Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Passion of the Christ

A Short Homily on the day of the Performance of the Havant Passion Play

Reading:  John 6.51-58

I wonder how many of you saw yesterday’s production of the Havant Passion, in the park.  If you missed it, there is another opportunity this afternoon at 3pm.

I also wonder how many of you have dared to sit through Mel Gibson’s 2007 film, ‘The Passion of the Christ’.  Gibson went to great lengths to make his telling of the Passion as authentic as possible (at least as far as he could tell).  The result, I have to warn you, is rather shocking.  Hollywood must have got through a lot of bottles of tomato ketchup in the making of that film!

The challenge of the Passion Story is of course to get a mental grip on what the suffering and death of Jesus really meant.  Jesus’ death has held a variety of powerful meanings for Christians – and in theological circles, it remains a topic of hot debate.  Here are just three of the main focuses for that debate…

Sacrifice for Sin:  Many Christians believe that human wrong-doing (sin) makes it impossible to be with God (the source of all purity and love).  Such sin can, however, be wiped away through the payment of a death penalty.  By dying in our place Jesus ‘paid the price’ and opened the way for us to be forgiven and restored as children of God.  This, many believe, is how Jesus ‘saves’ us from ourselves, our human folly, and even from Hell.

Redemption: Some Christians believe that our sins effectively make us slaves of the Devil or Satan (though others use the Devil only as a metaphor for sin).  Through his death, Jesus ‘redeemed’ us (like redeeming a hostage from a kidnapper) by paying the Devil a ‘redemption’ in the form of his own blood.  “O Perfect redemption, the purchase of God…”

The Great Example:  Jesus was willing to be executed by the violent forces of power and  influence of his day (the Roman authorities, and the religious leaders).  He did this, many believe, to demonstrate powerfully what happens when violent power, bad politics and human greed are allowed to control society.  The weak and defenceless are left to die, and God gets pushed out to the margins of society.

Christians have debated these (and other, still deeper) interpretations for centuries. New meanings of ‘The Cross’ are always waiting to be discovered.  It fascinates me, however, that Jesus himself said very little about the actual meaning of his death.  Nowhere in the Gospels does is he recorded as giving the kind of clear theological and intellectual meaning that we humans crave.  According to the Gospels, Jesus talked about his blood as ‘poured out for the sins of many’ (which points to the idea of sacrifice) and as the ‘wine of the new covenant’ (which implies that his blood is the seal of a new contract between humans and God).  But Jesus doesn’t get any more specific than that.  “Do this,” he says, “in memory of me – as often as you eat it”.

So, in Jesus’ words, as with so much of his teaching, there are quite deliberate layers upon layers of meaning.  As we see in today’s Gospel, those who heard him speak were just as perplexed.  ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ asked the Jews…clearly failing to understand the way that Jesus spoke in metaphors.

I have personally struggled with the meaning of Jesus’ passion for many years.  I’ve read hundreds of different theologians’ take on it.  I could lecture you for hours on the deeper possible layers of meaning that his passionate act of Sacrifice has for so many different people!  But I won’t.  There isn’t time today!

Instead, let me offer you this thought.  Following Jesus is not so much about precisely what you believe, but about how you follow Jesus.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus didn’t tell his followers exactly what to believe about his flesh that they were supposed to eat, or his blood that they were supposed to drink.  Rather, he simply says ‘eat’ and ‘drink’.  It’s a little bit like a parent who says to their child…”do as I say.  Don’t ask why.  Just do it!”.

Following Jesus is an act of faith, not an act of belief.  We can choose to believe all sorts of theological theories about Jesus.  But at the end of the day, Jesus calls out ‘Follow Me’.  Have faith in me. Live as I call you to live.  Live openly & generously.  Give freely, and you will receive.  Give up your life, and you will have life.  Love God and love your neighbour as yourself.  That’s the key, that’s the heart of it.

Don’t get hung up on the theological niceties…but rather, as the old hymn says:  Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey.


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