The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ


Seriously, don’t see this movie

Have you ever wondered why we call the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, torture, crucifixion, and death his “passion”?  You haven’t?  Oh, well then, you can probably skip today’s post.  I know I have, and since it has been a while since we’ve had a patented Steve-Pankey-Speaks-From-Ignorance-Etymological-Study, let’s dive in.

Passion comes from the Latin word pati which means “to suffer.”  According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the transition to mean “strong emotion or desire” didn’t occur until the late 14th century, but it seems to be the definition of preference some 700 years later.  While it seems clear that originally, the title of Passion was used because of the suffering Jesus endured during those 18 or so hours, I’m intrigued by the double meaning the newer understanding of passion gives us.

The way Mark tells the story, it doesn’t seem as though Jesus has a whole lot of agency in the crucifixion.  Other gospel writers spin the story differently, but in Mark, we hear Jesus praying to Abba that the cup from which he is to drink might be removed from his lips.  There is no sparring with Pilate over who is in control of the situation, like we hear in John.  And at the end, as Jesus cries out, it isn’t a word of completion, “It is finished,” but a cry of dereliction, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” that emanates forth.  It would seem for Mark that the passion of our Lord is only about the suffering.

And yet, there are glimpses of Jesus’ deepest desires.  As the unnamed woman anoints him for his death, Jesus praises her for “doing what she can” before his death.  As Judas approaches with a cohort of Roman soldiers, it is Jesus who walks towards them, offering himself freely.  When the Council can’t find two stories that match, it is Jesus’ own confession of I am, “ego emi,” that seals his fate.  Through it all, it seems clear that Jesus could have stopped it from happening, but he chose to see it to the end, so that the world, through him, might be saved.

“The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve,” is the key verse to understanding Mark’s Gospel.  It is also key to understanding Mark’s version of the Passion.  In everything that happened that week, Jesus is serving the larger goal of inaugurating the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.  That was his passion, his strongest desire, and that passion led him to the Passion, his suffering for the salvation of the world.

I love/hate Palm Sunday

Technical difficulties means this sermon did not get recorded, but you can read it below.

I have a love/hate relationship with The Sunday of the Passion – colon – Palm Sunday.  The love part of that relationship is relatively new.  There were years, many in fact, when I absolutely abhorred Palm Sunday: so much so, that I convinced my Rector in Foley that we should change things up.  For a few years, we didn’t read the Passion narrative at all on Palm Sunday.  For several more, we read it only after the service was over and we had processed back outside where everything started.  As it is written in the Prayer Book, the service felt too disjointed, bipolar almost, and I couldn’t bring myself to like it.  On top of that, it seemed like it gave people an out.  As if the church was willing to say, “We know that you won’t be here for the rest of Holy Week so here’s the Passion narrative so that at least you can hear it before you show back up on Easter.”  As I went digging for historical data to support my personal liturgical opinions, I came to realize that this was not actually what was happening on The Sunday of the Passion – colon – Palm Sunday.  What I found is that the reading of the Passion on the Sunday before Easter has been a part of our Common Prayer since the first Prayer Book in 1549.  I was forced, at last, to come to terms with the discomfort that comes with the whiplash of hearing shouts of “hosanna” one minute and “crucify him” the next.  This day, like the week it begins, is all about the extremes.

