Monday, April 18, 2011

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion - "The Cry of the Whole Congregation" - April 17, 2011

Four voices. Four distinct and unique voices from four people who, as far as we can tell, never knew each other or even came into contact with one another. Yes, the voices are distinct and unique, but each is uttered with an urgency and clarity untarnished for roughly two-thousand years. And, despite their differences, their individual perspectives, all four speak with remarkable similarity, especially given their independence of each other. As it happens, we know their names—at least, the names that got attached to each voice fairly early on—but we know blessed little else about them or their original audiences. The stories they told with their voices took precedence over anything they would tell us about themselves.

Mark, who probably spoke first (or at least got written down first) was most likely Greek, and most likely speaking in or around Rome in the first century to a group of believers who were unfamiliar with Jesus’ Jewish roots. The stories he had heard and assembled about Jesus paint the picture of a servant Savior who is at once swift and forceful in overturning the powers of evil. For Mark, the impact of this Savior’s words is almost overshadowed by the number of miracles and healings he performs.

Then there is Matthew’s voice, which for a long time was thought to belong to one of this Jesus’ original Twelve followers. We figure Matthew was most likely a Jewish Christian who wrote in a locale much closer to where his subject actually lived. Matthew saw Jesus primarily as a teacher—a teacher, moreover, who was skilled in interpreting Jewish law and forming a community of followers. And so Matthew’s voice presents a Jesus who tells more parables, gives clear instruction about forgiveness and church discipline, and likes to stress the moral implications of Jesus’ kingdom.

Luke is the softy of the bunch, choosing to stress Jesus’ concern for the least, the lost, and the little. He’s the one who collects and records Jesus’ parables of the lost coin, the Good Samaritan, and the Prodigal Son…and what would Christianity be without those? Luke is the most educated of the voices, most likely a doctor who travelled with the apostle Paul around the Mediterranean for a while, and his sophisticated grammar and style show it.

And then there is John, the outlier. He is the most poetic of all the voices, accomplished in the use of metaphor and irony. Unlike the others, John chooses to tell a few stories in depth rather than hashing out everything he ever heard about the man. For John, Jesus’ signs were of utmost importance. We typically call them miracles, but for John they were signs because they signaled something about God’s glory that was being revealed in Jesus. John wrote for a congregation or a group of congregations who were likely Jewish but who had been ostracized from the religious community because of their claims about Jesus. John often gets a bad rap because people find him the most difficult to understand, but somehow his voice would really be missing if it were lost.

All four had their special emphases to make, their theological points to drive home, their particular perspective. And all of them are telling the truth. Yet something profound happens to these four distinct voices when they get to the part of their story where Jesus enters Jerusalem just before the Passover. Differences in their perspectives begin to fade away and their voices start to unite. All at once, they start telling the same story with some of the same key details. Yes, there are some discrepancies in a few words now and then—signs of their distinct perspectives creep in here and there—and some of them record Jesus’ encounters with the temple authorities more fully than others, but, by and large, the four voices start to tell the same story.

Something happened—something momentous—surrounding this man Jesus from Nazareth as he came from the backwater villages of Galilee into the fevered Passover celebrations of Jerusalem during the time of the Roman army’s oppression. Something was happening—something worth remembering correctly—as he borrowed a room for one last meal with his disciples. Something significant was happening as he faced betrayal and denial from these same disciples and was handed over to his enemies. Something miraculous was happening as he was stripped and hung on the cross and treated like a nobody.

It is as if all four voices know that, regardless of what else they communicate about the man and his ministry, this part containing his last days is the most important. It is the crux of his mission, his identity. This part will define him, more than any of his teachings, miracles, signs, or parables…even the parable of the Prodigal Son. Likewise, all those parables and miracles and teachings must be interpreted in light of what transpires to Jesus in Jerusalem. Jesus of Nazareth, these voices mean to tell us, came in to the city highly regarded by his people as a new king but ended up getting crucified instead after a charade of a trial and laid in a borrowed tomb. And somehow the news articulated by these voices changed the world and the destiny of all creation.

At our high school Bible study this week we put on our theologian hats and took a look at what have come to be called “atonement theories.” Fancy word, I know. Atonement theories are essentially assessments of these events that seek to explain just why Jesus had to die and how his death makes us one with God. In short, who was this Jesus and why did his death matter?

Did Jesus need to die, for example, because someone needed to pay the price of human sin? That is one theory. Or did Jesus die because that is how God needed to conquer evil and darkness once and for all? That is another theory. Or perhaps Jesus died because God needed to give his people an example of how they are to love one another completely; that is, by laying down one’s life for another? The youth looked at Scriptures passages and hymn lyrics and even a Kanye West song that seemed to suggest and support any number of these theories for how Jesus’ death restored us to God.

What we discovered, however, is that there is no one right or wrong theory; they all contain some element of truth and honesty, and the all kind of overlap and blend together at some point. Maybe the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection is simply too profound to be wrapped up neatly in a few words, or contained in one voice. What is interesting, though, is that the gospel voices themselves never seem to be too concerned with exactly how Jesus’ death reconciles us with God. They simply get down to the facts of what happened on that fateful week and let the power of the story speak for itself. They do their best in communicating the chain of events that allows us to understand that in the person of Jesus God himself is somehow intersecting with this world in a way no one can fully comprehend. They do their best in lending their voice to a story that is so crucial to creation’s existence and future that even had they been silent, the stones themselves would have found a way to proclaim it.

For even though words to explain it often fail us, we know it is this story of Jesus in Jerusalem that lets us know how completely God loves us. We know that it is this story of Jesus at his Last Supper which compels us to serve our neighbors whether they live here in Crestview or on the cost of Japan. We know it this story of Jesus in Gethsemane that reminds us it is not our will that will eventually have sway over our lives, but rather the will of the God who sends him. We know it is this story of Jesus before Pilate that frees us from the need to justify ourselves before God. We know it is this story of Jesus on the cross that allows us to look even into the tragedies like that of Blacksburg four years ago and speak a word of comfort and promise that God does not forsake his children even in the hour of death. We know it is this story of Jesus in his last days in Jerusalem that somehow wraps up all our shortcomings and presents them to God and offers us, in exchange, a new way of living that is filled with hope.

And so this morning we hear a rendition of those events, and you’ll be asked to lend your voice to the story. The particular version we recite does not belong to any one of those four voices; rather, it is a compilation of all of them together, like they are speaking in harmony. Specifically, note what your voice does as our worship plays out. Pay attention to the particular words that come out of your mouth, how they begin with praise but end with death threats.

And when today’s reading of that story is finished…when the last nail has been pounded through weakened flesh, when the last bystander has left the scene, when the taste of that wine and bread on your tongues has begun to fade, and when, on Sunday, the women hurry to the tomb with their embalming spices, the four ancient (yet modern) voices will want to know…what will we do with ours?

Will we join our voices and our lives with theirs in the urgency of proclaiming these events and how they change the world?

Or will we shut up and be silent and leave the stones to speak in our place?

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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