This year, like every year, our Palm & Passion Sunday Lectionary lesson runs three chapters long. Most of us read the Bible, like no other book. We read verse by verse, parable by parable, story to story, pausing every few verses to ask God to speak to us from the Text. So in Mark’s eleventh chapter, we might seek life lessons in the seven verses describing how the disciples fetched “an unridden colt” for Palm Sunday. We might prayerfully ponder how to apply the Palm Sunday chant: “blessed be God’s coming kingdom?” Without linking the “coming kin-dom” chant to the next lesson we might wonder why Jesus flipped over the Money exchange tables. We might skip altogether Jesus cursing a fig tree or wonder if this story speaks to Jesus’ Holy Week stress or Christ’s humanity? Have you heard a sermon about Jesus debating “authority” with the chief priests, legal experts, and elders? Maybe we should explore that as church leaders argue over Biblical “authority” today. How do the unridden colt, coming kin-dom parade, temple protests, cursed fig trees and arguments over “authority” fit into one story?
Deep reverence likely leads us to read verse by verse, story by story, parable by parable; but the practice allows us to cut and paste Bible verses to reinforce what we already believe. From seventh grade until college, I read my Bible for 30 minutes every day: verse by verse! I was in seminary before I realized John’s Gospel revolves around seven “I Am” statements that shimmer like stained glass icons: “I am: the light of the world” or “I am the good shepherd”. Missing John’s iconic artistry is not such a big deal, but our verse by verse approach often keeps us from catching the Gospel’s deeper themes of free healthcare, feeding people, forgiving, taking authority, building God’s kin-dom on earth, or the growing opposition to Christ’s kin-dom. Our verse by verse, story by story, parable by parable pattern tends to spiritualize, personalize, and individualize our faith. It lets us drift into an otherworldly and personal faith, despite Jesus instructing us to pray: “Your will be done, lord, Your Kin-dom come… on earth as in heaven.” Jesus’ Greatest Commandments are not about Heaven or personal faith, but tell us how to treat others on earth: “Love your neighbor as yourself, welcome strangers, forgive enemies, make peace, feed hungry people, and provide healthcare.”
Nowhere is our otherworldly focus more apparent than during Holy Week. Reading verse by verse we miss Mark’s unfolding conflict plot line that ends at the Cross. Immersed in our personalized faith, we miss how Jesus’ kin-dom challenges unjust systems and unyielding hearts. We struggle to understand how our lovely Jesus made enemies. Missing Palm Sunday’s “coming kin-dom” chant we wonder why Jesus shuts down the temple by releasing the temple livestock and flipping over the moneychanger’s tables. Our communion liturgy sums up the Gospel’s flow better than other creeds: “Lord, Your Spirit anointed Jesus to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to announce that the time had come when you would save your people. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners… You promised to be with us always, in the power of your Word and Holy Spirit.” That is a creed that makes enemies with the status quo.
So let us pull back and look at the bigger picture. Let’s examine the conflict arc in Mark’s Gospel. The conflict arc may help us understand how good people may come to oppose Jesus.
In Mark One, Jesus launches the Gospel declaring: “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom!” (1:15) We can’t understand Jesus apart from the Kin-dom of God.
Jesus’ trouble with church elders and Bible experts begins in Chapter 2. They attack Jesus for claiming authority to forgive sins on earth! They wail: “you are insulting God. Only God can forgive sins.” In Matthew 16:19 & 18:18 Jesus gives this same authority and power to us. Even today, Jesus’ opponents don’t understand “why Jesus’ people dine with sinners!”! They still get angry when Jesus’ followers break church rules!
By chapter 3, “they are (already) watching Jesus” and making unholy alliances with King Herod’s people. They bring in bible experts from the Home office, who argue with Jesus about “authority.” They say Jesus’ authority comes from the devil. Jesus grows angry and grieves “at their unyielding hearts” and declares “I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind” except for insulting the Holy Spirit.
