A sermon on John 12:20-33 & Jeremiah 31:31-34 by Nathan Nettleton
One of the dominant news stories here in Australia for the past few months has been the story of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran who are on death row in Indonesia and are expected to be executed by firing squad in the near future. The story has receded into the background a little in the last week or so, because suddenly there are doubts again about whether the executions will take place very soon or will now be delayed for weeks or months. The waxing and waning of public interest in the fate of these prisoners has revealed a great deal about public attitudes to law and punishment, and particularly to capital punishment, and perhaps even more it has revealed much about the workings of public anger and public sympathy. And for reasons I’ll get to in a minute, these issues help us to make sense of what is being said in the Bible readings we heard tonight.
The story of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran has been in the news, on and off, for almost ten years. They were arrested in April 2005, along with seven others, and the two of them were accused and convicted of being the organiser and enforcer for an attempt to use the other seven to smuggle a large quantity of heroin to Australia. There is not a lot of public sympathy for drug smugglers, and even less for those who are seen to be intimidating others into smuggling drugs. So for much of the last ten years, both the Australian public and the Indonesian public regarded them as scum who were getting what they deserved. Even those who opposed the death penalty mostly had little sympathy for two who knew the risks and took their chances. But in the last six months or so, there has been a dramatic change in the way they have been seen, especially by the Australian public. As their final pleas for clemency approached and then were rejected, the media and the public took more and more interest in them, and two stories of unusual and remarkable transformation came to light. So much have they both changed that the governor of the prison where they were held described them as model prisoners and testified in court that they should not be executed because of the positive influence they have had on other prisoners and on the culture of the prison. While in prison, Myu Sukumaran has studied for and been awarded a degree in fine arts, and emerged as a significant painter. He set up and ran an arts program and several other educational programs within the prison. Andrew Chan converted to Christianity and after undertaking a theological degree and running church services within the prison, was recently ordained as a pastor by an Australian church. It is usually easy to be cynical about religious conversions on death row, but if you were just trying to curry favour with the authorities, you wouldn’t convert to Christianity in a dominantly Muslim country. Very few of the world’s prison systems have a good record of rehabilitating prisoners, but these two men appear to be very genuinely changed.
But the law is the law, and once the death penalty has been passed, the system seldom takes any account of subsequent change. By definition, the death penalty is not intended as a means of rehabilitation. It is all about public vengeance, deterrence, and purging society of evil doers. And in all likelihood, some time in the next few weeks, these two model prisoners will be tied to posts in the dead of night and killed in a hail of bullets. And there will be more than a few of our fellow Christians around the world who will applaud the tough stance of the Indonesian justice system and say that thus should be the fate of all who seriously violate the laws of God and the law of the land. Which is rather strange, because we are followers of one who was sentenced to death by the state, taken out and tied to a past, and executed with steel spikes driven through his flesh.
The thing is that most people, including many Christians, imagine God to be a lot like a stern president and a tough legal system. They see God as primarily concerned about good and bad behaviour, and with punishing evil doers. They see the state and the judicial systems as being Gods instruments on earth to carry out God’s purposes. But if that were true, how could we possibly also claim that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God’s self in the world? For the Jesus who said “if you have seen me you have seen the Father” did not appear as a member of, or even as a great friend of the political leaders, the religious leaders or the judicial system, but as a convicted criminal facing execution. Where did we see God? Tied to a post and awaiting the deadly hail of bullets or metal spikes.
The story we heard tonight from the gospel according to John appears to have been the moment which, for Jesus, was a bit like the moment when Chan and Sukumaran received the news that their final bid for clemency had been rejected. Several times earlier in the gospel, Jesus has said things like “my time has not yet come,” or “the hour is not yet here,” but here for the first time he says, “This is it. The hour has come,” and he goes on to say several things about being lifted up and dying which the gospel writer sums up by saying that “he said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” I’m not going to try to go into what it was about these Greeks turning up asking to see him that was the signal to Jesus that the time had come, but whatever it was, it was clear to him. He probably knew before this that his mission was likely to end in his death, but like the prisoners on death row, you can mostly go on living with that knowledge until suddenly something extinguishes your last hope that it might be changed. The last appeal is lost and the date is set. The hour has come. And Jesus feels the weight of it. Much like the story the other gospels tell of Jesus’s agonised prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, John tell us here of Jesus saying that his soul is in anguish and that he is tempted to plead with God to get him out of this. Jesus knows what’s coming, and he dreads it just as much as any death row prisoner bracing themselves for the hail of bullets.
