6th Sunday in Easter
S. Easter 6.22 “…Trouble” John 16:23-33
One of my favorite film scenes is in the first “Robocop” movie (an unrecognized work of cinematic genius that is not suitable viewing for kids, but was assigned by my favorite prof in grad school for his legendary class “From Newton to Freud: The Decay of Traditional Christianity” that was… marvelous).
Peter Weller (another unrecognized genius) is the “Robocop”—a Detroit beat cop who has been maimed by gangsters, losing all his limbs and suffering severe cerebral trauma, but is rebuilt as a more extreme version of the 6 Million Dollar Man, a robot very much in the Terminator franchise style, a real killing machine with a sliver of his old human consciousness that produces interesting psychic conflicts for him at key points in the film.
The Robocop faces a Detroit where gangsters—armed with shoulder launched anti-tank missiles, and an arsenal of automatic weapons that would make Putin weep—have almost completely taken over the city (so, basically a late 80’s Detroit documentary, I think?). But, in the Robocop, the bad guys have met their match in a virtually bullet-proof officer of justice with a few neat toys of his own. Delightful mayhem ensures.
My favorite scene is when the RoboCop comes upon a gang of seriously bad apples, a dozen or so, all armed with sawed offs and automatic weapons. The RoboCop appears, is quickly surrounded by the murderous thugs, yet—completely calm—goes: “Come quietly, citizens, or there will be… trouble.”
And there was trouble. Lots of trouble. For the gangsters… 😉
Because of that film, I cannot hear this famous last line of our Gospel today without Jesus sounding a little like the Robocop: “I have said these things to you, citizens, that in me you may have… peace. In the world you will have… trouble.”
It is the laconic understatement of it that is such a joy for us—with the Robocop and Jesus. The Greek is θλιψιν (and I’m not lithpin, that’s how you pronounce θλιψιν, though it’s very easy to say “thlipthin” if you’re not careful 😉 It’s θλιψιν. And it means literally… “trouble”. And you have to pause, very slightly, before you say it, to create the full effect. God is in the… details.
My wife and I were playing a game about what point in time you’d go back to if you had a time machine. I said, hands down, easy peezy lemon squeezy I would go straight to Jerusalem, April 1 30 AD and walk with Jesus through the events of that Holy Week, and the next 40 days. She thought I would find the reality… troubling; but I’m quite confident it would be absolutely glorious to see it with your own eyes. You’d love Jesus even more, I have no doubt…
Anyway, “Tribulation” is not a wrong translation of θλιψιν, but it’s a bit too… grand and lofty rendering of the Greek. The whole effect of the divine understatement is lost when you say “tribulation” because it makes it sound big, bad and catastrophic. And while the θλιψιν that Jesus and the Robocop reference is big, bad, and catastrophic (as the world would judge such things) the laconic word “trouble” is key to the effect, to the insouciance and beauty of the whole passage.
When the Robocop says “Come quietly, or there will be… trouble” (which he says gloriously several more times in the film) you chuckle. While he is a metal man with an Oakley vizor, the Robocop does not look particularly dangerous or threatening. Children like him and are not in any way frightened by his appearance. He looks kinda like the original robot from “Lost in Space” or the “Tin Man” (albeit, with Oakleys) from “The Wizard of Oz”. He looks like he might write you a ticket, give you a stern talking to, or maybe wrap you on the knuckles with a ruler. But not like he’d be bullet-proof, or wield a small, hand-held Gatling canon and unleash a firestorm of destruction. Which he, in fact, does, in the film, to the bad guys…
The similar understatement of Jesus is key, I’m convinced by the Greek, to grasping our Gospel today. Jesus is not one to get all histrionic about the… trouble that faces us as Christians in the world. When the disciples, just 5 days before, sitting in the magnificent temple in Jerusalem (one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world) marvel at how beautiful it all is, Jesus says, laconically, “Oh, I wouldn’t get too attached, if I were you. There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” The disciples freak out. “When will that happen?!” And Jesus says, “soon, in your lifetime; and some of you will get to see it with your own eyes”.
Earlier, he’d told them that, as his apostles, they would be hated by the whole world, persecuted, imprisoned, harassed. But not to worry! The worst they can do is kill you; and the death of the body is not that big a deal. But the disciples think it’s a very big deal! The biggest deal! The one thing Jesus was going to save them from! But he says, “Nah, don’t worry about those who can only kill the body and then have exhausted their arsenal. Fear him who can destroy soul and body in hell…”
But, because the physical torments and threats to our bodies and property are what chiefly concern us in this world (and naturally so) we struggle with Jesus’ laconic, almost indifferent attitude towards physical suffering. That it does not seem quite as big a deal to him as it does to us is… troubling. (See what I did there? 😉
So Jesus never goes into gory details about the trials and tribulations of this world. It’s “a little spot of bother” as the English would say. A little… trouble. But trouble is our business. Trouble is nothing to fear when Jesus goes through it with and for us. Trouble is just a way for Jesus (like the Robocop) to display the true awesomeness of his power.
I had a parishioner who was… troubled by my homily last week when I said Jesus promises joy and sorrow in equal measure. This person thought I was saying that Jesus is a harsh task master who delights in our suffering and doesn’t really care about us that much.
But I misspoke if I created that impression! And I’m sorry for that. If taking the trouble away—the sin and dying, trials and tribulations would fix it, Jesus would take it away, in a heartbeat! The problem with that is the… trouble is the necessary result of the sin we chose. We brought it on ourselves, and unless we fully experience the trouble, feel the badness of sin, we’ll stay that way… forever!
But by dying with Jesus by baptism into his cross and faith in him, what dies in us is the sin and the trouble is made… redemptive—a fire in which is forged a life impervious to death—a body not like a metal man’s, but a perfect likeness of Jesus’ own glorious body. History the way it should have been. The “you” you were meant to be…
Jesus says: the hour is coming when we will run from him like we did in the Garden of Eden, in the cool of the evening breeze. He will be left alone to die on the cross. But he is never alone. And he says these things to us that we may have… peace. In the world we will have… trouble; and Jesus doesn’t want to say too much about the exact nature of the trouble—lest we imagine he doesn’t care, or couldn’t stop it, or that it will be the end of us…
He says: in the world there will be… trouble. But… “take heart! I have overcome the world.” And by faith in Jesus, so have you. For Christ is Risen…