That first Palm Sunday, scholars will tell us[1], had its own whiplash effect.  On one side of Jerusalem, there was the parade that Matthew recounts in his Gospel.  Jesus came from the East, down the Mount of Olives, riding on the back of a lowly donkey.  The crowd that lined the streets was made up of the poor and the powerless.  They threw down at Jesus’ feet whatever they could find: some laid their cloaks on the ground, while others cut branches from nearby trees.  The palm fronds would have reminded the crowd of the Festival of the Tabernacles, which like the Passover, was a reminder of God saving them from Egypt and sustaining them in the Wilderness on their way to the Land of Promise.  They shouted out “hosanna” which means something like, “God save us!”  They associated Jesus with salvation, and they welcomed him as their king.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Pilate was entering the city riding on the back of a powerful warhorse.  Surrounded by chariots and armies of men, the crowds on the western edge of town praised Caesar as a king and a god, and celebrated the Pax Romana, the peace that came as the result of the mighty power of Rome.  These competing parades and the whiplash they created among the faithful in Jerusalem would mark the beginning of the end for Jesus.  Pilate left his beachside villa this week every year.  He came to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover to make sure nobody got any ideas about recreating the Exodus.  No Messiah figure was going to raise up an army.  No revolution was coming on Pilate’s watch.  And yet, there was already an uprising brewing.  It wouldn’t look like an army and power and might, but one does not parade into Jerusalem during Passover week without raising the ire of the powers-that-be.  So it was that throughout the week, Jesus found himself more and more at odds with the religio-political system such that, by Thursday evening, in the Garden of Gethsemane, it all came to a head.

What I’ve learned over the past few years is this.  Just as you can’t have the resurrection on Easter without the cross on Good Friday, you can’t fully experience the Passion narrative without the rest of Holy Week. We need the story of the Palm Sunday parade.  We need to hear the turning of the tables.  We need to feel the heat being turned up as day after day, Jesus returned to the Temple and challenged, head on, the brokenness of the system.  If Jesus just stumbles his way to the cross, we miss part of what the Passion is all about.  God had sent his Son to call the world back into right relationship, beginning with the Jews.  Through his Son, God invited the humanity he created to give up their idols of power, money, and prestige, and worship God alone.  Through his Son, God invites us to care for our neighbor.  Through his Son, God showed his judgment upon a world that had forgotten his commandments.  The poor were getting poorer as the rich got richer upon their backs, and like the prophets before him, Jesus came to show in his life that God desired something different.

And the like the prophets before him, Jesus died as a result.  The powers-that-be don’t take too kindly to the sort of in-your-face challenges that Jesus brought them during this most holy week.  The parade, the tirade, the teaching, and the growing crowd meant that Jesus had to go, and death on the cross was the best way to make sure something like this never happened again.  Throughout the course of this week, I hope you will take the time to hear the stories, to feel the tension, and to give thanks for the faithfulness of Jesus who, despite knowing what was to come, was willing to continue to take a stand for the will of God: to side with the powerless and the poor; to challenge the authority of Rome; to confront the teaching of the Temple; and to ultimately say, “Father, your will be done.”  This is a week of extremes: of highs and lows; of joys and sorrows, but it only works if we are willing to accept it all.  Walk in the way of his suffering and live in the tension his judgment, so that you can properly prepare to share the joy of his resurrection.  Amen.

[1] See, for example, Borg and Crossan, The Last Week p. 2ff.

We are They – a sermon

My Palm Sunday sermon is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

They are powerful and influential people.  They maintain that power and influence even though nobody really knows who they are.  They say it is going to rain, and so we throw an umbrella in the car.  They say that eggs are bad for us, so we quit eating them.  Two years later, they say that eggs are good for us, and so we start buying them again.  More recently, they’ve had the most exciting news yet, they now say that a glass of red wine is as good for our hearts as an hour at the gym.  They aren’t always right, and yet, whoever they might be, when they speak, people listen.

Jesus knew this reality all too well, for they had accused him of all sorts of things.  They said he was a blasphemer, placing himself on par with the Lord God.  They claimed that he was leading an insurrection against Rome.  They told Pilate that he alleged to be the King of the Jews.  When Pilate couldn’t find any reason to execute him, they fought back.  They cried out for Jesus to be crucified while Barabbas, a murder, was set free.  They dragged him through the streets of Jerusalem.  They cheered as he was nailed to a cross.  They derided him as he hung there and died.  Yet in the midst of all of that, even as he was suffering through extreme pain and suffocating agony, Jesus still had compassion on them.  “Father forgive them,” Jesus said surveying the angry mob that was gathered around him, “For they know not what they do.”

