By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
This is the fifth sermon in our Lenten series on “Spirit and Power.”
During this season of Lent, we are on a journey into the unknown, where much has been stripped away from us. It’s a journey that’s lonely, as we are isolated from others, and the path forward is dimly lit, at best. It’s a time when there are possibilities for justice to break through oppression and possibilities that inequality will become even more death dealing than it already is.
Fifty two years ago yesterday Dr. King was assassinated and one year earlier in his powerful Beyond Vietnam speech he called for a radical restructuring of society. This is a radical restructuring we need now more than ever, as 1,000s of people are forced to live on the street in San Francisco and 10s of 1,000s across this state, in the midst of a global pandemic. Their vulnerability illustrates the death dealing nature of our economic system, and the callousness of political calculations, weighing their lives against a budget’s bottom line.
These personal and political realities bring to life Jesus’ journey toward the cross in powerful ways. Today we began our service with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and will end with Jesus on the cross. This sermon is a bible study on the passion story, making sense of it within its own context and also within our world today.
We are in a dark time societally and this a dark story. It is also a complex narrative given the layers of imperial Christian theology and the anti-semitism it perpetuates. In the excerpts I read today, which are pulled from our Maundy Thursday litany, a few words might jump out at you: namely Judean and Yeshua.
The Gospel texts are Greek translations of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus and his followers. In ancient Greek, the same word designated someone who was a Judean and someone who was a Jew. So, whenever it’s said that the “Jews” wanted to harm Jesus, the correct translation could very well be that the “Judeans” wanted to harm him. One theory among Biblical scholars is that the Galilean, “country” followers of Jesus did not blame the Jews for the death of Jesus (why would they? they were Jews themselves) but blamed elite Judeans living in Jerusalem. For this reading, I will be referring to “Judeans” whenever the word “Jews” would appear in the text to open up another way of understanding it. I will also use the name Yeshua instead of Jesus, to remind us that he was a Jewish man.
Let us begin the story with the plot hatched to destroy Yeshua following his celebrative entry into Jerusalem.
It was two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The religious leaders who collaborated with the Roman Occupation, perhaps fearful of the security of their own positions, were conspiring against Yeshua, who they perceived as a rebel leader. They were all planning to arrest and destroy Yeshua quietly so as to avoid a popular revolt among the people.
Given the stark economic inequalities in first century Palestine, the Roman occupiers and the property-owning elite, were constantly on the lookout for rebel groups that might incite uprisings. Passover was a time when crowds of people descended on Jerusalem, so the ruling class was on high alert. There is record of extreme security measures, including soldiers posted throughout the city with license to violently suppress any rabble rousers.
Yeshua knew he was a target because he was leading movement of poor people from the countryside. For this reason it’s no surprise that the last meal he had with his disciples needed to be held in a secret location in Jerusalem. You might remember the instructions he gave to his disciples in find the place… look for a certain person (man carrying a water jar) and he will lead you to the place where you say the password to gain access to the room. Yeshua was also aware by this point that his inner circle was infiltrated by a betrayer.
So we come to the Last Supper
As they were eating, Yeshua took bread. After reciting the blessing, he broke it and gave it to his disciples as he said,
“Take, eat; this is my body.”
Then taking the cup with the traditional blessing, he gave it to his disciples as he said,
“This is my blood of the covenant which is being shed for many. I tell you in truth that I shall not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it fresh in the Kingdom of God.”
What does this meal mean? One way of understanding it is that Yeshua knows suffering is coming. He will pay a price for challenging the powerful. He is knowingly offering himself in place of other sacrifices. He knows the imperial system and its allies will exploit and sacrifice anything to maintain power and control. He is willing to face that violence head on and he is inviting his disciples into that practice through this shared meal. He believes that his vision of the Kingdom of God will prevail.
But they are not ready to follow Yeshua on that path. After the meal they walk to a garden.
Yeshua halted at an olive grove called Gethsemane. Then going apart with Peter, James and John, he left them on watch and continued a little farther alone. There he fell on his face in anguished prayer. Soon he returned to the three on watch and found them sleeping. Rousing them, he asked Peter,
“Could you not watch with me for just one hour? Watch and pray that you are not put to the test; for the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”
As the text later describes, they were not able to watch and pray with Yeshua. In his book, “The Four Vision Quests of Jesus,” Choctaw theologian, Steven Charleston reflects that what was so disturbing to Yeshua in the garden was that he was alone on his path to the cross. It became clear that he would journey to the cross abandoned by his closest community. “The anguish of the Garden vision,” he writes, “is not about death. It is about being alone.”
And then Yeshua is arrested.
Immediately the soldiers laid hands on Yeshua and held him fast. Then one of the disciples with Yeshua drew his sword and cut off an ear from the slave of the high priest, but Yeshua said to him,
“Sheathe your sword. All who take up the sword will perish by the sword. Do you not know that I can call upon my Abba who will respond at once with more than twelve legions of angels?”
