April 1, 2012
When you read the story of the last week of Jesus’ life, one of the saddest things is how quickly things went bad. On Palm Sunday everyone was greeting Jesus and proclaiming him as their new and wonderful king. Just a few days later many of the same people were screaming crucify him, crucify him. He was turned over to the authorities by Judas, one of his own disciples. He was abandoned by the rest. He was infamously denied by Peter.
It’s hard enough to read what happened physically to Jesus that week. But it’s so much worse when you think about him having to face that all alone.
It turns out, though, that I haven’t been reading the story very well. Jesus did not go through all of this alone. Sure, the disciples did flee. The crowds did turn on him. Judas did betray him. He felt forsaken by God. But there are other people and other stories. One is this woman with the alabaster jar. She did this amazing thing. She smashed a very expensive jar, with even more expensive perfume in it, and started pouring it on Jesus’ head. Some of the folk were outraged. They said the money would have been better spent on feeding the hungry than on fancy jars and expensive perfume.
Jesus told them to chill out by saying the woman did a good thing. She realized what none of the rest of them had been able to figure out. Jesus was about to die. This was her way of acknowledging how grateful she was for Jesus. Her act of love and generosity almost got lost in the argument that pursued. But Jesus was right. He said what she had done would be remembered wherever the good news is preached. And we are still talking about her today.
You also have to be careful with this story because of that one line that gets so abused, the one where Jesus talked about the poor always being with us. I am amazed by how this one sentence has been used to dismiss all that Jesus said and showed us about taking care of the poor. Too many people read this as if Jesus were saying we have no responsibility to help the poor since you can’t really do anything about poverty anyway. But that’s not what he suggested at all. Rather he was telling his dinner companions that there will always be chances for them to help the poor, with their own money, rather than this woman’s money. She wasn’t denying or ignoring the poor that day. Nor was Jesus. She was just trying to support Jesus. She did not abandon him. If nobody else was going to be with Jesus until the end, she was going to be.
She wasn’t the only one though. There was that Roman military officer, that Gentile occupier, who acknowledged that a great injustice had been done. “This one surely was the Son of God.”
The Gospel stories tell us that everybody mocked Jesus as he was dying; the priests, the scribes, the passers by, even those who were being crucified with him. But Luke’s story includes a different memory. One of those being crucified with Jesus offered his support, saying that maybe he had earned a cross, but there was no way Jesus had. “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom, Jesus.” “Friend,” Jesus said, and a much needed friend he was, “before day’s end we will be in Paradise together.”
Then there were Joseph of Arimathea who risked being exposed as a Jesus follower when he asked Pilate if he could take Jesus’ body to his own tomb. Helping Joseph in that task, and also outing himself, was Nicodemus, the religious leader who came to Jesus that one night.
So Jesus did not die alone. There were others, I’m sure, who stayed with him whose stories have not been recorded, and whose stories I’ve perhaps forgotten. Can you think of others?
When we read the story, or the stories, again, we realize that Jesus did not die alone. Sure there was plenty of other agony, physical, psychological, and spiritual, but he wasn’t totally abandoned. And that is not insignificant. Having the support of others makes a difference even when you can’t change things. I know that in such a profound way now. Nothing can change the fact of our daughter Sarah’s death. But the support we have received, realizing we aren’t going though this alone, has made such a difference. Mary and I, and Rachel and Grace are walking this lonesome valley, but we are not walking it alone. And I’m so glad Jesus wasn’t alone either, even though it was so hard.
What this congregation does so well, what you do so well, is walk with others like you have walked with Mary and me. And that’s not easy. But just think how when you walk with others, when you make sure they aren’t alone, it’s like walking with Jesus during that last week of his life. “When you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it unto me.”
So Jesus wasn’t alone when he died. There’s also another thing I’ve been thinking about we might keep missing as we read the stories of that last week for Jesus. Who killed Jesus? [Wait for answers.] The Romans, the political power with the collusion of the religious establishment. When I look at a lot of the hymns we sing, though, especially around this time of the year, and a lot of the teaching you hear in a lot of places, it’s like Rome or the religious establishment had nothing to do with it. It was you who killed Jesus. It was me who killed Jesus. It was God who killed Jesus instead of killing you and me.
Now this gets into new, and perhaps troubling ground, for some of you. We have heard most of our lives that we killed Jesus by being so sinful. Movies like that Mel Gibson one, and so much else only reenforce that idea. We can’t go into it all now, but as you read or hear the stories about Jesus’ death this week or whenever, remember that salvation can come, in ways other than feeling like and acknowledging that it was really you who drove those spikes through Jesus’s hands and feet. Salvation can come without God having to kill Jesus instead of killing you and me and your children and grandchildren or parents or sisters or brothers or kids starving in Africa. Does that really sound like the God Jesus trusted in? Just imagine that the cross can mean something else, that the salvation that comes through the death of Jesus on the cross can have a different meaning, or meanings, than what we have been told.
And please, please don’t let Rome and the power structures off the hook. We miss so much of the story, or the stories, when we gloss over the fact that it was Roman soldiers, at the order of the Roman governor, with the encouragement of the religious power structures, who drove the spikes through Jesus’ hands and feet. It wasn’t you or me.
Do you know what a disruptive technology is? It’s a technology that comes along and completely alters the status quo of the current technology. It changes everything. Record companies are learning what disruptive technologies are with the ease of file sharing over the internet. Horse buggy manufacturers learned what disruptive technologies were when automobiles started appearing on the roads.
Jesus had a disruptive faith that challenged the power structures of his, as well as our day. Those power structures still want us to believe that it was you and me that killed Jesus. It makes it so much easier for them to do what they have in mind. But remember that the stories we will read and hear this week tell us about a power struggle between Jesus and the political and religious structures of the empire. It was a life and death struggle, and still is. A struggle where Jesus was not alone. Nor are we. And when the empire nailed Jesus to the cross that day, it thought it had won. It didn’t. But that’s next week’s story.