Monday, March 09, 2009

Sermon for Second Sunday in Lent (non-lectionary)

(Sermon 3/8/09, Matthew 26:47-56, John 6:1-15)

Simon, The Zealot

Last week when we talked about Judas Iscariot, I mentioned how very little we knew about someone who was so notorious. He was the betrayer of Jesus, but we know hardly anything else about him at all. Well, this week, as we continue looking at characters from the passion story, things get worse, in that regard, not better. Simon, called the Zealot, was another of the twelve disciples. He is not mentioned outside of the list of the twelve disciples at any time, never named specifically in some incident, event, or scene. He’s one of the twelve, and as important as that is, we know nothing about him from the biblical scriptures. There are some writings about him outside the scriptures, and some stories that were built up about Simon over time. For example, the twelve disciples all have a ‘symbol’ that goes with them, and Simon’s is the saw, because he is said to have met his death, his martyrdom, by the saw. But we don’t know much, other than that this word, this loaded word is attached to his name in some of the gospel of Luke – Simon, The Zealot.

The word Zealot has some very specific connotations in first century Israel. Like there are denominations in the same faith tradition of Christianity, there were denominations of sorts in Judaism – sects, or schools of thoughts. We encounter all of them in the gospels, to various degrees. The Pharisees we see most often – the teachers and scholars of the law, who advocated for strict adherence to hundreds of commandments – the group with whom Jesus was most often in conflict. Then there were the Sadducees – the priestly class, who did not believe in resurrection after death, and who appear less frequently, arguing with Jesus, but who also try to trap him theologically. And there were the Essenes. We don’t see much of them in the gospels, but we catch a glimpse in Jesus’ cousin and forerunner, John the Baptist. The Essenes were an ascetic group who lived on the fringes of society. They lived on the outskirts, shunned the comforts of life, and tried to follow a spiritual path, living in community with one another. And then, there’s a fourth group. The Zealots.

The Zealots were a group that really formed cohesively in the years between Jesus’ resurrection and the destroying of the temple by Roman forces in 70 AD. The Zealots were Jews in political movement who sought to overthrow the occupying Roman government by force. They wanted, essentially, to still up rebellion and revolution, and get people to join them in their cause against Rome. They hated that Israel was occupied Rome and considered it, like most Jews did, a desecration of their faith, not to mention oppression of their right to be a self-governing people. But unlike most citizens, the Zealots wanted to take action, to fight, to use violent force to win back freedom. They were successful for a brief time – they led the Jewish Revolt of 66 and regained Jerusalem. But in 70, Rome regained the land and the temple was destroyed.

But in Jesus day, in the 30s when Simon was a disciple, the Zealots weren’t a cohesive group. To call someone a Zealot was more to label them with ideals – they wanted Rome to be overthrown, supported an aggressive response to occupation, but weren’t at the point of organization to lead a revolution. They were zealous – a word that means “ardent or passionate in pursuit” – zealous on behalf of God, and ready to use whatever means possible to bring about God’s kingdom on earth. We have to make some assumptions about Simon, since virtually nothing is given to us in the scriptures texts, but we can gather this: that Simon was zealous – passionate – on God’s behalf – for the bringing about of the kingdom of God, by whatever means necessary. It is this sentiment that is captured in our song “Simon Zealotes” from Jesus Christ Superstar. In the musical, a crowd gathers to dance with joy and to encourage Jesus to take action, to lead a revolution. Simon sings, “Christ, what more do you need to convince that you’ve made it, and you’re easily as strong as the filth from Rome, who rape our country, and who’ve terrorized our people for so long. There must be over fifty thousand, screaming love and more for you. And every one of fifty thousand would do whatever you asked them to. Keep them yelling their devotion, but add a touch of hate at Rome. You will rise to a greater power. We will win ourselves a home. You'll get the power and the glory for ever and ever and ever.”

In the musical, Jesus responds that Simon and the crowds don’t understand what true power is, or what true glory is. And though we don’t have scripture passages that tell us more than Simon’s name and that he was a Zealot, we have these two gospel lessons today that echo Simon’s song and Jesus’ response. First, we read the passage of the feeding of the 5000. Jesus has been preaching, teaching, and healing in a large crowd of people who’ve been following Jesus and the disciples around the countryside. And rather then sending them on long treks back home, Jesus wants the disciples to provide them food. When the disciples seem clueless, Jesus gathers 5 loaves and 2 fish from a small boy, blesses it, and hands it out. Everyone finds they have enough to eat. But whatever miracle took place here isn’t our focus today – it’s on how the crowds responded to Jesus. He fed them, and the people suddenly started calling Jesus a prophet. We read, “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Jesus has to flee the scene because they want to make him king, this man who can provide for their physical needs – heal them and feed them. They want him to be king – but Jesus knows they’re missing the point, and tries, after they still follow him, to show them a different way.

