Jeffrey P. Silverstone: The Passion as Story

Sermon of 14 April 1996 by Jeffrey P. Silverstone

The Passion as Story

Good Morning,

"People of Israel, you killed Jesus. You put him to death by nailing him to the cross. Repent and be baptized." [Acts 2:22-23,38]

I don’t know if we, at Seekers, really believe this. It is in today’s lectionary, and as intentional Christians, it is a good time for Seekers to move any doubt we have from the unstated, to the discussed.

What is truth? Not every word in the Bible was meant to be taken literally. Three weeks ago, Deborah preached about two passages. In the first, Ezekiel says that "The hand of the One God came upon me, and brought me out by the spirit of God and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones." This is clearly a vision, and a message, from God, and few would argue that it is possible to find that valley, and carbon date the bones. The Raising of Lazarus story from that week is more debatable. It is only mentioned in the Gospel of John, and it is positioned to foreshadow Jesus’ own resurrection story.

Does it matter if the Lazarus story is true or vision? Not, really. Regardless of literal truth, the story gives us a deeper image of Jesus as fully human. Here, "Jesus wept" with the bereaved; compare this to Luke, when Jesus tells the parents of a dead girl to "Stop wailing". Truth, or vision, I can learn more from the Lazarus story.

Does it matter if the Passion story is true? A lot. I believe that the Passion story is the part of our faith that has caused, and continues to cause, Christians to behave the most unchristianlike. Deborah spoke of the historical tension between Judaism and Christianity and how because she confesses Jesus as the Christ, she is cut off from her people and her traditions. I directly felt that antagonism a year ago. A year ago, Margreta and I attended a Passover service. Somehow, the conversation got to a point that we could bring up the concept of salvation. The reaction was admonitory, not because the concept directly violates Jewish teaching, but because the word "salvation" has been preempted to apply only to baptized Christians.

The next morning we came to church to hear a well performed five-part choral reading entitled "The Night The Singing Stopped" in which Jesus was portrayed as "hearing the Mob scream outside for his death." It has taken until now for me to articulate why I felt that portrayal was false, and offensive.

"People of Israel, you killed Jesus. You denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked that a murder be released to you. Repent and be baptized." [Acts 3:14]

Schooled in dogma like this, it is no wonder that the third-place presidential candidate grew up beating up the Jews in my Chevy-Chase neighborhood. I do not propose that this dogma is the sole cause of anti-Semitism. It is far more complicated than that. In countries where church and state were combined, those who clung to any religion other than the state religion were suspect. This dates back even to pre-Christian Rome. It is also, however, well known that in Czarist Russia, pogroms, or attacks on Jews, generally happened around Good Friday. I believe that when Buchanan attended Blessed Sacrament Catholic school in the early 1950’s, he is likely to have picked up his anti-Semitism from textbooks that only mentioned Jews as hostile opponents to Christ.

It is a mistake to confuse the people of Israel with the Romans and the temple priests who actually took Jesus. A month ago at a Seekers Dayspring retreat, many of us watched a video about the people of and near Le Chambon (-sur-Lignon), France, who held fast to their traditional Christian values during the Nazi era. I think it is useful to compare Le Chambon with rural Galilee. In both cases there was a movement against the power structure that was tolerated. In Le Chambon, local officials fudged the books to minimize the size of the conspiracy. Herod Antipas tolerated Jesus because Herod was more concerned with licking his wounds after the royal father of his ex-wife attacked him, and wiped out much of his army.

I think it is useful to compare Roman Jerusalem with German Paris. Both cities were controlled by a puppet government set up by an occupation force. In France, the Vichy government was a government of appeasement, often carrying out arrests and turning over troublemakers to the Germans for execution. Any puppet government can justify their existence because, in their eyes, things would be much worse if open rebellion broke out and was crushed by force.

In 70AD, rebellion did break out in Jerusalem. The Romans, under the direct control of the emperor Vespasian and his son, executed so many that they put four or five on each cross they could lay their hands on, as well as destroying the Temple. In Acts, Paul is mistaken for "that Egyptian that made such an uproar when he led four thousand into the wilderness." There were many rebellions against the Romans, and their Jewish government. They all were brutally crushed.

As David preached two weeks ago, there was "too much killing". It was inevitable that anyone who wrecked the temple courtyard, was understood to have vowed to tear down the temple itself, and led a march on Passover, would be suppressed. Passover was one of three feasts where large numbers of pilgrims crowded into the temple. Passover is a celebration of freedom honoring divine deliverance from the Egyptian slavery; consequently, it was a flash point of discontent against the military and economic occupiers. Passover was a time when crowd control was the number one priority; Roman soldiers were always kept on alert.

"People of Israel, you killed Jesus."

It is a far different thing to say a puppet government killed Jesus, than that the Jews killed him.

