Palm Sunday 2016

Article IV: “Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried

       An irony of the story of Jesus Christ is that we would not today honor him with the title Jesus Christ, had he not died on a cross. One wonders: why did Jesus stay in the Garden of Gethsemane praying and literally sweating out the last agonizing hours before his arrest (Lk.22.44)? He was not unaware of the political forces gathering against him. He did not need divine omniscience to know that he was in great danger and that a tactical retreat might be in order. So why did he not, on that fateful night before the day we call Good Friday, trade in the donkey on which he had entered Jerusalem for a fast horse and use to his advantage to escape? Why not live to fight another day? This question is not a merely academic one. It goes to the essence of the taunt that the scribes put to Jesus as he hung on the cross. As Mark reported, “So also the chief priests mocked him to one another with the scribes saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (Mk.15:31-32). So why didn’t he save himself? Surely the man who raised Lazarus from the tomb after four days and who healed a man born blind could have pulled himself off of the cross and come down? Why didn’t he? Does not his failure to do this make the case for those who doubt his divinity? Would God, the Son of God, have let himself be mocked and tortured and killed in this brutal manner by sinners? Does not his apparent powerlessness to alter the situation in has favor demonstrate that his accusers were right; that he was a man, period; and not even a good man but a deceiver and false prophet who was getting the punishment he deserved? If he really was the Son of God, would not this have been the perfect opportunity to prove it by coming down from the cross and walking away, as he had done many times before? So, why did he hang there meekly and slowly die? Why did he do that?

       Maybe it was because he was a man of integrity who practiced what he preached. He said “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”. He told his followers, “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” And he told his disciples that “the son of man must suffer many things and be rejected and killed.” Maybe it was because he said, “I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them.” And maybe he believed that by suffering and dying on a cross he was fulfilling the word of God. But how could that be? Why would God want his only son to suffer and die a criminal death? Where in the Bible does it say that the redeemer of Israel must suffer and die?

       Virtually all of the rabbis in Israel for hundreds of years and virtually all of them still today, expect the Redeemer to come and establish a perfect and everlasting kingdom on this earth. Judaism is very much a religion of this world. It strives for social justice. It expects the Redeemer when he comes to establish his justice on the earth, with peace and prosperity for all. But Jesus did not share that view. “The poor you will always have with you,” he said. “My kingdom is not this world.” Jesus alone understood the scriptures concerning Israel’s salvation correctly; he alone saw that the redeemer must suffer and be crucified. To say that his understanding of the role of the messiah was a minority view among the Jews is an understatement. In seeing the role of the messiah as one who would suffer and die, Jesus was a minority of one. Nevertheless, he clung to his view with passionate conviction. His unique understanding of the scriptures drove him to his death and restrained him from resisting arrest or coming down from the cross. Jesus believed that his death was necessary for our redemption and that he could only become our Redeemer if he allowed himself to be crucified (John3.14-15).

        Jesus found support for his faith in a suffering and crucified redeemer in essentially two scriptures: Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 (Lk.24.44-46; John5.39).These are the scriptures that Christians read both on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday, days when the church celebrates the passion and death of Christ.  Psalm 22 begins with the very cry of despair that Jesus would make while on the cross:

“My god, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? (Mt.27.46)

O my god. I cry by day, but thou dost not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”

“Yet thou art holy. Enthroned on the praises Israel. In thee our fathers trusted; they trusted, and thou didst deliver them. To thee they cried and were saved; in thee they trusted and were not disappointed.”

   In other words, as much as he is hurting, the suffering victim of Psalm 22 knows that everything happens for a reason. He does not see the reason for the pain he is in but he trust in God, knowing that God will use his suffering for some greater good. He then goes on to describe the suffering that he is being subjected to; suffering that directly matches the suffering Christ met on the cross.

“But I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads; “he committed his cause to the Lord; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”

The very mockery and rejection that the scribes gave to Jesus (Mt.27.39-43) is prophesied in Psalm 22 centuries before the event!

“Ye thou are he who took me from the womb; thou didst keep me safe upon my mother’s breasts. Upon thee was I cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me thou hast been my God. Be not far from me, for trouble is near and there is none to help”

Again, the suffering victim affirms his faith in God whom he has known since his birth. Most people come to know God only as they mature, but this victim has known God from day one. He then continues to describe the physical and emotional agony that he is enduring at the hands of godless men.

