Conversations Before the Cross

Sunday, April 5, 2020
Sixth Sunday in Lent Year A
Palm/Passion Sunday

Focus Theme:
Conversations Before the Cross

Focus Prayer:
God of our salvation, we give you thanks for Jesus Christ, our Lord, who came in your name and turned the lonely way of rejection and death into triumph. Grant us the steadfast faith to enter the gates of righteousness, that we may receive grace to become worthy citizens of your holy realm. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Matthew 26:14-27:66

Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, What will you give me if I betray him to you? They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover? He said, Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’ So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.

When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 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.” Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written,
   ‘I will strike the shepherd,
      and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
“But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples.

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.

Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.'” The high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him,
“You have said so. But I tell you,
   From now on you will see the Son of Man
      seated at the right hand of Power
   and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?” They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?”

Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”

Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

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.

As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.'” The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

All readings for the week:
Liturgy of the Palms:
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Matthew 21:1-11
Liturgy of the Passion:
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54

Focus Questions:

1. Why do you think the powers-that-be feared Jesus?

2. What is the power of fear in your life, and in the life of your community?

3. What does it mean to you that “Jesus died for you”?

4. When have you ever felt like Peter, in that courtyard?

5. Why do you think Mary Magdalene and the other Mary sat there, opposite the tomb? What were they waiting for?

by Kate Matthews

The passion story isn’t just a long one, so rich, so full of both trouble and beauty that we hardly know where to begin. It’s also very old, going all the way back to Paul and developing during that first century as the Gospel writers filled out the narrative with both theology and details. Perhaps the most important theology is “in the details.”

From the very beginning of his Gospel, Matthew has sounded the theme of fulfillment, and he isn’t finished yet, according to John Pilch. As he nears the end of his story, Matthew continues to recall traditions that are being fulfilled, but he’s also remembering the blood that was spilled at its very beginning, when the powers-that-be (Herod and the Empire that propped him up) killed innocent babies because they feared just one little newborn child.

A Gospel with blood spattered on it

Frederick Niedner provided an exquisite reflection on this long text in the March 11, 2008 issue of the Christian Century: “Matthew’s Gospel has blood spattered all over it….the Immanuel child who escaped Herod falls victim to a new cadre of frightened leaders.”

Frightened leaders use fear to control the people, drawing “just enough blood,” Niedner says, “to keep everyone afraid.” Like so many people before and after him, Jesus dies at the hands of power: “This time, however, the bloodshed changes everything.”

The place and the time

The place is Jerusalem, and the time is Passover, when the Jewish people, Jesus’ own people, would remember and celebrate God’s deliverance of them from slavery in Egypt. The irony, Melinda Quivik writes, is that “the popular and dangerous rabbi who preaches freedom will be killed when the people come together to Jerusalem to celebrate their freedom from slavery in Egypt.”

And so Jesus is brought before power, standing in front of Caiaphas the high priest and Pilate the governor (representing the Empire). But that rabbi who spoke at great length to his disciples and the crowds (check out Chapter 25: all of it, the words of Jesus) now has very little to say before the high and the mighty.

Quivik says that this quiet Jesus “who has had so many words through so many stories suddenly seems to act according to the notion that one picture really is worth a thousand words.”

Obsession and over-reaction

We might find the obsession of the “local” religious authorities easier to understand than the over-reaction of the mighty Roman Empire to one small-town preacher in a far-flung province. But Jesus represents something more powerful than a thousand legions, and that is hope. Even the mightiest of empires could not extinguish the kind of hope Jesus represented.

Richard Swanson writes, “Empire is not seeking simply to crucify one man, whether gentle or troublesome. Rome is seeking to demonstrate that, though it may take a lifetime, it will catch and kill anyone who stirs Jewish hope. In Matthew’s story, Rome finishes Herod’s hunt….” When we say that Jesus “died” for us, we miss the full impact of saying that he didn’t just die; he was executed.

We can see God’s love for us

Marcus Borg points out the uniqueness of Christianity, “whose founder was executed by established authority.” And why was he executed? Borg responds with several interpretations, each one insightful: he sees Jesus’ death “as a consequence of what he was doing, but not his purpose….Jesus courageously kept doing what he was doing even though he knew it could have fatal consequences.”

The “no” of the authorities is answered by God’s “yes,” Borg claims, and the domination system (even bigger than just one Roman governor or one religious institution) “disclosed its moral bankruptcy and ultimate defeat.”

Dying to one way of being

Digging even deeper, Borg sees Jesus’ death and resurrection as the path for Christians: “dying to an old way of being and being raised to a new way of being.” And we can all see in the death of Jesus, the beloved Son, “the depth of God’s love for us.”

Finally, the sacrificial understanding, Borg says, has been misinterpreted by Christians as it’s been used most often to interpret the death of Jesus. The earliest Christians would have understood that in laying down his own life Jesus denied “the temple’s claim to have a monopoly on forgiveness and access to God….God in Jesus has already provided the sacrifice and has thus taken care of whatever you think separates you from God.” The death of Jesus, then, is “a metaphor of radical grace.”

God comes to find us where we are

This is the same note struck by Barbara Brown Taylor in her sermon on this passage, when she agrees with Niedner that everything was changed by this death, and with Borg that God’s love is revealed in it: afterward, “the world was a different place, and the world knew it. The earth shook. Rocks split. Tombs groaned and fell open to the light….God [became] flesh and blood in order to bring divine love to life….”

