Homily: Trouble and Beauty of the Passion Story

  The passion story isn’t just a long one, so rich, so full of both trouble and beauty that we hardly know where to begin.

  As he nears the end of his story, Matthew continues to recall traditions that are being fulfilled, but he’s also remembering the blood that was spilled at its very beginning, when the powers that be (Herod and the Empire that supported him) killed innocent babies because they feared just one little newborn child. It is coincidental and troubling that, in this week before Holy Week, our own headlines are crowded with the tragic stories of young innocent blood spilled in heartrending events of splattered blood and young school students. Nations all over the world seem to be exploding in violence and lost innocence.

  Matthew’s Gospel has blood spattered all over it; the Immanuel child who escaped Herod falls victim to a new cadre of frightened leaders. Frightened leaders use fear to control the people, drawing just enough blood to keep everyone afraid. Like so many people before and after him, Jesus dies at the hands of power: This time, however, the bloodshed changes everything.

  Jesus is brought before power. We might understand the obsession of the local religious authorities, but the over-reaction of the mighty Roman Empire to one small-town preacher in a far-flung province has a different message. Jesus represents something more powerful than a thousand legions: Hope.

  Empire is not seeking simply to crucify one man, whether gentle or troublesome. Rome is seeking to demonstrate that, though it may take a lifetime, it will catch and kill anyone who stirs hope.

  Jesus courageously kept doing what he was doing even though he knew it could have fatal consequences.” The “no” of the authorities is answered by God’s “yes,” and the systemic domination,  even bigger than just one Roman governor or one religious institution, disclosed its moral bankruptcy and ultimate defeat.

  Digging even deeper, Jesus’ death and resurrection is the path for Christians: dying to an old way of being and being raised to a new way of being. Everything was changed by this death, and God’s love is revealed in it. Afterward, the world was a different place, and the world knew it. The earth shook. Rocks split. Tombs groaned and fell open to the light. God became flesh and blood in order to bring divine love to life.  “Here”, God said with the gift of a son, “You don’t have to come to me where I am anymore. I will come all the way to you where you are, through this beloved child.” Doesn’t this sound like the stories of Jesus, who spoke of a widow pulling her home apart to find a lost coin, or a shepherd going in search of a lost sheep? God comes to find us where we are.

  There are so many images and themes in this reading that a preacher hardly knows where to begin. Perhaps it might be fruitful to focus our attention more intently on the betrayal at the center of the story. Many commentators write with deep feeling not just about Judas but also about the disciples who promised loyalty and then failed Jesus: “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled” . Not just some disciples, but all the disciples ran away. They surely didn’t want to be cowards, and yet they were free to stay with Jesus or to go, just as we are today.

  Isn’t this failure simply part of the human condition? Peter’s promise illustrates human freedom to choose faithfulness (or not), but when Jesus responds, “Truly, you will break this very night”, he speaks the sad truth of the way it goes in human life.  Peter is in a line with so many others, all the way back to Adam, who, when the chips are down, will choose another way. The disciples don’t intend evil, but they are weak, and Jesus is no less abandoned; in his hour of need, the disciples prefer the sleep of avoidance. Jesus is alert to God’s will; Peter, James, and John slumber through his time of anguish. Isn’t it interesting that Peter, James, and John, who went up to the mountaintop and witnessed the Transfiguration, were also the ones who fell asleep in the garden?

  We’ve been taught about free will, and these disciples certainly exercised theirs. Judas chose to remove himself from the community; he wasn’t expelled from it. He was there, at that final dinner, sitting at the table with his mind elsewhere. As we read about that supper, we might wonder what was going through the hearts and minds of those gathered for this not-just-another-Passover meal. Jesus knew that these friends of his, the innermost of his inner circle, would turn him in or at least abandon him in his hour of need. And yet, Jesus is forgiving them ahead of time..

  Indeed, even in the face of their impending desertion and weakness, Jesus offers them life in the long run, and the promise of God’s love and presence with them always. As he shares one last meal, one last cup with them: “Drink this,” Jesus promises, “and my lifeblood becomes yours. Tomorrow I die, but you go free. Wherever you go, I am with you”.

  When we think about the betrayal and desertion of the disciples, don’t we too easily go to the place of “relating” by remembering the times we’ve been betrayed or abandoned? That’s the human thing to do. But, more appropriate for this Lenten season of self-examination and repentance, the disciples need forgiveness and reconciliation, not merely freedom, from this rabbi who preached freedom. And so do we, for we have all betrayed just as we have been betrayed. We might ask, “What becomes of traitors, not only Judas but those in our own circles and communities, or the intimates who stab our families in the back? But even more so, we need to reflect on our own large and small betrayals that have cost others, including those I love, their joy, their sanity, their ability to trust, even their lifeblood. What better time than Holy Week, what better place than at the foot of the cross, to reflect on the betrayals and desertions we have perpetrated on others? And where do we find our hope? In the empty tomb and in the “promise of the shepherding God who never pauses until every lost one is found.

  If there is any overview of this rich and complex Gospel, we should readily be able to see the circumstances of human life: — the trouble we are in,  the need we have for God’s mercy, the ‘law’ that burdens us because we cannot fulfill it — and we also see the inexplicable beauty: the release we have been given through Jesus’ silence and death, the desire of his friends to maintain fellowship with him, the desire of human beings to follow and to comfort, the ‘gospel’ that gives freedom. The beauty is in the unfathomable and yet undeniable power of this entire story. Trouble, yes; and beauty, indeed.                        (Kathryn Matthews Huey)

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