For me, the most important words in the Passion Story are told of his arrest: "then everyone deserted and fled." Let us suppose for a moment that Peter was not listening at the door. What would have been the disciples’ reaction upon hearing of Jesus’ execution? Perhaps they felt that they betrayed Jesus by doing nothing, though there was not much that could be done. Perhaps, they felt a lot of self doubt and shame. In Luke, a young man fled naked. I think Peter’s denial of Jesus is allegorical, but true in spirit. The disciples wondered, and they wept. Marjory, last week, spoke of weeping as an indication of unfinished spiritual work.

Jesus dispelled any doubt that the disciples felt on Easter and Pentecost. Jesus was God’s anointed one, but how could God let Jesus be executed. Jesus, in Luke, directed them to look to the Scriptures to understand. There were many passages that could apply. I’d like to read some excerpts from Psalm 22:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but find no rest.
. . .
But I am a worm, not human at all; scorned by everyone and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me; they hurl insults at me, they wag their heads and say,
"You trusted in the LORD; let the LORD deliver you. Let God rescue you, since God delights in you."
. . .
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax; it has melted within my breast.
My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
Even dogs are round about me; a company of evildoers encircle me, they have pierced my hands and my feet –
I can count all my bones — they stare and gloat over me;
they divide my garments among them, and cast lots for my clothing.
But you, O LORD, be not far off; O my Strength, come quickly to help me.
. . .
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before God,
. . .
They will proclaim God’s deliverance to a people yet unborn, that God has wrought it.

Christ had to suffer. If that were true, and surely those passages referred to Jesus, then there were certain other things that would have had to have happened. It is possible they did happen. Who was to say? Such was the academic/theological discussion for a decade after Jesus’ death.

That is fine for academics, but when the discussion of Jesus’ life and death was explained to the commoner, the theory became story. Earlier drafts of the story, for example the Gospel of Peter, still had inconsistencies both internal to the story and with known practices of the time. It was not until the Gospel of Mark that the story was coherent enough to stand up to skeptics. The Gospel of Peter had only one trial; but the separate Roman ratification of a capital sentence was more consistent with the general practice, and was an experience that many early Christians were getting first hand.

Was the curtain of the temple actually torn in two from top to bottom at Jesus’ death? I think that was a symbolic vision of the opening up of salvation to everyone. Was it dark at high noon? I don’t think that when Roman historians reported that it was dark at the hour of Julius Caesar’s death, they meant it literally. I don’t believe that it is literally true in Jesus’ case either.

Was Jesus spit at? If the gospel writers wanted to illuminate the concept that Jesus died for our Sins, it was only natural that they would compare him the Old Testament concept of the pure goat and the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement. In Leviticus, The Bible instructs that Aaron:

Is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites – all their sins – and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it into the desert.

What is more important than God’s instructions to Moses, is the way the custom was practiced in Jesus’ time. At that time, as the scapegoat was led from the temple through the streets of Jerusalem, crowds spat on the goat and pulled it’s hair crying "Bear our sins and be gone." When Isaiah used similar language, he was referring to the same custom. In Chapter 7 of The Epistle of Barnabas the author works through the question of how Jesus dying for our Sins could be compared to the goats of the Day of Atonement. What is interesting about this work, here and throughout The Epistle, is that author focuses on the Old Testament. He discusses the fate of the goats, and then declares that Jesus is the goats; leaving the reader to draw the comparison. Isn’t this the way Jesus, himself, would have explained it? In this way the issues were examined before they crystallized into the gospels that we read today.

"People of Israel, you killed Jesus. Jesus is the Messiah because all the prophets from Samuel on have foretold these days. Repent and be baptized." [Acts 3:24]

It is not a coincidence that just about everything that happened was prophesied in one passage or another. Knowing that Jesus was the fulfillment of everything written in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms assisted theologians in filling in the gaps. I do not believe the Passion Story is the only way the gap of Jesus’ last hours could be filled. I am not sure that every Old Testament passage that was woven into the story was originally intended to refer to the coming Messiah. As I read them, many only seem to relate to the return of a Messiah when taken out of context (as our lectionary is inclined to do), and with foreknowledge of the Passion. The Passion is just one possible reconstruction. The Passion Story was also shaped by many other messages that the gospel writers wanted to convey at various times. Here, in brief, are five:

  • How to face persecution (to early Christians who were facing persecution).
  • King Herod was a very bad person (told when his son, also called King Herod, was persecuting).
  • The Jews had direct guilt that only becoming Christian would cleanse.
  • The Pharisees were also culpable (told when they were winning a power struggle with the Christians to fill the vacuum left by the fall of the Temple).
  • Lastly in John, Jesus was in control of all events at all times.

I believe that Jesus lived, and died, bringing compassion and love back into our spiritual life. The Gospel of Acts shows the Good News stretching beyond Palestine and into Rome itself. The News was preached to, and accepted by, Gentiles without the need to ascribe culpability to the hearers. To Gentiles, no case need be made that Jesus was the Messiah described by David. Christians no longer need to fight persecution from Jewish authorities. Let us intentionally become a loving, Easter people; let us intentionally reject being resentful, Good Friday Christians.

Peace be with you.

Related reading: Who Killed Jesus (Crossan).

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