Sunday, March 22, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Friday"

Mark 15:33-41

33 From noon until three in the afternoon the whole earth was dark. 34 At three, Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” 35 After hearing him, some standing there said, “Look! He’s calling Elijah!” 36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, and put it on a pole. He offered it to Jesus to drink, saying, “Let’s see if Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 But Jesus let out a loud cry and died. 38 The curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 When the centurion, who stood facing Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “This man was certainly God’s Son.” 40 Some women were watching from a distance, including Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James (the younger one) and Joses, and Salome. 41 When Jesus was in Galilee, these women had followed and supported him, along with many other women who had come to Jerusalem with him. (Common English Bible)

“The Last Week: Mark’s Retelling of the Passion,” Week Five

I remember seeing the giant for the first time on the basketball court, and in the sports magazines.  An oddity in our thoroughly average world, his 7’7” height and 8’6” wingspan defined him in any crowd, even a crowd of basketball players.  He spent enough time in the NBA to retire as one of its best shot blockers in history, and immediately set to work in his post-retirement life of doing something far greater and, sadly, to date, far more futile: bringing peace to Sudan (and what is now South Sudan).

Manute Bol struggled valiantly in this singular effort to bring peace where there was only war and ethnic cleansing, because it was still his homeland.  Even after he received permanent residency in the United States as a religious refugee in 2002 (he is Christian and the Sudanese military dictatorship under Omar al-Bashir is ostensibly Islamic), Bol’s first love was Sudan, and he did anything he could to raise funds to alleviate their poverty, going so far as to donate essentially his entire fortune from his professional basketball days.

That radical generosity did not come back in karma for him, though, after he was the passenger in a car accident with a driver who was under the influence and driving with a suspended license.  After recovering from a broken neck, Bol retired to Olathe, Kansas—right next to my own hometown of Overland Park—while making frequent trips to return to his native Sudan.  It was there that I began to see him as far more than a basketball player, but as an emotional and spiritual giant of a person.

It was there, in Sudan, that he eventually developed Stevens-Johnson syndrome, which in turn eventually led to acute kidney failure, and then to his death at only 47 years of age.

The giant had been felled, and felled by his own greatness of heart, his insistence to keep working, traveling, aiding, even after he got sick, and even as he got sicker and sicker.  Closer and closer he came to death, yet still he stayed the course of caring for other people—his people—first.

And in this way, he died not from illness, but upon the cross, upon the cross that Jesus approached slowly, step by step, not from Pilate’s praetorium but all the way from Nazareth; with every miracle performed, with every sermon given, with every pair of eyes made able to see the fullness of the glory of God, Jesus was one step closer to His eventual crucifixion.  Because, sadly, it is human inevitability that we sever the lives of those who do the greatest good for us.

Now that Lent, that 40-day fast in the wilderness alongside Jesus as He is tempted by the devil, has not just begun but can officially be considered to be in full swing, so too does a new sermon series really begin digging in for us as well.  And we’ll continue stretching out Holy Week—that seven-day span of time from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday—by talking about each day in turn, starting with Monday (that way we can discuss Palm Sunday on, you know, Palm Sunday) before wrapping up with Easter Sunday itself on April 5.  For this sermon series, I am using as a template the book “The Last Week,” a commentary on the Gospel of Mark’s telling of Holy Week, co-written by Bible scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.  Professor Borg just passed away a few weeks ago, plus this book is one of a precious few on my list of “it truly changed my life” books, so this series has a lot of added meaning for me as well as, I hope, eventually for you too.

We finally arrive, after beginning this sermon series on Monday, the day after Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, at Good Friday.  The day of the cross.  The day when the Messiah was forsaken and left to die by God and humanity alike.  And it had to happen that way.  It could happen no other way.  From Borg and Crossan:

Was the death of Jesus the will of God?  No.  It is never the will of God that a righteous man be crucified.  Did it have to happen?  It might have turned out differently.  Judas might not have betrayed Jesus.  The temple authorities might have decided on a course of action other than recommending execution.  Pilate might have let Jesus go or decided on a punishment other than death.  But it did happen this way…

(It is) for another reason the execution of Jesus was virtually inevitable.  Not because of divine necessity, but because of human inevitability—this is what domination systems did to people who publicly and vigorously challenged them….it had happened to John the Baptizer, arrested and executed by Herod Antipas not long before.  Now it has happened to Jesus.  Within a few more decades, it would happen to Paul, Peter, and James...

