Apr 10th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Mark 14:53-15:47
Some of us, as we were growing up in church, learned a song, some of the words of which were:
“Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
Tell me the story simply, as to a little child,
For I am weak and weary, and helpless and defiled.
Tell me the old, old story, tell me the old, old story,
Tell me the old, old story, of Jesus and His love.
Tell me the story slowly, that I may take it in,
That wonderful redemption, God’s remedy for sin.
Tell me the story often, for I forget so soon;
The early dew of morning has passed away at noon.”
The old, old story – told simply (as if that were really possible) – a story that is all about redemption and salvation – a story that is easily personalized – a story that is centered on an event from so long ago that absolute certainty of those events may be impossible to achieve.
At the center of that old, old story, is a cross, a man, and the brutal death of that man. It’s the old, old story that we have heard again and again and again. The way the old, old story has been told goes something like this:
In order for God to forgive sins, a Substitutionary sacrifice must be offered. But it would not be adequate for an ordinary human being to be the sacrifice, for such a person would be a sinner and would only be dying for his or her own sins. Thus the sacrifice must not be a sinner, but a perfect human being. Only Jesus, who was not only human but also the Son of God, was perfect, spotless, and without blemish. Thus he is the sacrifice, and Good Friday is the day that makes our forgiveness possible.[i]
That is the old, old story. And, for many, it is that old, old story that brought them to faith in Jesus Christ. The story “worked” for them. It made sense. It put the pieces of the puzzle together in a way that enabled them to see “the big picture” and find a relationship with God. If that is the way you learned the story, and tell the story, and live the story, glory be to God! You need only to be reminded of the old, old story this Sunday morning and your sermon for the day is basically over.
However, if that old, old story has been the source of problems and difficulties over the years, then stay with me. If trying to reconcile a God of love with a God who demanded the death of God’s own child causes you a few problems, or more than a few problems, along the way, let’s work on that. If the old, old story of a “Substitutionary Atonement” does not lead you to a God who loves and restores, then let’s see if we can find another way.
Other ways of talking about the death of Jesus do exist. It was Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, in 1097, fully developed the substitutionary theory of atonement – the old, old story. That means that it took 1,000 years to get from the death of Jesus to that particular understanding of that death. Add to that the fact that the subsitutionary theory of atonement is one of the five fundamentals of fundamentalism and you begin to get the feeling that there may be other ways of talking about the death of Jesus that are equally powerful and compelling and that may make far greater sense.
So, let’s turn to the Gospel of Mark. Mark was the first gospel to be written down. Matthew and Luke both used Mark in order to write their gospels. So, Mark may be more reflective of the way the people of the time right after Jesus’ death and resurrection understood those events.
And what does Mark say about Jesus’ death as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin? Nothing. Mark doesn’t talk about Jesus’ death in that way at all - that understanding of Jesus’ death is absent from Mark’s gospel account.
It is to that understanding that we now turn.
What Mark clearly understands and presents in his gospel is that Jesus challenged the power structures of his day and that challenge was so great, so threatening, so ominously endangering to those in power, that in order to silence the message he was teaching, the powers of his day chose to silence the messenger. Not only did Jesus challenge the political system of his day – the Roman Empire – he also challenged the religious system of his day. Jesus was a threat to the political and the religious authorities of his day. And so, when those two sources of power and control had had all they could take, they joined together to take action against Jesus.
It was the religious authorities who collaborated with Judas to arrest Jesus. It was to the religious authorities that Jesus was taken following his arrest. It was the religious authorities that tried Jesus on religious charges. It was the religious authorities who, throughout the gospel of Mark, are challenging Jesus at every turn, trying to trap him in a false teaching, baiting him to say the wrong thing so that they could pounce. Read through the gospel of Mark and you’ll see that the scribes and Pharisees were always looking to catch Jesus in that one mistake that would shut down his entire enterprise. And, just so we couldn’t fail to see it clearly, Mark includes this verse that opens the fourteenth chapter of his gospel:
It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened
Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to
arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him…(Mark 14:1)
The word was out: we’ve got to get rid of this Jesus. Jesus was a threat to the religious power structure. He was a threat to the power of the religious leaders. He was a threat to their survival and so he must go.
