Mocking Jesus (3/24/02)
University Congregational Church—Wichita, Kansas
This is the sixth Sunday of Lent, also known as Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. That means today is the first day of Holy Week. For many people in the modern church, this is not their favorite time of the year. There is a tendency for us to want to rush past Passion Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, and go straight to Easter.
And I understand that inclination. We are, after all, Easter people. We live in the light of God’s love, so perfectly expressed through Jesus of Nazareth. That means we are people of faith, hope and love. Even with all the problems the world throws at us, and even with the seemingly endless night of death awaiting each of us at the end of our journey, we live with the belief that God overcomes every obstacle—even death. As Easter people, our faith, hope and love are built on the foundation of God’s love, and the belief that there is a light within us that no darkness can ever overcome.
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But we also live with the knowledge that the light cannot be seen except for the presence of the darkness. The mountain exists not in spite of the valley, but because of the valley. On this roller coaster ride we call human life, we wouldn’t recognize the highs if not for the lows. And when it comes to the most important matter a human being can face in this life—his or her relationship with Eternal God—well, Easter isn’t Easter unless we arrive there by walking through Good Friday. And that’s what Holy week is all about—the journey toward Easter.
I hope many of you will be here this Thursday evening, as we recognize Maundy Thursday, the night of the Last Supper, and have a Tenebrae service, which involves the extinguishing of candles as we remember the last words of Jesus from the cross. I know of no better way to prepare our hearts for Easter.
I believe God loves each of us more than we could ever comprehend. And I believe everybody’s faith journey is equally important. My personal faith journey moves in what has become an almost predictable cycle. As I enter more and more deeply into the heart of the Christian faith, I become more and more bothered by those elements that so many good and faithful Christians find foundational, and which I find detrimental. One person’s bridge is another person’s wall, I suppose. I mean, the notions that some people cannot live without, such as the claim that Jesus Christ is the one and only valid path to God, become obstacles in my relationship with God.
And so, when I reach that point, I delve deeply into some of the religious writing that I find to be truly inspired, such as the Upanishads, and the writings of modern Buddhists such as Thich Nat Hahn. And I find myself moving closer and closer to God, and gaining a better understanding of myself. But for me, I reach a point at the deepest level of my being where I discover my need of Jesus Christ. I find the chasm between what I am and what God is to be so vast, I cannot bridge that final distance except through Christ.
And then, with a stronger relationship with God than ever before, the cycle begins again. Hopefully, with each cycle, my understanding of myself is enhanced through my spiritual study of other faiths, and my relationship with Christ is strengthened with my renewed conviction of my need of the redemptive love I find in Jesus.
The one thing I have learned through all this is that for me, Jesus is my one true path into the heart of God. Christ is a foundational part of my faith, and it is through Christ that I am able to enter into my deepest and most honest relationship with God. But I certainly feel informed by the study of other faiths, and I would never say that my path is the only path God has made available for any human being.
The reason Jesus Christ is so foundational to my personal faith is simple. More than any person who ever lived in this world, I believe Jesus of Nazareth revealed to us the nature of God. There are two New Testament texts listed as the lectionary passages for this morning, one from the Gospel of Matthew and one from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Taken together, these two passages do a great job of revealing the nature of God, and of exposing the lesser parts of our human nature in relation to God.
Now, some will say that Jesus was a political rabble-rouser, and that is why he was killed. Others will insist that God established a plan from the beginning of time, and that Jesus was in complete control of the whole situation, doing the job God had sent him to do by dying on the cross for the vicarious atonement of our sins. I imagine the truth lies somewhere between those two extremes, and it is up to each of us to determine what that truth is, and what role it should play in our lives.
I will not inflict my personal theology on any of you, but I will ask you, at least for this morning, to consider the idea that in some way, Jesus revealed God’s nature. Regardless of your personal beliefs about virgin births and miracles and physical resurrections, I ask you to simply accept the notion that many of us hold absolutely foundational to our faith, namely, that in some way God’s nature was revealed to us through Jesus Christ.
With that in mind, listen to today’s passage from the gospel of Matthew as if you had never heard it before. This scene takes place after the mob has convinced Pilate to order the flogging, and crucifixion, of Jesus.
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him, and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
Well, we are all familiar enough with the events surrounding this story. Immediately before and while he is hung from the cross, Jesus is derided by the political leaders, by the soldiers, by the religious leaders, by the criminals who are crucified at his side, and by the passersby. That covers all the bases. If you and I were to write ourselves into this story, we have to admit that we fit into one of those categories. Jesus is mocked by everybody.
What does this story say about the nature of God? If we say that Jesus is somehow a reflection of God’s nature, what does that say about God? What does it say about us? And if we look beyond the events of Holy Week and embrace Easter with faith, hope and love, what does it say about what it might mean to be a follower of Jesus?
These are not easy questions. But we can face them fearlessly, and here’s why. If Jesus is truly a reflection of God’s nature, then God is not the one who punishes: God is the one who receives punishment from us. Remember the story from Matthew. So many well-intentioned Christians over the centuries have tried to scare people into the faith, with visions of a God waiting to punish us for our sins. But according to the gospel story, it is we who punish God with our sins.
