Reversion to the Mean

by Jason Micheli

Length: 26:20

Psalm 35, John 15  (click to see Scripture text)

February 28, 2021

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“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.”

Back at the beginning, at the wedding party in Cana, when the father of the groom runs out of booze and Mary pesters her son to do something, Jesus responds, rather rudely, “So the kegs are empty— woman, what concern is that of mine. My hour has not yet come!” 

Here in John’s Gospel today his hour has come. 

We’re on the eve of Good Friday. 

In just a few hours, Peter— scared by a servant girl who finds him in the shadows— will say, Jesus? From Nazareth? Never heard of him.

And a few hours later, we all will say, “Crucify him!” 

A few hours before we do, Jesus tells us today that Good Friday is the inevitable reaction of the world to the God who made it. 

As the ancient church father, Athanasius, puts it, the Lord God spoke the world into existence out of nothingness and ever since the world has appeared hellbent on returning to nothingness— a cosmic reversion to the mean.

Several years ago, my wife, Ali, and I attended a bat-mitzvah for the daughter of a friend. And most of the mitzvah followed the familiar pattern of the other mitzvahs I’ve attended. Emily, her shoulders draped in a light blue prayer shawl, chanted the Shabbat prayers. 

She offered a reflection on the Torah. The rabbi blessed her and her family. But after the final blessing we didn’t get up and move on to the fellowship hall for the kiddush. 

No, before Emily’s father poured any wine for a toast or the deejay spun any records for a party, Emily pulled down a screen and wheeled in a cart carrying a projector and laptop in order to present to all of us sitting there in the synagogue what she called her “mitzvah project.” 

For the next thirty minutes, thirteen year old Emily went through PowerPoint slide after PowerPoint slide documenting in grim detail the persecution and genocide her ancestors had suffered throughout the diaspora and finally in the Shoah. She had done all the research for her mitzvah, names and dates, pins on a map, photographs I wish I could forget. 

A small, hunched woman with white hair wiped her eyes with a handkerchief. As she did so, I noticed the dark but faded numbers tattooed on her wrist. 

The final slide was bare save for a single verse in Hebrew from the psalms, “Do not let my treacherous enemies rejoice over me, or those who hate me without cause wink the eye.” 

After the mitzvah during the kiddush I struck up a conversation with Emily’s rabbi. 

We’d been seated next to each other at table three because, apparently, the one conviction Christians and Jews can all agree on is that at a party where there’s booze and dancing and the potential for fun, it’s a good idea to stick the clergy at the grandma table. 

“I’ve been to several of these,” I said to the rabbi, “but I’ve never seen any with a project like Emily’s— and to think my church people accuse me of being dark.” 

I was joking, trying to shoot the breeze before we went to the buffet. 

And the rabbi turned to me and leaned in over the music, deadly serious, “I require it for all mitzvahs. Otherwise, it’s cruel— it’s cheap sentimentality— to teach them they’re chosen by God if we do not also teach them that to be chosen by God is to bear the rejection of the world. Ever since Jacob’s limp, to be chosen is to be called to suffer.” 

“If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world— therefore the world hates you.”

Here in his final discourse to us, his disciples, Jesus has been talking a lot about home. “Don’t let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus has just told us, “Like a groom does for his bride-to-be before the big day, I’m going ahead of you to prepare a place for you— for us. In my Father’s House, there are many dwelling places— many homes.” 

In the meantime, Jesus says, before I bring you to your eternal domicile, I am your home. Abide in me.

Jesus is our abode. Jesus is our home. Jesus is our shelter-in-person. “I am the true vine,” Jesus says to us, “and you are the branches.”

Here in his final discourse, Jesus has spent all his time talking about home, but now, lest we suffer any illusions of domestic tranquility, before he gets up to go to Gethsemane, Jesus turns from the comforting image of home to the corresponding reality of homelessness. “You do not belong to the world,” Jesus braces us today, “I have chosen you out of the world— therefore the world hates you.” Doubling back to his imagery of the vine and branches, literally in the Greek today, Jesus says, “I have chosen you up out of the world.” 

I have uprooted you from the world and grafted you onto me. 

To be at home in Jesus Christ, therefore, is to be homeless in the world. 

To abide in him is to live at odds with the ways of the world. 

Preaching on today’s text, St. Augustine says, “As Christians, we are both commanded to love the world and forbidden from loving the world.” 

In a few hours, arraigned before Pilate, not yet crowned with thorns, robed in mock majesty, or enthroned upon a tree, Jesus will inform Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” 

My Kingdom is not of this κομίζω.

