Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

A Mirror to Us

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
Palm and Passion Sunday (April 9, 2017)
Luke 19:29-44 and Luke 23:32-47 – “A Mirror to Us”

(Both gospel texts from Luke, stories of Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem and his crucifixion, were read dramatically in worship by a group of “actors,” but this sermon focuses specifically on the cross.)

They also led two other criminals to be executed with Jesus. When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing.

The people were standing around watching, but the leaders sneered at him, saying, “He saved others. Let him save himself if he really is the Christ sent from God, the chosen one.”

The soldiers also mocked him. They came up to him, offering him sour wine and saying, “If you really are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” Above his head was a notice of the formal charge against him. It read “This is the king of the Jews.”

One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”

It was now about noon, and darkness covered the whole earth until about three o’clock, while the sun stopped shining. Then the curtain in the sanctuary tore down the middle. Crying out in a loud voice, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I entrust my life.” After he said this, he breathed for the last time.

When the centurion saw what happened, he praised God, saying, “It’s really true: this man was righteous.”

We have begun another Holy Week. As we rehearse this ancient story of a procession, a meal, a death, and an empty tomb, we are diving headfirst back into a mystery.

Have you ever wondered why today is Palm and Passion Sunday? I’ll admit that I didn’t know until this week. So I looked it up. The resource I found said that:

“The question is frequently asked, Why combine the passion and the palms?… Many people simply do not attend worship on Good Friday. The result is that, for them, there is a distortion in the story. A story that skips from Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead evades the question, What happened in between? If we leap from Palm Sunday’s “Hosannas” to Easter Day’s “Hallelujahs” we overlook the pivotal event of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross…

The most important reason for combining the passion and the psalms is the relationship between the death and the resurrection of Jesus. To understand the resurrection, we must contemplate the passion of Jesus. Long, careful meditation upon the mystery of the cross must precede the glorious message of Easter.

So let us contemplate the passion of Jesus…

Speaking personally, I’ve struggled with the meaning of the cross for a long time. Part of that has to do with growing up in the Bible Belt, hearing constantly “Jesus died for your sins. Jesus paid the debt that you owe God so that you can spend eternity with him in heaven,” and, in my heart of hearts, not buying it. Something in my gut told me that a loving God wouldn’t require a brutal execution to love us, let alone the death of God’s own child. I know some might disagree with me when I say that, and I’d be willing to have a conversation with you if you do. Call me a heretic, but I think it’s a gruesome idea and unsound, theologically speaking.

Part of the trouble we have with interpretations Jesus’ death like that is that the language and concepts of sacrifice doesn’t quite square with our modern minds. You’d have to be an ancient Hebrew to understand what much of the New Testament says when it speaks of sacrifice. It has more to do with the Temple system in Jerusalem than it does the courtrooms of our day and age.

I spent probably way too much time in seminary reading about and reflecting on the cross. The theology word for it is “atonement,” the idea that we are made one (at-one-ment), or reconciled to God, through the death of Jesus. Looking at the stacks of books in my office about the topic, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s simply a mystery, an event that, maybe, we’re not supposed to fully understand, because it points to all those big questions about life and God, questions we live into rather than explain outright.

My point is, when we ask “why?” when it comes to the cross, Jesus’ death doesn’t just mean one thing; it means several things. In the Presbyterian Church, we have a collection of documents that try to articulate what the church has believed in different times and places, The Book of Confessions (this might be the first time I’ve quoted from it at length).The Confession of 1967 puts it like this:

God’s reconciling act in Christ is a mystery which the Scriptures describe in various ways. It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd’s life given for his sheep, atonement by a priest; again it is ransom of a slave, payment of debt, vicarious satisfaction of a legal penalty, and victory over the powers of evil. These are expressions of a truth which remains beyond the reach of all theory in the depths of God’s love for humankind. They reveal the gravity, cost, and sure achievement of God’s reconciling work. [1]

In other words, the cross is like a diamond; it has so many facets. Among those facets, I believe that…

