Index

Sundays
2nd Quarter
2020

 

J Nichols Adams et al

April 05, 2020 Passion/Palm Sunday

 

 

LectionAid 2nd Quarter 2020

April 05, 2020 Passion/Palm Sunday

The Passion and/or Crucifixion?

Ps 31:9-16; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66 or 27:11-54

Theme: The Passion

Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON

Starting Thoughts

In his book A Crucified Christ in Holy Week, noted Scripture scholar Raymond E. Brown provides ample reflections for pastors, congregations, and readers. He agrees with many exegetes that the gospel traditions were compiled “backwards,” beginning with the death and resurrection of Jesus and working through his public ministry toward his birth. Thus, the basic accounts of our Lord’s Passion were written relatively soon. The literary form of the Passion stories resembles that of a script for a dramatic play with characters, dialogue, and scenes. Inevitably we hearers or readers are drawn into the action as it unfolds and identify with various roles and situations. Brown encourages his readers to participate in the story of the Passion by using their imagination and asking “What-if-I-were” questions.
An “anti-Semitic” charge is often leveled against the passion narratives. Brown honestly admits that such charges are not groundless because some famous Christian theologians have written “statements about the Christian duty to hate or punish the Jews because they killed the Lord.” Brown does not agree with removing “anti-Semitic” passages from our readings during Holy Week, because this would perpetuate a fallacy that “accepts unthinkingly everything in the Bible” without distinguishing between “revelation” and “inerrancy.”
We are reminded of the same controversy we recently heard surrounding the movie The Passion of the Christ. We can still hear the critics saying again and again that the movie wasanti-Semitic. This criticism did not go away even after many Jewish groups had had seen the movie and said it was not. The same problem has appeared again after 2000 years. So, what can we learn?
We need to keep two things in mind. Returning to Brown who quotes Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum on Divine Revelation, #11, in which it limits inerrancy: “The books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.” (Emphases added) In other words, God inspires everything written by authors in the Scriptures, but not every position taken by an author is necessarily inerrant.
Brown’s preference in confronting the “anti-Semitic” issue is “to continue to read the unabridged passion accounts in Holy Week…but once having read them, to preach forcefully that such hostility between Christian and Jew cannot be continued today and is against our fundamental understanding of Christianity.”
This approach will also educate believers about the limitations imposed on the Bible because of circumstances surrounding its writing. We must learn that even though some attitudes found in the Scriptures may be “explicable in the times in which they originated; they may be wrong attitudes if repeated today.” Indeed, God has revealed important truths to us through the Bible, but in the imperfect “words of men.”
Brown explores the question of how Jesus himself viewed his death. Although the synoptic gospels have parallels of our Lord’s three predictions of his death, Brown wonders if Jesus did actually foresee his crucifixion. Brown proposes the following explanation: “Jesus may have originally expressed general premonitions about his suffering and death (a hostile fate discoverable from the example of the prophets), plus a firm trust that God would make him victorious (without knowing exactly how).”
How did early Christians view Christ’s death? Although later writers and artists often dwelt on the pathos, emotions, and sufferings of the passion, these elements are missing in the gospels. “Not biography but theology dominated the choice of events to be narrated,” Brown writes, “and the OT was the theological source-book of the time.” In other words, the evangelists did not make up details of the passion in order to fulfill OT texts, but relied on the Scriptures of Israel to emphasize how much God had already taught about his Son. Thus, details such as the division of his garments and the piercing of his side were important to the early disciples “because they found them anticipated in the OT psalms and prophets.”
When Brown analyzes Matthew’s version of the passion in particular, he emphasizes how important it is to treat it with reference to the whole gospel. For example, the only two scenes in Matthew that refer to Jesus as “the King of the Jews” bracket his life. At the birth of Jesus astrologers from the East come to Jerusalem inquiring, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” prompting King Herod to “seek for the child to destroy him.” (2:1-3.13.20). During the passion Pilate questions Jesus about being the “king of the Jews,” the soldiers mock him as such after the crowning with thorns, and the inscription above Jesus when he hung on the cross labeled him that way.
