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Crucifixion Participation

Sermon - 4/05/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 11:1-11

The text for this Palm Sunday is a very familiar one, the Palm Sunday story from the Gospel of Mark, the 11th chapter:

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethpage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ 4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

   Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10   Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.


For many of us who participated in our Lenten study a couple of years ago of "The Last Week" by Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, our understanding of these events have been forever changed.  [Check sermons from March 5th through April 16th from 2006]

First of all, there's the recognition that this event that occurs on Palm Sunday was not a spontaneous act of Jesus and the Disciples as they enter into Jerusalem.  It was planned.  And one of the clues we have to that is this little story with the colt, when Jesus sends the Disciples there to go fetch it, and the folks there already know about it.  That's why they say 'sure, take it'.

So it's a bit of street theater, a drama, a prophetic action like that of Jeremiah when he wears that yoke and parades around the streets of Jerusalem as a symbol of the coming judgment of God when they will be taken into captivity.  This is that same kind of prophetic action.

And then secondly, riding a donkey in such a procession into Jerusalem was the opposite of a triumphal entry.  Triumphants, as they were known in the Roman system, were parades that the Roman generals and commanders and Caesars held to celebrate victory or to show their might.  To come into town, and of course the commander would be riding on a mighty stallion, a war horse.  Jesus is riding not only on a donkey but a colt, a young donkey.  The opposite of a war horse.

That I knew, that's nothing new.  What I didn't realize until Dom and Marcus pointed it out is that Jesus and company are coming from the East -- Mount Olives is to the right of this picture:

And so they are entering into Jerusalem across the Hebron valley (you can kind of see a gate down in the bottom right part of the temple), where the Dome of the Rock is now is where the Temple would have been.

But Pilate and his forces were garrisoned in the west, on the coast.  And they most certainly would have come into Jerusalem (prior to Passover) with their troops and all the armaments of war in a show of force to make sure they crowds are held in check during Passover, which was a very nationalistic kind of celebration -- celebrating the freedom, the liberation of the Jewish people from Egypt.  You can quickly see the potential for problems as you're celebrating this liberating event in the context of Roman control.

So Pilate would enter into Jerusalem with his troops across that hill from the West, coming from the opposite direction.

And so Jesus, with his little parade, you see, is acting out a parody of Pilate's triumphant.  It is an anti-triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

And then thirdly, take note of the ending of the entry story in Mark's gospel, Jesus goes into the Temple, looks around, and leaves.  Goes back to Bethany.  Now, if you're thinking. . . 'wait a minute, I thought this is when the cleansing of the Temple occurs'. . . .that's Matthew's version.  In Mark's version, it happens on the next day.  Now when Jesus enters into the Temple, he sees the money changers, they're there all the time.  They're necessary for the business of the Temple.  In order to exchange the money that pilgrims would bring to the Temple from wherever they came from (which would be Roman coinage), to change it into coinage that was acceptable and appropriate (you could not take a graven image into the Temple, and Roman coins proclaimed Caesar as Lord).  So they had to exchange their money in order to give an offering to God.  There's nothing untoward here with the money changers -- it's part of the Temple business.

And Jesus' "cleansing", overturning those tables, then, is not 'cleansing' the Temple, he's closing it down.  It's a symbolic action to close the Temple down.

Once again, very intentional.  Jesus on the night before is kind of reconnoitering, getting a lay of the land so he can make his plans for the next day.

So these two prophetic actions come as the twin challenges to the political and the religious authority of Jerusalem.  And as such it sealed the fate of Jesus.  It's no surprise then, that he's arrested and crucified.  The only surprise is that it took them so long.  Evidently because of the crowds and Jesus' popularity.

Well that brings us then to the events of Good Friday.  Shawnthea Monroe, a United Church of Christ pastor writing in this month's Disciples World magazine (great publication, great way to stay informed on our church and contemporary issues) was making the case to her confirmation class, about why people should attend the 'extra' services during Holy Week.  She said:

"If Jesus skips from Palm Sunday to Easter, then he never experiences betrayal, rejection, depression, suffering, or death".

To which one of her students quipped:  "Yeah, it's just like he'd never been to high school" J.

So, you have a choice, if you want to know what Jesus experienced, you can come to one of our services during Holy Week, or you can go to high school J.

Just this last Sunday, I made my case for challenging some of the popular notions of original sin, which I have to confess to you is nothing terribly daring for a Protestant pastor in a progressive church like ours.  Doesn't exactly make a headline:  "Protestant Disagrees with the Pope"!

But be that as it may, this morning I want to go a little bit further out on the limb of challenging some of the traditional understandings of Christianity.  And invite us to re-think and to re-form our understanding of the meaning of the death of Jesus.

