April 5, 2020: Palm/Passion Sunday

Sunday before Easter

Friday and Saturday: The Cross and the Tomb


Mark 15: 1-47 (selected verses)

Today is Palm Sunday and or Passion Sunday. We began by hearing the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. We also heard this story at the beginning of our Lenten journey. Since that time, we have been moving through this last week of Jesus’ life. Today we come to Friday, the day of crucifixion, or “The Passion” of Christ. We will spend a few moments on Saturday as well.

Mark tells the story of the passion in three-hour intervals. It begins at dawn, which in Jerusalem in the spring, is around 6 am. Mark says that as dawn breaks Jesus is handed over to Pilate by the High Priest and the council that had condemned him the night before. (Read Mark 15:1) During the next three hours, we have Pilate interrogating Jesus and the soldiers abusing him. Pilate asks: “Are you the King of the Jews?” We should probably hear a mocking emphasis on the word “you.” This question tells us that the charge brought by the high priest was treason against Rome. We should probably hear in Jesus’ response a mocking emphasis on the same word: “You have said so.” These are the last words recorded in Mark that Jesus speaks until his final cry from the cross later in the day.

Then follows the puzzling episode of Pilate offering to release any prisoner the crowd wished. (Read Mark 15: 6-16) It is puzzling because it is difficult to imagine that such a practice existed in a troublesome province like Judea. It may be just a story inserted by Mark so he can have the crowd call for Jesus’ crucifixion. This is certainly not the same crowd that heard Jesus with delight during the week when he taught at the temple. There may have been another reason for the story. By the time the Gospel of Mark is written, we have had the Jewish revolt in Palestine that was brutally crushed by the Romans. Barabbas could represent violent revolution while Jesus advocated love for your enemies. Mark might be saying that the people of Jerusalem chose the violent path, which led to their destruction. We just don’t know what to make of this event.

After hearing the cries for Jesus’ crucifixion, Pilate hands him over to his soldiers who tortured, humiliated and flogged him. Then they placed the horizontal bar of the cross on his shoulders and took him through town to the place of execution. The flogging was so severe that it weakened Jesus to the point he kept stumbling. Finally, he was unable to carry the heavy crosspiece any further and the soldiers compelled Simon of Cyrene to carry it for him.

We now come to the 9 am to noontime. (Read Mark 15:25-32) At nine they crucify Jesus. As Jesus hangs on the cross he is mocked by the bystanders, some of them obviously sent by the high priest. On the cross is the inscription, “The King of the Jews.” For Mark the inscription is ironic. Pilate intended it as a derisive comment as if to say, “Rome has the power to execute any who claims to be king.” Most of those seeing Jesus on the cross, like the agents of the High Priest, also saw it as mocking not only Jesus, but those who believed him to be the Messiah. Mark and early Christianity see the inscription as being accurate. Jesus is the true King.

Jesus was crucified between two bandits. We would use the terms freedom fighters or revolutionaries. Ordinary criminals were not crucified by Rome. Jesus is executed as a rebel against Rome between two other rebels. In Mark, there is no repentant thief. Here, those who were crucified with Jesus, also taunt him.

We now move to the noon to 3 pm time, the last hours of Jesus’ life. (Read Mark 15:33) Jesus had been on the cross for about three hours. It was a time of extreme agony. Crucifixion was the most painful process Rome had devised for killing a person. They used crucifixion as a scare tactic. ”Don’t resist our authority or you will end up dying just like this person,” was the message of the cross, as far as Rome was concerned. Mark describes the next three hours with a single sentence: When it was noon, darkness came over the land until three in the afternoon.

Then, shortly after 3 pm, Jesus shares a part of a psalm, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Read Mark 15:34-39) It gives words to the darkness Jesus and the world were experiencing. God seemed very distant. Hope seemed to be gone. Despair was all-pervasive and evil, at least for the moment, has triumphed over good. With that, Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. When he dies two things happen. The first is the tearing of the temple curtain and the second is a centurion proclaiming that this man was God’s son.

The curtain is the one that hangs in the innermost parts of the temple. Behind it was the Holy of Holies. It was believed that here God literally dwelt on earth. It was the most sacred spot on earth for the Jews. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would briefly step behind the curtain to offer prayers for the people’s sins to be forgiven. The tearing of the curtain means nothing separates us from God.