By chapter 7, the legalist and Bible experts encircle Jesus attacking the disciples for “not living according to the rules.” Jesus fires back quoting Isaiah, you “people honor God with your lips, but your hearts are far away…”
In chapter 8, the Gospel pivots toward the Cross. Jesus warns: “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod.”. And began to teach that: “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.” Peter argues for us: Lord, righteous folks like you must not suffer!
In chapter 11, Jesus leads a temple protest flipping over the exchange tables and shouting “God’s house must be a house of prayer for all people!” Christ’s critics demand: “What authority do you have to do these things? Who gave you this authority?”
By Chapter 12, the unholy coalition of bible experts and King Herod’s people reach out to their theological arch enemies the Sadducees. Jesus warns: “Watch out for preachers who like to walk around in long robes or skinny jeans and Yeezys. It’s a show! They will be judged most harshly.” In Chapter 13, Jesus warns that we will be handed over to church councils and stand before civil authority. In Chapter 14, the chief priests and legal experts plot “cunning tricks” to arrest and kill Jesus, but want to make sure not to make a big scene.
In Chapter 15, perhaps our verse by verse, person by person, personalized faith leads us to linger longer over Judas’ kiss than the systems that “delighted” to come together to crucify Christ. We blame Peter, who is brave enough to sit around a campfire with the guards, but whose courage falters under questioning. We blame individuals instead of noticing that Jesus’ trial was filled with prosecutorial misconduct and false testimonies. We heap scorn on the mob yelling “crucify him” instead of the Bible experts and leading preachers who stir up the crowd, but slip stay safely away, but nevertheless “were making fun of Jesus’ suffering and death among themselves.” Where is our outrage at systemic injustice or preachers who delight in anyone’s suffering? At times the church has fallen into the terrible sin of anti-Semitism instead of asking: could that be us joking about another’s suffering, conducting unjust trials, or clinging to the status quo with unyielding hearts?
At the Cross, Jesus’ coming kin-dom collides with individual and systemic evil. Our story does not end there. Even before Easter, on that terrible Friday, Mark’s passion ends with signs of hope. There is hope, not just one day in heaven, but on earth even on Good Friday.
At the foot of the cross, a Roman Centurion, the defining symbol of systemic injustice and oppression stands guard. The soldier is there to keep Rome’s subjects under control, to oversee the state sponsored killing, and control the angry mob; but perhaps also to make space for Jesus’ mourners. When that Roman Official “sees how Jesus died”, the soldier makes a kind of confession of faith, “This (Human One) was certainly God’s Child.”
“Many women were watching Jesus crucifixion from a distance, including Magdalene, Mary, Joses, and Salome.” They had followed Jesus since Galilee, marched on Jerusalem and supported the kin-dom with their prayers, presence, and pocketbooks. On Easter Magdalene, Mary, and Salome would be commissioned as the first Christian preachers proclaiming the Gospel that: Christ is risen. Go, tell the other disciples, especially Peter, that Jesus is risen and is going ahead of us … You will see Christ (out) there (ahead of us all)! Good Friday ends with Magdalene and Mary keeping watch.
There is one more sign of Good Friday hope. It might come as a warning to us when we are ready to give up on the church. Mark’s passion story ends with Joseph from Arimathea, “a prominent church council member, who also eagerly anticipated the coming of God’s kingdom, dared to approach Pilate and ask for Jesus’ body”. Wait, who? What? A prominent member of the very council that voted to crucify Jesus will tenderly lay Jesus’ body in his own family mausoleum. Ponder that icon. Why did Mark include “dare”? Would Pilate begin to carefully watch Joseph now? Would the council members encircle Joseph with judgment, suspension and rage? Is there hope for any of us, who have casted a vote we later regretted or stood silently by when oppressors did harm? How deep and wide is the Forgiveness of God? How long will we underestimate the power of Love (even Love Crucified) to transform us, to heal and restore us, even when we are the enemies of God? Let us not let go of that Good Friday hope. Let us keep loving, praying, and serving so that God’s kingdom may come on earth as in heaven.