Gabe and I went to Shaw’s on River Street yesterday to grab a few things for dinner: pasta sauce, spaghetti, meatballs. We were done shopping and on our way to check out when we turned into the Seasonal Items aisle. Bam – There it was: A 15 foot tall Easter Bunny fashioned out of cases of Coca-Cola products. Lest you miss that it was a bunny, someone had affixed big googly eyes and rabbit teeth. Hanging around it were silver streamers and gleaming white rabbits with manic grins on their faces. The shelves surrounding it were filled with neon colored Peeps, Pez’es, and jelly beans.
No one was standing in the aisle passing out the Passion Narrative. Why not?
This morning we began with a party, waving palms, smiling, singing our brains out. Why not keep doing that? Why change moods from party to passion? From white to red? Surely you have better things to do than hear a complicated, gruesome story of betrayal, abandonment, mockery, violence, and death.
If you want to read about betrayal, abandonment, mockery, violence, and death, why not just pick up a newspaper?
Everything in this story happens every day. Every day, Judas’s betray their friends out of self-interest. Every day, friends abandon other friends in order to protect their reputation. Every day, people mock those who are different from them or seem to threaten their power. Every day, people in power wash their hands of guilt for harming or killing the innocent. Every day, people are killed as an example to others not to rock the boat to protect the false peace imposed by unjust regimes. Every day, wonderful, caring people die.
But we are here because it happened to God. The author of all life, the one through whom all things were made, the Word exhaled as “Let there be light” — it happened to this one.
We are here because it happened to Jesus under Pontius Pilate. “He suffered under Pontius Pilate,” as we rehearse every week when we say the creed. This story reveals to us the heart of the Christian confession about God: God suffers with us. Com-passion – suffer with. This is the God we confess. This is the scandal of the cross: A God who suffers.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate -and we who have pledged to see Christ in the face of all people see that he suffers under all the other unjust rulers and all the other systems of evil that oppress and degrade the children of God.
He whose death was purchased with coins suffers with the seven inmates on death row in Arkansas, who will be executed this month because the lethal injection drugs are going to expire soon and the government doesn’t want to waste them.
He who was born into a refugee family and was cast aside by the crowd too worked up to listen to reason suffers as children in Syria and children in refugee camps and children struggling to grow up in a confusing world right here.
He whose friends deserted him suffers with you when you endure loss, and when you are uncertain, and when you are shamed or excluded for who you are.
This suffering God invites us to do something unfathomable in the eyes of the world — something completely anathema to the Pilates and high priests and angry mobs of our day: be present with those who suffer. Karl Barth writes:
The Passion of Jesus Christ….did not take place in heaven or in some remote planet or even in some world of ideas; it took place in our time, in the center of the world-history in which our human life is played out. So we must not escape from this life. We must not take flight to a better land, or to some height or other unknown, nor to any spiritual Cloud-Cuckooland nor to a Christian fairyland. God has come into our life in its utter unloveliness and frightfulness…. (Dogmatics in Outline 109).
We don’t have to be afraid to speak truth to power. We don’t have to be afraid to surface our deepest fears and darkest grief. We don’t have to steer clear of the people others scorn. We don’t have to pretend we can save ourselves.
God has already harrowed the hell of our suffering. God has cried out from the cross the words of his whole community, the words of all of humanity, as voiced in Psalm 22 hundreds of years before Jesus lived, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
God has done this out of love. God is love, and there is no greater love that this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. That’s us.
Is that good news? Come back this week – on Maundy Thursday, on Good Friday, and on Saturday’s Easter Vigil, and hear the rest of the story, and decide for yourself.