|Photo Credit: Stuart Caie on Flickr.com|
When Canon Pike invited me to preach today, I pondered what I could say that would bring this holiest of weeks in the life of every Christian into perspective. It is a week, whichever of the Gospels one reads, begins in triumph and ends in disaster. One could argue that the events take on a certain mockery, cruelty even. Today we are invited once again to consider the final moments of Jesus life before his tragic, and unnecessary, murder. And more importantly, where we were individually fit, for the history of this week is our history too.
In 1984, I worked as a consultant to a small organization who had big dreams of wanting to restore the ancient port city of Caesarea Maritime, which is also the location of the first Christian church. I was delegated to go to Israel for a week to meet with representatives there to ascertain the feasibility of such a monumental undertaking. My travels took me to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Caesarea Maritime.
While in Jerusalem, it was arranged for me to be escorted about the city by a guide, who had intimate knowledge of the history of the city. She was also a paratrooper in the Israeli Defense Forces, so I felt quite safe.
We entered a section of a city street, discovered in 1977 beneath the current city level, that dated from the time of Christ. She informed me, as we set out toward the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, that I was walking a street where “Jesus walked.” The Via Dolorosa!
It gave me goosebumps. I wanted to stand still and savour the moment, pray, shout, hug the very stones on which we were standing, but she pressed us on toward the church. My head reeled with the thought of where I was, that I was standing on history, my own history as a Christian and a minister, and that of my paternal grandfather and great grandfather, also Methodist ministers. To recall the feeling I felt then I only need to recall the moment now.
We approached the church, thousands of pilgrims about for it was Passover, and entered its darkened interior, lit by candles and lanterns only, and as she explained the origins and history of this great edifice we approached the place where the cross of Jesus supposedly had been erected, the Altar of the Crucifixion. Around it, around the hole in the middle of a brass plate, Christians from all over the world were waiting for the moment to approach it, kneel, pray, kiss the very place were the True Cross was said to have been found. Whether that’s absolutely true is a matter of conjecture. But what wasn’t up for debate was that true or not, millions of pilgrims over the centuries had come here, to this very spot, to bare their souls, confess their sins, and to worship their Lord and Savior. It was hallowed ground, and if you could feel nothing else, you couldn’t help but sense the intensity of the moment as each knelt, and with arms extended, bowed and embraced the brass plate.
When my turn came, my paratrooper guide watching intently from one side, an irony unquestionably, and I knelt down, and as my lips encountered the plate, I discovered it was wet to the touch, from tear; the tears of devoted Christians at this place of ultimate connection between the past and their present and future.
I recall subsequently telling this story to another congregation, and noticed one woman wiping her own eyes as my experience was shared. She didn’t have to physically be there to capture and be moved by the power of the moment.
So what is it about a 33 year old Jewish peasant from a small obscure town in Galilee, that evokes such emotional deep reaction? Who was He? What did He represent that created such a stirring of unease that Imperial Rome agreed to kill him after his own religious leaders, and a kangaroo crowd, insisted on it? Who was He to his followers, who abandoned him anyway. He dies alone, deserted by those closest to Him for the last three years. And how is it that his death brings us all together in this place at this time to re-enact a moment in his history before everything dissolved into chaos? Who is this man, Jesus, that centuries later people bow their heads at his name, kneel to pray to him, create buildings for the worship of him?
Was he the Son of God as the Centurion claimed? Risky on the part of the soldier because Caesar was, by decree, the Son of God. Was he the Son of Man, whatever that term implies? And what was He that countless individuals have martyred themselves rather than renounce their loyalty to him?
Precisely the questions that His disciples, and the religious and political authorities wrestled with – then and now. Making matters even more complicated, Jesus continuously confounded everyone by His refusal to give a definitive answer except to Peter, who he then forbade to share. So it was left to those who survived him, and survive him still, to answer the question – for themselves, initially, and then, when the structure of an organized movement called Christianity began to emerge, to take votes on the matter and thereby establish orthodoxy.
But back to the story...
John Piper could write: “There is no doubt what was in the disciples' minds. This was the fulfillment of Zechariah's prophecy given centuries earlier:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zechariah 9:9, 10)
No, were weren’t a part of the welcoming throng, nor were we present from Sunday to Wednesday when Jesus was in the Temple, alternately provoking the authorities and/or being bated by them. No, were weren’t at the Last Supper, or Gethsemane, or in the courtyard with Pilate, or presence of Herod, nor were any of us on the Via Dolorosa watching Jesus struggling with carrying the transept of his cross through the streets. And none of us, were anywhere near Golgotha when he died, cruelly, mercilessly, on a cross, condemned there by Roman Imperial power at the insistence of Jewish officials, religion protecting itself with political power.
No, not one of us was physically there, but spiritually, within the deepest reaches of our faith, we were, or – should I say – we are! The tears I tasted kneeling on the rock witness to that realty.
In "One Solitary Life"by James Francis he sums it up very succinctly. You’ve heard this before, no doubt, but it’s worth repeating, and I quote:
"He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant. He grew
up in another village, where he worked in a carpenter shop until he
was 30. Then, for three years, he was an itinerant preacher.
He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family
or owned a home. He didn't go to college. He never lived in a big
city. He never traveled 200 miles from the place where he was born.
He did none of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no
credentials but himself.
He was only 33 when the tide of public opinion turned against him.
His friends ran away. One of them denied him. He was turned over to
his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed
to a cross between two thieves. While he was dying, his executioners
gambled for his garments, the only property he had on earth. When he
was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave, through the pity of a
Twenty centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central
figure of the human race. I am well within the mark when I say that
all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed,
all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned
--put together--have not affected the life of man on this earth as
much as that one, solitary life."
How could One Man have such an impact on the world, unless He truly
a. The bread of life
b. The light of the world
c. The door of the sheep
d. The good shepherd
e. The resurrection and the life
f. The way, the truth, and the life
g. The true vine
h. The great "I AM"!
Hear again the great prophetic words of Isaiah 53:4-5:
4 Surely He took on our infirmities and carried our sorrows; yet we considered Him stricken by God, struck down and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.
We are all here as the result of that history, and that commitment, to share, with one another, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and the benefits of Christ’s passion. God be praised