For those of you just joining us, we’re glad you are here. We’re about half way through our Lenten sermon series on the last 7 days of Jesus’ earthly life. We’re up to Wednesday of Holy week. I’ve spent much of this sermon series focused on Jesus struggle with the religious authorities.
That struggle is important for us because as Christians we often project later Jewish-Christian relations onto Jesus. But Jesus’ isn’t denying, never denies Judaism.
His fight — if you will — is with the religious leaders of his community.
Because they’ve hijacked religion– enlisted it in service of protecting privileged positions and the status quo — both their own and those of the Roman Empire —
that leave people oppressed and deprived.
It’s the difference between someone rejecting church leaders who’ve left contemporary Christianity with scandals and distrust and disbelief… but not rejecting the faith itself, or what the church can and should be.
Jesus is saying, essentially: “if religion does not serve the interests of the needy, when it doesn’t produce right relations, justice, a world where everyone is respected and fed and loved… well, it’s not really religion anymore.”
Jesus vehemence against the religious authorities of his day is also important to understand because it explains the need for a traitor. As Judaism and Christianity separated and moved apart, they have come to be understood as diametrically opposed, the one, or both condemning, contradicting, denying the validity of the other. We can see this in how Christians imagine the Jewish crowd turning rabidly and violently against Jesus.
It’s a theological point actually– that humanity as a whole rejects God we can perceive in Christ. But that, despite our rejection or even will to destroy God, God won’t even let any of that be the end of the story, or cut off the relationship.
But our Christian tradition has often failed to remember this theology is existential anthropology. It’s not about one group, but about all people. But forgetting that crucial distinction, instead, we try and hang all the guilt on one certain group, the Jews.
It’s a part of our tradition that goes way back. Even as we read through the Gospels in the order they were written, we can already see the indictment of the Jews increasing.
We see it in the medieval Passion plays, the most famous of which is at Oberammergau, Bavaria.
We see it in the contemporary practice where whole congregation’s plays the crowd when Jesus’ trial is read; where everyone chants “Crucify him, crucify him.”
It was the depiction in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ.”
Be careful, however. Remember, as we’ve paid attention on these last Sundays, that on Palm Sunday, and Monday and Tuesday in the Temple, Jesus’ critique of the religious leaders has delighted the crowd.
And the Temple authorities have duly worried about his popularity…
they might already have taken action against Jesus were it not for the crowd.
But not all Jews were against Jesus. The holy story is clear that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimetha were sympathetic. If the Jewish crowd was uniformly and completely against Jesus, why then did the Temple authorities need to arrest him under cover of darkness and with the help of a traitor among his own followers?
In Mark, Jesus himself asks the question in the Garden, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the Temple teaching, and you did not arrest me.”
My point is simply that, in light of the bloody history in which Christianity has persecuted Judaism and Jews, a better, more accurate reading of the story drops the identifying adjective from all these sentences and rightly points out that “crowds” are fickle, and “people” respond to God as a threat to doing what they wish…
It’s not faithful, church, to read our holy story to say that Jews are evil, or that the Jews of Jesus day were evil.
Because Jesus’ critique, if you are reading along in Mark… there’s another critique Jesus keeps running. He’s not just going after the Temple authorities.
He is also critical of his closest disciples… those who will go on to become the leaders of the nascent religion that will bear his name. Why? Because more often than not, they don’t seem to be getting his message either.
If Lent is for us a transformative journey between Ash Wednesday and Easter, for Jesus’ first disciples, it was the journey between Peter’s Confession at Caesarea Philippi
and the Resurrection outside of Jerusalem.
In that journey, Jesus was trying to prepare his followers for all that would happen to him and them when they arrived in the capital to demonstrate against the violence and injustice of Roman imperial power and its puppets in Jewish high-priestly authority. Peter, James and John and the Twelve as a group all fail to get it. More often than not, they fail Jesus.
Jesus asks them:
“Do you still not perceive and understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears and fail to hear? And do you not remember?” (in the 8th chapter of Mark).
If Lent is a penitential season prior to Easter, perhaps their struggle is our warning.
