It has long been our practice to share the Passion on Palm Sunday. Some years we have read the ‘long version’ with a narrator reading the bulk of the story and individuals stepping to microphones to share the words of Pilate, Herod, the two criminals who hung beside Jesus, the centurion who speaks a word of faith at the end, and of course, Jesus. These last years, though, we have offered the shorter option and I have built in breaks in the story so as to offer commentary or reflection.
It is not as though the story does not ‘stand’ on its own. In my experience though, since we seldom seem to pause in the details at all, I am not sure how much the congregation actually takes with them as they go. Perhaps it is enough to recognize that Jesus died an unjust death for each and all of us and for the sake of this broken world. Even so, it seems to me, the details do help to bring the story ‘home.’
So it is again this year, we will read the Passion from Luke with different voices speaking different parts. And I will ‘break in’ with words which will hopefully help us to go deeper in the meaning of the story for us all. Here is a preview of what we will do:
In just moment we will enter into the trial of Jesus. We will listen in as he is accused, questioned, and led away to his death. We pause before we go there to remember what came before.
- The triumphant parade of a few days before: the day we know as Palm Sunday.
- His controversial teaching in the temple.
- The Last Supper where bread was broken and wine poured
- The prediction of Peter’s three fold denial.
- Jesus praying — his pleading for another way — on the Mount of Olives and his disciples sleeping through it all.
- Judas betraying Jesus and his arrest.
- Peter denying ever having known him as was predicted.
- And finally, Jesus being led into the high priest’s house where chief priests and scribes questioned him as to his identity as the Messiah and their fateful decision to turn him over to the Roman authorities with their recommendation that he be crucified.
It is there that we enter the story now:
And oh, I do find myself wondering now what was so threatening about this itinerant preacher, this teacher, this healer, that leaders of his own tradition would turn him over to those who would kill him? What was it about him that had them exaggerating or downright creating the charges they offer now? What were they so afraid of losing, and what did they have to gain by seeing to his death by public execution?
One can certainly understand Pilate’s hesitation to get involved at all. And while it was Pilate’s job to keep the peace, he was glad to pass it off to Herod, the local governor. Herod would do little more than add to the humiliation, though, before sending Jesus back to meet his fate with Pilate.
Isn’t it so that in the choice between Barrabas and Jesus we meet once more the choice that is always before us?
Shall we accomplish what we set out to do with violence as Barrabas did or shall we seek to turn the world upside down by the peace-filled means of Jesus?
Indeed, what little we know of Barrabas is that he and Jesus had at least one thing in common. They both felt called to disrupt the status quo. Both knew that things as they were could not stay as they were.
And so it was that as people often do, they chose the one whose way seemed more expedient. How much more efficient to simply eliminate those who have unjustly claimed power than to reach out in love, seeking to alter hearts and minds.
I do wonder though, don’t you, why Pilate gave in. Wouldn’t Barrabas have been much more of an immediate threat to him than Jesus. The crowds were so persistent though.
Every time I meet up with Simon of Cyrene, my imagination is carried away.
- Who was this man who could have had no preparation for what he would be called upon to do?
- Had he ever laid eyes on Jesus before?
- Was he just annoyed or entirely mortified at the part he was suddenly expected to play in this unjust execution
- ? Did he understand his role to be helpful to Jesus or to those who were torturing him?
- And what must he have thought of all of it later? Would he carry the grief of this for the rest of his life or would he hear and follow the rumors of an unexpected resurrection a few days later?
Surely Simon of Cyrene could not have possibly known that you and I model ourselves after him to this day as we pick up our crosses, too.
No words are offered here which speak of pounding nails or torn flesh. Only this truth that he was crucified. And that in his final hours Jesus would offer forgiveness in a time and place and way we can hardly imagine. That he would look on as what little he had was gambled away among those at his feet. That the mocking would continue. And that through it all the truth would hang in words above his head that he was in fact royalty: The King of the Jews.
And isn’t it something to listen in on an anguished conversation between three men who would have hardly been able to catch their breaths to speak as they hung there with their rib cages folding in upon their lungs? One who was so filled with poison that with his final words he would join in with the taunts of the crowd. And the other who saw and spoke the truth. And that Jesus would speak a promise of life beyond what the one who plead to be remembered could have possibly earned or deserved.
And oh, in these final words we hear that in the temple curtain being torn in two that earth meets heaven itself. That all that would separate us from God’s presence is now destroyed.
That with his last breath, Jesus speaks aloud his trust in the Father.
And that one unlikely one. The centurion, a Roman soldier spoke the truth. That Jesus was innocent.
And that the women remained. When many fled in fear there were still those standing at a distance, taking it all in.
As we do today.
And so it is that those who betrayed and denied. Those who arrested and accused. The one who was commissioned to carry his cross, those who threw the dice at his feet, and those who openly mocked him. Those who hung on crosses on either side of Jesus and you and I who join those who look on. For all of us, it is ours to wonder at the meaning of this cross for us.
Indeed, this is where we are left today.
It is ours to take this story in for all the gift it was and is and is meant to be for all who witness it then and now.
- May you be richly blessed as you do so this Holy Week.
- May the gift and meaning of the cross find its way into you heart and into your life.
- May we be Simon of Cyrene, picking up the cross in the way of Jesus.
- May we be the one hanging on the cross beside him, hearing a word of unexpected promise.
- May we be the women who stay and watch and wait.
- And may we be the Centurion who speaks aloud a truth which changes everything.
- That in this innocent death, God is at work to make the world new again.