Thursday, February 28, 2013

Is it Good to Have Different Portrayals of the Death of Jesus?

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.


We start with Mark. Mark portrays a very human, very vulnerable Jesus.  Mark also portrays a scene of stark human abandonment of Jesus at the time of his Passion. Yet, in the end God raises Jesus from the grave in an act of vindication of His Son.

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.


We move now to Luke who portrays a very different Jesus, one who is extremely compassionate and caring.  And the disciples are shown in a far more sympathetic light.  They remain faithful to Him in his trials.  And, while they fall asleep once, not three times, while Jesus prays, it is only out of their sorrow that they do.

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."


Now John. In stark contrast to either Mark or Luke, John portrays a triumphal Jesus even in death, a Jesus who long before the Passion defiantly announced, "I lay down my life and I take it up again; no one takes it from me!"  This Jesus knows, in advance, exactly what is going to happen to him and when, and it will happen as and when he says it will.

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.


Let me ask you: do you despair because these portraits are so starkly different? Four different people wrote the Gospel stories of his death: Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. But, also remember that all four descriptions are given to us by one Holy Spirit, the one Spirit that inspired the writers of each Gospel.  And, understand that no one description, or all four combined, exhausts the meaning of Jesus!  In fact, a true picture of Jesus can only just begin to emerge from what has been written about him in the Gospels.

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?

These descriptions, while strikingly different, do not exhaust the portrayal of Jesus, they begin the task.  Each Christian must ultimately find a portrayal of Jesus the Christ that will fit his or her personal needs.  And that portrayal may change over time as we learn more about the One in whom we place out trust.  But that portrayal will be sufficient for our faith for whatever time of life we need it to be.

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.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Death of the Messiah, Part 2

2013 02 17 . The Death of the Messiah . Part 2: Four Different Views of The Death of The Messiah

The stories in the Bible are not written to meet any human standard.  They meet the standard that God wanted them to meet when he inspired the writers of the Gospels to write them. But many people are not comfortable with that, and have, unsuccessfully, tried to "harmonize" the Gospels, doing away with troublesome inconsistencies.  And no place has more attempt been made to harmonize the Gospel stories than in the stories about the death of Jesus.

We are not going to try to do that. Instead, we're going to look at a some of those inconsistencies today, and then use them to think about a point I will making a bit later in the series:  It is a good thing that we have four differing accounts of the Death of the Messiah.

 First, let's look at those stories in general.  The first thing you will notice is that all the Gospels do hold to a common, basic outline of the events leading to the crucifixion.  And that makes sense. After all, there was a basic order of events that took place, that had to take place, and each of the Gospel writers follows that basic order.

For example, Jesus' arrest had to precede his trial, and the trial had to precede the sentence, and the sentence had to precede His execution.  And all the Gospel share those common elements, and many more besides. While the details differ, anyone reading any of the Gospel account would easily see they were referring to the same event.

In this drama we call "The Death of the Messiah" there are not only the actions and reactions of Jesus, but also of supporting characters, like Peter and Judas and Pilate.  And the drama is heightened by the contrasts between certain characters: innocent Jesus and guilty Barabbas, faithful Jesus and betraying Peter, and in one of the Gospels, wise and troubled Pilate versus the vile and remorseless crowd.  Even the scoffing Jewish leaders have their antitheses in the Roman soldier who, in two accounts, declares Jesus to be the Son of God.

All of these elements, while often used quite differently in the separate Gospels, heighten our awareness of the struggle going on here between Jesus and the world that, as John puts it, “knew him not.”
The descriptions of the characters that surround him, and their motives and desires encourage us, the readers, to participate in the drama by constantly asking ourselves the question: "Where would I have stood had I been one of these players in this drama of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus?"

Perhaps we can see ourselves as being among those who welcomed him into Jerusalem as a hero.  But would we be able to see ourselves as Peter, denying him?  As Judas, betraying Him?  Or could we see ourselves, as being like the religious leaders who condemned him? Or as Pilate, either wishing to avoid the issue, as in John's account, or washing his hands of the whole thing so he might appear blameless, as in Matthew's? Could we see ourselves abandoning him, as all the disciples did in three accounts, or staying at the foot of his cross until the end, as did the beloved disciple and Mary in the John’s Gospel?

There were many factors that colored the writing of the Gospels, which, as we learned last week, were all written 30 to 80 years after the death of Jesus.  The memory of what happened at Jesus' death was deeply affected by the life situations of the local Christian communities in which the Gospel writers lived; and each was a little different.  Each community was strongly influenced on how persecuted it was, and by whom it was persecuted. And each Gospel reflects, for example, how the writers perceived the Romans and the Jews.