During his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus withdraws to pray and three times returns to his three disciples (Peter, James, and John) to find them sleeping. These scenes “exemplify the well-attested literary pattern of the ‘the three,’ namely that stories are effective and balanced if three characters or three incidents are included.” (p. 37) Later, we encounter the threefold denial by Peter. The prayer of Jesus in the garden echoes the prayer he taught his disciples, even though we might wonder how anyone could anyone hear his prayer if the disciples were sleeping some distance away. Brown refers to a tradition in Hebrews 5:7 that Jesus prayed when he faced death. In addition, Brown finds it reasonable to assume that early Christian reflection would “fill in this prayer with words patterned on Jesus’ prayer during his ministry. This would have been a way of affirming that Jesus’ relationship to his Father remained consistent through life and death.” (p. 36) Although the Father does not answer Jesus’ prayer by removing his cup of suffering, Brown notes that the garden scene begins with Jesus prostrate and deeply troubled, but ends with Jesus on his feet and determined to do his Father’s will: “Get up! Let us be on our way! See, my betrayer is here.” (26:46) Jesus is up and ready to face what he must face.
Although the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin during the middle of the night raises several questions, Brown chooses to emphasize instead Matthew’s theological purpose to convince his readers that Jesus was totally innocent of the blasphemy charges.
In the trial before Pilate, Matthew points out the irony of a Gentile woman (Pilate’s wife) recognizing Jesus’ innocence and pleading for his release, while the Jewish leaders incite the crowd to clamor for the release of a guilty criminal Barabbas and for the death of Jesus. In his commentary on the verse, “His blood be on us and on our children,” Brown returns to the question of anti-Semitism: “No line in the passion narratives has done more to embitter Jewish and Christian relations than this.” Brown acknowledges that “Matthew’s attitude here is generalizing and hostile,” but finds some softening or “amelioration” in Matthew’s last-supper verse: “All of you must drink from it, for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, to be poured in behalf of many [all] for the forgiveness of sins.” (26:27-28)
Not the Jews, but all of us where the cause of Jesus suffering. When Franklin Graham was confronted by Katie Couric of the Today show about the movie The Passion with the criticism that the movie. was anti-Semitic Franklin Graham gave the same answer we so clearly find in Brown. Franklin Graham the son of Billy Graham without realizing it echoed Brown’s words. To paraphrase him we are all the reason for the death of Jesus on the cross. Jesus suffered so that our sins could be forgiven. Jesus suffered so that all sin could be removed. It is not Jew against Christian, but Jesus for us all. Jesus in fact died to get rid of the division; the evil of making one group less and one group more. So, when make Jesus death a reason for division we miss the whole point of His suffering and death. Jesus did it for us all and because of us all. Jesus suffered to get rid of all humankinds suffering not just one group. It is sad to think that we still use that suffering to divide one human being from another.
Finally, in the death and burial scenes, we see once more the pattern of “the three” as three groups deride Jesus on the cross: the general group of bystanders, the chief priests, scribes and elders, and the two insurgents who were crucified with Jesus. Brown does not interpret our Lord’s last words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” as an utterance of despair. On the contrary, he points out that Jesus still addresses his words to “my God,” and, referring to the Christology of Hebrews, he considers the cry a sign of his human condition. Matthew uses unusual signs to connect once more our Christ’s birth (marked by a star in the sky) and his death (marked by darkness, an earthquake, and the opening of tombs). In keeping with his apologetic approach in the gospel, Matthew has the chief priests bribe the soldier guards to lie about the empty tomb. Matthew uses the story of the guards at the tomb theologically to illustrate the mighty power of God. Men can do all they can to foil God’s plans by sealing Christ’s tomb, guarding it, and spreading lies. “Yet the God who shook the earth when Jesus died will shake it again on Sunday morning; the guards will grovel in fear (28:2-4); and the tomb will be opened to stand as an eloquent witness that God has verified the last promise made by His Son: Jesus sits at the right hand of the Power (26:64).” (Raymond E. Brown, A Crucified Christ in Holy Week [Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1986], pp. 34-46)