Then turning to the mob, Yeshua continued,
“Have you come for me as against a rebel bandit with swords and clubs? Why did you not seize me in the Temple, where I sat teaching by day? Were you so afraid of the Jewish people that you must come for me by stealth? Nevertheless your actions are fulfilling the words of the prophets.”
The nature of his arrest communicates just how afraid the authorities were of Yeshua. They come armed at night to ambush their target. They most likely expected armed resistance. Given rampant economic inequalities, there were many bandits like Robin Hood or Poncho Villa during that time. Yeshua names the fear of those arresting him. And then he identifies himself with the prophets… and by extension the fate of the prophets. Some biblical scholars note that this may have crushed any remaining hopes the disciples had that Yeshua would lead a revolution against their oppressors. The disciples flee into the night as he is taken away.
Following his arrest, Yeshua is brought to trial.
Yeshua stood before the Roman governor Pilate as the accusers made their charge.
“We found this man perverting our nation. He was forbidding us to pay taxes to the Emperor and proclaiming himself Anointed King.”
The governor asked, “Are you the King of the Judeans, of the Jews?”
Yeshua replied, “You say so.”
The chief priests were accusing him of many things. Therefore Pilate again spoke to Yeshua. “Have you no answer to give? Look at how many accusations they are making!”
Yeshua astonished Pilate by remaining silent.
The historical record shows that Pilate was particularly ruthless among Roman leaders in Palestine, and there’s no way he could have been manipulated by Judean leadership to do their bidding. Biblical scholars put it this way, “On the contrary, Pilate was expert at playing the local aristocracy against each other for his political ends. Historically, therefore, the fact that Pilate signed off on Yeshua’s crucifixion, which was the Roman penalty reserved for those convicted of insurrection, can only mean he judged Yeshua to be a substantial threat to imperial security.”
Furthermore, “to Pilate, Yeshua is merely ‘King of the Judeans or Jews,’ as opposed to the nationalist title ‘King of Israel.’ The former designation, held by Roman client-rulers such as Herod, was a contemptuous reminder that the Judeans or Jews were not sovereign in their own land.”
Knowing that his trial was a farce, Yeshua says next to nothing in response to Pilate. He knows that Divine wisdom is foolishness to those in power.
And he is thus sentenced to death by crucifixion.
They brought Yeshua to a place called Golgotha (which means “skull”). There, they crucified him. They offered him wine mingled with myrrh, but he refused it. His garments they divided among themselves, casting lots for them. Over his head they inscribed the charge against him, “The King of the Judeans. ” Also there were two insurrectionists crucified with him, one to his right and one to his left. Those who passed by were shaking their heads in derision and saying, “So you would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days! Save yourself. Come down from the cross.”
Notice the starkness and cynicism of this scene. Yeshua, choosing faithfulness to the end, is nailed to a cross, struggling to breath, and below him people are gambling for his clothes. Above him a sign declares Roman domination. On either side of him hang men who were also threatening to Roman power. And then there are those walking by, which communicates the everyday nature of this kind of torture.They are walking by and sneering. Another day, another poor person dying on a cross. This is what you get if you mess with the powerful.
Where is God? Where is God when Yeshua is witnessing this scene around him? Where is God as Yeshua’s followers see their teacher and friend struggling to breath on the cross? Where is God as people casually dismiss another state-sanctioned execution of a poor person?
God is there, in the darkness. God is there just like God was there when the Hebrew people were subjected to slavery under Pharaoh. God is there just like God was there weeping by the rivers of Babylon. God is there, just like God was there guiding Harriet Tubman through the night to freedom. God is there, just like God was there with Oscar Romero as he read the names of the dead during Mass in El Salvador. God is there, just like God was there at Standing Rock in the sweat lodge that was violently destroyed by armed officers. God is there, just like God is here, in the midst of a global pandemic. God is here on the streets of San Francisco, in the tents of our neighbors who are crying out for shelter.
The God of our scriptures is the God of the poor, the dispossessed, the slaves, the sick, the losers and the executed. This God is well acquainted with darkness. God is with us in our darkness and in the abandonment of these days.
The offertory we’ll hear following a time of silence is a song by the late Leonard Cohen. “You want it darker,” he sings. “Hineni. I’m ready, my Lord.” The Hebrew word, Hineni, means “Here I am.” We are here in the darkness with God, and ready to face it with Spirit’s help.
May the sacred darkness of this holy week invite us into deeper connection with the Spirit. May the sacred darkness of this holy week create space for our grief. May the sacred darkness of this holy week inspire us to fight for the radical restructuring of society that we desperately need.
Spirit of the living God fall afresh on us. AMEN
- The Four Visions Quests of Jesus by Steven Charleston
- Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship by Ched Myers, Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Stuart Taylor
- Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus by Richard Horsley with John S. Hanson