One of my all time favorite movies is The Great Escape. It’s based on the true story of an escape attempt from a German POW camp during WWII. In it the German authorities placed men who had planned and escaped from various prisoner of war camps all over German into one uber-secure camp. They put all their rotten eggs in one basket according to the Commandant of the camp. I get caught up in this movie every time I watch it even though I know how it turns out. *SPOILER ALERT* it doesn’t turn out well for all of them, but each time I watch I hope that this time they will all make it.
The movie includes a scene that is similar to scenes in nearly every movie about WWII in which people are trying to get across the border without proper identification. There is a curt demand for “Papers.” Said papers are then inspected. This is nerve-wracking for the escaping prisoner (or spy or refugee) because those papers have been forged. In this movie the papers have been forged inside a prisoner of war camp with “scrounged” materials and yet they are such good copies they often pass, but the truth is that these people do not have the proper papers. They do not have the proper identification. They are not who they say they are. They are not authorized to go where they are trying to go or do what they are trying to do.
There are all kinds of reasons for people to pretend to be someone else, whether they are impersonating someone or simply don’t want their own true identity known. In this movie it was our heroes who had fake IDs in order to escape the prison camp and get out of Germany. Sometimes the people with fake IDs are trying to enter a place they aren’t supposed to be, like a bar if they are underage or an office full of information if they are a spy. Sometimes people build fake IDs so that they can start their lives over. Sometimes they are using a fake ID to gain our trust because they know their true identity would turn us away.
How do we really know people are who they say they are? Today it is possible to produce all kinds of false documentation that seems to support who they are and what they have done and what they are entitled to do. As a result we use special materials in IDs and we require more documentation before issuing IDs. Not so many years ago, it was even easier to come up with realistic looking papers. I’m reading a novel right now that reminds us that back in 1958 in Maine a driver’s license didn’t have a photo and a Social Security Card was easy to get. There was very little trick to getting these papers.
Do we need to know who someone really is? Well, that depends. It depends on how must trust we are willing or required to put in them. It depends on the level of trust they need from us. Some people are very convincing and inspire trust almost immediately. Some people start slow and take a long time to build up trust before they ask anything of us. Some people are completely trustworthy from the moment we meet them. Some people shouldn’t be trusted any farther than we can pick them up and throw them.
Today’s reading is John 7: 40-53, Jesus didn’t have any papers. He must have been one of those people who is easy to trust because when he asked his disciples to follow him, they did. Some of them dropped what they were doing and just went. The longer they knew him, the more they were able to vouch for him. But most of them weren’t men of authority or reputation. Their word didn’t carry that much weight. Anyone who knew Jesus’ background or who his people had no reason to think they should pay attention to Jesus. he was just Joseph and Mary’s body, from Nazareth no less.
The things that Jesus did spoke for him. People were eye witnesses to his signs and miracles and they spread the word. His reputation traveled much faster than he did and was often waiting for him whenever he arrived at some new place. But the people who were willing to believe he was a great Rabbi, a great healer, even the Messiah, were for the most part simple people who had no authority themselves. Their word, their opinion only counted in their immediate circles. The leaders, the authorities didn’t take their word. They demanded to know who this Jesus person was and who had authorized him to say and do the things he was saying and doing.
What difference did it make who had authorized Jesus? It made a big difference because Jesus was teaching things the authorities didn’t like. He was not following the rules for how and when to do those signs and miracles. If he was the Messiah – the one who had come to restore the kingdom of Israel – he was trouble because he was not supporting the people who were currently in power. If Jesus claimed authority and was given that authority, those who were currently in power would be out and things would be done differently. So the authorities discredited Jesus every way they could. They frequently demanded to know by what authority he was teaching and acting, but the people in the crowds didn’t seem to care if he had any papers. They sent representatives to give him theological tests, but he tripped the testers with their own words. In today’s reading they declared that Jesus could not be the messiah because the scriptures did not say that a messiah would come from Galilee, but from Bethlehem. He couldn’t possibly be the one.
It’s easy for us to laugh at the futility of the chief priests, the scribes, the Pharisees. We know how the story turns out. We know who Jesus was and who sent him and why. And yet, we do the same thing to try to discredit people all the time. If we don’t like what they say or do, the first thing we do is look for a reason not to believe them. There are plenty of people out there who are willing to provide all kinds of reasons not to believe or follow a leader they don’t like. If they can’t find any real reasons, they will make them up.
We set extremely difficult standards for other human beings and when they don’t live up to them, we stop listening to them and following them. That’s what the authorities planned for Jesus. And you know what? It worked. By the time Jesus had died there were few who were still willing to be known as a follower. Even Peter denied him. It wasn’t until after the resurrection that Jesus’ true ID was shown, and that started out small among his closest followers – the people he knew the best – and eventually spread. The whole world didn’t wake up Easter morning singing “Hallelujah!” Nobody did. Not even the disciples. Word of what had actually happened, which by the way was not what they had expected, spread slowly at first before it began to catch on. The truth of his credentials is reflected in the fact that the news kept spreading and didn’t die out even after two thousand years.