This reflection of God we find on the cross is not the God we were expecting at all. We were looking for a God of hope and glory, of power and might, and during Holy Week we find instead a forlorn and suffering God struggling to carry his cross.
Loretta Ross-Gotta, in her book Letters from the Holy Ground, envisions the scene this way: A man whom much of the world will declare is God is making his way inexorably into death. He is going to do that ordinary thing people do every day: he is going to suffer and die. What makes this different is that it is God who is doing it and that God overcomes the sting of it all by being God, by being the One who attains victory not by escaping evil and by beating it to a pulp but by surrendering to it and going right through the heart of it while remaining God.
This is a pretty serious story when we think of it like that. And we have to ask ourselves, Is Jesus still on that cross? Do we still mock Jesus with the way we live our lives? And the answer shouldn’t make us fear—at least, it should not make us fear God. We should be afraid of ourselves, not of God. We should be afraid of people who fly airplanes into buildings filled with innocents—not of God. We should be afraid of people who thoughtlessly enrich themselves building armies while babies starve to death—not of God. We should be afraid of people who would poison creation for the sake of greed—not of God.
I mean, look at the cross. See the mocked one hanging there. If we can agree that the one on the cross is in some mysterious way a representative of God, we should never question how much God loves us. The only question is, how much do we love God? The question is, how many times will we nail Jesus to that cross? The question is, when will we stop mocking God as Jesus peers down from that cross with nothing but love in his eyes?
You see, the reason I always come back to Jesus Christ in the depths of my faith journey is that I recognize I could never be the one hanging from that cross. I don’t have that much love. Long before Jesus said Father forgive them, they know not what they do, I would have succumbed to anger, and vengeance, and hatred. Seriously, I would have said, “God, send down a lightning bolt and fry these sorry blankety-blanks!” And that’s why I recognize the gulf between what I am and what God is, and that’s why I need the love of Jesus Christ to carry me across that gulf. The cross, for me, is the bridge between myself and God, between time and eternity, between hopelessness and eternal peace.
Holy Week…we wouldn’t want to spend our lives in Holy Week. This is one week out of the year, when we remember that God’s love for us carries a high price, but that we don’t have to pay that price—God pays it. God takes the worst we have to offer, and loves us right through it. God is love, and that is good news—in fact, it is the good news—the gospel.
And for the rest of the year, we live in the light of that love. We don’t live in the shadow of the cross; we live in the light of the cross. And it is that light that gives us strength for the journey.
One thing seems clear to me when I consider the cross. God does not judge us. God is who God is, and we judge ourselves when we are confronted with God’s love. There are many people in the modern church, and there have been many people through history, who believe that human beings must be threatened with the possibility of eternal torment, or they will resort to all manner of evil. Without the threat of hell, the argument goes, human beings would be even more inhuman than they are now!
Of course, it is difficult to reconcile the God of the cross with a God who would send a person to eternal damnation. I recall one of my seminary professors quoting a theologian—I think it was Karl Barth—who said something like, “Of course there is a hell. God has every right to have a hell. It’s just that God loves everybody too much to ever put anybody in there.”
Well, let’s think about it. If there were no eternal punishment, would we suddenly become real rotters? And even though we live in the light of the resurrection, and believe that God’s love will cradle us throughout eternity, let’s imagine for a moment that there is no eternal reward, either. What if it were proven that there is neither heaven nor hell—neither eternal reward nor eternal punishment—awaiting us beyond the grave. Would we still live good lives? Would we still love God with our hearts, souls and minds? Would we still make sacrifices for others out of love?
Of course, the way we answer those questions defines us as human beings, and determines whether or not we truly belong to God. If our goodness, our kindness, our love exists only because of the fear of punishment or the hope of reward, then it isn’t really love at all. If our goodness is founded on the expectation of getting something in return, then we continue to stand in the shadow of the cross, and we continue to mock Jesus.
This is not an easy subject. Holy Week is not an easy week, at least not for those who are serious about their faith. And honestly, I think the church makes such a mistake when it takes the mystery of all this and hammers it into precise doctrines and rigid creeds. The truth just isn’t that easy. I suppose that’s why the mystics seem to me to come so much closer to the truth than those who anchor their lives on religious dogma.
But there are rewards in opening ourselves to the mystery. Again, these are the words of Loretta Ross-Gotta: As God calls us away from familiar ways of knowing God, what is left? Nothing but loss and a cross on a hill with a dead man hanging from it? Stay there a bit longer. Wait. Be confused. Consent to not knowing or understanding. Something you cannot even conceive of is preparing to spring up. Something so new, so radically different that your mind cannot name it, is sending out roots into the darkness.
Next week is Easter, and we’ll embrace the light that sprang so magnificently into our world. But that light will be all the brighter if we walk through the darkness of Holy Week on our way there. I can think of no better way to end this Passion Sunday sermon than with the words of Paul from his letter to the Philippians, a passage that not only tells us a great deal about the nature of God, and the nature of Jesus, but also tells us how to respond to God’s nature. Paul writes:
If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form 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.
And then we find one of the most moving sentences in the Bible, words that cast shame on any who would turn away from God’s love, and who, in doing so, would mock Jesus upon the cross. Paul writes: Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.