The centurion’s remark, as a representative of Rome, might be sharing the idea that Jesus’ life, teaching, and death is for more than the Jews. We don’t know exactly what Mark meant by sharing this detail.

We are also told that there were women at the foot of the cross who witnessed all of this, Mary Magdalene and three other women who we know nothing about. For all of the gospel writers, it is the women who will play a key role in the rest of the story. Remember the men are nowhere to be found in Mark. They have all failed Jesus. In Mark, though it isn’t stated, we are to know that Jesus’ lifeless body hung on the cross for about three hours. The next part of the day does not begin until close to sunset.

Sunset will come in the area around 6 pm in the spring of the year and with it the beginning of the Sabbath. The religious leaders were anxious to have Jesus’ body and those of the other two removed from the cross and buried before this especially holy Sabbath. In other Gospel accounts, we hear of the soldiers breaking the legs of those being crucified to speed up the dying process. (Read Mark 42-47) Joseph of Arimathea asks for permission from Pilate to take the body of Jesus and bury it. Pilate was surprised that death had happened so quickly. Once he determines that Jesus is indeed dead he gives his permission. Joseph’s reasons for arranging a proper burial are unknown. Mark says Joseph was awaiting the coming of God as if to say he, at the very least, heard something in Jesus’ words that he found to be true. Others say he was a sympathizer with Jesus but was afraid to come out publicly. One gospel says he did it as a sign that he did not approve of the actions of the council. Whatever the reason, Joseph takes the body and arranges for it to be placed in a tomb. The women follow and see where the body was buried.

This ends Friday. About Saturday, Mark says nothing. Tradition has it that Jesus descending into Hades on this day. The Apostles creed states that: “he was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell or hades, the third day he rose from the dead.” We need to understand that this ancient use of the word hell is not our current understanding. Hades was the place of the dead. It was a holding place for spirits. There was no judgment involved. Other Gospel writers try to include this thought in some way. Matthew says that at the time of death the tombs also were opened and many of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. It was a way of trying to extend salvation to all, even those who had died before Jesus lived. We could spend a long time on this idea, but I want to go back to the meaning of the crucifixion, for us.

As Mark tells the story, Jesus’ final week is a sequence of public demonstrations against and confrontations with those in authority and their values. One of the long-held doctrines of the church is that Jesus died for our sins. We see this in some of the writings of Paul and in many of the great old hymns and some of the current ones as well. The fancy term for this is substitutionary atonement. It was formulated in a time where it was assumed that the only way to appease God or the gods was through sacrifice. All of the various temples of ancient Roman had sacrifices as a part of worship. In that setting Jesus as the pure sacrifice makes sense. As of late, this doctrine has begun to go out of favor. Part of the reason is that it doesn’t fit well with our understanding of a loving God. Do we really believe that our loving God’s forgiveness would only come to us through pain, suffering, and blood? Many are feeling less and less easy with that kind of theology.

The sacrifice of Jesus is still very important to our faith. I believe we should see that it was Jesus’ love for God that caused him to confront the powerful of his day. He could not stand idly by and let them oppress people in the name of religion and that led to his death. His crucifixion does show God’s immense love for us, by showing us to what lengths God in Christ was willing to help of find life abundant. His death challenges us to ask: What would passionate faith look like to us? What would I be willing to risk and sacrifice for my faith? Where am I willing to take a stand against injustice? History is marked with examples of people who heard the call to follow the cross, to live out their passionate love for Christ. It was risky, sometimes causing them to lose their lives, but through their actions they shared how much God’s loves us.

How can we radically live our faith in our current situation? Here are just a few ideas. Say thank you to all those who are working when you go out. Send notes of encouragement to those who are alone, especially those in care facilities. Demand that our government put special emphasis on taking care of the least among us. I am sure you can come up with other ideas of how we can live a loving, passionate and sacrificial faith today.

I want us to leave the story here. We feel more comfortable moving to a hint of Easter after dealing with the crucifixion. We want to be reminded that this is not the end of the story. I, instead, want the sacrifice, the passion for God, and the challenge of the cross to stay with us as we journey together through this Holy Week.