Specifically, I want to change the way we think about our participation in the crucifixion.  Because I do believe we are participants, it's just not the way that we usually think we are.

Mel Gibson, in his movie The Passion of the Christ, raised a number of concerns.  And one of those was the subtle anti-Semitism in the negative portrayal of any Jew in the story who was not a disciple of Jesus.  As with so many passion plays throughout history, Jews are portrayed as being responsible for the death of Jesus.  And to refute that charge, Mr. Gibson made it known that his single appearance in the movie (if you watched it, you wouldn't know it) was in a close-up shot when they were showing the Roman soldier nailing Jesus to the cross.  Mel Gibson said the hands in that shot were his hands, driving the nail into the palm of Jesus.

This idea that we personally participate in some way in the crucifixion is not a new idea.  Bach made the same point in his 'St. John Passion', composed in the mid-to-late 18th century.  When the soldier strikes Jesus for the first time, Bach inserts into the narrative a choral that sings:

Who has struck thee my savior?
And with torments so foully treated thee?
Thou art not a sinner as we and our kind
Ah, Ah, and yes my sins
As the grains of the sands by the ocean
They have brought the calamity unleashed upon thee
And the host of torment that thou bore

And many churches make the same point in their Good Friday liturgies when the parishioners call out "Crucify him!  Crucify him!".

In other words, be it the hands that drive the nails, the fists that strike the blows, or the voices who call for the crucifixion, they belong to us.

Now there's only 1 small problem.  Whereas the claim that the Jews killed Jesus is bad history (Jesus was crucified by Roman soldiers under a Roman Governor by Roman law for a crime against the Roman Empire -- we must never forget that), the claim that we killed Jesus is a little bit better but it is bad theology.  At least from my perspective.

Marcus Borg goes so far to say that he finds this idea so offensive he will not attend any service in which worshipers are asked to cry out "Crucify him!".  And in the lead article in this month's Disciples World magazine, theologian Rita Nakashima Brock goes even further.  She cites a 19th century Baptist preacher who said that such theology, which makes us responsible for the death of Jesus, "has done more harm to Christianity than all its despisers combined".

So if you're thinking, well wait a second, does not the New Testament say that Jesus died for our sins?  Does that not mean we're responsible?  Has that not been one of the central ideas of Christianity?

Well, you're right, it does say that.  The question is what does it mean?  And the second question is:  is that the primary meaning of the death of Jesus that is given in the New Testament?

I'd like to explore that second question first.  In his book, 'The Heart of Christianity', Marcus Borg cites 5 interpretations given to the death of Jesus in the New Testament:

First of all, the death of Jesus is portrayed as the rejection of Jesus and his message by the authorities.  To which God responds with his vindication in the resurrection of Jesus.  Simply put, the world's "No" to Jesus is answered by God's "Yes" to Jesus.  That's one way to understand the death of Jesus.

Second, the domination system which killed Jesus is shown thereby to be morally bankrupt and ultimately defeated by the resurrection.  In the words of Colossians:  "God disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in the cross".  That's another.

Third, the death of Jesus is portrayed by the Apostle Paul as the way of Christ we are called to follow.  Dying to an old way of life and being raised with Christ to a new way of life.  Which I think is precisely the meaning of the saying of Jesus "Take up the cross and follow me".

Fourth, the death of Jesus reveals the depth of God's love for us.  In that great verse from John 3:16:  "For God so loved the world he gave his only son".

And then finally, fifth, Jesus died for our sins.  As Paul says:  "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us".

These are all interpretations given to the meaning of the death of Jesus.  But what does this last one mean, that Christ died for our sins?

Well, here's a surprise:  the idea that someone had to pay a price for sin, and that therefore Christ died in our place as a substitute for us, is a concept that was not developed until the 11th century.  Written by Anselm, one of the great theologians of the Church, in what is known as his doctrine or theory of substitutionary atonement.

Rita Brock makes a very interesting observation, both in that article and in her book "Saving Paradise", that there are no portrayals of the crucifixion in Christian art -- no crucifixes, that is with Jesus on the cross -- until the 10th century.  So for the first 1,000 years Christianity, the emphasis was not on the crucified Jesus who died for our sins, but on the resurrected Jesus who lives to establish the kingdom of God here on earth as in heaven.

Originally, the idea that Jesus died for our sin was not as a substitute for us, but as a substitute for the Temple.  In other words, for those who were taught that they had to go to the religious establishment in Jerusalem to receive any guarantee of forgiveness of sin, to portray Jesus as the sacrifice for sin was as subversive metaphor against the power of religious authority.  Just as proclaiming Christ as the crucified Lord was a subversive metaphor against the power of the Empire.  Against the Lordship of Caesar.