Exegetical Comments

‘And I thought you were my friend!’
The words were meant to sting, and they did. I looked from one man to the other. The meeting had collapsed into bitter accusations, and this was the final one. The speaker got up from his chair and went over to the window, hiding his tears. The other stayed silent, looking as though he’d just had his face slapped. I was powerless to do or say anything. The chairman quietly suggested we adjourn the meeting, and we all scuttled off gratefully, eager to escape the embarrassment and horror of a shattered relationship.
It’s one thing to cheat someone—in business, in politics, in love. It’s always ugly and mean. It’s always wrong. But betrayal adds a different dimension. It’s like setting deceit to music. And the music is always the sort that makes you squirm in your chair, going cross-eyed with the discords and clashes and wondering if it will ever resolve itself.
Well, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. There is something horribly final about betrayal. Oh, it’s possible to forgive someone, and of course we are commanded to do so. But forgiveness—going without revenge, continuing to love the person as we love ourselves—doesn’t necessarily mean we can ever place the same trust in them again. Would you walk along the branch of a tree that had been sawn through, even if you were told it had been mended? Would you ever again feel at ease with the best friend who had seduced your spouse?
The fact that these very searching human questions are raised here shows what kind of a narrative we are dealing with. The figure of Judas is one of the deepest and darkest not only in the gospels but in all literature. People have written whole books trying to get to the bottom of what precisely he did and why. Sometimes he has been used, in much later so-called Christian thinking, as a reason to attack the Jews. His name, after all, is ‘Judah’, the same root word as ‘Judaea’; and in Greek the word for ‘Jews’ is Ioudaioi, ‘Judaea-people’, ‘Judah-people’, ‘Judas-people’. More recently, some have reacted against this madness in the opposite direction, either suggesting that Judas never existed and that the gospel writers invented him as an anti-Jewish move, or that what he did wasn’t betrayal, but part of what Jesus had intended all along.
None of this gets near the heart of the matter. All the characters in the story, except the Roman officials, are of course Jews. And ‘Judas’, like ‘Jesus’, was a very common name among first-century Jews. Judah was the patriarch from whose family King David had come; Judas Maccabaeus was the great hero of two centuries before, who had liberated Judaea from the Syrians. The leader of the tax revolt during Jesus’ boyhood was called ‘Judas the Galilean’. The name had both royal and revolutionary echoes. One of Jesus’ own brothers was called Judas. It’s not surprising there were two people with that name among the Twelve (the other one is probably the same person as ‘Thaddaeus’ in 10:3).
We constantly have to remind ourselves, in reading this story, that when Jesus said ‘one of you will betray me’, the other eleven disciples didn’t at once turn round and point knowingly at Judas. The lists of disciples, like the one in 10:2–4, put him last, and mention the horrible act which has tainted his name from that day to this. But that only shows that the lists were written up later. As far as the other eleven were concerned, he was one of them, sharing their common life, a trusted and valued friend and comrade. He had seen Jesus’ wonderful healings. He had heard the parables. He had agreed with Peter that Jesus was the Messiah. He had come with them into Jerusalem, singing Hosannas, laying his coat on the road, watching in glee as Jesus upset tables, chairs, coins and doves in the Temple. He wasn’t any different from the rest of them.
But now it had all gone horribly wrong. I suspect that even if we were to transport all we now know of psychology back to the first century, and gain an interview with Judas on the day of the Last Supper, and even if he co-operated and answered all our questions, we still wouldn’t get to the bottom of it, to a single identifiable motive that would make us say, ‘Of course! That’s why he did it.’ Evil isn’t like that. It’s ultimately absurd. That’s part of its danger and darkness.
It wasn’t just the money, though that may have helped. If he was going to break ranks with the others, he would need something to help him get started on a different life somewhere else. But the decision to hand Jesus over probably came first. It may have been partly an angry disappointment at the fact that Jesus, having caused such a stir in Jerusalem, was now talking again about going to his death, instead of planning the great moment when he would take over Jerusalem and become king. Maybe Judas had hoped, as James and John had hoped, that he would be Jesus’ right-hand man in the new regime. After all, he was the group’s treasurer, trusted and valued. Maybe he’d been cherishing all sorts of plans for what he would do when the kingdom came. Maybe there was a nice little farm back in Galilee that he’d long had his eye on …
Who knows? We certainly don’t, and frankly I’m happy not to peer down that murky well for too long. I might see reflections I find disturbing.
But in the middle of the picture once more, almost serene though deeply sad, is Jesus himself, arranging a secret Passover celebration with an unnamed supporter in the city itself, sitting with the Twelve and telling them what was about to happen. The sorrow of his approaching ordeal was overlaid with the sorrow of betrayal. And in that moment we glimpse one element of the meaning of the cross.
Jesus was going to his death wounded by the wounds common to humanity. Greed, lust, ambition: all kinds of natural drives and desires turned in on themselves rather than doing the outward-looking work the creator intended them to. When we say that Jesus died ‘because of our sins’, we don’t just mean that in some high-flown, abstract sense. We mean that what put him on the cross was precisely the sins that we all not only commit but wallow in. ‘It isn’t me, is it, Master?’ Only when you’ve said that, knowing that it might well be you, can you begin to appreciate what it meant for Jesus to sit at that table and share that Passover meal with them, with Judas too. Or what it means that he has promised to share his feast with us as well. (Wright, T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 2 [2004, London] pp. 149–153)

Preaching Possibilities

How do we deal with the Passion, i.e. the crucifixion of Christ? Is it a mystery or a fact or something just from history or the mist of time? None of these. It is the one true life changing even we can all take in and be a part of.

Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON

Different Sermon Illustrations

The Gospel narratives of the Passion of Christ are not the result of human invention but of divine revelation. They are not some myth or script for a movie but events that give meaning to our lives. The following are illustrations of how people have found profound meaning in their lives because of the Passion of Christ, not just because it is an inspiring story but because of the graces God gave them that flowed from it.
Who has not heard of St. Francis of Assisi? We are attracted to his charming garden statues in which he is surrounded by birds and animals, and to the Christmas cribs that he popularized. However, few feel drawn to the stigmata he bore in his body as an outward sign of his interior closeness to the wounded Christ on the cross. St. Francis’ meditations on the passion of Jesus were a source of the peace he possessed and passed on to others. His famous prayer, “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace,” is still a favorite of many, but again few are willing to pay the price he paid to enter into that peace.
While not as popular as St. Francis, his “soul sister” St. Clare of Assisi (1193-1252) was just as passionate and daring in her love for Christ. Although Clare lived in the 13th century, the culture of her time had striking similarities to that of our 21st century—a preoccupation with materialism, excessive violence, a wide gap between haves and have-nots, sexism, scandals in the Church, and Islamic hostilities. “On Palm Sunday, in the dead of night, this 18-year-old left behind the security, property and social status of her family. It was a bold move. Women of her time had no option for independent choice. In the face of violent family opposition and patronizing ecclesial resistance, Clare dared to create a lifestyle based on the privilege of living without privilege.”
Today, over 800 years later, thousands of women all over the world continue to share her vision by living as Poor Clares. In the midst of their voluntary life of poverty in a cloister and through their contemplation of Christ on the cross, they find immense peace and meaning in their ministry. (Sr. Francis Therese Woznicki, SSJ-TOSF, “Clare of Assisi,” Gathering Place, vol. 3. no.2 [Chicago: Public Relations Office, SSJ-TOSF], pp. 4-7)

Charles Kinnard Chiplin is an ordained Baptist minister who was born on September 9, 1947, in Vicksburg, Mississippi, one of nine children. His father James grew up on a plantation but moved to Vicksburg where he learned to cut glass. His mother Rosa was an excellent cook and a devoted housekeeper. Both of Rev. Chiplin’s parents were strong, religious and talented people who were pioneers in the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa worked as a cook at the Old Southern Tea Room but when they wanted her to wear a red bandana and bossed her as if she were a slave, she quit. His father was a glazier and was fired one time from the Vicksburg Paint and Glass Company because he signed a petition for black children to receive, not integrated education, but simply an equal education. When he was in the third or fourth grade, Charles himself had refused to sit at the back of the bus (this was before Rosa Parks), and so the bus driver made him get off near the downtown jail where his father had to come and pick him up. In 1964, his parents housed Freedom Summer (1964) volunteers during the boycotts that started in Vicksburg. As a result, threats were made on their lives, and their grocery store was bombed along with a freedom school. Only seventeen during that same summer, Charles went to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City where the Freedom Democratic Party delegates attempted to unseat the Mississippi party regulars.
Rev. Charles Chiplin’s parents passed on to him their deep religious faith, their habit of helping people in need, and their pride in being black. When they owned the grocery store and restaurant, his mother gave away more food than she sold because she believed that if she could help somebody, then her living was not in vain. Chiplin’s self-educated father, who never had a chance to finish grade school, once told him: “Get yourself a good education. Associate with people who are trying to advance themselves. Pray daily. Do some things to help other people. Never forget who you are.” When interviewed about his book called Roads from the Bottom, Chiplin explained that the bottom was the foot of several hills where black people lived in shacks with news papered walls and outhouses, while white people lived at the top of the hills in beautiful Southern antebellum homes. When they were little, the Chiplin children would ask their father why they had to live at the bottom. He would answer, “Well, you can get out of this bottom, and you don’t ever have to move.” Only later during the civil rights movement did they learn what he meant—getting out of the bottom did not mean moving but improving their attitudes and minds by taking the roads of education. Because he knew his parents’ story of struggle against racism and prejudice, Rev. Charles Chiplin wrote his book to address these social injustices and what black people themselves had to do to take these Roads from the Bottom.
Charles Chiplin has spent his life practicing the many priceless lessons he had learned from his parents. He has earned several college degrees including a doctorate; he has served in many Baptist churches as a musician and ordained minister; he has been involved in rehabilitative prison programs; and he has written numerous screenplays, stage plays, essays, and books. Chiplin has found meaning and fulfillment in his many ministries because he believes that by emptying himself for others as Christ did on the cross, he will share in Christ’s exaltation. The struggles he has encountered and surmounted have made him stronger and more steadfast in his quest for human dignity, civil rights, and equal opportunities for African-Americans. (Don Williams, An Oral History with Rev. Charles K. Chiplin [Tougaloo, MS: Tougaloo College Archives, 1999])

