Springfield Cathedral--St Mark's Passion
When we read the Passion like this on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, it sometimes feel likes a sermon is superfluous, an anti-climax. Of course, it’s not, really; it’s not superfluous. It’s important that we break open and shine a light on what we’ve just done and set it in the larger context of everything that we’re going to be doing this week. Nonetheless, there is certainly a level at which the narrative of Jesus’ agony in the garden, his arrest, his two trials, his flogging, his crucifixion, and his death just speaks for itself.
About fifteen years ago there was a controversial movie made by Mel Gibson called The Passion of the Christ. Many people found it revolting, because the graphic detail in which Jesus’ suffering was depicted was monstrously gruesome. Many critics asked, “What’s the point? Why subject the viewer to such gore?” One response to that criticism is surely that the film didn’t depict anything that, according to whatever information we have, didn’t actually happen. If we sanitize it so as to make it less monstrous, is that not a dangerous form of denial? Indeed, what the passion narrative tells us, whether we read it in Mark’s gospel, or one of the other gospels, or see it on the big screen as interpreted by Mel Gibson, is that any level of evil that a human being can experience, Jesus experienced. Jesus took it all. Jesus bore it all. He has suffered the “nth degree” of what the human condition is capable of dishing out. Whatever dark territory our lives might lead us into, we will discover that Jesus is already there, waiting for us.
Sometimes our lives lead us into terrifying, paralyzing fear. Jesus has been there. When he’s alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, he is mortally afraid. He is agitated, worked up. The expression “sweating blood” comes from this very incident. He would very much like to find an exit strategy. He would love to hear God the Father’s voice, as he did at his baptism, as he did at his transfiguration—he would love to hear his Father’s voice say, “OK. I think I know another way to do this. Stand by for a change in plans,” and he would say, “Copy that,” and let out a sigh of relief. The only thing that kept Jesus focused and on task was his utter unity with the Father and the irrevocable commitment of God’s love to redeem all of humanity, indeed, all of creation, from being held hostage by the powers of sin and death.
Sometimes our lives lead us into the land of disappointment. People we trust let us down. People in whom we have seen great potential fail to live up to our expectations. This can be a family member, or a friend, a student or an employee, and it can certainly be a politician, a public leader. Well, Jesus knows that territory well. His own closest disciples, those whom he trusted the most—Peter, James, and John—let him down by falling asleep in his hour of greatest need. Only a few days earlier, Jesus had warned them in his long and dramatic discourse about trials and tribulations that lay ahead for his followers: “Stay awake!” And here they were, as it’s all coming to a head, sound asleep.
Sometimes our passionate hopes are dashed, and our most fervent prayers left apparently unanswered. Jesus knows that road as well. His prayer in the Garden is not a case of just going through the motions. It is deadly earnest. He is afraid and wants the Father to find another way, a Plan B, to accomplish what needs to be accomplished. But what does he hear back? Nothing. Crickets.
At times, our lives lead us into the heartbreak of betrayal. Someone to whom we are emotionally connected, someone to whom we have bared our soul, or our body, or both, someone to whom we have revealed our innermost selves, betrays that trust. It is the deepest kind of hurt, the most searing sort of mental and emotional pain that one human being can inflict on another. Jesus is familiar with that pain. First, Judas, one of the twelve who had been with Jesus for nearly his entire ministry, leaves the Last Supper early for the express purpose of making a deal with the Jewish authorities to sell him out, for thirty pieces of silver. Judas greets Jesus was a treacherous kiss when they come out to arrest him. Then, during Jesus’ first trial before the Sanhedrin, Peter, the first among the apostles, denies even knowing Jesus three times, in rapid succession. The only thing more shocking than Peter’s denial itself is the lightning speed at which he got to that place.
The most unfortunate among us—but, still, way too many people—the most unfortunate among us experience the terror of abandonment. Children are abandoned by their parents every day. Lesser known is the pain of parents being abandoned by their children, but it happens. Husbands leave their wives and wives their husbands. It is still an open wound among thousands of Episcopalians and former Episcopalians that people have abandoned their churches, and their churches have abandoned them. Jesus is familiar with the territory of abandonment. After his arrest, Mark’s gospel records what may be the most poignant words in all of holy scripture, indeed, in all of literature: “And they all forsook him and fled.” The only thing more heart-wrenching than those words is Jesus’ own cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In that moment, Jesus bears witness to being abandoned by God himself.
Again, way too many human beings find themselves faced with excruciating physical pain and humiliation. Injury and death from violence is a ubiquitous experience in many places in our world. Many diseases that eventually kill us subject us to a great deal of pain first. And even if we escape physical pain on our way out of this world, we are still vulnerable to the humiliation that rides on the coattails of our healthcare system. Crucifixion, you know, was engineered to be a method of torture, not mere execution. As a method of execution, it’s grossly inefficient. It’s a slow and painful death. But, for Jesus, there is mental and emotional torture as well. He is crowned with thorns and arrayed in a purple robe, and mocked by the Roman soldiers before they get around to nailing him to the cross. And they also strip him of his clothing, and thereby any shred of dignity. We portray Jesus in our crucifixes with a modest loincloth, but the truth is he was probably deprived of even that.
Then there’s death, the only experience that we all face, and that, when the time comes, we will face alone. Death is the sum of all fears, that from which all forms of sentient life instinctively recoil and will struggle to fend off with every ounce of available energy. And on that cross on which he was nailed, naked to the world and abandoned by God, Jesus breathed his last. He died. His brain was deprived of oxygen. The neurons quit firing. He was stone cold dead as a doornail. It wasn’t an act. Jesus has walked the way of death.
My brothers and sisters, as we venture into this most solemn week of the year, which the Church has observed with great devotion from earliest times, and as we walk through the pain of human experience, we do so in the certain knowledge that, wherever we may go, Jesus is there. He is with us, as a down payment on our redemption, in whatever we go through. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.