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The Meaning of the Passion

First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
Daniel E. H. Bryant
April 4, 2004

Psalm 118:19-29

The original setting for this psalm was the temple. The way we did it as a call to worship this morning probably was very similar to the way it was done in the temple. Possibly sung, possibly recited; we don't know for sure. The context of the psalm is one of celebrating the saving deeds of God.

The psalm begins with thanksgiving for God's steadfast love and then it recounts a time of great distress when the nation was surrounded by its enemies and defeat seemed imminent. But the people hung on to their faith and in the end were surprisingly victorious.  They then attribute that victory to God.

This text appears in our lectionary reading not only this Sunday, but for next Sunday, Easter, as well. The reason it is here for this Sunday is obvious from the reference in verse 27 to the festal procession with branches, reminding us of Palm Sunday and the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.

But earlier also, though you may not catch this here in English, where it says 'Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!' is another connection to Palm Sunday.  Did you know that you know the Hebrew for that verse? Yes, you do. Hosanna! 'Hosanna' means 'save us'. And when Jesus entered into Jerusalem that was the cry of the people. Save us! And to which then they also respond quoting from the psalm verse 26, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. '

It is not surprising that they would use this psalm for the entry into Jerusalem because the psalm was used at Passover.  This psalm sounds much like the victory song of Moses after the passage through the Red Sea when their pursuing enemies were drowned.  And so it is used for the celebration of Passover that observes that event. Jesus enters Jerusalem as part of a large group of pilgrims arriving for Passover.  Hang on to that thought because we are going to come back to it a little bit later.

The psalm is also used for Easter. Why? Well, obviously verse 22, 'The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.' This verse is quoted in Matthew, Mark and Luke, quoted by Paul in Ephesians, in 1 Peter 2, and most significantly by Peter in one of the speeches he gives, recorded in Acts 4, all to describe the meaning of Christ's rejection by the authorities and the vindication by God: 'The stone the builders rejected has been made the chief cornerstone.'

Now, one more note about the setting of the psalm. Though there are sections that speak of a personal experience written in first person pronouns, scholars tend to think that those pronouns reflect the perspective of the king speaking on behalf of the nation. 'I was surrounded by the nations,' referring then to Jerusalem. The psalm is not so much personal rather it is a highly liturgical piece written to be used in worship by the community for communal celebrations of God's saving deeds.

For all of these reasons, the psalm provides a good backdrop for us to reflect on the meaning of the events of this week as we move from Palm Sunday through Good Friday and eventually on to Easter. And if we are going to discuss the meaning of the Passion, that is of the suffering and the death of Christ, then I cannot avoid Mel Gibson's film on the topic, 'The Passion of the Christ.'

Now, you may have heard of the little controversy about it and of course I always hate to talk about controversial topics, you realize. The film, when I last heard, was reaching $300 million in box office sales which will put it up there with 'Lord of the Rings' as one of the most successful movies of all time. Which is quite phenomenal when you stop and think about it. In 1927 after Cecil B. deMille made 'King of Kings,' his movie about the life of Jesus, he quipped that he probably had introduced more people to Jesus than anyone or anything save the Bible. Well, thanks to all of the controversy and all the critics, Gibson can probably say the same thing about his movie when all is said and done.

Certainly Good Friday this year will take on a much greater meaning for many people, perhaps millions, and not just those of us who saw the movie, but I think many others who are impacted by all they've read and and by thinking about all of these events in a new, powerful way. Therefore the joy of Easter will be all the more powerful and that is a good thing.

I do thank Gibson for that, but as is now well known and sometimes hotly debated, the movie does has its flaws of which I only want to speak of one. That flaw concerns me in that it presents only one interpretation of the meaning of the death of Jesus as if that were the only interpretation on the meaning of the death of Jesus.

I will quickly summarize that meaning and mention a couple others and focus on a third. In the book that we used for the study we did in February and March on 'The Heart of Christianity,' by Marcus Borg, Borg describes three macro stories of salvation that are told in the Bible. These three stories present the fundamental problem, the fundamental human predicament if you will, in three different ways and, therefore, God's solution to that problem is also presented in three different ways.

The first is the Exodus story when the people were in slavery in Egypt. The primary problem is one of bondage. People were being victimized by the powers of the world and the solution to that problem is, of course, liberation. The way out of slavery led by Moses that takes them through the wilderness and eventually to the promised land.

The second macro story is that of the Exile. Similar to the Exodus in that the people are again living in a foreign land, but this time in Babylonia. The problem now is not one of bondage, but rather that the people have been cut off from their homeland, from their roots, from their spiritual center. And so the solution is to return home to be reunited with one's place of belonging. Like the Exodus, that takes one again through the wilderness back to the Promised Land. As the prophet proclaims, 'Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness. Make His path straight and smooth.' You see that is the proclamation of good news from the perspective from the exile of returning home.

Third, finally, is the temple story in which the primary problem, the primary predicament of humanity is sin and impurity. Now this story is not based on historical experience of the nation, but rather on the institution of the temple and the priesthood.  The solution, of course, to that problem is to be cleansed and forgiven. The temple exists specifically for that purpose, to make it possible for one to reunite with God, to be forgiven.