They are powerful and influential people, and as the story of Jesus’ crucifixion played out, they wielded every bit of power and influence they could, but Jesus had mercy upon them.  As this Holy Week unfolds before us, it would be easy to condemn them for what they did.  The Gospel stories were written in a time when the struggle between the Jewish community and the fledgling church were bitter and raw, and because of that they are full of anti-Semitic rhetoric meant to make sure that we know what they did. The hard truth is that from time to time, all of us are a part of them.  We are they, even though we really don’t want to be.

They dehumanized Jesus by turning him into a laughing stock.  They blindfolded him, beat him, and laughed as they asked, “Prophesy! Who struck you?”  They cloaked him in a purple robe and crowned him with a crown of thorns, mocking him and shouting “Hail, King of the Jews!”  They stripped him naked and hanged him high on a cross for all the world to see.  The ridiculed him, asking where his Father was to save him; scoffing at how he had saved many others, but he couldn’t manage to save himself.

As much as we’d like to believe we wouldn’t have taken part in that sort of dehumanizing behavior, we continue to do so in ways that are both intentional and unintentional.  Every time we look with disdain upon the mother using a WIC check to buy milk for her children, we are they.  Every time we clutch our purse a little tighter when a black man walks by, we are they.  Every time we feel that twinge of anxiety when an Arab looking couple gets on our airplane, we are they.  Every time we share a politically incendiary, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, or anti-Muslim thought on Facebook, by email, or even over drinks with friends, we are they.  Every time we fail to see Christ in the other, we are they.  Yet even as we engage in these dehumanizing activities, Jesus looks at the angry mob around him and has compassion on us saying, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

They are powerful and influential people, but the love of God is stronger still.  The compassion of Jesus from the cross is more powerful and more influential than any angry mob, any dehumanizing behavior, and group of they or we.  As we walk the Way of the Cross this week, I pray that you might take the time to meditate on two truths.  First, because we are they who mock, ridicule, and dehumanize the Son of God, we are in desperate need of a savior.  And second, through his compassionate word of forgiveness from the cross, Jesus is precisely that savior that we so desperately need.  By taking the time to contemplate these realities, the Way of the Cross can become for each of us the way of life and peace.  We are they: powerful and full of influence; but the compassion of God is stronger, the forgiveness of God is stronger, the love of God is stronger than the worst parts of us.  Amen.

Finding Sabbath


The spices sit waiting

“On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.”

The final line in the longer version of Luke’s Passion Gospel might not be the most important one, but it certainly shouldn’t be overlooked. Luke’s Passion is a story of nonstop action from the time Jesus sat down at dinner with his disciples until Joseph laid Jesus’ body in the tomb and the women set out to prepare spices.  There is frantic dialogue, character development, anxiety to the point of sweating blood, fear, anger, tears, and unspeakable violence in this story.  And then it stops.

The disciples are off hiding somewhere.  The spices sit waiting.  Joseph wonders how the Council will respond to his actions.  The women rested, according to the commandment.  As the busyness of Holy Week looms large, the word I’m hearing loud and clear this day is to not forget the importance of following God’s commandment and resting on the Sabbath.

There are sermons to write, bulletins to print, decisions to be made, logistics to logic, but God says that all that can wait for a moment while we all sit and rest in God’s loving embrace.  The next 10 days are a marathon, not a sprint, and if my super-star runner of a wife has taught me anything in her training, the key to a successful long run is teaching yourself to start slow.  Negative splits are the best assurance of a good finish.  So that’s what I plan to do.  Tomorrow will be Sabbath: a quiet, rainy day of rest and reflection before the insanity of 15 services in 9 days begins.  I pray you’ll find some Sabbath time too, dear reader.  God knows, we’ll all be better off if we do.