And then, in our gospel lesson from Matthew, we continue in the passion story where we left off last week. Judas betrays Jesus into the hands of the chief priests and elders. And when they move to arrest Jesus, one of the disciples draws a sword – maybe we can even imagine it is Simon, the Zealot – and strikes the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. The disciples are ready for a fight, a confrontation, in which they will defend Jesus using necessary force. But Jesus says, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen this way?” Again, Jesus tries to show even his disciples another way, when they would be ready to fight, to force, and to crown Jesus king on earth.

Do we understand this compulsion the people had to make Jesus king? Can we relate to the feelings of Simon or other Zealots who wanted to use any means necessary to get Rome out of power, out of their sacred and holy lands, out of control of their lives? Can we put ourselves in a first century mindset for a minute? Jesus keeps talking about the kingdom of God being at hand. And here he is, healing people from disease and sickness, providing food for hungry people, and teaching with a wisdom and authority that not even the religious leaders of the day seem to have. Wouldn’t you want Jesus to be the king? And really, what would have been so wrong with that? After all, the golden days of Israel, the good old days that everyone would have talked about were days when a good king ruled over mighty Israel – the days of King David. And isn’t Jesus even from the House of David? Who better to be made king? Finally, things can be restored, the holiness that once was can be regained, things can be right for God’s people again. If you start to think about it this way, doesn’t it make sense for Jesus to be made king? If God wants God’s kingdom on earth, isn’t Jesus-as-king a good way to make it so?

Understanding the first century mindset is the first step. The next is to ask ourselves if we’re really so different today. Maybe we don’t think we’d want Jesus to be our king. But I wonder if things have really changed so much. Aren’t we in fact in desperate need to fix our mess? To overhaul the crises we are currently facing as a nation? If we could find a leader who could end wars, bolster the economy, give us jobs, bail out companies, save our homes, fix the environment, give food to the hungry, educate the children, and keep us the nations of nations, wouldn’t we elect that person? In fact, isn’t that what we expect, in some way, our president to do? And don’t we think about the good old days? I’ve heard a lot of talk lately about former presidencies, and the way things used to be. And we certainly have those conversations in the church, don’t we? About the golden era, when the pews were full? Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone who could just fix things? Make it right? And what would we do, what would be willing to do, to make such a thing possible? If we thought we had a person who could make things right, what wouldn’t we do to get that person into the position of power? Maybe we’re not in first century Jerusalem. Maybe we don’t have a party of Zealots anymore. But maybe we can understand exactly why the people would want Jesus to be king.

So maybe the better question is this: why didn’t Jesus want to be king? Why didn’t Jesus use the Zealots to take control? Why didn’t Jesus ask God to command legions of angels for him? If Jesus is the Savior, why didn’t God put him in place to fix the mess we’ve been making of things? Wouldn’t that have been simple than trying to get this whole kingdom of God thing to spread by word of mouth through faulty disciples who deny and betray Jesus at every turn? Why leave so much up to us? How is Jesus saving us, exactly, if things are still so bad, and if we still have no one in charge who can make it better?

As I was pondering these questions this week, I kept thinking of passages I read in Brian McLaren’s The Secret Message of Jesus, the book we read together as an Administrative Council last year. McLaren writes, “Violent revolutions . . . aren’t revolutionary. Noisy regime changes are utterly predicable – brought about by displays of power and hollow promises and indomitable wealth . . . what is the alternative? We really must consider this question. Could the kingdom of God come with bigger weapons, sharper swords, more clever political organizing? . . . Perhaps the kingdom of God could come with flawless, relentless, irresistible logic – a juggernaut of steamroller counterarguments to flatten every objection. Or would that . . . [reduce] the kingdom of God to a kingdom of coercive stridency? What if the only way for the kingdom of God to come in its true form . . . is through weakness and vulnerability, sacrifice and love? What if it can conquer only by first being conquered? What if being conquered is absolutely necessary to expose . . . these principalities and powers, these human ideologies and counterkingdoms . . . what if the kingdom of God must in these ways fail in order to succeed?” (32, 69, 70)

Hopefully, we’ve understood that Jesus has said God’s kingdom is coming, and is in fact here already, near, at hand, among us. But sometimes when we look around us, and see the way things are, we find it hard to believe that God’s kingdom is really here. And so we start wondering what we can do to move things along. I can admire Simon and the Zealots because of what they were willing to do to bring God’s kingdom about: they’d do anything. But what Jesus tries to tell us over and over is that the coming of God’s kingdom requires of us something that is both simpler and harder at once: Those who want to be first must be last. Those who want to save their life must lose it. Strength is in weakness. To be exalted is to let yourself be humbled. And if those messages are too hard to understand, Jesus showed us: From death comes true life. If any want to be my disciples, he said, let them deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow me.

Neither you Simon, nor the fifty thousand, nor the Romans, nor the Jews, nor Judas, nor the twelve, nor the priests, nor the scribes, nor doomed Jerusalem itself understand what power is, understand what glory is, understand at all . . . to conquer death, you only have to die.”

Amen.

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