Community Christian Church of Springfield

4806 E. Cherry
Springfield, MO 65809
(417) 877-7821 


The Passion Story We Live

Easter Sunday,  April 5, 2015
Community Christian Church of Springfield
Roger Ray, pastor

When you turn on your TV at night, you know that if you watch a sci-fi movie like the X-Men, or the Avengers, or Star Wars, that these movies contain no history and do not portray anything that ever has or ever will happen.

But if you watch House of Cards, or Newsroom, or West Wing, you know that though most of the main characters are fictitious, the story lines do often deal with real historical events and people and that these shows, though fundamentally a fictional account, may help us to understand the nuances of real events.

And, if you turn on the news, most of you know that what you will see is a corporate sanitized version of the least relevant things that happened that day, used to keep you from knowing anything about real events. .... Or maybe that's just me.

No one could understand Star Wars if you watched it thinking that it was a documentary or a news show.  You have to understand the genre you are watching to grasp the message.

This is nowhere more true than in trying to understand the Bible.  Those who insist upon reading the Bible literally, or who insist that every part of it is historical, will never understand what they are reading.  The gospels are not recording history or trying to give an "eye witness" account.

The gospels are religious literature.  In a very real way, they are sermons to be heard in the early church.  Bishop Spong says that we have to read them as if they are liturgy and not as history or we will remain forever deaf to their message.

Today we are recounting the passion narrative through the brilliant music of Jesus Christ Superstar, which is based on the gospel of Matthew, which was based on the gospel of Mark, which was, and here is the important point, loosely based on the events surrounding the death of Jesus.

Fifty years after Jesus was executed, Mark fleshed out the bare bones of the church's story in a dramatic narrative that is, we believe, set in the historical location:  Jerusalem.  And it includes certain historical figures:  Jesus, Pilate, and Peter.  The gospels contain the names of some of the priestly figures of the period though they play fast and loose with the details.  Mary Magdalene may have been a historical character but scholars are uncertain.

What may surprise you is that scholars generally agree that Judas and Joseph and Barabbas are all literary creations.

Paul, the first New Testament writer who mentions the execution of Jesus and the people around him does say that Jesus was betrayed but he does not indicate that it was one of the twelve apostles who did it.  In fact, twenty years later, Paul still refers to the "12" as if he has never heard of Judas or of Judas' suicide.

The name, "Judas" is simply a Greek spelling of "Judah."  Judas is a symbolic character who represents all of the Jewish people.  His full name in the gospels, "Judas Iscariot", is even more symbolic since "Iscariot" means "assassin."

By the time Matthew is writing, the Jewish temple has been destroyed and most of the Jews in Palestine have been killed.  The Christian religion is trying to put some distance between itself and Judaism because Christianity is spreading through the Roman Empire and though the Christian faith is, at its root, a Jewish reform movement, the gospel writers wanted to shift blame for the death of Jesus from the Empire and onto the plate of the Jews.

Rome didn't execute preachers for teaching love, healing people, performing miracles and upsetting local religious leaders.  Rome killed people who threatened the goals of the empire.  There is no doubt that Jesus and his followers were in tension with the Jerusalem priesthood but we should not believe that the priests turned Jesus over to Pilate to be killed.  Pilate wasn't the sort to do the bidding of the priests, actually, it was very much the other way around.

Matthew, deeply imprinted by the Jewish scriptures, especially Psalm 22 and the Suffering Servant songs of Isaiah, edited Mark's version of the passion to include multiple elements of Jewish heritage and scripture that are invisible to our eyes or are, typically, not especially relevant to us.

Though the gospels are not concerned with the details of history and, in fact, they take some liberties with the facts to protect the early church from the ire of Rome, they are, none-the-less, brilliant.

Historically speaking, I don't know if Jesus expected to die when he took his movement to Jerusalem but he certainly had to know that he was placing himself in grave danger.  Just as every time Gandhi or Martin Luther King knelt down in prayer while taking a beating from a policeman's club, they didn't know if they were going to die that day or not.  They didn't know if they would be killed by the government or by one of their own people.

Thomas Merton didn't know if his war protests would get him killed or jusr reviled by Catholic conservatives.  Oscar Romero didn't know if he would survive any one of his imprisonments, nor did Dorothy Day.  Romero was killed by an assassin trained at Ft Bennings, GA.  Gandhi was killed by an assassin, as was King.  Day managed to survive into her elder years and died naturally after suffering a lifetime of abuse. Thomas Merton died in what was made to look like an accidental death though many continue to speculate that it was a CIA execution.... I used to think that was silly, until I learned a bit more about covert government actions.

In the end, the story is a story about martyrdom.  It is about being willing to pour out your life for a message of liberation, of love, of defiance of authority, and to compassionately give voice to the voiceless who suffer oppression.  In that sense, the Jesus story is the story of Gandhi, King, Romero, Merton and a whole cloud of saints who were killed in the service of the greater good....
And it is the story of Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa and countless others who were not murdered but who gave their lives, one day at a time, in the pathway of radical compassion, placing their lives at risk and sacrificing the comforts we take for granted.

Like Jesus, each of these examples of faith were betrayed by false friends, used by others, and they have all been exploited by insincere religious institutions.

We divide up the parts each year when we do the music from Superstar.  My friend Paul, sings the Jesus parts, Sean sings Judas, others are Mary, Herod, Pilate, Simon... but in the real world, we too play a part in the passion narrative we know all too well and we are not assigned parts.  We get to choose a part.

You can choose to betray a friend.  You can choose to side with power, the power of the state or the power of the marketplace or even the power of the church.  Or you can choose to live compassionately, which almost always means that you will have to live sacrificially and try to survive betrayal and corruption.

The Easter resurrection of Jesus is not, in my opinion and in the consensus of Biblical scholarship, a literal account of a man who was dead being brought back to life.  The resurrection is a metaphor about courage, determination, faithfulness.... The willingness to, even when you have been defeated, to try again.  The choice to live for a reason even if that reason will involve pain and sacrifice.

In real life we may not get just one role.  We may have made a bad choice at several junctures of our life's story but this story invites us to choose again and to choose better this time.

Free yourself from fear of the power of the state.  Refuse to be imprisoned by the guilt of institutional religion.  Do not be enslaved by the desire for money or security.  Live large, love generously, forgive without limits, do not be defeated by false friends, not divorce, cancer or bankruptcy.... Re renewed in the resurrection of your own life by your own choice.  Christ is risen but Christ is only risen in you!

Roger L. Ray, D.Min. 

Community Christian Church
4806 E. Cherry Springfield, MO 65809
(417) 877-7821

"I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up." (Martin Luther King, Jr. - Nobel Speech)
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