2013 02 24 Sermon: The Death of the Messiah, Part 3:
Is it Good to Have Different Portrayals of the Death of Jesus?Before we look in detail at a couple of the Gospel accounts of the death of Jesus, what I'm going to do today is give you a summary of what these different portrayals of Jesus’ death tells us. We will look at Mark, Luke and John. Matthew's portrayal of Jesus is closely based on Mark's, and a discussion of it would be covering essentially the same ground as Mark covered.
Mark's gospel intends to shock. And it does. In Mark, long before the Passion the disciples were largely clueless as to whom Jesus really was, and, even when they came close to the truth they could not accept the idea of a dying Messiah. And his indictment of the disciples only gets worse.
In the garden at Gethsemene they fall asleep, not once, but three times. Judas betrays him, but Peter is hardly better, denying that he ever knew him. All flee, one in such haste that he leaves his clothes behind, literally saving his own skin - the very opposite of leaving all things to follow Jesus.
The Roman and Jewish judges fare no better and are seen by Mark as great cynics. And Mark constantly pours on the pathos of the entire Passion. Jesus hangs from the cross for six hours; three of those hours are filled with mockery and three with utter darkness. And Jesus deeply feels abandoned, even by his heavenly Father. Mark's very human Jesus cries but one thing from the cross, quoting the 22nd Psalm, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Yet, whatever Jesus may have thought, in the end God has never abandoned him, vindicates his Son by his resurrection.
If the trial before the Sanhedrin was to assess his threat to tear down the Temple, God in an act of judgment and vindication, tears the veil of the Temple in two, and never again will the Temple be the place where God dwells. Jesus is the new Temple.
And an outsider, a hated Roman, is heard to say what no Jew, disciple or priest, could ever figure out: "Truly this was the Son of God." In Mark, only AFTER his death on the Cross is it possible to see that Jesus was, indeed, the Son of God.
Even the enemies of Jesus look better in Luke. There are no false witnesses produced at the Jewish trial, and even Pilate acknowledges three times that Jesus is not guilty. The people are not rabble calling for his death, but rather are grieved over what has been done to him. And, just as they show great concern for him, so too is he less anguished by what will happen to him than by what happens to them.
At the arrest he heals the slave's ear and on the road to Calvary he worries about the fate of the women in the coming trials.
Further, he forgives those who crucified him and even promises paradise to a thief who merely asks to be remembered. Thus, in Luke, the crucifixion becomes a time of divine forgiveness and care. Jesus dies in tranquility, saying simply. "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."
When the Roman soldiers and the Jewish police come to arrest him they fall to the ground powerless. In the garden he does not pray for the cup to pass him; for it was for this moment he was born. He is so self assured that he offends the high priest.
And Jesus has no fear of Pilate, saying, bluntly, "You have no power over me." Nor does anyone carry his cross; this is something he is perfectly able to do for himself. Even his royalty is proclaimed in three languages on the cross and is, in fact, confirmed by Pilate.
Totally unlike in the other Gospels, Jesus does not die on the cross abandoned, but with his mother and the beloved disciple with him. And speaking to them from the Cross he gives the beloved disciple and his mother to one another, creating, as it were, a family of loving disciples to carry forward the message.
This Jesus can not cry out "Why have you forsaken me?" because the Father has always been with him, literally "in" him, and will be so through death to resurrection and glorious ascension. His last words bear no anxiety or pain, but the simple statement that he has done what he came to do: "It is finished." And only then, when he declared that he has done what was needed, does he hand over his spirit to the Father.
Even in death he continues to dispense life as living water and blood flow from his pierced side. And his burial is not something hurried and unprepared as in the other Gospels, but he lies in state amidst 100 pounds of spices - as befits a king.
Why, then, is this Good News? It is Good News because by having these differing descriptions people with different spiritual needs can find meaning in the cross. And even the same person, at different points in his or her life, can find meaning in one or more of these descriptions.
As Jesus did in Mark's Gospel, have you never needed desperately to cry out "My God, My God Why Have You Forsaken Me?" Do you not need to know that when you feel that way that God actually has not abandoned you and that he can reverse tragedy in your life?
As in Luke's Gospel, have you never been hurt by others, and have finally found relief from your anger in forgiveness. Is "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" not something that we need to hear, and do in our own lives? Don't we, with Luke's Jesus, need from time to time to turn ourselves over fully to God, having been unable to fix things for ourselves? Can we not find comfort in saying, "Into your hands, O God, I place myself."?
Yet, as in John's Gospel, are there not times in your life when you desperately need to know that the evil and sin and all the perfidy of this life cannot prevail against God and those who have faith in him? With John don't we often need to worship an all knowing, fully in control, always in command, Jesus who will guide and protect us, and defend and defeat every foe and evil, be it the prevailing powers, or principalities or the purveyors of lies?
Listen to Dr. Raymond Brown who wrote the masterful study on which my own work is based.
"To choose one portrayal of the crucified Jesus in a manner that would exclude the other portrayals or to harmonize all the Gospel portrayals into one would deprive the cross of much of its meaning. It is important that some be able to see the head bowed in dejection, while others observe the arms outstretched in forgiveness, and still others perceive in the title on the cross the proclamation of a reigning king."
That, my friends, is good news because no pen can capture all there is to know about God. And, just as surely mere words can never truly capture all there is to know about Jesus, his Son. And yet, through these different portrayals of Jesus, we are given more glimpses of the One who is the author of our salvation than any one portrayal can offer.
These glimpses can comfort us in times of trouble, but they also can strengthen our faith because we know far more about Jesus than we would ever know if we had only one harmonized portrayal of the One who is our Lord and Savior.