And while it's still perfectly valid to say that human sin caused the death of Jesus and that therefore our sins are also nailed to the cross with Jesus, when we 'literalize' such ideas we distort the original message of Jesus and we make God into a vindictive, hell-bent judge who has to punish somebody.  So it ends up being Jesus.

I'm sorry, but there's something about that that I've never liked.

Barbara Ehrenreich brings the point home in a powerful passage in her 2001 book "Nickled and Dimed", that's about he working poor in America.  She describes a tent revival meeting in Portland Maine in which a preacher speaks on the theme of Jesus on the cross to an impoverished crowd.  And he speaks about the importance of believing in Jesus in order to get to heaven.  She writes:

"It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount.  Accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage.  But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse.  The living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant, the precocious socialist is never once mentioned.  Nor anything he ever had to say.

Christ crucified rules.  And it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.

I get up to leave, timing my exit for when the preacher's metronomic head movements have him looking the other way, and walk out to search for my car, half expecting to find Jesus out there in the dark gagged and tethered to a tent pole. 

So then, if we are not to be guilty of crucifying Jesus again and again, to silence him as Pilate attempted to do, how is it that we understand our participation in the crucifixion?  Were you there when they crucified my Lord?  Yes, you were.  Not nailing his hands and feet, not shouting "Crucify him!", but read again that passage that Michael read for us from Romans 6, where the Apostle Paul says:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.


Borg and Crossan, in their latest book "The First Paul", call this not substitutionary atonement, but participatory atonement.  That is, the process by which we become "at-one" with God.  That we participate in the dying with Christ, the dying to sin, the dying to our old way of life, and being born to a new way following Jesus.

And this is what Paul means by being "in Christ".  To die to an old way of life and begin that new way, what Borg & Crossan call a "spirit transplant" that I talked about last Sunday.

Well, John Dear, a Jesuit priest and peace activist, who has been nominated by none other than Desmond Tutu for the Nobel Peace Prize, was featured on National Public Radio's "New Dimensions" program on Thursday evening.  And it gave me a new way of understanding this whole notion of what it means to die to an old way of life and be born to a new way, following Jesus.

It was an incredible interview, broadcast to millions of people across this country on national radio.  Dear spoke about his conversion to the Christian life.  After a brief foray into atheism while he was in college, he came to the realization that God was real.  And therefore, he would have to figure out what it was that God wanted him to do in life.  And so he went on a personal pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  He said it worked for Jesus, maybe it'd work for me.

It was 1982.  The week after he got there, Israel invaded Lebanon.  60,000 civilians killed in that war.  Dear was camping out on the shored of Northern Galilee, where I was last February:


And as he made his way around the lake, he came to a chapel.  No one was there, it's the Chapel of Mt. Beatitudes (he didn't know that at the time):


He just went in after having this incredible experience of camping out on the lake, watching the sunrise, getting in tune with the place of Jesus, asking God what he wants from his life.  He walks into this chapel, and he sees up in the dome around the sides, the beatitudes:  "Blessed are the poor in spirit":


Blessed are those who mourn.  Blessed are the meek.  Blessed are the merciful.  Blessed are the pure in heart.  Blessed are the peacemakers:


And then there is an altar in the middle, in which are inscribed more words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount -- "Love Your Enemies":


And so Dear knelt there in prayer:


And he said:  "OK, God, I can see that I'm supposed to take this seriously.  And so I need to apply this in my own life.  So, God, I am willing to commit my life to building peace in the world if you will give me a sign".

Just at that moment, two Israeli jet fighters came screeching across the lake of Galilee right over the chapel, disappeared over the hill behind them to drop their payload in Lebanon, and the explosions went off.  Said it scared the jeebies out of him, and he said "OK God, I get it!".  And he said he's never asked for a sign since J.

He entered a Jesuit seminary, a year later he found himself interviewing the great anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan (Judy and I had a chance to meet Berrigan while we were in Berlin and did some translating for him. . . . .actually, Judy did most of the translating, I just drank beer with him at a pub afterwards, but that's another story J).  So here was Dear, this young, wide-eyed seminarian, interviewing this great hero of the peace movement and stumbling for words, and he finally said to him:  "So, tell me father Berrigan, what's the point of it all?".

And Daniel Berrigan said to him:  "The point of it, John, the point of it, is to make your story fit Jesus' story.  Stay faithful to the non-violent Jesus, and the rest will fall into place".

Evidently it did, he's now got an autobiography out, "A Persistent Peace", and has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.  He's younger than I am.  Has quite a story to tell -- that may be another sermon.

So, I would invite you as we go through Holy Week to reflect on the way in which you participate in this week.  How are you called to fit your life into the life of Jesus?  To make your story fit Jesus' story? 

To be "in Christ".


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