Memento Mori are reminders that all men die. The word comes from the Latin, meaning “reminder of death.” During the Middle Ages, because of recurring plagues, human mortality was a frequent topic of preaching and people became fascinated with the physical properties of death almost to the point of overshadowing the Christian message of the Resurrection. This morbid fascination became enormously popular and resulted in works of art including paintings, statues, plays, dances, and other daily reminders of death. One of the greatest plays of this time period, Everyman, showed death in a powerful allegory. It reminded the audience that at the moment of death all things forsake Everyman except his good deeds. Again, the theme of the Danse Macabre, the Dance of Death, fired the medieval imagination through woodcuts, poetry, murals, and wall paintings. The artist Hans Holbein illustrated it with his famous paintings of dancing skeletons. Unlike Guadalupe Posado’s happy skeletons of our own century, these medieval portraits were of desiccated corpses, reminding the viewer of the shortness of life and the vanity of all earthly things.
The Artes Moriendi was a book popular in the 15th century; with its dramatic text and dreadful engravings, it was an effective treatise on the technique of dying well. Each page was illustrated with an engraving so that even the illiterate could understand. The book tells of the anguish of a dying man, tormented by demons and surrounded by the pacing gods of hell. If, at the last moment, he despairs, his soul goes to the enemy. The dying man is exposed to five temptations and five times God sends his angel to assist and console him. The artist thus conveys the struggle by which a soul is born to eternal life. The book contains St. Bernard’s prayer: “O Virgin, protect him….May the Christian learn while there is still time to die well and to save his soul.”
By the 16th and up to the 19th century, skulls were engraved on household articles including dinnerware and furniture, and both men and women wore jewelry displaying symbols of death called “vanities” to remind them that all earthly things are vanity. Girolanmo Savonarola, an Italian reformer, recommended that everyone carry a small death’s head made of bone and look at it often. In today’s materialistic world, some memento mori such as bible markers are returning to popularity as sacramentals. These can remind us that our fear of death should be combined with our joy at the hope of life everlasting. Our Christian faith proclaims that our loved ones do not die; they live again in God! Finally, it is through the crucifixion that we see the bountiful promise of the resurrection. Because the risen Jesus lives, we too shall live. (Rev. John R. Whitley, C.S.B., Basilian Fathers Missions Newsletter, Vol. 5, No. 1 [Sugar Land, TX: Basilian Fathers Missions] p. 1) (Ann Ball, Catholic Book of the Dead [Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1995])

Philip Burguieres never dreamed of being in the NFL, but that’s where he finds himself today as Sage almost made it as a late-round draft choice of the Philadelphia Eagles after a standout career as a defensive tackle at LSU before deciding to move his life in another direction. Now the two longtime friends, whose bond was strengthened by their mutual battle with depression, are teammates in a cause totally separate from their sporting ties. Burguieres spent much of his life running some of the largest companies in the world as a CEO before going through a mental health crisis. As Burguieres was sinking into depression, Sage was coming out of his depression. In June 1993, Sage saw his world turned upside down after his sister Marilyn was brutally murdered by two strangers with knives. Because they were born only 19 months apart, they had grown up together and became very close friends. “That horrible tragedy put me in a real bad valley of anger, rage, revenge, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.” As Sage searched for ways to climb out of his depression, someone suggested he visit a prison in Richmond, where a project was under way to link victims and family members of victims to inmates who had committed acts similar to those that had destroyed their loved ones. This experience had such an effect on Sage’s life that he eventually was able to forgive the people who murdered his sister, and in 1998, he founded Bridges To Life, a faith-based nonprofit group that brings crime victims into prisons across Texas to meet with inmates. This year alone, Bridges To Life will have more than 300 volunteers contributing in excess of 25,000 hours. Last week, Sage was in New York as the 2004 recipient of the Social Entrepreneurship Award, given by the Manhattan Institute. “Having gone through health problems, John and I became friends really fast,” said Burguieres, who is now chairman of the board for Bridges To Life. “We both started looking around for what we’d do with the rest of our lives. John started working in prisons, I got interested in what he was doing and developed a lot of resources to help raise money. In a very real sense, it brings more joy to me than anything I’ve ever done.”
Sage, who grew up in Houston and attended St. Thomas High School, spends about 100 days a year inside prisons. During his projects, he’s seen murderers admit their crimes for the first time, and he’s seen victims move past their pain to regain a trust in others; he’s seen ex-convicts rehabilitated and begin to lead productive lives. “It was great to play football and I’m glad I did….We were in the top 10 in the nation two of the three years I played at LSU…But it doesn’t have the same depth of affecting human lives. That was more for yourself. This has been more giving and what you can do for someone else. The paradox is that in giving, you receive so much.” (Carlton Thompson, “Friends Find Peace Inside Prison,” Houston Chronicle, October 23, 2004)