The first reading we heard tonight also has something to say about where we might expect to find God in the midst of these situations of law and punishment. Through the prophet Jeremiah we hear God speaking about whole new approach to the law. God talks about replacing the old covenant which was based on external codes of law and order with a new covenant which will no longer require a system of laws and judgements and punishments, because the law will have become something that is inside us, written on our hearts. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” says the Lord. And just in case we misunderstand and don’t think it is really about real life law and punishment issues, the Lord goes on to say, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” In the face of the relentless “tough on sin” and “tough on crime” campaigns that so many Christians eagerly get caught up in and imagine themselves to be the spokespersons of God, God plants his flag firmly in the territory of forgiveness, mercy, and solidarity with the despised, the convicted, and the condemned. “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
A huge part of our problem here is that not only have we so often imagined God as the divine lawmaker, judiciary, and executioner, but we have mostly been unable to imagine any other way to deal with the threat and danger of violence than by meeting it with violence. We are so afraid, completely understandably afraid, of becoming the victims of crime and violence ourselves, that we desperately want someone bigger and stronger to face down that threat and keep us safe. And if part of that is to deter future threats by executing deadly punishment on the perpetrators, so be it. Or if the threat is some foreign military or terrorist force, then we want a strong army to stand in front of us and keep us safe. And so we readily imagine that those who use violence in our name to protect us good people from those evil people are thus doing the will of God and are God’s appointed agents of good in the world.
But something has gone wrong with this picture for us, and the surge of public sympathy for Andrew Chan and Myu Sukumaran has been a good illustration of it. So has the death of Jesus. It is no longer very easy, perhaps not even possible, to maintain the righteous angry consensus that once enabled us to crucify the evildoers and all feel good and pure and vindicated in doing it. The whole of Jerusalem turned on Jesus and filled the streets with cries of “Crucify him. Crucify him.” And for quite a while we were pretty united in our condemnation of Andrew Chan and Myu Sukumaran and happy to leave them to their fate. But when something enables us to see the humanity of the victim, to see that they are just like us, something breaks down. Many a soldier will admit after a time of war, that they were unable to pull the trigger if they could see the faces of their enemies. It is much harder to hate and kill a recognisable real person than the shadowy occupant of an abstract category of evil doer. Instead of seeing a labelled and despised category – drug dealer – we see real people, a gifted painter, a rookie pastor, a maturing human being who knows and regrets the mistakes of his past. Real people, a lot like us. It is the same reason our government wants to keep our immigration detention centres off-shore so that we can’t recognise the shared humanity of the detainees.
We begin to see that our previous lust for the death penalty could only be sustained by distancing ourselves from any recognition of shared humanity. We begin to feel queasy about our own hunger for vengeance, because when we are confronted with genuine and obvious change, we cannot help seeing the pointlessness of such vengeance. Even the prison governor can see that this execution will not purge the world of evil, but will instead make us complicit in a vengeful killing. And most importantly of all, when our gaze is drawn to the convicted criminal hanging on a cross, we realise that even when we are of one mind, chanting “Crucify him. Crucify him,” our euphoric consensus can be horribly horribly wrong. We are not so good at judging evil after all, for we rejected and crucified the one who most fully embodied the love and mercy of God. When we crucified Jesus, we unmasked the truth about ourselves and about the nonsense and futility of our continual quest to use violence to drive out and deter violence.
This is what Jesus meant when we heard him say tonight, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Our whole way of maintaining our society and keeping ourselves safe is exposed and judged when it turns on Jesus and executes him. The ruler of this world, the father of all hatred and hostility who rules by accusation and condemnation, is unmasked and stripped of the power that depended on keeping the victims concealed in a cloak of ‘otherness’. “And,” says Jesus, “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” If you have felt yourself drawn to Andrew Chan and Myu Sukumaran in recent months, there is no need to be embarrassed. For once again, God is with the victims of the world’s systems of harsh judgement, condemnation and punishment, and when we see their faces and sense our shared humanity, God is drawing us to himself and to his kingdom, his culture of radical forgiveness, second chances, personal change and transforming love. Contrary to what we so often project onto God, the God made known in Jesus is not the biggest strongest toughest judge, jury and executioner of them all. The God made known in Jesus does not boorishly try to conquer violence with even greater violence. This God’s only involvement in violence is in suffering it that we might be set free to live in the new covenant with its culture of forgiveness and self-sacrificial love. And that, my friends, is what the voice from heaven meant when it said that God’s name was being glorified when Jesus was being dragged off and lifted up to die. The glory of God is at last displayed for all to see in the self-sacrifice of a convicted criminal strung up to die, and that sight, when we truly open our eyes and see the presence of God in it, draws us all to the light and transforms us, rehabilitates us if you like, for the fullness of life in the kingdom of love.