But, the religious leaders had no power to kill anyone. Executions were performed under the sanction of the state – the civil authority. In order to have Jesus killed, the religious leaders would have to have an alliance with the civil, political leaders of the day. These two powerful entities, who often struggled against each other, would have to come together in order to achieve their desired goal.
When Jesus arrived in the presence of Pontius Pilate, the only charge against him was blasphemy. It was a religious charge brought by religious leaders. It was a charge about which Pilate could have cared less.
But Jesus had been a thorn in the side of the governmental authority as well. He identified with the mission and message of John the Baptist and that would have put him at odds with the Roman installed puppet rulers of Palestine. He preached about things like love, justice, fairness, equality, and forgiveness. Now, that might not sound like dangerous teaching that would threaten the governmental authorities of any day. But that is because we have so tamed and domesticated Jesus’ message that we hear it as non-threatening. Really preaching – really live - what Jesus was teaching and watch what happens. You’ll be reviled, despised, and out of favor with all kinds of people – powerful ones especially.
So, an unholy alliance was created in short order on that Friday long ago. The religious authorities and the secular authorities collaborated and cooperated with each other and removed a common threat from their midst. As our Brief Statement of Faith proclaims, “Unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition, Jesus was crucified, suffering the depths of human pain and giving his life for the sins of the world.” The powers of the world rejected Jesus. The very ones to whom Jesus addressed his message of love and life, responded with hate and death. In order to silence the message, they silenced the messenger.
And here we are, some two thousand years after all of that, and what is the central symbol of our faith? A cross. Enter any church anywhere in the world and you’ll see a cross.
What does that mean? In some churches, you’ll see a crucifix – that is, a cross with the body of a crucified man attached. That symbol suggests to me an understanding of the cross that is about atonement – substitutionary and other forms. It is about God acting to bring about the death of Jesus.
But, in our church, the cross is empty. That is because there was something beyond the crucifixion – something no one could have foreseen. Our cross is empty because God would not allow the final word to be death and silence. God insisted that the message preached and taught by Jesus – the good news of God’s love – would go on and on. The cross was our response to God’s goodness and love. The empty tomb was God’s response to our rejection and elimination of his chosen messenger.
And, for some of us, that is why the cross is the central symbol of our faith. The cross is the reminder of our betrayal, our denial, our abandonment of Jesus on a fairly regular basis. The cross stands at the center of our faith tradition, preaching its silent message of rejection and refutation. The cross is there as a reminder of the number of times – each and every day – when we fail to be the people Jesus called us to be. The cross stands as a reminder of how many times – each and every day – we crucify Christ again and again.
But the cross is empty. There is something more. Our betrayal, denial, and abandonment is not the final word. Resurrection – new life – forgiveness – restoration – that is God’s final word. More about that in a couple of weeks.
But. when it comes to “The Case of the Crucified Christ,” you don’t have to number God among the chief suspects. For me, God is not even what we have come to call “a person of interest.” You don’t have to lay the death of Jesus at God’s feet.
Instead, consider the powers and principalities of Jesus’ day. Look at how the powerful – who had the most to lose – responded to Jesus. As my New Testament professor, George Edwards, used to say, “He came teaching love and peace. Why do you think they killed the man?” Sometimes in order to silence the message, you have to silence the messenger. And that is still true to this day.
But, the message goes on. The good news is still good. The gospel’s clarion call cannot be silenced by our words and actions. If the cross and resurrection mean anything at all, they mean this: God wins.
Believe as you wish to believe. If the whole subsitutionary atonement deal works for you, go with it. If you need a different approach, hopefully you’ve got one to think about this morning.
But, and here’s the most important thing of all: because of a death a very long time ago, life today – here and now – can be different, better, and so much more than we dare to dream. Because of a cross, a long time ago, we can truly live. For now and evermore. Amen.
[i] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, p. 138