A Sermon for Passion Sunday
I have a confession to make. I still haven’t seen Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ. It’s a hotly contested film, of course, and in a lot of ways it portrays a specific, strict Catholic understanding of the events of Good Friday that I think is rather misguided. One thing that the movie gets right, though, I hear, is the horribleness of Christ’s suffering that day in Jerusalem. It shouldn’t surprise us that the film version of the Passion is as disturbing as it is. These days, our imagination is so captivated by movies that an ultra-violent film is perhaps the most effective way for us to experience the suffering of Jesus. It is not new, though, to revel in the Passion. Scattered around this church are fourteen woodcuts, representing the Stations of the Cross. Christians haven’t always needed expert cinematography, theatrical violence and special effects to viscerally feel Jesus’ pain. Symbolic representations of the Stations have provided a detailed, blow by blow account of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice for centuries.
For me, I think, seeing a movie depicting these events that surround us might make them real in a new way for me. Sarah, Kristen and I, whose task it is to teach the church’s Rite 13 program, took the sixth through eighth graders in the congregation out onto the streets of Hyde Park last week to look for images of the signs of the cross in our everyday life. From one perspective, this isn’t too hard. At one station, Jesus falls while carrying the cross. A few stations later, Jesus falls for a second time. The way it’s phrased – a second time – suggests that he’ll do it again. We’re counting the falls now. Jesus falls for a third time. If you’re looking for parallels to the Stations of the Cross in Hyde Park, I bet you can find at least three fallen women and men on the benches and under the bushes of Nichols Park, if you’re actually looking for them.
On the other hand, I felt that looking for echoes of the Stations in the neighborhood, didn’t tell the whole story. Surely there is suffering, great suffering, just down the street. However, the Stations and Mel Gibson remind us that on that day in Jerusalem, Jesus suffered more pain than any of us could possibly imagine. The portrayal of the suffering and death of Jesus in the Gospels is intended to show the extreme of suffering. its limit. Jesus takes as much pain as any human can. He collapses when he just can’t take any more, as much as we could. The soldiers and crowds force him up, and he starts again. This happens two more times. The Passion puts you in your place. It looks at you and says, “You think you’ve suffered? I’ll show you suffering.”
The fifth Sunday of Lent, that’s today, used to be known as Passion Sunday. For two weeks, starting now, Christians were supposed to focus their prayer on the scourging and crucifixion of Jesus. Today’s Gospel begins with the arrival of two Greeks – Gentiles, non-Jews – to hear the teachings of Jesus. When he hears this, Jesus knows the time as come for him to go. When the two gentiles show up, the universal significance of Christ seeps into the narrative. This story speaks not just of isolated events among the Jews at a moment of long-past history. These two Greeks are only the first of many outside of the cultural situation of ancient Judaism to seek and find Jesus. This is a story that has some resonance for all people everywhere.
What is the universal significance of this story? God’s saving action is clear and obvious with respect to Jesus’ dying on the cross. He is miraculously raised from the dead. God’s power isn’t always so readily apparent in our lives. There are few stunning miracles to be found these days. However, seeing as how our own moments of suffering are, for the most part, radically less dramatic than Jesus’, we shouldn’t expect God’s action in our lives to approach the scale of these miraculous events.
Maybe you heard this week about the study that tested the measurable effects of prayer. Led, over many years, by researchers from Harvard Medical School researchers monitored 2,000 heart-bypass patients. Groups of Christians were told the name of some of the patients and prayed for them by name every day for two weeks. The results indicated there was no medical benefit to "distant" or "intercessory" prayer. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for God to answer our prayers of health. It may be that God’s power is withdrawn when we ignore scripture’s warning and put the lord our God to the test. Who can know these things? Still, though, why do we pray for the sick? Most of us here take scientific research pretty seriously, I think. It seems to me that objective knowledge of God’s divine power of complete healing and resurrection, obvious as literal fact is something that the people who witnessed the events in the Gospel alone can claim. We don’t have that kind of certainty on these matters. Unlike Jesus, the lot of us, 2000 years later, don’t seem to have the same power to call upon God to intervene in the sickness and health of each other.
Still, we pray for our sick and suffering loved ones. We do this alone, in quiet moments of reflection and solace-seeking, and we do this together, every week with the Prayers of the People. Maybe this is as much for our benefit as it is for the explicit subjects of our prayers. When we are healthy and we pray for the sick, we are reminded that we will be sick one day. When we pray for those who suffer and mourn, we know we will one day be the ones who suffer and mourn. When we the living pray for the dying, we are confronted by the fact that we will die one day. Our self-importance dissolves as we contemplate the fact that one day we will be those names read during the prayers of the people once a year, on the anniversary of our deaths.
It is exactly here, in the humility of prayer, that we draw near to Christ and Christ draws near to us. To borrow the image from today’s lesson, in order to bear fruit the grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die, just as we all will some day.
Jesus tells the crowd that he will share in our suffering to an unimaginable degree, but he also says,
“When I am lifted from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”
How does this divine drawing, “providence,” we might say, work? The theologian Paul Tillich suggests that we understand providence as the possibility of a meaningful life in spite of death and the threat of a meaningless fate. Our faith teaches us not that all our difficulties and sufferings can be prevented or healed through prayer, but that no matter how dark our night, there is a glimmer of hope. No matter how awful the world seems, there will be an opportunity to do something to further God’s plan for the Good.
In this understanding, God doesn’t determine every moment in the course of our lives. The Divine enters our lives when we are presented with an opportunity to transcend our suffering and live our lives for the benefit of our community and of creation. This happens all the time. Parents who lose a child to a dangerous drug or an unfamiliar disease are given the strength to stand up and fight for the health and safety of children everywhere. People who have suffered the effects of racism in their own lives make a pact to fight racism everywhere in the world. The suffering that we face can help us seek and find solidarity with others in their suffering.
One of the strangest moments in today’s Gospel is when Jesus says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Jesus is talking here about our natural instinct to tend to our own wants and desires over the demands of God and the needs of others. Martin Luther made this point famously and unambiguously when, using the unfortunately gendered language common for his time, he said, “Man is by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God, and does not want God to be God.”
When our sinful self-interest is put aside and we work for hospitality and justice, out of love for God and our neighbor over ourselves, this is where we find God and are found by God. This is a better place to look for the divine than in the results of scientific research, and there, in service and mercy, we find God’s true nature. We meditate on the suffering and death of Jesus and the suffering and death in our own world this Lent so that in Eastertide we may be welcomed and transformed by God and so that we may be allowed to serve as divine vessels of love in and for the world. The power of God is testified to every time someone shakes off his or her own fear, laziness and self-importance and witnesses (and witnesses to) Christ in the suffering of the God's Children.