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Visions from The Catacombs, Week before April 13, 2014

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Matthew 27:11-66

11Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Judean Authorities?” Jesus said, “You say so.” 12But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. 13Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” 14But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. 15Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. 17So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. 19While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” 20Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” 23Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” 24So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 25Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

26So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. 27Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Judean Authorities!” 30They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. 32As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross.

33And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; 36then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Judean Authorities.” 38Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads 40and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42“He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” 44The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way. 45From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.”

50Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” 55Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. 56Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

57When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb. 62The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” 65Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” 66So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

What I am Learning:

You will notice that I made a translation change in the NRSV from reading “the Jews” to “the Judean Authorities.”

This is more than a small change!

I fear that many readings of this passage make it sound like “the Jews” killed Jesus. This was hardly the case! When people assume that “the Jews” killed Jesus, or at least got him killed, I fear this contributes to anti-Semitism and to an unnecessary distance between Jews and Christians.

The term in Greek is “Judean.” It was a reference to the Jewish leadership in and around Jerusalem. At the time of Jesus, as I remind you every week, the Roman Empire occupied Palestine. They selected leaders from Judea, the area in and around Jerusalem, to be the leaders for the People of Israel. The Chief Priest’s vestments were held in the Roman Governor’s headquarters.

The job of these Roman picked leaders was to keep the people in their territory quiet. When they failed to do this, these leaders became permanently quiet.

Furthermore, Judeans in general thought of Galileans as low-life country bumpkins. So when Pilate asked if “Jesus was the king of the Judeans” they were insulted.

The term “Jews” emerged later as a term for the whole People of Israel, but in the first century it only applied to those in Judea, a region in Israel, and was often used to refer to the priestly and political leaders there.

So “the Jews” as a whole did not kill him, nor did they all advocate for his death.

The Roman Empire killed Jesus because it saw him as a threat to their power.

How did he threaten it?

Empires are built of more than bricks and mortar and more than armies and police. Empires have a spirituality, an animating force that drives them to do what they do. This force arises from the human fear of death and desire for life. In an Empire you stay alive by

  • Dominating or killing others
  • Giving up your human dignity to others

This is why I talk about the domination/submission culture.

This spirituality expressed itself in the Roman Empire in many practical ways:

  • Lots of military spending to subdue enemies
  • Controlling other nations through economic means
  • Exploitation of the creation
  • Constant competition
  • A dramatic wealth and income gap
  • A focus on violent drama and sports
  • Disdain for the poor and vulnerable
  • Lots of addictive behavior to numb the pain

Jesus was a threat because was not willing to kill or dominate others AND he was not willing to give up the dignity of his humanity to stay alive.

This means that Jesus too, had a spirituality, an animating force called “the spirit of the Lord”. This was expressed in his life in what he called “the kingdom of God.” This spirituality expressed itself in many practical ways:

  • Lots of risk to love enemies
  • Creating partnerships where all parties benefit
  • Respect for the patterns and limits of the earth
  • Playful competition that knows when to stop
  • Economic equity between people
  • A focus on storytelling and relationship that builds people up
  • Compassionate leadership that helps the poor and vulnerable find their power
  • Lots of enjoyment of life without needing to numb our pain

Jesus was willing to die rather than dominate or submit. He accepted and defended his authentic identity as a human being. Because he was true to his God-given humanity, others around him began to do the same. They began to realize that they did not need to abide by dog-eat-dog/dog-submit-to-dog logic and rules. It was spreading.

So the Roman Empire decided to kill him by crucifying and therefore humiliating him to send a message to others who had caught on to Jesus’ way: keep it up and we will kill you, too.

And so it would have seemed that the Roman Empire would win again.

Except we are still here!

Through our Risen Lord we are invited, every day, to learn to be authentic to ourselves, to live in and by the Spirit of the Lord and to live out the kingdom of God, God’s way of mutuality.

While the US is not exactly the Roman Empire, there are many aspects of our culture that match the ways of empire very well. The spirituality of empire lives on and it lives in us.

But so does the Spirit of Christ and we trust that in the end, this Spirit will overcome all divisions and fears and bring Shalom to everyone – even those who are captivated by the spirituality of empire.

A Blog worth Reading from a Lutheran Professor I know:

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=932