Sunday, March 29
Sixth Sunday in Lent (Passion Sunday)
Crucified and Risen One, by your passion you sustain us when we fall knee-bent into the radical emptiness of bone-wasting despair. Teach us to sustain the weary and awaken us to attend to those who suffer. Amen.
It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”
While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.
When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”
While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written,
‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.’
But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same.
They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. Then they laid hands on him and arrested him. But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to them, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.” All of them deserted him and fled.
A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.
They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest; and he was sitting with the guards, warming himself at the fire. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.'” But even on this point their testimony did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am; and
‘you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power,’
and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.'”
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death. Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” The guards also took him over and beat him.
While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” But he denied it, saying, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.
Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.
It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.
When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.
All Readings For This Sunday
1. What are everyday, “normal” powers in our world, in society and in the church, that oppress people? How have we learned to live with them?
2. What is your response to these systems, especially when they use religion as a justification?
3. When has someone “from the margins” taught you about faithful response to God?
4. Where has your Lenten journey taken you in reflecting on the meaning of the death of Jesus?
5. Have you ever felt like the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus, who wanted to “do something” in the face of overwhelming tragedy, to do what’s possible in the face of the impossible?
Reflection by Kate Matthews Huey
Perhaps the most haunting song sung during Holy Week is the African American spiritual, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” As we listen to this long and powerful account of the Passion and death of Jesus, we focus on one or more of the figures in this story, consider what might be going on inside their heart and mind, and then try to place ourselves there, too, right alongside them. We may not identify (or want to identify) with Pilate or the religious authorities, but we probably recognize ourselves either in the crowd or in the disciples around Jesus. In fact, we hear this story as disciples, or would-be disciples who struggle with grasping the true significance of the things Jesus said and did, let alone the meaning of who he was. We may be reluctant to admit how often we’re just as clueless as those followers of Jesus long ago.
The crowd may have been fickle and dangerous, the religious authorities anxious and scheming, the imperial representatives cold-blooded and ruthless, and the disciples perplexed and weak-willed, but Jesus is surrounded by them throughout the story. Except, that is, when figures emerge from the shadows of the story, from the margins of their society, and stand out as shining examples of faithful and passionate love for Jesus. In this particular story, it’s the women who make quiet yet compelling statements of faith by their actions and their presence at the very end. Alas, the men don’t do so well, as they begin the passage with their plotting to kill Jesus, feeling, no doubt, justified in their plan to rid themselves of this troublemaker. The men do all the talking, so we don’t have any words from the women; we don’t even know most of their names, including the one who, Jesus promises, will always be remembered for what she did.
In their book, The Last Week, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan contrast this woman who anoints Jesus at the beginning of this reading with Judas, who immediately leaves this scene in order to betray Jesus. Borg and Crossan call the woman “the first Christian,” the first to believe Jesus when he spoke of his coming suffering and death, and the first to take it so seriously that she went into action. That’s why she anointed his body, while the disciples were still consumed with power plays and questions. According to Borg and Crossan, the “stunningly extraordinary accolade” Jesus bestows on her (“Wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”) contrasts her “perfect” model of leadership with that of Judas, “the worst one possible.”
Seeing to the heart of things
Megan McKenna provides a wonderful meditation on this unnamed woman and her actions, and on her heart as well, as she offers Jesus tender and loving attention and lavish generosity in her gift of ointment worth a year’s wages. The same people who fail to offer these things are the first to criticize her for doing so, when the money presumably could have been better spent on the poor. Most of us who are familiar with this episode remember the argument that ensues more than the beauty (and deep truth) of the woman’s gesture. McKenna says that the men in the house miss the point: “Jesus is the poor,” she writes; “he is the poorest man in that house.” He is an innocent man facing a brutal execution, like so many impoverished people today, and his friends will (mostly) abandon him. McKenna turns the argument in the text around, saying, “Jesus is saying that what they want to do for him, they should do for the poor. Mercy is their sign of devotion.”
When have we ever lavished mercy and justice and healing on those in need? When have we given an extravagant amount of money to the poor? The followers of Jesus whose names we do know missed the point throughout the time they traveled with him, while this anonymous woman emerged from the shadows to be remembered, if not by name, for her solidarity with Jesus, McKenna says. She also observes that the Hebrew meaning of “remember” is closer to restoration: it “means to ‘put back together as it was originally.'” In this dramatic scene, the contrast is striking: “while Judas, the disciple, is handing Jesus over for money, the woman, also a disciple, is ‘wasting’ a year’s wages on perfumed oil to anoint him.” How will each one of us be remembered, as followers of Jesus? Were we extravagant, and were we true? Did our actions say something important about what we believed, deep down?
Where would we have been, and what would we have done?
In the garden, Judas betrayed Jesus into the hands of those who plotted against him, an “‘extraordinary rendition’ at the kiss of a colleague,” as David Schlafer describes it. However, Judas was not the only one who failed Jesus that last week, but simply the worst of those who failed him badly. The other disciples fled, too, and Peter denied him three times, after all of them had sworn to be faithful. If they couldn’t even stay awake in the garden while Jesus prayed, how in the world could they be faithful in the face of what was to come? Were we there, in the garden, struggling to stay awake, struggling to be faithful? And those crowds that welcomed Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, spreading their cloaks and shouting hosannas: where did they go? Did at least some of them join the mob that cried, “Crucify him”? Were we there, in either crowd, or both?
