by the Rev. Robert J. Whitaker, Ph.D.
Getting Passionate About the Passion
Passion Sunday (March 18), 2018
Today we begin the final two weeks of our Lenten journey with Jesus. Today is called Passion Sunday in the older Anglican Churches such as ours. Some of you may remember the Mel Gibson movie The Passion of the Christ from a few years ago. The word “passion” in reference to Jesus means his suffering—everything leading up to and including his crucifixion.
Passiontide, the two-week season which begins today, focuses on the last days of Jesus’ earthly life. This includes his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane; his betrayal by Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve; his trial by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea; his rejection by the Jerusalem crowd in favor of Barabbas, a common criminal; his humiliation by the Roman soldiers, who spat on him, mocked him, and beat him with a whip containing pieces of bone.
Passiontide also focuses on Jesus’ walk along the road to Calvary, carrying his own cross; his being nailed to the cross; his hanging on the cross for three hours; and, finally, his death. The devotion called Stations of the Cross is a liturgical remembrance of the events that occurred to Jesus on the road to Calvary.
Our two Prayer Book readings for today, Passion Sunday, give what we might call the dual reasons for Jesus’ death on the cross. The Gospel reading, from John 8:46-59, throws light on the human, earthly reason for the death of Christ. In it we hear an ongoing argument between Jesus and those whom John calls “the Jews.” “The Jews” are actually the Jewish religious leaders who were opposed to Jesus and his teaching. And they became convinced that Jesus must die because of his claim to be the Son of God. The breaking point comes when Jesus makes the statement, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.” This phrase “I am” is God’s name in Hebrew, which God revealed to Moses in the burning bush on Mt. Sinai. The Hebrew is similar to “Yahweh” (or “Jehovah”), and in our English Bibles is rendered as “LORD.” For the Jewish leaders opposed to Jesus, his claim of the holy name of God was the last straw. And so they picked up stones to stone him to death, because this is what the Law required for those who commit blasphemy.
Well, if our Gospel reading provides the human reason for Jesus’ death, our Epistle reading, from the 9th chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews (vv. 11-15), supplies what we might call the theological reason for his death. It explains Jesus’ death as a sacrifice that has brought about a new relationship between believers and God. This new relationship, which in Bible terms is called a new covenant, is one in which our sins are forgiven and we are promised eternal life. This eternal life is ours because of our new status as sons and daughters of God. Listen to this passage from Hebrews 9:11-15 in the New Living Translation:
“So Christ has now become the High Priest over all the good things that have come. He has entered that greater, more perfect Tabernacle in heaven, which was not made by human hands and is not part of this created world. With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever. Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a young cow could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. That is why he is the one who mediates a new covenant between God and people, so that all who are called can receive the eternal inheritance God has promised them. For Christ died to set them free from the penalty of the sins they had committed under that first covenant.”
This passage is rich in images and terminology about the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Mediator, redemption, covenant, tabernacle, blood, sacrifice, forgiveness of sins, inheritance, holy place. These terms all refer to the Old Testament Jewish sacrificial system and are completely foreign and fairly incomprehensible to us Gentiles living in the 21st century. The Epistle to the Hebrews was written for Jewish Christians living in the earliest days of the Christian church. It’s intended to show that the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross is superior to and has replaced the Old Testament, Jewish system of animal sacrifices offered at the Temple in Jerusalem.
We are dealing here with that great mystery of our Christian faith called the Atonement. In the beginning, when God created the first human beings, there was the closest of bonds, the most intimate communion and fellowship, between God and humanity. But this original close bond and union was shattered and destroyed by sin. Sin separated and continues to separate us from God. It’s a barrier, a gap, a chasm that no human being can cross. Think of it as like the speed of light, which is an absolute constraint in the physical universe. No one can transcend the speed of light. Or like gravity. No one can break the law of gravity. In order for that intimate bond between God and man to be restored, something extraordinary had to happen. In the OT God provided exact and detailed instructions for how sins were to be atoned for. It was only on one day of the year, the Day of Atonement, and only Aaron (or the high priest) who could offer a sacrifice, an atonement for sins, that would re-establish the relationship between God and his people. And to do so, the high priest had to put on special vestments: a linen tunic, linen undergarments, a linen sash, and a linen turban. He also had to have some very special equipment to make this sacrifice: a bull for a sin offering, a ram for a burnt offering, and two goats. One goat was sacrificed, and the other became the scapegoat. He would lay both his hands on the head of the scapegoat, confess all the sins of the Israelites, and then drive the scapegoat into the wilderness. He also had to burn incense so that a cloud of incense covered the mercy seat on the ark of the testimony. He had to take some of the blood of the bull and with his finger sprinkle it on the side and the front of the mercy seat. He had to do the same thing with the blood from the sacrificed goat. The blood of the bull was for his sins; the blood of the goat was for the people’s sins. Then he would go out to the altar and sprinkle the blood of the bull and of the goat on the horns of the altar and on all sides of it.
And the thing of it is, the only sins that all this special sacrifice would atone for were ritual impurities and violations of the kosher food laws. For actual sins like lying, adultery, or idolatry (any breaking of the Ten Commandments), there was no atonement.
Beloved in Christ, the tremendous good news of the Gospel is that Jesus has completely accomplished the work of our atonement. His sacrificial life of total obedience to the Father and his free and voluntary offering of himself to die on the cross have completed and totally wiped away our sins. Thus, sin is no longer a barrier between us and God. When God looks at Christian believers, he sees Jesus. This is what makes possible our reconnection with God. Butfor this to take place for each one of us, we must have faith in Jesus the Messiah. We must accept him as our Lord and Savior.
There is nothing whatsoever you and I can do to add to or take away from the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. As our Prayer Book so rightly says, the death that Jesus suffered upon the cross for our redemption was “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” All we need do—all we can ever do—is to accept this sacrifice—this supreme, costly, and perfect offering that Jesus made for us on the cross at Calvary. This acceptance is what the Bible calls faith.
So, today I call upon each and every one of us here to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. Believe in Jesus and Jesus alone as the one who has accomplished our salvation and restored us to a perfect relationship with God. I think the words of the old hymn “Rock of Ages” say this so well:
Should my tears for ever flow, Should my zeal no languor know, All for sin could not atone:
Thou must save, and thou alone. In my hand no price I bring, Simply to thy cross I cling.
So let’s cling to the cross of Jesus. Let’s rejoice in the tremendous work that Christ has done for you and for me. And let’s be ready and willing to share this good news with our friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, and any others whom God brings into our lives.