John 19:16b-30 | Palm Sunday | March 24, 2013
Today is Palm Sunday. It is also Passion Sunday. It is Palm Sunday when our children wave palm branches and we sing “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna.” It is also the Sunday when we are very mindful of the fact that Jesus is walking into the last week of his earthly life. The week ahead, before we ever get to Easter, holds betrayal, denial, torture, mocking and death.
We started this worship with Jesus entering Jerusalem with shouts of joy. We end this service in the biblical context of these words: Jesus said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and handed over his spirit. If we don’t listen to the biblical story of crucifixion many of us will go from Hosanna to He is Risen. But there is an agonizing time between those two triumphant shouts. It is vitally important that we hear this story because it is the centerpiece of our faith…Jesus, who is crucified.
We enter this painful story today with Jesus carrying his own cross out to Golgotha, the place of the skull…the bone yard. Above him Pilate has a sign placed that reads: The King of the Jews. The soldiers take his clothes and cast lots for them. His mother, his aunt, Mary Magdalene and John stand near by. He places the care of his mother into the hands of his beloved disciple.
Then he says, “I am thirsty.” The one who said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled” is thirsty.
The one who asked the Samaritan woman at the well to get him a drink of water and then spoke of the water he could give her which would cause her to never be thirsty again…this one is thirsty.
The one who said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will not be hungry and the one who believes in me will never be thirsty”….is thirsty.
On the last day of the Festival of the Booths, Jesus stood up and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.” This same man, hanging on the cross, says, “I am thirsty.”
The one who offered living water is thirsty.
The one who said “I am the bread of life” is hungry.
The one who claimed to be the light of the world is fading fast.
The good shepherd is handing over his mother to one of his sheep.
The one who said, “I am the resurrection and the life”, is dying.
It is a sad, sad time. I am not surprised that Jesus is thirsty. He probably hasn’t had anything to drink since breaking the bread and drinking the cup with his disciples at the Last Supper. Since then he has prayed in the garden; been arrested in the night; questioned by Annas, Caiaphas and Pilate; flogged; made to carry his own cross out to Golgotha. Of course, this man is physically thirsty.
But we are told in the Gospel of John that Jesus said “I am thirsty” to fulfill scripture. For centuries people have been looking back for the one scripture that Jesus is talking about. Is it Psalm 22 where the psalmist writes: “My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death”? Or does it come from Psalm 69 that says, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink”?
If we look at Jesus’ words as if he said “I am thirsty” to fulfill a verse of a Psalm written before his time, then we see the crucifixion as a grand play. Jesus knows beforehand exactly what is to happen. He has lines to deliver and he delivers them. He sees the vinegar and he knows what to say.
This view of the crucifixion scripture is accepted by the bulk of Christendom and I think it is a perfectly fine way to read it. I really do. But like most of the Bible, I find layer upon layer of meaning and the more I read it the more I want to.
But if we stop here…if we believe that Jesus says, “I am thirsty” simply as a way to fulfill scripture then Jesus is the savior who paid the price for us and Good Friday is a celebration of our salvation….period. We go from the triumphalism of Palm Sunday to the triumphalism of Good Friday to the triumphalism of Easter.
Having a son who was a cinema major changed the way I watch movies. I thought I had a critical eye before but now I understand that everything has a meaning, from the product placement of a can of Coke to the color of the heroine’s dress to the exact words of the dialog. I find myself asking new questions. “Why did he say it like that?” It is why so many churches across our nation will gather this Friday and have sermon series around the last seven words of Jesus. We know that the Gospel writers were speaking very intentionally when they told us the final words of Jesus.
“I am thirsty,” says the man who said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” “I am thirsty,” says the one who said that what matter is what we do….giving a drink to those that are thirsty.
When you dig a layer deeper than mere triumphalism you will find that this is not just a story that happened a long time ago in a land far away. Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
Sons and daughters of God are killed in every generation. They have been killed in holy wars and inquisitions, concentration camps and prison cells. They have been killed in Cape Town, Memphis, El Salvador and Alabama. The charges against them have run the gamut, but treason and blasphemy have headed the list, just as they did for Jesus. He upset those in charge at the courthouse and the temple. He suggested they were not doing their jobs. He offered himself as a mirror they could see themselves in, and they were so appalled by what they saw that they smashed it. They smashed him, every way they could. Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Perfect Mirror” (Christian Century: March 18-25, 1998), p. 283
This is a story that happens over and over again…every time religion collaborates with law and order…every time our cowardice wins out over the truth we are called to proclaim…every time we refuse to stand up for justice…every time the mirror is held up in front of us and we would rather smash it than look at it. If we see this only as a story from history that saves us, then we miss our own faces in the mirror. If we see this only as a story from history, then we miss Jesus among us now. If we see this as happening a long time ago in a land far away then we do not hear the call to carry our own cross and follow Jesus.
Jesus said, “I am thirsty,” and so they put a sponge of wine on a hyssop branch and held it up to him. He said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and handed over his spirit.
He bowed his head and handed over his spirit. The Greek word for “handed over” is used 32 times in the New Testament to describe what Judas did to Jesus. When the Jewish leaders took Jesus to Pilate they said, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” Then Pilate handed him over to be crucified. Jesus was handed over by his own disciple, by the religious leaders and by Pilate. “Then he bowed his head and handed over his spirit.” Not only was everyone else handing him over, Jesus handed himself over.
Several years ago I traveled to El Salvador to visit Iglesia Bautista Emanuel, the Emanuel Baptist Church of San Salvador. My hosts took me up to the chapel where Archbishop Oscar Romero was serving the mass when he was gunned down through an open door. He was a man who spoke up for justice. He was a man who demanded that the oppression of the people of his country stop. During Lent of 1979 he spoke these words:
To each one of us, Christ is saying:
If you want your life and mission to be fruitful like mine, do as I.
Be converted into a seed that lets itself be buried.
Let yourself be killed.
Do not be afraid.
Those who shun suffering will remain alone.
No one is more alone than the selfish.
But if you give your life out of love for others, as I give mine for all,
You will reap a great harvest.
You will have the deepest satisfactions.
Do not fear death or threats;
The Lord goes with you.
Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988), p. 128
This is hard to hear. It is even hard to read it to you. I understand why it is easier to go from triumphalism to triumphalism to triumphalism….but it isn’t the whole story. I invite you to stop this time and take the full Holy Week journey. Take a look in the mirror? Next to Jesus’ faithfulness, constancy, humility and love what do you see in yourself? Who are you in this journey to the cross? Do you share God’s thirst for righteousness? Are you the person you have been called to be? Can you pick up your cross and follow Jesus?
I am awed by what Jesus did on Good Friday. What brings me to my knees is that God expects me to make the same journey. “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”