Sunday, March 25, 2012

Passion Sunday: The Symbol of the Cross. Homily for Mark 15:1-39

6th Sunday of LENT
Passion Sunday
Homily for 4.1.12
Mark 15:1-39 
Year B

Today we observe Passion Sunday. Today we recall and recite the movement of GOD toward us in the person of Jesus, as that movement culminates on the cross. 

I understand this is an extended text, but I urge the reader: Don't skip this text; don't jump to my words before reading GOD's word and this account of Jesus' last few hours.

Read now, the living word of GOD:

As soon as morning came,

the chief priests with the elders and the scribes,

that is, the whole Sanhedrin held a council.

They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.

Pilate questioned him,

“Are you the king of the Jews?”

He said to him in reply, “You say so.”

The chief priests accused him of many things.

Again Pilate questioned him,

“Have you no answer?

See how many things they accuse you of.”

Jesus gave him no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed.

Now on the occasion of the feast he used to release to them

one prisoner whom they requested.

A man called Barabbas was then in prison

along with the rebels who had committed murder in a rebellion.

The crowd came forward and began to ask him

to do for them as he was accustomed.

Pilate answered,

“Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?”

For he knew that it was out of envy

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 again said to them in reply,

“Then what do you want me to do

with the man you call the king of the Jews?”

They shouted again, “Crucify him.”

Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?”

They only shouted the louder, “Crucify him.”

So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd,

released Barabbas to them and, after he had Jesus scourged,

handed him over to be crucified.

The soldiers led him away inside the palace,

that is, the praetorium, and assembled the whole cohort.

They clothed him in purple and,

weaving a crown of thorns, placed it on him.

They began to salute him with, “Hail, King of the Jews!”

and kept striking his head with a reed and spitting upon him.

They knelt before him in homage.

And when they had mocked him,

they stripped him of the purple cloak,

dressed him in his own clothes,

and led him out to crucify him.

They pressed into service a passer-by, Simon,

a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country,

the father of Alexander and Rufus,

to carry his cross.

They brought him to the place of Golgotha

—which is translated Place of the Skull —

They gave him wine drugged with myrrh,

but he did not take it.

Then they crucified him and divided his garments

by casting lots for them to see 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.”

With him they crucified two revolutionaries,

one on his right and one on his left.

Those passing by reviled him,

shaking their heads and saying,

“Aha! You who would destroy the temple

and rebuild it in three days,

save yourself by coming down from the cross.”

Likewise the chief priests, with the scribes,

mocked him among themselves and said,

“He saved others; he cannot save himself.

Let the Christ, the King of Israel,

come down now from the cross

that we may see and believe.”

Those who were crucified with him also kept abusing him.

At noon darkness came over the whole land

until three in the afternoon.

And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice,

“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”

which is translated,

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Some of the bystanders who heard it said,

“Look, he is calling Elijah.”

One of them ran, soaked a sponge with wine, put it on a reed

and gave it to him to drink saying,

“Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to take him down.”

Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.

Here all kneel and pause for a short time.

The veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom.

When the centurion who stood facing him

saw how he breathed his last he said,

“Truly this man was the Son of God!”

(MARK 15:1-39)

On this passion Sunday we face the last and dying breath of Jesus who is King, who is Messiah, who is the perfection of all it means to be truly human. We might well ask what is it we are here observing in this text? And just what is it that this cross symbolizes?

[Important Note: I am closely following N.T.Wright's little commentary on Mark for this homily.] 


To read St.Mark's gospel without benefit of a theological overlay, is to see this primarily as a political account of how a young Jewish religionist got himself crossways of the Roman empire and got himself killed. That is, on the surface this is a political story, and in case there is any doubt here, Mark reminds us six times in this text of Jesus’ connection with the title, “the King of the Jews.”

The cross to the Romans was a symbol of naked and brute power. It says without varnish or fear: "We have the power to kill you, and we can do so without fear of reprisal. We can strip you naked and nail you to wood and display you as the worthless scum you are." That this is the aptitude of empire should never be forgotten.


It also seems clear from reading St.Mark's gospel that the Hebrew religious leaders, afraid of Jesus' popularity and victims of their own jealousy, use the cross (and the empire) as a way to rid them of this threat.

Jesus had on offer the Kingdom of GOD envisioned as healing, forgiveness and reconciliation, and his life was a technicolor display of such behavior. He was no would-be revolutionary seeking to overthrow the power of Rome, but that is how these leaders accuse him to the Roman authorities, and rather than let the Hebrews accuse him of weakness to Caesar, Pilate takes the easy road and crucifies an innocent young man.


To Jesus the cross, perhaps above all else, was the reality of the brokenness, hate, evil and darkness -- all that had gone wrong of GOD’s good world -- hurled at him at once. What began in the suffering in the garden now culminates in the naked humiliation and death at the hands of the very humanity he came to reclaim for his Abba. “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” -- the cry of dereliction -- is the moment of total identification with humanity’s lostness. Forsaken is Jesus, carrying our brokenness, learning obedience through this agony of suffering (Hebrew 5:8), and thereby understanding what it is to be a human being under the human condition.

The Christ, in these hours of darkness, takes on the principalities and powers of hate and violence, and he absorbs them all, never once reverting to violence or hate, and never once taking the attitude of empire.


GOD is at work here, too, and here before us is the great moment of confrontation. Evil is confronting GOD of course, but GOD is also confronting evil as well. Evil is here desperately at work, doing its worst. Evil, is piling up and piling on this young Hebrew prophet, seeking to snuff out the hope and life of the world. But GOD, working in and through the life of his Son -- who is Messiah and King -- will suddenly and powerfully arrest the free-flow of evil in the world. That is, what seemed like evil’s sure victory on Friday: “Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last,” will instead turn into evil’s certain defeat on Sunday.

What must be remembered, at all costs, is that through the cross GOD is moving to reclaim his good world, now marred and shattered by the hateful actions of humanity cut loose from his good intentions. He is moving to change the world by enthroning his son, not in empire, but through a Kingdom based upon sacrificial service and reconciliation.


Finally, the cross means for us the sober reflection that, like Barabbas, Jesus takes our place. What was meant for us -- the long reality of evil’s victory over our lives, is replaced by an innocent life, one with clean hands and heart.

How can this truth be described? How can words do justice to this moment? Suddenly, when for certain we were lost, when we were without hope in the world, Christ dies for the ungodly! That is, while we were yet sinners, the Christ stands in our place. And through this same now-living and risen Christ we are offered a new life and a new way to live. We are offered a new humanity and the opportunity to be agents of GOD’s kingdom-reality to a world still at war with itself, to a world who has not yet heard the truth of GOD’s love and justice and his ongoing work of remaking his good world.