The world “world” is rarely anything but a pejorative term in the New Testament. “Take heart,” Jesus says to us on the way to the Gethsemane, “I have overcome the κομίζω.” 

In the New Testament, if you want to speak about the world in positive terms, you say “creation.” 

If you want to speak of the world in bondage, as what Paul calls “this present evil age,” then you say κομίζω. 

All of creation, the New Testament suggests, is like the Gerasene demonic, possessed by a power that is not God. 

And so it’s inevitable that whenever the incarnate Exorcist-in-Chief comes close to the κομίζω, we cry out with some echo of “Crucify him!”

“Not all that the world hates is genuine Christianity,” Augustine said, “but the world does hate genuine Christianity and it always will.”

When I was a student at Princeton Seminary, sometime after the September 11th attacks when the public had first learned about the government’s black sites and enhanced interrogation techniques, Dr. George Hunsinger, a Barth scholar and Professor of Theology, convened a protest demonstration, teach-in held in the Mackay Campus Center. “Christians Against Torture,” read the signs posted on trees and cork-boards around town. 

Because Dr. Hunsinger was one of my teachers and because I didn’t think it would hurt to suck up a little and because I was curious to see the fireworks show this protest was sure to spark, I went and sat in the front row. 

Eventually the auditorium was packed, with students sitting on the floor. Dr. Hunsinger opened by praying the Beatitudes, ending with “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 

And then, reviewing some of the latest stories that had been broken by investigative journalists, Dr. Hunsinger delivered a lecture on why it was a moral imperative for Christians in America to organize and oppose the administration’s use of torture in the fight against terrorism. He referenced the sermon on the mount and the imago dei. 

He pointed to Paul and Peter and other apostles who were tortured by the government. 

He banged his fist on the lectern and scolded us, “You can’t call yourself a Christian and support torture! How can you when the Risen Christ is the Crucified Christ. The Jesus who is Lord right now is the Prince of Peace, who commanded his followers not to take up the sword, to turn the other cheek, and to love and pray for their enemies?!”

And that’s right about the moment when the dull grumbling that had been going on in the crowd turned into an ugly roar that sounded a little like Good Friday. 

“Get him out here!” a man with gray hair and tears in his eyes stood up and shouted, “My nephew died in the south tower. If there’s anything we can do to prevent another…it’s just common sense!”

“How dare you!” a middle aged woman growled in a Jersey accent, pointing her finger, shaming him. 

“I fought in the first Gulf War,” an older classmate of mine pushed back, “What are you suggesting people like me do?” 

“Repent,” the professor replied.

“If this is Christianity, there’s a reason fewer and fewer people want anything to do with it,” a heavyset man yelled, putting on his coat and heading towards the door. Many others followed him. 

Finally, a student raised his hand. 

“Professor, God called me to be a pastor. This is my first semester. How do you expect me to win anyone to Christ or attract anyone to Church with a message like yours and the way of life in the world you insist comes with it?” 

“Remember the word that I said to you, “Servants are not greater than their master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.”

Here in John’s Gospel today, it’s only hours before Jesus will be high and lifted up, enthroned upon his cross, and before he takes up his cross, Jesus once again reminds us we may need to take up our own. 

“When the world hates on you,” Jesus says, “don’t beat yourself up or think you’ve done something wrong. Remember, it’s not you, it’s me— they hated me before they hated you. And look, I showed you all the fine print. I called baptism a kind of death. I told you straight up, “Whoever wants to be my disciple, let them take up their cross and follow me.” 

Notice, it’s not that taking up your cross and following Jesus is what justifies you before God. 

No, Jesus and his cross are what justifies you before God. 

But as his disciples, in a world we have made in our own image— barring some miracle— we should not expect the message of Christ and him crucified to elicit any other response but more crosses. 

In a world we’ve done our damnedest to render safe from a God who speaks, we shouldn’t be surprised if following Jesus will entail some hurt and disruption. 

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we should not expect the world to say to us anything other than “Hey, you, I’ve got a cross that will fit your back just fine.”

I’m sorry, if you thought the purpose of Christianity was to equip you to live your best life now. 

No, to be a Christian is not to have all your problems solved. 

To be a Christian is to have Jesus give you all new problems you wouldn’t have had had you not been met by Jesus. 

John Chrysostom, probably the most famous preacher of the early Church, said that “persecution is a sign of virtue, as a Christian, you should only be troubled if you are loved by the world.” 

As disciples of Jesus Christ, our success as a Church might actually be an indicator of a more profound failure. 

