Because we want to let today’s service really focus on the Passion Gospel, instead of having a sermon right after the Gospel we’ll observe a minute or so of silence before we move onto the prayers, to let the story sink and perhaps to recover a little from the heartbreak of it. And I want to warn you about that now, so don’t think we’re having technical problems when we pause and you don’t hear anything. And again, in order to keep the focus during the servce on the Gospel itself, I’m going offer a short reflection here before we begin the service. I want to just mention a few things to listen for.
The Gospel we’re about to hear is a story of human weakness and self-giving love. It’s about betrayal, injustice, political intrigue, lost hope, fear, jealousy, abuse of power, bitter bitter regret, pain, loneliness, and finally, death. It shows how a mob can be swayed by angry voices, and it shows just how dangerous that can be.
It’s really a terrible story, a heartbreaking story, but like most stories about human nature, it also has some shining moments of faith and bravery and loyalty and tenderness.
So, a very basic outline: It begins with the cheering crowd that greets Jesus as he arrives in Jerusalem, but some people feel threatened by his popularity and they’re plotting to have him killed. He’s betrayed by one of his closest firneds, and the rest of his friends are so frightened they run for their lives. His trial is a travesty of justice. He’s condemned and mocked by soldiers. He suffers horribly. He dies a brutal and shameful death, and he’s buried in someone else’s tomb.
Because it’s such a familiar story for many of us, I think it can be hard to hear it with fresh ears, so I’d like to suggest just a couple of things to listen for.
The first is what it tells us about the nature of God. How it shows us that selfless, self-giving love, the kind of love that isn’t always sweet and easy. It’s tough love. It’s hard love. And we, too, are called to give ourselves following this example.
Another thing it shows us is about friendship and loyalty. When Jesus asks his friends to stay with him they fall asleep in the garden. They run when he’s arrested. One is in such a hurry he leaves his clothes behind. In the courtyard that night, Peter denies him. Jesus knows our human sorrow and pain and he is with us in it no matter what’s going on in our lives. And we, too, are called to stay with him in this story, and to stay with everyone who is in any kind of pain, just to be there with them.
And finally Jesus stands agains the powers that be. The Empire has no use for him. His own religious leaders fail him utterly, because his teachings contradict their values. Because they’re jealous, as I said, of his popularity. But we, too, are called to stand by the values he taught, even when it means going against the prevailing culture, no matter what. And we, too, are called to stand up against the powers that be in our own society when they impose injustice on those who are powerless to defend themselves.
Today’s Gospel ends with the stone rolled to close the entry to the tomb, but even as Jesus dies, we hear the centurion say, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
That is our faith, and the source of all our hope.
Preached for Church of the Ascension in Parkesburg PA.