Like those first disciples, we too know about wanting to avoid the implications of a journey with Jesus.
Jesus’ Lenten invitation is pretty straight forward: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
We too are familiar with the desire to make the Holy Week conclusion of this journey somehow about our interior, private, spiritual lives, rather than allowing it to claim too much in our exterior world. We know the pull to let it be about heaven instead of earth, about the future instead of the present. About religion safely and securely quarantined from the rest of our lives. Confronting the violence and injustice of politics and its religious collaboration is dangerous anytime. We don’t want to “get it” any more that the first disciples.
But since on the other side of the crucifixion, we can’t deny the costs, we’d rather leave payment to Christ. He can do the hard work, the dangerous work. The dirty work, we hope, belongs to Jesus so we can go on living our lives.
I heard a preacher who suggested, every time Jesus tells his disciples not to tell anyone, he wasn’t patting them on the head with a “You got it right, but keep it a secret.” Instead, he was upbraiding them, “You got it wrong still and inevitably will mess it up further if you tell someone us, so just shut up.”
Church, we want to confess Jesus, without making the commitment. We want to reduce our Christianity to some status symbol, and claim it makes us first or at least gives us some privilege.
And we hang back, fall away or even betray when we realize his way will make some real claims on us… demands real change in our worlds… that discipleship will have a dear cost.
Jesus has been talking all this time about what it would look like, what it means to lead a Christian life. If you wish to be a Christian, you are to be a vulnerable and trusting a child, as dedicated to the other as a servant, you will have to give up your life like a slave.
My point, no I think Jesus’ point– is that Jesus did not do for us what finally, ultimately we can only do for ourselves. His death and resurrection do not pay some cosmic debt and give us back our lives.
Mark’s Jesus wouldn’t have any idea what substitutionary atonement is about. I don’t believe there is anywhere he suggested his substitution of some debt we owed.
Mark’s offer is much simpler, and more demanding: To be a Christian is about participation with Jesus. It’s walking the same way that he did. Taking up our crosses and following him. On a difficult path that involves giving up one’s life.
And suddenly we, like his first disciples, we wish to change the subject and avoid Jesus again. And continue on with our daily lives as they are, and let Him take care of all the bit stuff, the ultimate stuff for us.
The 12 are scratching their heads– “we don’t quite understand why he has to keep talking about his death.” Or they are shaking their heads– “we don’t believe it; won’t hear of it.” We too know how to scratch and shake our heads.
There is one who listens and grasps what Jesus has said. One who hears and acts accordingly. She’s never named. But she is remembered wherever his name is called. Because she’s grasped what Jesus has said. And let his direction grasp and hold and transform her. She’s the one who follows where his way is leading.
What does she get for this? She receives that condemnation of the 12: “her ointment could have been sold for more than 300 denarii, and the money given to the poor.”
But Jesus defends, “She has done what she could. She anointed me body beforehand for burial.”
She listens and hears what he says about his death and resurrection. She receives this strange story that he has to tell. And she believes. And believing, she acts. Even if there is a great cost.
“If you are to die and to rise, I must anoint you now beforehand, because there will be no dead body afterward, and I will never have the chance to love and care for you in your death.”
When the women go to the tomb on Easter morning to anoint his body, the stone has been rolled away and the body is gone. But this unnamed women has already done their work for them. She gets to do what they were denied. She has participated in his death and resurrection, in faith, even before they have happened.
She is the first believer. For Mark, she is the first Christian. She believed at the incredible word of Jesus before there was any empty tomb to see. But she’s not only the first believer, she’s the one who left her old way of living behind, and has been transformed and begun to lead a Christian life.
As opposed to the Twelve, who Jesus has been inviting to walk the way of the cross since Caesarea Philippi, as opposed to Judas who in the next literally betrays him,
the unnamed woman has given up what she has in order to participate with him in his death and resurrection…
Beloved, what would it mean for you and for me to stop expecting Jesus to be some substitution for us? And what would it mean for us to begin to participate with Jesus in his death and resurrection?