If following Jesus Christ in a world that still builds crosses is easy or painless, if Christianity just seems to make everyday, practical sense, if our faith does not give us the right kind of nightmares, then, according to Jesus, we’re probably not following Jesus. 

On the wall outside Mackay Campus Center in Princeton is an iron plaque with columns of names on it, every one the name of a missionary martyred in Asia in service to the proclamation of the Gospel. 

“You will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth,” Jesus says to us at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” 

We forget that in the Greek the word martyr and the word witness are the same word, μάρτυς. 

“You will be my μάρτυς to the ends of the earth, and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” 

Built into the very idea of bearing witness to Jesus Christ in the world is the understanding that most of the world will be resistant to it. 

Do I have to point how different this is from how we’ve done Church in America for the last seventy years? 

For decades, church growth experts have insisted that as long as your church has a good parking lot, a bright nursery, little jargon in the liturgy, music that’s easy to sing, and a sermon that is seeker-sensitive, then, of course, people will say yes to Jesus. 

Wrong, says Jesus today. 

Contrary to popular belief, there is not within us some divine spark, some inchoate inclination, some God-shaped hole that only awaits the right spiritual practice or church program to connect us to God. 

According to the incarnate God, we have no innate capacity for God. We cannot know the true God unless God first turns to us, but when God does turn to us in the flesh— when the Logos gets loquacious— we don’t often like what we hear. 

About fifteen years or so ago, my text for the upcoming Sunday was the Gospel of Matthew, chapter five— the Sermon on the Mount. 

And I was struggling with how to exposit the whole sermon in a single sermon. 

“Why don’t you just deliver the Sermon on the Mount, word for word?” the senior pastor suggested, “Why don’t you make Jesus’s sermon your sermon? We’ll skip the scripture reading and you just deliver Jesus’s sermon?” 

So that’s what I did. I paraphrased parts of it, put it into an everyday idiom. I stood up in the pulpit and preached Jesus’s sermon as though it was mine and then I sat back down. It was certainly the shortest sermon I’ve ever delivered and the least popular. 

At the end of the service, a United States Senator, who was a member of the congregation, marched up to me with his wife on his heels. He pointed his finger at me and he said, “That was the most irresponsible, naive nonsense I’ve ever heard. “Love our enemies? Pray for those who persecute us? Son, I’m on the Senate Intelligence Committee. I don’t think you understand the world.” 

He went to tell me how he was never coming back on a Sunday I was in the pulpit. 

I told the senior pastor how the senator had responded to the sermon. “This was all your idea!” I said. “I was joking,” he replied. 

Later that Sunday, feeling sorry for myself, I called a mentor of mine to tell him how my message had been received. 

He listened to my tale of woe and, when I finished, he paused several moments before he spoke, like he was summoning the necessary patience. 

And then he blistered my ear, “Who told you that you were going into a helping profession? You don’t just have a message. You have a mandate. 

You’re a preacher of Jesus Christ in the most affluent, most powerful— the most militarized and incarcerated— nation the world has ever known. 

Do you know how many people we executed last year? Where in the world did you get the notion that following Jesus Christ in a place like this would be without disruption? Or discomfort? 

If anyone hears and heeds the call it’s a miracle. Jason, you shouldn’t be calling me because you’re bothered this particular sermon got that sort of reaction. You should be calling me because it bothers you so seldom do your sermons get that sort of reaction. If people respond to preaching with anything less “Let’s crucify him!” you’ve got to wonder if it’s really preaching. Now, was there anything else you wanted advice on?” 

“Uh, no, I think I’m good, thank you.” 

Click. 

“Now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. When the Advocate comes, whom I will send, he will bear witness on my behalf. You also are to bear witness because you have been with me from the beginning.”

In a few hours, for a few days, Jesus will be gone. 

The God who speaks safely shut up in a tomb. 

But the world’s hatred of him will not be gone. 

Martin Luther notices the tense of the verb Jesus uses today. 

It’s in the perfect tense. It’s “the world has hated both me and my Father.” 

It’s perfect tense. 

It’s points to a permanent attitude. 

The world’s hatred of Jesus Christ is not a passing phenomenon. 

Just as we abide in Jesus Christ, rooted up out of the world, the world abides in its hostility to him. 

This is the future into which Jesus invites us when he calls us, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

It’s an impossible task. 

But nothing’s impossible for God. 

There was a young woman in one of the congregations I once served. 

She was a straight-A student at an Ivy League college. 

