“Jesus was not simply an unfortunate victim of a domination system’s brutality. He was also a protagonist filled with passion. His passion, his message, was about the kingdom of God. He spoke to peasants as a voice of religious protest against the central economic and political institutions of his day. He attracted a following, took his movement to Jerusalem at the season of Passover, and there challenged the authorities with public acts and public debates. All of this was his passion, what he was passionate about—God and the kingdom of God, God and God’s passion for justice.
Jesus’s passion got him killed.”— Marcus Borg
Led by one of Jesus’ disciples, the police show up at the place Jesus and the rest of his followers were gathered. Because Jesus had often gone to the place, Jesus’ followers knew the place too. And the police seized Jesus and held him fast. And the disciples all deserted Jesus and ran away.
They brought Jesus before the high priest.
The ranking priests bound Jesus and turned him over to Pilate, the Roman governor. Then Pilate had Jesus flogged and turned him over to be crucified.
And the Roman soldiers bring him to the place Golgotha (which means “Place of the skull”). And the soldiers crucify him.
Now some women were observing this from a distance, among whom were Mary of Magdala, and Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome. These women had regularly followed and assisted him when he was in Galilee, along with many other women who had come up to Jerusalem in his company.
Then Jesus breathed his last.— The Gospel of Jesus According to the Jesus Seminar 21:1-12
Today is the beginning of Christianity’s big week, called Holy Week. It begins with a parade and it ends with a resurrection. It is often called passion week alluding to the passion of the Christ, meaning his suffering. The common way of putting it is that Jesus died for your sins. Not only did he die, but he suffered for your sins. The degree of his suffering is directly proportional to how bad you are.
Ten years ago or so Mel Gibson directed a movie called The Passion of the Christ. Mel Gibson must have seen himself as really bad because it is the bloodiest most violent film I have ever seen about Jesus. The special effects were most impressive.
The caption on the film’s promotional material alluded to the film’s theological vision: “Dying was his reason for Living.” It is substitutionary atonement. This vision was invented in the middle ages by a theologian named, Anselm. This vision has been read back into the Bible and it has become the dominant theory for most Christians.
In this vision God is holy and certainly a supernatural being. Human beings because of the sin of Adam and Eve are infected with original sin. Their very existence offends the righteousness of God. Something must be done to satisfy God’s honor. God can’t just forgive it. A judge can’t just forgive the crimes of a convicted criminal. Someone has to pay. Humans have to pay the punishment for this crime of sin but they cannot because they are mere humans. They couldn’t do enough to satisfy this debt. The crime is too big. Only God can pay it. Humans must. Something must be done. There must be blood. God sends Jesus the God-Man to do both jobs, forgive and pay. The amount of his suffering demonstrates the price he paid for us. All we have to do is believe to get our “get out of hell free” card.
Dying was his reason for living.
That is 11th century theology. Perhaps it is time for an upgrade.
When I was a little kid, I was good at religion. I memorized Bible verses, memorized all the books of the Bible in order, and tried many times to read the Bible straight through. It was a tough slog. I usually gave up around Leviticus. Then I felt bad because I was a sinner.
I went forward when I was eight during a revival.
“With your heads bowed and your eyes closed raise your hand if you don’t want to go to hell.”
I didn’t want that action and I went forward and accepted Jesus into my heart. He’s still there. I know that sounds funny coming from me. That is part of my experience and I don’t disown all of it. I don’t know one thing about God. But I do have a heart for Jesus. Jesus meant different things when I was eight than he does now. Jesus is still my connection to the holy.
That feeling of going forward felt good, so I did it a lot. I thought I backslid. I was a heavy duty sinner when I was eight. I had to keep going forward making sure that Jesus would stay in my heart where I put him.
A friend told me a similar thing. He grew up Catholic. He remembers sitting in church and being scolded by his grandmother. He was complaining that church was boring or something. She said, “I’ll bet Jesus wasn’t bored when he died on the cross for you.”
I use that, by the way. When people complain that it is too hot or too cold or that they don’t like the hymns. Yeah, well you know, Jesus didn’t whine when he suffered and died on the cross for you. He never said a mumbalin’ word.
Jokes aside, this theology of Jesus suffering and dying for our sins is less than complete. It is one way to look at it but not by any means the only way or the best way. I don’t think dying was his reason for living. I don’t think a supernatural being, God, who demands blood and suffering to appease his honor is worth believing in. I don’t think that god exists.
I have spent a lifetime, including my career as a minister, trying to understand this Jesus who is in my heart. The journey continues.