  • Jesus, a nonviolent revolutionary, died as a consequence of his ministry and teachings that threatened the powers at be. In the shadow of Rome, he lived and taught the truth of another Reign, an Empire of Love.
  • He died in solidarity with all who suffer, especially those who are the victims of injustice and oppression.
  • In some way, God conquered death at the cross by absorbing the sin of the world.
  • There’s a radically act of reconciliation and forgiveness there, too—a bridged gap.
  • The cross is a sign and seal a new covenant, a repaired relationship, that God makes with humankind.
  • Ultimately, it’s a demonstration of the completely free, unlimited grace and love that God has for the whole world.

I appreciate what the Jesuit liberation theologian, Jon Sobrino, wrote about the cross:

“What does Jesus’ cross really say? It says that God has irrevocably drawn near to this world, that he is a God “with us” and a God “for us.” And to say this with the maximum clarity he let’s himself be a God “at our mercy… There can be no logic, only faith.” [2]

But let me suggest another image for the cross. It’s not there explicitly, but it applies nonetheless: a mirror.

This story—the whole story, all parts of it—hold up a mirror to us. In its harsh light, we see the truth of what humanity is really capable of. We can see ourselves in Pilate washing his hands saying, “I’m just doing my job.” We can see our reflection in Peter betraying a friend because of his fear. We can see ourselves in the other disciples, as they flee; in Mary, who faces the unspeakable agony of losing a child. We can see our reflection in the fickle crowds who shout “Hosanna!” one day and “Crucify him!” mere days later. It’s all there: disloyalty, dodging responsibility, mob rule, persecution, blaming, bloodshed… you name it.

I’ll quote Jon Sobrino again: “the cross of Jesus points us to the crosses that exist today.” [3]

The cross points to other crosses. Like other deaths, Jesus’ death says, “Don’t look away.”

  • Don’t look away from the crosses that our partners down at Frontera de Cristo lift up along the border Tuesday evenings at sunset, shouting “Presente!” after the names of people who have died crossing the desert are read aloud.
  • Don’t look away from our coworker or classmate who is constantly made to feel like an outsider, to the sneers of others.
  • Don’t look away from the face of that person holding a cardboard sign by the exit ramp.
  • Don’t look away from the young women who are victims of human trafficking, around the globe and down the street
  • Don’t look away from the statistics of disproportionately incarcerated people of color or young men of color who are killed with impunity.
  • And thinking specifically about this week, don’t look away from the photos of Syrian children killed by chemical weapons, the same faces of children who wouldn’t be welcomed as refugees to the country that builds and fires the missiles. Don’t look away from the dark irony of that.

Examples of other crosses are limitless. There’s no need to name them here; we know them all too well.

We don’t want to look into these “mirrors” because they’re overwhelming, and shameful. The cross gives us an unvarnished look, not at sin in the abstract, but at the specific harm we cause one another, the violence of our systems of domination, the scapegoats we have the need to blame. I’m speaking of this in a collective sense, but it applies to our interpersonal lives as well. The cross is a mirror for all the ways that we break God’s heart—a heart that still, somehow, has enough love in it to try to coax the world into being better than it is.

Yet, somehow, as the Apostle Paul wrote, “The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God.” [4]

That’s the real mystery: that this mirror of our death-dealing ways is also a sign of God’s insistence that life win the day. It’s the power of God to redeem even our worst. It’s a reminder that another way, an alternative way of being in the world, is possible. It’s a symbol of the transformative power of selfless love.

But we’re not there yet. The empty tomb comes later.

As tempting as it is to rush to hope, for now, our challenge is not to look away.

[1] The Book of Confessions – Part I of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), The Confession of 1967, “Section A. The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” 9.09

[2] Jesus the Liberator (1994), p. 232.

[3] Jesus the Liberator (1994), p. 195.

[4] 1 Corinthians 1:18, New Living Translation.

Featured Image © Tomas Castelazo, / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0