Each of these three stories are reflected throughout scripture and there are many, many repeated references to these larger stories. Gibson's movie tells the Passion story from the perspective of only one, the temple story. The ultimate meaning of the Passion of Christ is to offer us a solution to our sin through the death of Christ just as through the sacrifice of an animal in the temple--one is cleansed and forgiven. In the opening scene of the movie there is the Satanic figure that says to Jesus, 'No man can carry the burden of all sin. It is far too heavy.' And then to prove him wrong Jesus endures the most sustained, brutal flogging imaginable as if such beating could represent the burden of all sin. Much has been written about that part of the movie. Never mind that the gospels do not record anything like that which Gibson portrays, it still drives home the point that this is the pain of our sin, of all sin, that is being borne by Jesus.

My problem with that portrayal, other than the sheer brutality of it, is not with any question of historical accuracy, rather theological necessity:  what does such a portrayal say about God? That God would require Jesus or anyone else to suffer such in order that we can be forgiven of our sin? As if this were the only solution, the only possible way that we could be forgiven of our sin, for Jesus to suffer in such a horrible way. Now if that were the only meaning of the Passion - that Jesus had to suffer and die in such an agonizing, brutal way so that I can be forgiven and loved by God - then I have to tell you that I would find it hard to find any comfort in such love.

But as I indicated earlier there are other meanings to the Passion as told in the New Testament and these meanings are seen when you read the story from the perspective of those other two macro stories. The New Testament clearly sees Jesus as a Moses figure and hence equates the Passion of Jesus with that of the Exodus story. Remember that Jesus announced at the beginning of his ministry 'I have come to proclaim good news to the poor and liberty to the captives.' That is an Exodus theme. And as I indicated at the beginning, the gospel writers use Psalm 118 to celebrate Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem, a psalm associated with the victory of Moses. The cry of the people, 'Hosanna!' 'Save us!' is the cry for liberation from the oppression of Rome. The celebration of the triumphant entry is the celebration of the ultimate victory of God over such oppression. From the perspective of the Exodus story the meaning of the Passion is the death that brings liberation and new life, thereby saving us from whatever bondage and oppression in which we may be.

The New Testament also speaks of Jesus as 'The Way'. It speaks of the early Christian community as followers of 'the Way'. Remember that proclamation of John the Baptist, 'Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness.' You see, that is the language of the Exile and return. The story of the prodigal son who goes off into the foreign land, alienated and separated from his homeland, from his father, comes back for a joyous return--that is an Exile story, a return story. From the perspective of the Exile story the meaning of the Passion is the way of dying to this world that we might join Christ on the journey that will take us to God's home here on earth as in Heaven, that will bring us home to be with God.

Last we come back to Psalm 118, this oft quoted verse to describe the meaning of the Passion, 'The stone the builder's rejected has become the chief cornerstone.'

When we held our dialogue at Northwest Christian College on the movie with several faith leaders a few weeks ago, Tammam Adi from the Islamic Cultural Center described to us what the Koran teaches about Jesus. It was fascinating to learn about that because the Koran teaches that Jesus was not crucified, but in fact He lived to be of ripe old age, died of natural causes and ascending into Heaven. Tammam told us that the story of the crucifixion was created by the enemies of Jesus to discredit him. Why? Because, he said, it is inconceivable that God would allow the Messiah to suffer and die.

Yes, that is right! And you see, that's precisely the power of the story. That is why Paul said, 'We preach Christ crucified, folly to the gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews.' In Buddhist terms it is koan, a nonsensical reality, like the sound of one hand clapping. It forces you to rethink things in a different way. A crucified Messiah simply is nonsensical in the ways the world views it. No other religious community follows a crucified or executed leader. This is the unique contribution of Christianity to world religion. Christ crucified, you see, is not the super hero, the super Messiah that withstands all the punishment a brutal regime can dish out and then still has strength to carry the cross up the hill. Rather Christ crucified is the dying Savior who bears our suffering, our sorrow, our pain, who has been in our skin. Preaching Christ crucified, 'the stone the builders rejected that has become the chief cornerstone,' says that God is there in the midst of our suffering, in the midst of humanity. God's humanity, if you will, is the foundation for the realm of God here on earth as in Heaven.

Writes Matthew Boulton from Andover Newton Theological School about the movie,

Jesus' flayed and bloodied body, so graphically destroyed on the screen and finally so distinct from the relatively unscathed bodies of the two thieves crucified alongside him, will for most of us stand out above all other suffering bodies we have ever seen. The film effectively exalts Jesus as the one sufferer above all others. But this exaltation, to my mind, is a reversal of the true meaning of the Passion of Jesus Christ.

 

'Christ crucified' is not the Hero, not the strongest man. On the contrary, he is the weakest man, the least of these. There is his strength. He is not the greatest sufferer famed above all others.  He is, finally, the anonymous sufferer, in radical solidarity with every sufferer, everywhere. There is his proper fame. As the Son of God, he suffers and dies with sinners, forgotten and alone, disappearing into the thousands of Jews and others crucified under a brutal, violent, imperial regime. So he continues, even today, wherever agonies are borne among the human family. [i]

One Passion, many meanings, many understandings. Not just one correct meaning, but perhaps there is truth each of them. It is good and proper that there are many ways to understand the central event of our faith, for it is in the variety of these meanings that Christ speaks to each and every one the word that each of us needs to hear. But if there be one word, one meaning heard above all others, I would that it would be this - that in the Cross of Christ we will see the sign of God's love, the one who suffers not just because of us or for us, but with us, that all may rise above such, and like Christ, triumph over it.

Hosanna! Save us we beseech you O Lord.

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[i] Matthew Myer Boulton, 'The problem with "The Passion'', Christian Century, March 23, 2004, p. 20.

 


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