In giving us Jesus, Taylor writes, God is saying, “You don’t have to come to me where I am anymore. I will come all the way to you where you are, through this beloved child.'”

Doesn’t this sounds like the stories of Jesus, who spoke of a widow pulling her home apart to find a lost coin, or a shepherd going in search of a lost sheep? God comes to find us where we are.

Betrayal at the center of the story

There are so many images and themes in this reading that a preacher hardly knows where to begin. Perhaps it might be fruitful to focus our attention on the betrayal at the center of the story.

Many commentators write with deep feeling not just about Judas but also about the disciples who promised loyalty and then failed Jesus: “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled” (26:56b). Not just some disciples, but all the disciples ran away. They surely didn’t want to be cowards, and yet they were free to stay with Jesus or to go, just as we are free to choose our path today.

The human condition

Thomas Long sees this failure as part of the human condition. Peter’s promise illustrates human freedom to choose faithfulness (or not), but when Jesus responds, “‘Truly, you will break this very night,’ he speaks the sad truth of the way it goes in human life.”

Long puts Peter in a line with so many others, all the way back to Adam, who will, “when the chips are down, choose another way.” The disciples don’t intend evil, but they are weak, and Jesus is no less abandoned; in his hour of need, the disciples “prefer the sleep of avoidance. Jesus is alert to God’s will; Peter, James, and John slumber through his time of anguish.”

Isn’t it interesting that Peter, James, and John, who went up to the mountaintop and witnessed the Transfiguration, were also the ones who fell asleep in the garden?

A question of free will

We’ve been taught about free will, and these disciples certainly exercised theirs. Judas chose to remove himself from the community; he wasn’t expelled from it. He was there, at that final dinner, sitting at the table with his mind elsewhere.

As we read about that supper, we might wonder what was going through the hearts and minds of those gathered for this not-just-another-Passover meal. Jesus knew that these friends of his, the innermost of his inner circle, would turn him in or at least abandon him in his hour of need. And yet, Barbara Brown Taylor says, Jesus “is forgiving them ahead of time.”

Life, in the long run

Indeed, even in the face of their impending desertion and weakness, Jesus offers them life in the long run, and the promise of God’s love and presence with them always. Niedner writes of Jesus’ compassion and care for his followers (and perhaps his sorrow as well) as he shares one last meal, one last cup with them: “Drink this,” Jesus promises, “and my lifeblood becomes yours. Tomorrow I die, but you go free. Wherever you go, I am with you.”

When we think about the betrayal and desertion of the disciples, don’t we too easily go to the place of “relating” by remembering the times we’ve been betrayed or abandoned? That’s the human thing to do. But Niedner offers a compelling and discomforting reflection, appropriate for this Lenten season of self-examination and repentance: “the disciples need forgiveness and reconciliation, not merely freedom,” from this rabbi who preached freedom.

And so do we, for we have all betrayed just as we have been betrayed.

The betrayals we have perpetrated

We might ask, with Niedner: “What becomes of traitors, not only Judas but those in our congregations and communities, or the intimates who stab our families in the back?” But Niedner reflects on his own “large and small betrayals that have cost others, including those I love, their joy, their sanity, their ability to trust, even their lifeblood….”

What better time than Holy Week, what better place than at the foot of the cross, to reflect on the betrayals and desertions we have perpetrated on others? And where do we find our hope? In the empty tomb and, Niedner writes, the “promise of the shepherding God who never pauses until every lost one is found….”

Our own brokenness and need for forgiveness

Quivik offers an overview of this rich and complex passage, this old, old tradition in which “we readily see the circumstances of human life (the trouble we are in, the need we have for God’s mercy, the ‘law’ that burdens us because we cannot fulfill it) and we also see the inexplicable beauty (the release we have been given through Jesus’ silence and death, the desire of his friends to maintain fellowship with him, the desire of human beings to follow and to comfort, the ‘gospel’ that gives freedom). The beauty is in the unfathomable and yet undeniable power of this entire story.”

In this time of anxiety and, for so many, great suffering and loss, how do you find hope in the re-telling of this ancient account of sorrow and death? Where do you find God’s promise embedded in such a story? What is the bright light shining at the end of this long experience of isolation, struggle and uncertainty?

Trouble, yes, and beauty, indeed. May this Holy Week, observed in our separation and from a distance, still bring us closer to one another and to God.

Note: A helpful resource for reading the texts for Palm/Passion Sunday is Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s book, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles a sermon reflection on Matthew 21:1-11) is at

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews ( retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page:
For further reflection:

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 19th century
“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”

William Wilberforce, 19th century
“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”

Attributed to Rabbi Tarfon and the Talmud (commentary on Micah 6:8)
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Act justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

Mark Twain, 19th century
“Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”

Blood-stained kindergarten leaflet with day’s prayer (when 4 girls were killed in church bombing in Birmingham in 1963):
“Dear God, we are sorry for the times we were so unkind.”

Albert Camus, 20th century
“Great ideas, it has been said, come into the world as quietly as doves. Perhaps, then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear amid the uproar of empires and nations a faint flutter of wings, a gentle stirring of life and hope.”

Eudora Welty, 20th century:
“People are mostly layers of violence and tenderness wrapped like bulbs, and it is difficult to say what makes them onions or hyacinths.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20th century, as he was taken to his death:
“This is the end, but for me the beginning of life.”

William E. Gladstone, 19th century
“We look forward to the time when the Power of Love will replace the Love of Power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace.”
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