Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 16, 2008

2008.03.16 “Things Come Together, Things Fall Apart” The Passion According to Matthew


“Things Come Together, Things Fall Apart”

The Passion According to Matthew

(26: 14 – 27: 66)

March 16th, 2008


     Back in 2004, I did something controversial: I watched Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ.  Who would have thought – 2,000 years later — a movie about Jesus could still be so controversial?

      And yet, from the first century to this, the story of Jesus, and especially the death of Jesus, have been controversial. Who was responsible for Jesus’ death? The Jews? The Romans? God? Us? All the above answers have been given. 

      In the case of Gibson’s movie, there was reason for controversy, because we do have to be careful. The first century accusation that the Jews killed Christ indisputably led to 2,000 years of anti-Semitism and pogroms, for which we Christians must repent as well as continually be on guard.

      But other questions remain controversial as well.  Did Jesus have to die? What was more important, Jesus’ life or his death?  What are we to make of the way he died, forsaken, on a cross? Most importantly, after he died, what happened then? Mel Gibson’s movie readdressed these questions, which never really go away.

      What did I think of the movie?  I concur with the opinion of my former professor, Martin E. Marty, who concluded, as his article about it was entitled, “Not My Passion.”

         Like every recounting of the story of Jesus’ death — whether of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Mel Gibson, or ours — it is an interpretation. In Gibson’s case it is an interpretation of an interpretation, reflecting Gibson’s own conservative Catholicism, and based upon an 18th meditation on the Passion of Christ by an Augustinian Nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), entitled The Dolorous (Sorrowful) Passion Of Our Lord Jesus Christ

      The truth is, after seeing Gibson’s movie or any movie about Jesus, my favorite version of the Passion Story is the one we do this morning.  It is the difference between being a passive spectator, as we are when we watch a movie; and being an active participant, as we are when we read this story and hear our voice calling for Jesus’ death.

      There are three reasons, on Palm/Passion Sunday, that we read the Passion of the Christ in this way we do.

      The first is literary:  On our way to Easter, the only way to preserve the integrity of the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection as well as experience its impact, is to hear it as it was written.

      The story of Jesus suffering and death, known as the Passion, is the largest part of the Gospel. In fact, it has been said that we know more about the events of the last week of Jesus’ life than any other.  There is an emphasis upon it in the Gospels, perhaps not only because of its theological significance but because of how shocking and traumatic it was to his followers.  The story is still shocking in any version, whether according to Gibson or the Gospels.

      A title for what happens might well be a line from a poem by William Butler Yeats, “Things Come Together, Things Fall Apart”. Just when, with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, it looks like things are finally coming together, things as quickly fall apart, and what begins as a parade turns into a passion, a triumph into a tragedy.  As my friend John Auer pointed out many years ago, Palm/Passion Sunday feels like the day after a political campaign, where your candidate lost.  Banners and placards – in this case palm fronds — are strewn about – sad reminders of what might have been.

      Scholar William Placher reminds us that the Gospels tell a story that operates on two levels: 

      “On one, they tell the story of a brave, frightened, lonely young man who is killed by powerful people and institutions in his society. On the other, they recount how the Son of God saves humankind. They show Christ doing divine things in a human way and human things in a divine way; so that the two sides of the story remain the story of one person.”

      It is the story of that person, Jesus of Nazareth, that we hear today.

      A second reason we hear the story today is practical.  Many here today will not be here again until next Sunday, Easter Sunday. To go, therefore, from the lesser joy of Palm Sunday to the greater joy of Easter, without experiencing what happens in between, is to impoverish our experience of the Gospel. Unless you appreciate the disillusionment and despair Jesus’ followers felt after his death, it is doubtful you can appreciate the awe and joy they experienced on Easter morning.  As the old saying goes, “There is no Crown without the Cross.”  And so we fill that gap today.

      The final reason that we do this story today is theological:  In recounting the story of Jesus, we find ourselves in it. In Jesus’ story, we address the same questions that still trouble us:

      Why do the good suffer?

      How should a Christian respond to evil and injustice?

      What does it mean when we pray to a silent heaven?

      How does one face, with courage and faith, one’s death?

      If you think you have ideals, here is one with the highest ideals, nailed to a cross.  If you think friends and family don’t understand you; here is one whose family thought he was crazy, whose friends abandoned him, whose own disciple betrayed him with a kiss. If you think your spiritual life is troubled, sometimes dry, here is one whose passion was for God, yet, at the worst moment of his life, during his torture and death, he felt the abandonment of God. If your think your life is hard, is it ever so hard as the hard wood of the cross?  If you worry about the hour of your death, here is one who died as he lived, faithfully committing his life and cause into God’s hands.

      As we hear the story, where do we find ourselves in it? Do we identify with Jesus, suffering unjustly in the name of Love? Do we identify with Jesus disciples, who ran off and left him? Do we identify with Peter, who denied him?  Do we identify with Mary his mother, who, helplessly and horrifically, had to watch her own son die before her eyes?

      In Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, when it came time for one of the most brutal acts of the film, drive a stake through Jesus’ hands to nail him to the cross, the hands that drive the nail belong to Mel Gibson. That is what Gibson chose, and it must have been a sobering moment.  Just as it becomes a sobering moment for us when we yell, “Let him be crucified.”

      Yes, it was not only for us, but because of us and the way we live — with our unending war and violence and injustice – that Jesus was nailed to the cross.  You know as well as I do that if he came back today, we’d do it again. It is a tragedy continually and universally played out, not only on Palm/Passion Sunday and every Holy Week, but every day. 

      Yet if Jesus suffering and death were because of us, we also believe that his life and death were for us: demonstrating not only the love of God for our wayward world, but the way out of our unrelenting cycle of suffering and death: that finally, love is stronger than hate, good is greater than evil, life will triumph over death.  As Martin Luther King said, “The moral arc of the universe may be long, but it bends toward justice.”

      Is it any wonder that it has been said of Jesus, “His last hour was his finest hour”, and thus the inspiration for our finest art, greatest music, most moving worship, and deepest faith, after all these years.

      Let us hear the story.


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