall trust in God’s master plan.”
But I have to tell you that I have real trouble with that, as I sit with a grieving parent or a son whose has just tragically lost his mother, and see pain ripping their hearts apart. God has a reason for putting people through that? God is teaching us a lesson through that? I’m not sure I like the heartlessness of such a God.
I can only believe that God’s heart was torn apart the day he saw his own children put their brother Jesus upon that cross. There was nothing good or wise in this. There was no reason for this other than hate and spite. The world could have been saved another way if the world would have allow it, if the world would have listened for something beyond its own needs and greed. Sometimes death wins and life just sucks.
Yet we endure. Let me share with you a story from Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the well-known book on slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. One of the characters in her book, a slave who has just been sold to a notorious plantation owner, says this to him. “Mas’r Legree, as ye have bought me, I’ll be a true and faithful servant to ye. I’ll give you all the work of my hands, all my time, all my strength; but my soul I won’t give up to mortal man. I will hold on to the Lord, and put God’s commands before all, die or live; you may be sure on it. Mas’r Legree, I ain’t a grain afraid to die. I’d die soon as not. Ye may whip me, starve me, burn me—it’ll only send me sooner where I want to go.”
Disease or inhumanity may take your body, but your soul belongs eternally to God.
On April 4th, 1968, James Earl Ray thought he could put an end to all this civil rights nonsense by fatally shooting Martin Luther King Jr. on his motel balcony in Memphis. It only made the movement grow stronger.
After Jesus left this earth, the Followers of the Way built communities of faith and love. They not only met for prayer and worship but the rich supported the poor, the sick were cared for by the strong, the widows became part of a larger family, and all were welcomed to the table. The larger this movement became, the more fearful the Romans became. They tried to stop it in their usual brutal, power-lording ways.
They persecuted the Christians. They pronounced that all Christians were criminals of the state. They severed heads and even threw them to the lions for sport. But they couldn’t take their souls. The movement continued to grow and, as more and more people experienced a loving and equitable way of being in this world, the more the tyranny of Rome became visible. It was the beginning of the fall for Rome.
Think on these people: Gandhi, Anne Frank, Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, George Brown, Thomas D’Arcy McGee (both Fathers of Confederation), the thousands of soldiers who have died for their countries,
all people and more who tyranny tried to silence by destroying their bodies but whose souls they could never possess. Sometimes death wins. Sometimes bad things happen and we are powerless to stop them.
Sometimes people will not want to hear the good news. Sometimes, they will be offended by it because it sheds light on their power base. Sometimes, like Jesus, there is just too much pain and try as we might, we become compassion fatigued and need to leave the world behind and head to the hills. Sometimes, there is just too much pain, too much wrong for us to fix.
In the face of these realities, our faith experiences a death of innocence. Yet as then, the truth of St. Paul’s words could not be spoken loud enough. There is nothing, absolutely nothing stronger than God’s love. For who shall separate us from the love of God? I am sure, that neither death, nor the lives we lead, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This statement comes from one who experienced both the highs and lows of life, who went from being a lawyer to a tent maker, from the royal courts to prison, who went from carrying the royal scepter to being whipped and beaten at the scourging pole. One whose fall from the graces of this world was so great that it blinded him. Yet, they could not take his soul.
That is good enough for me.