As we tell and hear this story about religious authorities and crowds, we remember the irony and profound tragedy of Christians using the Holy Week texts as justification for anti-Semitism and even for killing the Jews. Fortunately, many scholars and leaders have written and spoken against this great sin, including Stephen J. Patterson, who reminds us that it was the Roman Empire, and not the Jewish people (Jesus’ own people), who killed him. Like Borg and Crossan, Patterson sees power at the core of this tragic story, and “the struggle between those who have power and those who do not; between those who enjoy easy access to food, clothing, housing, and various of life’s pleasures and those who must make do without almost everything; between those who live at the center of things and those who exist at the margins.” Jesus, Patterson writes, had something to say in the face of this warped system, “a word of criticism, shot like an arrow from outside the city wall into the heart of his culture. His word hit home, and it stung. For that he was killed.” In most ages, this is the truth many of us would rather avoid, and instead prefer to focus on personally comforting phrases like, “Jesus died for me,” or “Jesus died for my sins.”
The Empire and the Kingdom of God
In fact, it is much bigger than that: Borg and Crossan put the final days of Jesus in the context of the clash between the power of empire and the kingdom of God, beginning with two processions into Jerusalem, one a peasant gathering to welcome Jesus and the other an imperial, military procession that brought Pilate to the city where trouble was always expected at the Feast of Passover. It was the “domination system” that Jesus had criticized, in the end, that killed him.
Perhaps we run the risk of thinking that empires and their brutality are things of the past, and we’re much more civilized now. However, Borg and Crossan challenge us to understand that “empires” of one kind or another are a reality in every age, including our own: “We have no reason to think that the temple authorities were wicked people. Moreover, as empires go, Rome was better than most. There was nothing exceptional or abnormal about it; this is simply the way domination systems behave.” Borg and Crossan even call this system of domination “the normalcy of civilization,” and it clashed profoundly with the passionate love of Jesus.
Swept up in events beyond our control
In every age, there are great forces at work, most of them experienced as impersonal and overpowering. The benefit of putting ourselves back there and then is the reminder that the forces and powers are hard to resist, and we are no better than our ancestors in faith. David Schlafer writes that Jesus’ disciples, like many of us at one time or another, “find themselves in circumstances beyond their control,” but what matters in this swirling drama is not how each one reacts but how each one “deliberately responds.” And not just Jesus’ disciples, but outsiders responded as well: the centurion, a Gentile, was there when they crucified our Lord, and he responded with the faith proclamation, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” A Gentile, in this context, was another person from the margins, and his response was not without risk. Perhaps that is the question, after we ask, “Were you there?” Perhaps the next question is, “How would you have responded”?
This passage might be titled, “Between Two Anointings.” As it opened, an unnamed woman anoints Jesus (unwittingly) for his burial, and as it closes, the faithful women who held out to the end, among the few who “deliberately respond,” are watching and waiting for their chance to do the same. They had little or no power, so a man with status, Joseph of Arimathea, had to “deliberately respond” by asking Pilate for the body of Jesus. Of course, we know that women, from the very beginning of the Gospels, are present with Jesus, tending to his needs and embracing his teaching. As Megan McKenna observes, the male disciples have not been as faithful or attentive, but Joseph of Arimathea emerges here as a disciple who understands the importance of the corporal works of mercy and has the courage to perform them. The courage of this action in the face of a brutal Pilate is there, between the lines of the account, and we have to believe that Joseph put himself at risk to provide Jesus with this last gesture of mercy. As Schlafer writes, Joseph and the women were “facing what’s impossible, doing what’s possible.” We are told the names of some of these women, and just as Borg and Crossan call the unnamed woman with the jar of ointment “the first Christian,” so Mary Magdalene has been called “the first apostle,” because of her distinctive role as witness to the Resurrection.
What does it all mean?
Here on the edge of Holy Week, we will undoubtedly hear many words about the meaning of Jesus’ death, much of it troubling. Mark doesn’t avoid the reality of the agonizing death of Jesus and the abandonment he experiences at the end, and we realize that Jesus is with us in our every moment of abandonment, our every moment of suffering and loss. Mark Vitalis Hoffman writes beautifully about the meaning of this text: “the message is not how Jesus defeated death but how he refused to avoid it. Jesus’ cry of forsakenness from the cross should not be tempered with the prospects of the resurrection victory to come. It is a true cry of desperation that echoes the truth of the pains we experience in our lives. Jesus reflects real life.” And in our own real lives, when we face pain and loss, we can draw on the gentle strength of Jesus, who suffered without striking back, and held firm to the deepest truths that sustained him.
This is not a story about something that happened once, long ago and never again. Jesus is with those who suffer and understands our human experience because he has shared it. The deliberate response of true faithfulness, we learn in the Gospels, is not violent retribution and revenge: “God has clearly proclaimed to humankind that the killing must stop,” Megan McKenna writes, “and any rituals that involve death, violence, humiliation, or the diminishment of human beings must be discarded forever.” Going even deeper into the meaning of the cross, Margaret Farley writes that our faith, is one of “resistance and hope. The point of the cross is not finally suffering and death; it is, rather, that a relationship holds. There is a love stronger than deathÖ.The God of Christians is not an arbitrary ruler who demands the price of suffering and death, but a God who makes possible all of our loves, as well as our resistance to evil.” How then will we, as people of faith, respond?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For Further Reflection
Blood-stained kindergarten leaflet with the day’s prayer when 4 girls were killed in church bombing in Atlanta in 1963
“Dear God, we are sorry for the times we were so unkind.”
William Blake, 19th century
“It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.”
Verna J. Dozier, 20th century
“The important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’ Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
“The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all God’s children.”
Woody Allen, 20th century
“To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love.”
G.K. Chesterton, 20th century
“The Christian faith has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.”
Brennan Manning, 21st century
“For those who feel their lives are a grave disappointment to God, it requires enormous trust and reckless, raging confidence to accept that the love of Jesus Christ knows no shadow of alteration or change….He had no romantic notion of the cost of discipleship. He knew that following Him was as unsentimental as duty, as demanding as love.”
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