Later this morning I am going to walk the "Way of the Cross" through the streets of Worcester with Worcester Fellowship, an outdoor ecumenical ministry. Below are some reflections on the meaning of this day, an abridged and edited version of a sermon I preached three years ago during the ecumenical liturgy in Holden. The original post can be found here.
As we come once more to familiar words from the fifteenth chapter of Mark’s Passion Narrative, I am struck at how quickly we tend to simplify this narrative. Underneath all of the betrayal and denial and running there is raw fear, as the violence escalates and the mob gets louder and more hostile.
This is a complex story that has people divided up into camps and shouting at each other. It all happens so fast, including the speedy trial that it is my task to reflect with you on today. In the end, an innocent man is going to end up dead.
You know that is how it ends, right? I would be very surprised if there is anyone in this church today who is so new to the faith that she has never before heard the story. We come here—and this is especially true among the clergy types—with our settled atonement theologies and our Easter sermons mostly written already. We are ready to be on with that part; no need to linger over the death, right? We think we know the story. But we tend to hear it—all of us—through the lens of our preexisting narratives; through what we are certain we already know. And yet so much of what we assume we know would come as a big surprise to Mark—or for that matter Luke or Matthew or John or Paul as well.
Some will say this was the whole plan all along, from Genesis 1: God sends his Son to die for the sins of the world, because of the Sin of Adam. But if we aren’t careful, that simple narrative can sound like God is a child abuser. Others will play the blame game and say that the Jews killed Jesus. But that narrative scapegoats and demonizes God’s chosen people and makes it sound like God hasn’t kept God's promise to the children of Abraham. It also forgets that the man on the cross is a Jew, born to Jewish parents, and that his friends were all in that Upper Room in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, not Easter.
It seems to me that our presumed theologies about what makes this Friday good can keep us from entering into the raw drama of the story itself, which is complex. It's complex because life is complex. Every year someone in my congregation would say to me, "I just don’t get it." And my response was always the same: “Good! When you think you do, that is the time when I’ll start worrying! In the meantime try to live more fully into the questions.”
So what might happen to us if we step back and breathe: if we slow down and wait and reflect until new and better questions emerge?
This day asks us to focus our attention on the Cross—not on our theologies about the Cross. It asks of us that we come and simply stand at the foot of the cross to gaze upon this dying man. And in so doing, to see ourselves and one another in a new light. We gather together on this day at the foot of the Cross, and that is something: young and old, male and female, evangelicals and progressives, gay and straight. In our differences we will no doubt see it all unfold from different angles and perspectives.
We do well to remember that none of us as individuals and none of us as separate congregations possess the whole truth about the meaning of this day. Do we dare to open ourselves up to this crucified God and to each other—to be that vulnerable? Do we dare to let this complex story to take hold in our lives—this Jesus on this Cross who in some ways will always remain a mystery to us. Will we allow the Story itself to transform us and help us to write new, more authentic (and yes!) more complex narratives?
It is much easier, of course, to simplify the narrative so that it neatly fits into our Episcopal or Baptist or Lutheran or Roman Catholic or we-don’t-have-a-middle-name presumptions. But if we seek a larger purpose on this day, if we really do mean to be one in Christ at least for a few hours, then what would it take for us to hear this story in new ways, through a fresh set of ears, and to see what we may not have seen before through new eyes? How are we changed simply by hearing it in the presence of one another?
One of the things I am truly grateful for in this day is the slower pace and the quite time and the space that gives us to ponder such things in our hearts. Because it is in slowing down that we may gain new insights and perspectives on a familiar storyline. I like it that we stand in strange pulpits and sit in different pews. The de-centering can be a good thing, especially if it gives us eyes to see and ears to hear.
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.
It all unfolds so fast. According to Mark, Jesus never says a mumblin’ word. Why is that? Why doesn’t he set the record straight and tell Pilate that he’s only talking about something spiritual, that he is no threat the rulers of this world because he’s only interested in heaven?
Well, of course, the truth about the Reign of God that Jesus came to proclaim is far more complicated than that, isn’t it? Jesus never suggests that it is something merely spiritual, nor that it is a merely a place we go after we die. Like the mustard seed, God’s Reign of justice and love is present here and now, even if in small ways that need to be tended to and cultivated. It breaks into our everyday lives, like when a lost son finds himself making his way back home to a father’s embrace. Except that even as the veal piccata is being served to everyone, sibling rivalry rears its head and the so-called good boy, the dutiful son, suddenly experiences the shadow side of forgiveness and mercy. That’s how families are sometimes. Complicated.
What do you do when a person you fear and mistrust—a Samaritan—behaves like a neighbor, even as the people who go to your church rush on by and pretend they don’t see you. Such moments have the potential to rock our worlds and throw us into temporary disequilibrium. And yet they also open us up to the possibility of real grace and the new and abundant life that Jesus came to offer. That is the Reign of God. And when it breaks in and takes hold of us it changes our lives, and all things are made new again. It changes the way we live and think and act.
So, in fact, the Way of the Cross is actually a very real threat to Pilate and to all imperial power, and to all of our simple narratives and to all the forces of evil in this world that would corrupt and destroy the children of God. The Way of the Cross is a very real threat to the rulers of this age who think they are ultimately in charge. Jesus is a threat because he challenges his followers to ask big questions like, “how much of my life belongs to Caesar anyway? And how much of it belongs to God?” The powers-that-be don’t want such questions asked. And so, as we will soon see, they are about to silence the messenger.
My job today is to talk with you about this trial, but here’s the thing: the trial is a sham. There is no evidence. But that doesn’t mean that in the midst of all that false and conflicting testimony people aren’t certain about what needs to happen. I wish I could tell you that was the last time it happened in human history but it was not: an innocent man is going to death row. End of story. Minds are already made up.
Perhaps the nastiest side of human nature is this tendency to blame and scapegoat others. It is one of the ugliest things human beings do, in my opinion. None of us are immune from the temptation, either. In fact we seem to be living in times that have almost “normalized” this—talk radio and cable television seem to be more about shouting and yelling than informing.
And so when tragedy strikes, it must always be the fault of the liberals, or of the conservatives. Someone is to be to blame: Bush or Obama, the godless atheists or the religious fundamentalists. Gay people, who are a threat to the sanctity of marriage; or homophobes, who want to push all gay people back into the closet. Black people, white people, the third world, the first world, the young, the old, the lazy, the greedy, the unemployed, the Wall Street Bankers. Simple narratives, in which it is so clear who is at fault. Crucify them. Crucify them.
Jesus doesn’t say a word to Pilate. He doesn’t blame anyone. Instead, he silently stretches wide his arms of love to embrace the whole world: all of us saints and sinners. No one is exempted from the reach of that saving embrace. Or as another first century theologian put it: "For God so loved the world…” No exceptions. Not just the Catholics or the Episcopalians or the Baptists. Not just the good Christians who come out to Church on Good Friday. Not just Republicans or Democrats, or Americans…but all the little children of the world, and their parents and grandparents too.
God so loved the world. Breathe that in today and if you take nothing else away with you, take that. Jesus dies even for cynical old Pontius Pilate, who plays the whole thing like the brilliant politician he is. God so loved the world that Jesus dies for Barabbas, a murderer who gets a get-out-of-jail free card. God so loved the world that Jesus dies for the crowd that cried out for blood and for the authorities that lied about him under oath. God so loved the world that Jesus dies for you and for me. No exceptions.
How can we possibly respond to a love so amazing, so divine? It demands nothing less than “our souls, our lives, our all.” It requires of us that we try, with God’s help, to love as we have been loved—as a forgiven and reconciled people. Let us then pray:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.