 “Many bulls encompass me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and a roaring lion.”

 “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax, it is melted within my breasts, my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws, thou dost lay me in the dust of death.

“Yea dogs are round about me, a company of evil doers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and my feet-I can count all my bones-they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots.”

   This uncanny description of the events that would unfold at Jesus’ crucifixion, right down to the executioners casting lots for his clothing (Mt.27.35) was written centuries before there was a Roman empire, centuries before they taught the world about crucifixion.

       Psalm 22 describes the torture that Christ endured on the cross. Isaiah 52.13- 53.1-12 explains the reason for his suffering and death. In words of pathos and pity that Handle would set to music and immortalize in his inspired masterpiece The Messiah, Isaiah, centuries before the event, speaks of Christ’s suffering and of the reason for it.

     “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgression, he was bruised for our iniquities, upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all”

       “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is.53.6). Add to that what is said in Isaiah 53.11: “The righteous one, my servant, (shall) make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities,” and you have God’s plan for our redemption from sin laid out in plain sight. God’s “righteous one” (Mk.1.24) would die as a scapegoat having had the sins of the whole world transferred onto him.  A world of sinners would thereby be made righteous in God’s eyes. The righteous one, the scapegoat would take the blame and punishment due them on himself, and thereby set sinners free. This redemption of sinners would happen because of the sacrifice of one man, God’s “righteous one”. What was foreshowed in the ritual of the Day of Atonement (Lev.16.20-22), a ritual repeated year after year, (Jews to his day call it Yom Kippur), became an eternal verity never to be repeated because of the perfect sacrifice of God’s Son, the scapegoat to end a need for further scapegoats.

       Jesus Christ did not come into this world to teach a philosophy. He did not come to teach us the secret to finding eternal life and inner peace. As Saint Paul said, “This is a true saying and worthy of all men to be received that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1Tim.1.15). And the way he would save sinners was to be the scapegoat of God, “the perfect offering for our sins” (1 John2.1-2). We search in vain to understand the teachings of Jesus until we accept that his sacrificial death on the cross is the summation of his doctrine. If the teaching of Christ is a wheel, the cross is the hub of that wheel. Take it out and you have only an empty circle. But as Saint Paul put it, “Christ crucified” is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1Cor.1.24). It was his willingness to die for us and take upon himself “the iniquity of us all” that makes him not just Jesus, a nice guy from Nazareth, but Jesus Christ, the “righteous one of God ” ; the one who has, by his suffering and death on the cross, atoned for the sins of the world and “made many righteous.”

        Saint Paul, writing to the Corinthian Church reminds them of the confession of faith they each made at their baptism. “ For I delivered to you as of first importance” he said, “ what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” (1Cor.15.3). This confession of faith was already in use when Paul went to Jerusalem to visit the apostles shortly after his conversion (Gal1.18), which means that the doctrine that Jesus died “according to the scriptures” dates back to the beginning of the church’s mission. It was not some kind of later addition to an original gospel that was concerned only with Jesus’ ethical teachings and knew nothing about his redemptive death. To the contrary, as the four Gospels and the several sermons found in the book of Acts evidence, (along with Paul’s’ letters), the gospel preached by the church from the beginning of the mission testifies to their absolute faith that Jesus went to his death as a willing victim, that it was his purpose in life to die in the manner he did and that by giving himself up to death willingly, he fulfilled the word of God (John10.17-18). As a hymn of the early church also dating back to the beginning of the church’s mission put it, “Being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil.2.8).

       Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea is remembered to history as the person who sentenced Jesus to death. Every Sunday following the sermon we stand to recite the Nicene Creed; which is to the Church as a flag is to our nation, the emblem of who we are, a symbol of what we believe. And in doing so, we will remember Pontius Pilate by name. Why does the Church remember him, a Roman bureaucrat of no account? We remember him because he is the one who looked Jesus in the eyes and sentenced Jesus to death (John 19.1-16). Pilate reminds us that when we speak of Jesus Christ we are speaking of a Jew, living in first century Israel, who died in the year 33 ad. The dates of the gospel are fixed in actual human history. Thus the larger point, implicit in the facts of history, puts a chill down our spines: the story of the savior crucified for our sins is not a fiction. It really happened during the reign of Pontius Pilate, on a hill in Jerusalem, Jesus died for our sins, “ on him was laid the iniquity of us all”. God – really - did -this!