Take the Romans, for instance. How do you offset the negative attitude displayed toward Jesus when you read the words of Tacitus, the great Roman writer, who treats Jesus as a despicable criminal; not worthy of anyone’s attention? How would you overcome Tacitus' very negative portrayal?    What if, say, you were to portray Pilate as being a spokesman for Jesus, or at least, not against him?  Two of the Gospel writers did just that.
If you move through the Gospels according to when they were written you'll see that Pilate is increasingly portrayed as a fair judge who recognized Jesus as innocent of political ambition.  This viewpoint not only rehabilitates Pilate in the eyes of Christian readers, but also rehabilitates Jesus in the eyes of Romans: if a Roman Governor of Pilate's stature saw nothing wrong in Jesus, Tacitus must have been mistaken about Jesus being simply a common criminal.

Lets look at just one more example: "How would you characterize Jewish involvement in Jesus' death?  Who was involved, who was responsible, for the death of Jesus?  Was it all of the Jews?  Or just the Pharisees?  The Priests? All the Priests?  The Sanhedrin?  What about Joseph of Aramathea, wasn't he in the Sanhedrin?  Or, was it the Romans, and not the Jews at all?

Well, it depends on which Gospel you read.  If you wish to go easy on the Jewish involvement, or want to limit it to a handful of leaders, read Luke.  In Luke there is no calling for witnesses against Jesus and there is no Jewish death sentence against Him.  In fact, there is no formal night time trial, complete with the high priest Ciaphas in charge, as in Mark and Matthew.  There is only a simple questioning in the morning by the Sanhedrin.

John, who is hard on the Jews elsewhere in his Gospel, does not write that the Jews were heavily involved in actually deciding Jesus' fate.  John records no Sanhedrin session at all after Jesus' arrest, but only a police interrogation conducted by a different high priest, Annas.

Confused? Add further confusion: How much were the Romans involved, and when? John includes Roman soldiers and their Tribune as early as the arrest, the other writers do not. This is important because no Roman Tribune could have been dispatched without the knowledge of Pilate, which means that John believed that Pilate was involved far earlier and far more deeply than any of the other Gospels report, even though, in the end, Pilate could find no justification for killing Jesus.

On the other hand, look carefully at the stories about the accusations against Jesus. If you suspect that it was "all of the Jews" who accused Jesus then Matthew and John are the Gospels that lead you to that conclusion; while Mark and Luke limit Jewish accusations to the Jewish leadership, specifically the priests and the Sanhedrin.

And, while John goes easy on the Jewish leaders during the trial period, John also believes that the whole "world" rejected Jesus and so places blame for his death on everybody, and does not go easy on either the Romans or the Jews.  Both are guilty in John's eyes, but, in John’s eyes, so are we. And for my money, John’s conclusion is spot on. As the great Lenten hymn proclaims, “I crucified you.”

We could spend months looking at, and comparing, the Gospel accounts of such things as those above, and things like: How did Jesus view His own death? How did the disciples react at Gesthemene?  What did they do at the arrest?  Could the Jewish trial even have happened according to Jewish law?  What happened at the actual time of death?. i.e.:  Did the curtain in the Temple split?  Were graves opened?  And, after his death, were there guards at the tomb?  And on and on. We will do some of that in this series, but only as it helps us better understand Jesus.

Otherwise, if we took the time to sort through every detail, would we find out anything that would help us better understand Jesus?  Well, I have (Monte has) done that, done it for countless hours, and I can (he can) tell you that studying and arguing about every little detail does not help us learn much about Jesus.

What will help us know more about Jesus is to know that each individual portrayal of Jesus’ death gives us an insight into who he is such as none of the others give us. And the reason is simple enough. Each divinely inspired evangelist knows a different facet of our Lord and his life and death, and therefore each writer portrays a different picture.

I’m going to stop here for today.

During the coming weeks as you learn in more depth what some of those different views are, I want you to ponder the implications of having four differing portraits of the Death of the Messiah and decide for yourself how you feel about that. I will share with you how I feel about it, but you need to form your own conclusions. Each of us brings our own needs to God and each finds peace and secure faith in his or her individual way.

Can you, like the Church, live comfortably with four quite different portrayals of Jesus’ death? Or do you long for it to be much simpler?  How does it affect your faith to know that there is no single, absolutely scientifically provable history of his death?

When we are done looking at a few more of those conflicts in the reports of his death, we will take  a very close look at the portrayal by two of the Gospel writers to see WHY the different Gospel writers wrote what they did.

God bless.