She was nearing graduation, and her parents couldnʼt have been more excited about what lay in her future: maybe a graduate degree at another prestigious school, maybe a career and no less than a six figure salary. 

Instead Beth threw them all for a loop and one day, out of the blue, announced to her parents that rather than doing anything they wanted, she was going to work in a clinic in some poor village in South America. 

I only found out about this when Beth’s mother burst into my office one day. “What if she’s throwing her life away,” her mother worried from across my desk, “What’s she going to do for money? Is it even safe down there? I wish she’d never taken Spanish!” 

“Where did she get the idea?” I asked. 

“Well, that’s just it,” Beth’s mother explained, “she said she got the idea here at church.” 

She stared at me. 

“Now who here put this crazy notion in her head do you think?”

“The Holy Spirit?” 

“Exactly,” she nodded, “It doesn’t mean I like the idea, but isn’t it nice when God breaks in and reminds you he’s real? It’d be too difficult to be a Christian otherwise.”

It’s funny, all our hand-wringing over grace versus works— a lot of it betrays a kind of functional atheism. 

We either act as if it’s up to us to continue the movement the dead Jesus started, or we act as though Jesus saved us from our sins and now he’s safely ensconced in heaven, content to leave us alone. 

No, the Living, Loquacious God is on the move. 

He made the world. It belongs to him. 

He’s determined to get it all back. 

And he’s chosen you to testify. To bear μάρτυς. 

It’s an uphill journey where a cross might be waiting for us at the end. 

The odds are not ever in our favor. 

And yet…

Luther said we have absolutely no right to think our sins are not forgiven because we have a promise from Jesus Christ himself that they are forgiven, “I absolve you, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” 

Likewise, we have no right to think we follow Jesus Christ alone. 

Take him at his word. 

He made a promise that we’d have an Advocate. 

And God is not a liar. 

 

 

Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me;
fight against those who fight against me!
Take hold of shield and buckler,
and rise up to help me!
Draw the spear and javelin
against my pursuers;
say to my soul,
‘I am your salvation.’


Let them be put to shame and dishonour
who seek after my life.
Let them be turned back and confounded
who devise evil against me.
Let them be like chaff before the wind,
with the angel of the Lord driving them on.
Let their way be dark and slippery,
with the angel of the Lord pursuing them.


For without cause they hid their net* for me;
without cause they dug a pit* for my life.
Let ruin come on them unawares.
And let the net that they hid ensnare them;
let them fall in it—to their ruin.


Then my soul shall rejoice in the Lord,
exulting in his deliverance.
All my bones shall say,
‘O Lord, who is like you?
You deliver the weak
from those too strong for them,
the weak and needy from those who despoil them.’


Malicious witnesses rise up;
they ask me about things I do not know.
They repay me evil for good;
my soul is forlorn.
But as for me, when they were sick,
I wore sackcloth;
I afflicted myself with fasting.
I prayed with head bowed* on my bosom,
   as though I grieved for a friend or a brother;
I went about as one who laments for a mother,
bowed down and in mourning.


But at my stumbling they gathered in glee,
they gathered together against me;
ruffians whom I did not know
tore at me without ceasing;
they impiously mocked more and more,*
gnashing at me with their teeth.


How long, O Lord, will you look on?
Rescue me from their ravages,
my life from the lions!
Then I will thank you in the great congregation;
in the mighty throng I will praise you.


Do not let my treacherous enemies rejoice over me,
or those who hate me without cause wink the eye.
For they do not speak peace,
but they conceive deceitful words
against those who are quiet in the land.
They open wide their mouths against me;
they say, ‘Aha, Aha,
our eyes have seen it.’


You have seen, O Lord; do not be silent!
O Lord, do not be far from me!
Wake up! Bestir yourself for my defence,
for my cause, my God and my Lord!
Vindicate me, O Lord, my God,
according to your righteousness,
and do not let them rejoice over me.
Do not let them say to themselves,
‘Aha, we have our heart’s desire.’
Do not let them say, ‘We have swallowed you* up.’


Let all those who rejoice at my calamity
be put to shame and confusion;
let those who exalt themselves against me
be clothed with shame and dishonour.


Let those who desire my vindication
shout for joy and be glad,
and say evermore,
‘Great is the Lord,
who delights in the welfare of his servant.’
Then my tongue shall tell of your righteousness
and of your praise all day long.

‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world,* the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, “Servants* are not greater than their master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin.Whoever hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have sin. But now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. It was to fulfil the word that is written in their law, “They hated me without a cause.”

‘When the Advocate* comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

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