Entering into Passiontide

I am something of an anomaly in the Episcopal Church: a low-church liturgy wonk.  In fact, it is from my deep appreciation for the liturgy as it has been inherited and reformatted into the Book of Common Prayer (1979), that I draw my lower-than-most understanding of the Sacraments and sacramental acts.  It is from my interpretation of Thomas Cranmer’s evangelical zeal, that I find the space to experiment liturgically in the hopes of meeting the needs of a rapidly changing culture.  As usual, however, I’ve digressed.  As a liturgy wonk, I fell like I have a pretty good handle on most of the slang that get used by my brothers and sisters who are more fond of liturgical haberdashery than I, but yesterday, my high-church trained, but growing lower everyday Rector dropped a word that if I had ever heard before, I’d not paid much attention to: Passiontide, which makes up the last two weeks of Lent.2015-04-03 17.54.16-1

Passiontide rose to glory in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, which was the first Book to have the carry the title, beginning on Lent 5, even though the Passion Gospel was not read until Palm Sunday.  (To be fair, the appointed lesson, John 8:46-59 does tend to highlightthe passion of Jesus, which ultimately led to his Passion.) By the time of the 1979 revision, the term had fallen out of favor, even with the Roman Catholics, and it no longer appears in our text, but for preachers, the reality is that this penultimate week of Lent is our Passion Week.  By the time Monday in Holy Week rolls around, there won’t be much time to meditate on the suffering of our Lord, and come the middle of the week, if you’re anything like me, and I know most of you aren’t, you’ll have to skip ahead and write an Easter sermon full of Alleluias before Jesus has even washed his disciples feet.

As we prepare to read and preach on the Passion of our Lord according to Luke, it might be helpful to live into Passiontide.  Take some time to meditate on the narrative.  Maybe walk the stations.  Spend this week immersed in the Passion of Jesus, as you prepare to share the Good News of God’s self-giving love for all flesh.  As you do so, if you are in the Episcopal Church, you’ll note that choice must be made.  Will you read the Passion beginning with the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:14-23:56) or will you choose the shorter version, which skips both the Garden and Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:1-49)? This low-church liturgy wonk will be doing neither, choosing to use the rubric on page 888 and lengthening the shorter option to include both the Garden scene and Jesus’ burial (Luke 22:39-23:56).  Whatever option you choose, I pray that as you get a head start on walking the way of the cross this Passiontide, it might be for you the very way of life and peace through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday – So Which is It?

For regular readers of this blog, this post will be nothing new, but the truth of the matter is that I’m not a big fan of the mash-up of Palm and Passion Sundays.  I’ve written about this ad nauseam: having posted on this issue in at least 2008, 2009, 2012, and 2013.  My liturgy professors last summer, The Very Right Reverend Doctor Alexander (is that the title of a PhD retired bishop who is now dean of a seminary?) and The Reverend Canon Doctor Turrell, were adamant that the disjointed nature of the Palm Sunday liturgy, that we move from waving palms and shouting “hosanna!” to crying out “crucify him!” in a matter of minutes is the only proper way to celebrate this particular special day, but to be honest, I still don’t buy it.  Here’s why.

The Church has become fatalistic.  Because we don’t believe that people will come during Holy Week, we make provisions to enable them to not miss anything.  In so doing we perpetuate the problem by a) assuming they won’t come, b) enabling that behavior, c) skip a bunch of holy and good stuff in the name of “they would have missed it anyway.”  I’ve decided recently, however, that I’m not concerned with those who, for various reasons both good and contrived, won’t make it to services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  My level of discomfort with them missing the Passion Narratives is waning as I become more and more interested in the experience of 25+/- disciples who will walk the way of the cross, the way of life and peace, with us every day from Palm Sunday until Easter Day.  I’m excited about offering those who desire it a full immersion into Jesus’ final week.  I want to be with them at about 12:30 on Good Friday when we stand at those haunting words, “when they reached the place called ‘the skull.'”

To me, the answer to the question posed in the title of this post is simple.  It is Palm Sunday, the first day of a Holy Week, the Holy Week.  It is about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and Pilate is making his royal entrance across town.  It is about cries of “hosanna” which means “Lord save us,” from a crowd of people who desire God’s real presence in their lives.  It is about the whole city of Jerusalem boiling over with turmoil at the sight of Jesus riding on the foal of a donkey.

This isn’t to say we won’t read the Passion this Sunday.  I’m coming around the truth that as an ordained clergyman in The Episcopal church, I can’t just skip it because I don’t like it, but I’ll be darned if you’re going to hear about it on this blog or in my sermon this week.  Nope, this week is about Palms, the Passion is important enough to have its own day.