Three saints whose names are associated with the cross of Jesus are St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), St. Paul of the Cross (1694-1775), and St. Edith Stein (1891-1942), whose Carmelite name was Sister Teresa Benedicta a Cruce—Blessed by the Cross. Contrary to contemporary culture’s inclination to avoid the cross at all costs, these saints gladly embraced it. Their love for the crucified Christ was not derived from a dysfunctional and morbid neurosis but from a deep and joyful devotion. The Passion was so real and compelling to these saints that it flooded them with a firm faith, a steadfast hope, and an intense love, and it inspired them to give themselves completely to the service of Jesus and his Church. This positive view of the cross is reflected in their lives and in some of their sayings.
St. John of the Cross had such a high appreciation of difficulties within his Community and with aridity in prayer as a way to advance in virtue that he wrote a book that has become a classic—The Dark Night of the Soul. He stressed the need for detachment, asceticism, and self-discipline in our lives, but his priority was always love—”In the evening of life, you will be examined on love alone. Learn to love as God desires to be loved and abandon your own ways of acting.”
St. Paul of the Cross had such a “single-minded devotion to the cross” that it summed up his entire life, justified his name, and impelled him to establish the Congregation of the Passion (Passionists) to promote remembrance of the sufferings of Jesus. Why the cross? Because the cross is the symbol telling us that God’s love is stronger than death and leads to resurrection; it reminds us to work for the cause of justice because Christ was executed for challenging accepted values; it calls us to have compassion for all who bear the cross today—the disabled, the sick, victims of violence—all who bear the burden of suffering. St. Paul of the Cross understood and lived by the paradox of the cross: “Your crosses, dear God, are the joy of my heart. How beautiful to suffer with Jesus.”
St. Edith Stein was born an orthodox Jew, became a teenage atheist, earned a doctorate in philosophy, and then taught and wrote extensively in universities. After World War I Edith felt a growing interest in religion, read the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, and converted to Catholicism. In 1932 she was fired from an academic position in Munster because she was born a Jew. However, Edith viewed the event as an opportunity to act on a desire she had for some time and joined a Carmelite monastery in Cologne. The religious name she chose for herself was Sister Teresa Blessed by the Cross. Some years later in 1939 she explained: “By the cross I understand the destiny of God’s people…Certainly, today I know more of what it means to be wedded to the Lord in the sign of the Cross. Of course, one can never comprehend it, for it is a mystery.” When World War II broke out in 1939 followed by the persecution of Jews, the Carmelites moved Edith to a house in Holland. On August 2, 1942, the Nazis arrested her at the convent and executed her a week later at Auschwitz.

Even though Jesus endured such horrible suffering, he maintained a willingness to forgive those who had wronged him. Everett Worthington is a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University and is a pioneer in the field of forgiveness research. In his studies, he has found that people who do not forgive the wrongs that are committed against them tend to experience a number of negative effects: “more stress-related disorders, lower immune system functioning, and worse rates of cardiovascular disease than the population as a whole.” (Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse [New York: Random House, 2003], p. 232)

The forgiveness that Jesus was able to display throughout his Passion is an ability that most of us have to learn as we mature. A study at the University of Wisconsin revealed that older people are more likely to forgive than younger people. The researchers suggest that “the ability to forgive may be a form of wisdom, something that is learned during the passage of time.” Everyday experience confirms that research. The typical teenager or young adult is more hot-headed than the average senior citizen. The research seems to indicate that hot-headedness declines not because people lose the passion of youth but because they acquire a certain wisdom that comes from experience. (Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: Although we consider the symbol of the cross to be at the heart of the Passion story, the cross did not become a commonly used symbol for the Christian faith until the fourth century. C. S. Lewis pointed out that the cross did not make frequent appearances in Christian artwork until all those who had seen a crucifixion firsthand had died off. (Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995], pp. 202-203)

At the heart of the Passion story is a statement about God’s desire to deal with human sin. Unfortunately there are many people in the world today who feel the burden of sin in their lives, but they do not know what to do about it. A web site has been set up in Britain, TheConfessor.co.uk. Visitors to the sight view blue-sky panels with a series of passages from the Bible that speak of sin and the redemptive value of confession. Visitors are then invited to enter their wrongdoings. There is no charge to use the site, and no request for donations is made. Yet at the same time there is no mention made of forgiveness, from God or from anyone else. Over 16,000 people visit that site each day to unload their guilt and pain anonymously. (Robert L. Browning and Roy A. Reed, Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Moral Courage: Motives and Designs for Ministry in a Troubled World [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], p. 3)