But Jesus was not simply an unfortunate victim of a domination system’s brutality.  He was also a protagonist filled with passion.  His passion, His message, was about the kingdom of God, (and)… Jesus’s passion got Him killed.

Did Good Friday have to happen?  As divine necessity?  No.  As human inevitability?  Virtually.

In other words, did Jesus die because God rigged the game so, or did He die because our own sinfulness and commitment to that sin leave us with no other alternative?  It has to be the latter.

But why?  Don’t we talk about God sacrificing His only Son so that He could forgive us?  Well…yeah.  Just because it is commonly held does not mean it is good theology, though.  God is God, He could forgive us whenever He wanted.  To condition His forgiveness on the blood and life of His Son doesn’t make God good, it makes God barbaric and despotic.  What other sovereign kills off their own progeny and expects to be universally adored for it?  Certainly not a divine one.

No, Jesus’s execution had to happen, just like the deaths of giants like Manute Bol, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Oscar Romero, because we are so sinful that we cannot deign to tolerate such goodness in our midst for too terribly long.  We prefer to cast such goodness as a threat that can be done away with rather than a beacon of help and hope to cast our eyes upwards at.

There is a world in which such saints would not have died the way they had.  Omar al-Bashir could not have begun over a decade of ethnic bloodshed in Sudan.  Hitler could not have created the machinery of death that Bonhoeffer felt compelled to act against.  And we could have not created the ways and means of doing harm to one another that necessitated God’s arrival to His creation in the flesh.

But when God did come to us, in the flesh and with a refresher course of His original message that we have hardly or entirely heeded since Eden, it all could have only ended this way.

Which, when you consider that reality, makes it all the more remarkable that God sent Christ to begin with.  God could have written us off as beyond hope, utterly irredeemable, and begun the process of spiritual triage and moved on to saving the souls of, I don’t know, the kangaroos.

But God didn’t.  God never would.  God could see that possibility, but He didn’t take it.

Believe it or not, that is why the centurion’s proclamation—even if only to himself—is so important.  If the woman who anointed Jesus on Wednesday in preparation for His death and burial is the first Jewish believer according to Mark, then this centurion is the first Gentile believer according to Mark.


Because the centurion would never have been raised to believe either that Jesus was the Son of God or that this God of the Hebrew Bible who had sent Jesus even existed or was worth worshipping.  The Romans had their own pantheon of deities—mostly plagiarized from the Greek mythological tradition with new names slapped on—and even more importantly, they worshipped their emperor, the Caesar, as the son of a god, because every time an emperor died, he was deified—made into a god in their mythology.

But to this anonymous centurion, whose name, like the woman who anointed Jesus, remains forever unknown to us, declares that this man hung high on the cross to die, who has just died, is the son of God.  Not Caesar.  Never Caesar.

This man who was at best complicit in Christ’s death and at worst actively aided and abetted in it has declared a faith in the man he just helped kill.  A person whose job description includes putting rebels to death--he may well have literally had Christ's blood on his hands--has made that leap of faith that God asks of us.  A representative of this sin that made the death of Christ a virtual inevitability has just recognized what has happened, and who this man truly was.  Quite simply, as Borg and Crossan put it, “empire testifies against itself.”

Centuries, millennia even, of deprivation of basic human dignity, of violence towards the downtrodden and indifference towards the oppressed, have testified against themselves.

It is where our redemption begins, because it proves that there is hope, hope enough even for the most hardened of hearts, that of a Gentile legionnaire who probably was raised to despise the pesky Israelites and their irksome, meddlesome God.

Whatever our sins, we cannot be as far from God as this centurion who finds God at the foot of the cross.

And so, like the centurion, we too can turn away from the world and its ways of turning saints into threats and good people into dangers to what we are used to and what we believe must be the norm; a world in which those who are far too good often end up giving their lives for their goodness because this world cannot bear their presence any longer.

We can turn from the inevitability of sinfulness, though, and as soon as we do so, it is by definition no longer inevitable.

That is the power of the cross.  That is the power of our reconciling with God.  And a great and mighty power it is.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 22, 2015

No comments:

Post a Comment