I am grateful to teachers in my life who opened my mind to new ways of understanding my heart. Teachers in seminary like Stephen Kraftchick and Mark Taylor and all the people they told me to read like Sallie McFague and Rosemary Radford Reuther. Teachers in the Jesus Seminar like Robert Funk, Marcus Borg, and Dominic Crossan. Teachers who disagreed with the seminar like Bart Ehrman and Paula Fredricksen and others.
They introduced me to a Jesus who was a rabble rouser. They introduced me to a Jesus who cared about life and the people forgotten and left aside. They introduced me to a Jesus who called out the emperor and all the religious authorities and was a threat to them because he announced a different way. They introduced me to a Jesus who loved his enemies. Not the saccharine “bless your heart, I love you and I’ll pray for you” kind of love, but the love that seeks to understand the other as a human being with dignity and worth and a love that seeks to transform relationships from enmity to friendship, cooperation, shared interest, and mutuality. They introduced me to a Jesus who had a passion, not for dying, but for living.
They introduced me to a Jesus who resisted the powers of this world with integrity and who paid the price for it. He didn’t pay the price for our sins. He paid the price for announcing and living a vision of what could be in the face of what was.
He wasn’t alone. Thousands were executed by Rome’s brutality and bullying. We wear crosses like jewelry. But they were instruments of imperial justice or imperial injustice. It would be like wearing a replica of an electric chair or a syringe or a noose around our necks.
I wear this cross around my neck to remind of what side I need to be on. Jesus was executed by established authority in order to keep the peace, to keep Rome’s peace, to keep religious peace, and to the keep the coffers full, the land grabs operational, and the protesters silent.
I wrote that last line about the protesters before our own protesters arrived. That irony has not escaped me! They have their own truth to tell us. One of the signs said, “You still need Jesus.” Well maybe that is true.
(It is fitting to have demonstrators on Palm Sunday. We did have protestors visiting us. Likely in response to our the news about our role in marriage equality and the media response to my post in the Friendly Atheist).
The cross reminds me what it means to have Jesus in my heart, to have a heart for Jesus. I need to be passionate as he was passionate and to act and speak for those for whom he spoke and acted.
Followers of Jesus began to understand this and declared Jesus as lord as part of their confession, as part of what it meant to have Jesus alive in their hearts, which is the meaning of resurrection. They said Jesus is lord as opposed to Caesar is lord to announce what side they needed to be on. Were they to be on the side of Caesar’s peace through violence or on Jesus’s vision of peace through justice?
Then the church married the empire and Jesus became Caesar. I think the church still today wastes so much time professing to believe fantastical claims about Jesus because it simply is too hard to follow him. I get it. It is hard to follow him.
Maybe I should have an altar call and go forward and repent for not caring and acting as I should on behalf of the poor, the homeless, those trapped by our unjust judicial system, and the victims of our military-industrial complex around the globe. It is hard to follow Jesus.
Maybe I don’t want him in my heart. He is too dangerous.
The book that changed my faith was Dominic Crossan’s, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. Crossan is the standard for historical Jesus studies. In his prologue he imagines a conversation with Jesus about his book. It is in the form of a dialogue. Jesus speaks first:
“I’ve read your book, Dominic, and it’s quite good. So now you’re ready to live by my vision and join me in my program?”
“I don’t think I have the courage, Jesus, but I did describe it quite well, didn’t I, and the method was especially good, wasn’t it?”
“Thank you, Dominic, for not falsifying the message to suit your own incapacity. That at least is something.”
“Is it enough, Jesus?”
“No, Dominic, it is not.”
The passion of the Christ is not the victimhood of Jesus alone, certainly not at the hands of a supernatural being. He was a victim. He was a victim among thousands of others in his time and place. He is also a symbol for those who are victims of brutality, violence, and oppression today. Jesus is crucified with the dying.
The passion of Jesus also refers to his passion, to his passionate engagement with the world on behalf of a vision he articulated in his parables and aphorisms. He was passionate about what he called the kingdom of God. This is a kingdom that comes with our participation. Nothing magical, nothing supernatural about it. We can glimpse it. We can see it, now and then.
The kingdom of God is a metaphor, yes, but it is a metaphor for the possibility of a new creation where human beings have turned swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. It is the possibility and the enactment of peace-building rather than war-making. The work we do as a congregation for healing, for reaching out into our community, and for taking unpopular stands for justice is all a part of that.
May this Holy Week, this Passion week stir our hearts and make us passionate for what Jesus was passionate.