Many people might assume that retaliation would be the appropriate response to a violent death such as Jesus endured. However, God’s response instead was mercy. When a student at Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky, went on a shooting rampage, killing three and wounding five others, the school and community were forced to decide how to respond to that tragedy. A Christian group of youth, called Chrysalis, decided that they were going to urge the community to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. They taped up posters in the hallways at the school that said, “We forgive you, Mike.” Almost at once, the group’s membership swelled from 35 to more than 200. One of the girls that was wounded in the shooting, who had become paralyzed by a bullet, sent a message to the group expressing her forgiveness for the assailant. Ministers and other church members volunteered to help counsel students and parents. That youth group succeeded in taking the church’s message of forgiveness outside the walls of the church and into a hurting world. (Robert L. Browning and Roy A. Reed, Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Moral Courage: Motives and Designs for Ministry in a Troubled World [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], p. 165)

Oftentimes the cross, which plays such a prominent role in the Passion story, has been used by Christians as a symbol they have carried with them as they have done battle against those whom they perceive to be enemies of Christ. Such was the case during the Crusades when Christians from across Europe marched under the banner of the cross as they brought death and destruction to many as they made their way toward the Holy Land. Several years ago a group of Christians organized an effort to attempt to undo some of the evil that was wrought centuries ago by those who misused the cross in that way. The project became known as a Reconciliation Walk. Over a three-year period, roughly following the timeline of the original Crusaders, approximately 2,500 people took part in a journey from Cologne, Germany, where the first Crusaders commenced from, to Jerusalem. Along the way that group of Christians entered into dialogue with Muslims, Jews, and Orthodox Christians, many of whose ancestors suffered atrocities at the hands of the Crusaders. As part of their conversation with those people, the Reconciliation Walk participants asked them for their forgiveness. The group’s apology was officially received in July 1999 by senior Christian clergy, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. The group hoped to communicate a sense of humility and repentance that many Middle Easterners have not seen in Western Christianity. (Robert L. Browning and Roy A. Reed, Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Moral Courage: Motives and Designs for Ministry in a Troubled World [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], p. 10)

Mel Gibson’s film of the Passion was hardly the first time that Jesus’s suffering and death was depicted in such graphic detail. The first feature-length movie about Jesus in America, From the Manger to the Cross, was produced in 1912. That film so violently portrayed the scourging of Jesus that the actor playing the Roman soldier who was whipping Jesus’ back had to stop from exhaustion. In the movie, Jesus is shown as being severely bloodied and bowed before he ever got to the cross. The film ends with the camera lingering on Jesus’ physical and emotional suffering as he finally expires. (Richard Wightman Fox, Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004], p. 309)

When it comes to the Holy Week story, all of the Gospels agree that the women remained faithful to Jesus to the end. In China, where participation in the so-called house churches is illegal, women make up 80% of the membership in Protestant house churches. (David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power [Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2003], p. 98)

Throughout history, the telling of the Passion story has sadly been an occasion for anti-Semitism. In 1290, King Edward I ordered all of the Jews out of England, making him the first monarch in Christian Europe ever to do so. (Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History [New York: Viking, 2004], p. 7)

Rene Girard contends that religion seeks to “purify” violence by tricking violence to lash out against victims whose deaths will provoke no reprisals. Accordingly, Girard views the death of Jesus as the ultimate “purification” of violence. Instead of participating in the human tendency of taking part in the never-ending cycle of violence and retaliation, Jesus allowed his enemies to pour out their violence against him without unleashing vengeance against them in return. (Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, tr. Patrick Gregory [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977], p. 36)

Holy Week certainly is punctuated with a series of red-letter days, beginning with Passion Sunday and continuing with Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Although “red-letter day” in its present usage refers to any memorable day, the term derived from the practice of printing calendars with the holidays marked in red. In particular, the Book of Common Prayer printed the church feasts and holidays in red print. (Andrew Wheatcroft, Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam [New York: Random House, 2003], p. 285)

Many of the great events in the Bible center around people taking a walk. The Bible begins with God taking a walk on the earth in the cool of the day. Later on, Abraham and Sarah made the long and difficult walk from their homeland to the new land that God was giving them. Moses and the Israelites participated in that 40-year walk that led them to the Promised Land. As Paul was walking to Emmaus, he met the risen Christ. And during this week we remember certainly the most significant walk of all, as Jesus walked to the cross along a pathway that has come to be known as the Via Dolorosa. (John Ortberg, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001], p. 9)

The story of the Passion most vividly illustrates that God’s love for us goes far beyond what we deserve: “Our salvation, thank God, depends much more on His love of us than on our love of Him.” (Father Andrew)

