March 28 sermon of the Rev. Dr. E. Bevan Stanley, rector of St. Michael’s Church, Litchfield.
According to the reading from Philippians, the story of the suffering of the Christ starts in heaven within the triune God. Then the Son enters our universe and as an embryo in Mary’s womb. The Word of God “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.” The Word of God suffers to be made into human flesh and blood.
The Story of the Passion, which in this context means “suffering,” describes what happens when divine love comes among us human beings. At the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany at dinner, an unnamed woman comes in and anoints Jesus’ feet with very costly ointment. When others criticize her for wastefulness, Jesus says that she is preparing him for burial and that this good deed will be proclaimed to the whole world and remembered forever. It is unfortunate that nobody thought to write her name down. By applauding her action, he is also saying that we should rejoice whenever we see love being expressed in extravagant giving. Divine love is always extravagant and costly.
Two days later at the Passover Seder, Jesus announces that he will be betrayed by one of the Twelve. Jesus knows what his coming. He has predicted his death several times during the trip to Jerusalem. Knowing that this is probably the last meal he will have with his friends before he dies, he reinterprets the Seder. Now the bread is not just the unleavened bread that the Jews ate on that fateful night in Egypt. Now it is the means by which they take part in the very being of God. The wine is now the sign of a new covenant between God and the human race in which every human being is a member of the chosen people. Love insists that even death has meaning.
They go to the garden called Gethsamane, where Jesus takes his three closest friends and prays, while they fall asleep. He prays that God would find a way for him to avoid the death that is coming, but leaves it in God’s hands. Even Jesus does not get everything he prays for. Jesus is obedient to calling of his God and is willing to pay the cost of love.
Judas arrives with the police and shows them which one is Jesus by kissing Jesus. Jesus is arrested and taken to the high priest. There are two hearings. One is at night by the Jewish leaders, in which they ask Jesus if he is the Messiah. He answers, “Yes.” They claim that this is blasphemy, although it is simply a statement of fact.
In the morning the chief priests take Jesus to the Roman governor, Pilate. He does not ask Jesus if he is the Messiah; that’s a religious issue for the Jews. He asks Jesus if he claims to be the king of the Jews, a political issue for the governor. Jesus answers somewhat ambiguously, “You say so.” After that he has nothing more to say. He makes no defense. Jesus is the love of God incarnate. He will not be anything else. He leaves it up to those in authority, Jew and Gentile, to deal with that fact any way they can.
Pilate asks the crowd if they would like to have Jesus released, but the crowd has been incited by the chief priests to say that he should release another man who had been convicted of murder, and crucify Jesus. Pilate fears an insurrection by the mob and acquiesced. The tragic irony in all this is that the Jewish rulers fear that Jesus will stir up an insurrection that would cause the Romans to crush Israel forever. So, they conspire to a judicial murder of Jesus to remove that danger. In order to make Pilate rule in their favor they have to stir up a mob big enough to frighten Pilate. In effect it’s the Jewish leaders that create the riot, not Jesus. The same crowd that shouted, “Hosanna,” a few days earlier when Jesus first arrived in Jerusalem, now are crying, “Crucify him!” Jesus dies because the authorities are motivated by fear.
The soldiers mock and beat Jesus and then take him to Golgotha to be crucified. By now it is nine in the morning. At three, Jesus speaks the first words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” Even Jesus experiences the absence of God.
Then Jesus dies and the Centurion says, “Truly this man was God’s son.” Not his disciples. Not the Jews. The only one who saw what was going on and uttered the truth was the toughest, meanest, most hardened man on the scene. He had seen it all, but he had never seen a death like this.
This is what happens when love comes into the world. The question it leaves us with this morning is, can we find a better to response when the love of God breaks into our lives and threatens to overturn all our assumptions about how the world is and should be.? Are we ready to listen when divine Live says everyone is our neighbor and no one is a stranger or foreign? Are we ready to listen when divine Love invites us to share our blessings with those around us? Are we ready to forgive those who have caused us harm? Are we ready to lay down our fear and our defenses so that we can embrace those God brings into our lives? Are we ready to join God in making this world into a place where it is safe to love? Do we believe that love conquers death? Are we ready to join God in expending our lives on love?