The Holy Week narrative describes how Jesus endured that suffering and the cross not just for the “saints,” but for the “sinners” as well: “The essential fact of Christianity is that God thought all men worth the sacrifice of his Son.” (William Barclay)
Ultimately it is impossible to understand the Passion story in human terms. As humans, our love for others is generally predicated on that love being reciprocated. Yet God loves simply because it is God’s nature to do so: “God’s love is not drawn out by our lovableness, but wells up, like an artesian spring, from the depths of his nature.” (Alexander Maclaren)

An excellent film bears re-watching just as an exceptional story will tolerate re-reading. Over the summer my wife and I had the opportunity to re-watch The Passion of the Christ. Sitting in a small theater with a few couples, the film was still quite moving; perhaps more so because we noticed more of the minute details. The story of God’s redemption is told not in theoretical schema but in the flesh-and-blood drama of a single human life embracing a destiny truly beyond our comprehension. We are embraced by that destiny ourselves only as we retell that story and examine ourselves in the light of that story each year at this time.

Sometimes we present only part of the picture of who Jesus was, especially to our children, which makes his passion and death harder to understand. A child came up to me on Passion Sunday and asked, “Why did they want to kill Jesus? Everybody always told me what a nice guy he was!” Often in the church we lift up the “nice” parts of Jesus (healer, forgiver) and forget the parts of his message that made folk uncomfortable or downright angry. In order for the story of the Passion to make any sense, we need to come to grips with the hard parts of Jesus’ message and mission.

Just as Christ’s death gave meaning to his life, so in the film Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace do we see that the German theologian’s death gave meaning to his writings and life. The film chronicles the last years of the German theologian’s life, beginning with his decision in 1939 to leave the safety of America and return to Germany. Soon he is banned by the Gestapo from speaking in public or publishing his writings. He teaches at an underground seminary, but the Gestapo arrive and destroy it, the students scattering. He is able to work for a while for German Intelligence, his position allowing him to visit Sweden where he reports on conditions in Germany. Bonhoeffer falls in love with a former student, but they have little time together, the Gestapo finally arresting the pastor. The failed plot on Hitler’s life galvanizes the Nazi authorities into rounding up thousands of those known to oppose the dictator. Bonhoeffer’s interrogation is long and exhausting—at one point the Gestapo agent even offers to make a deal with the prisoner if he will cooperate, but Bonhoeffer, calling the proposition “my temptation,” refuses. After a long incarceration, during which at times the prison is bombed, the Gestapo finds the list of all those associated in the plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s name is on it, thus sealing his fate. He and other prisoners are transported to Flossenburg, where, just a month before the war ends, Bonhoeffer bravely steps up to the gallows and is hanged. He literally lived out the famous words from his book The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)

Call to Worship

Leader: O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good!
People: God’s steadfast love endures forever.
Leader: Let all God’s people say,
People: God’s steadfast love endures forever.
Leader: The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
People: This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes!
Leader: Trim the festal procession with branches!
People: God’s steadfast love endures forever!

Prayer of Confession (based on Psalm 31)

We confess distress, O God. We waste away from grief; our souls and bodies are in distress. Our lives are spent in sorrow, and our years in sighing. Our strength fails us; we are scorned by our adversaries.
Nevertheless, we trust in you, O Lord. You are our God. Our times are in your hands. Cleanse and forgive us. Let your face shine upon us. Save us in your steadfast love, through your obedient Servant, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Prayer of Dedication

Receive these offerings, O God, for we give them in an attitude of thanks. This Holy Week reminds us that your Son modeled grateful living by living as a servant. And so we dedicate these gifts, as we dedicate ourselves, to your glory.
Use these offerings in your work, good Lord, that others may be blessed, and that together we may rejoice. Just as the people in streets of Jerusalem long ago shouted “Hosanna!” and prayed for deliverance, so we praise you and thank you for your steadfast presence, in good times and bad. Consecrate these gifts, that they may go forth from this place to embody your love, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Pastoral Prayer (based on Philippians 2:5-11)

O God, as we enter this Holy Week, in which we once again contemplate the path of our Lord Jesus Christ through the valley of the shadow of death, we seek to have his mind in us. He it is who reigns as Lord, who deserved, above all others, to be worshiped and served. Yet he came among us as a servant, not regarding equality with you as something to be exploited.
If He, who deserves our worship and praise, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, who are we but to follow in his path, after his example. Make us servant people. Mold our congregation in this form. May our buildings, our grounds, our time, our efforts, be given over to the service of our neighbors. Thus, may we show our gratitude to Christ.
We look forward to the day when all may bend the knee, and proclaim this servant their King, their sovereign Lord. We look forward, and we work toward, the day when every tongue will confess him Lord. Use us as instruments of your peace, that not through coercion or deception, but in faith and truth, we may point others to his majesty, his glory, his love and his peace. Through him we ask it, Amen.