Sermon at Bethel College Mennonite Church, North Newton, Kansas, March 28, 2004. Texts: Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8.
As we continue to move through Lent and Easter, the seasons of the church year in which we remember the passion and resurrection of Christ, there has been another quasi-liturgical event occurring in the popular and religious culture around us - that is, the Passion of Christ according to Mel Gibson, a movie depicting the trial, suffering, and crucifixion of Christ. Today, I want to consider the topic of "passion," and to do so particularly in light of scripture readings we have heard today.
Even before the arrival of the movie in theaters on February 25, Ash Wednesday, there began a heated public discussion about it, filled with passionate arguments in favor of the movie and equally passionate reactions against it. Many Christians are heralding the movie as an evangelism tool which will draw people to Christ in a new way. Others are vigorously exploiting this opportunity by marketing all kinds of products based on the movie. Before the movie was released, I received a promotional catalogue advertising "Passion-of-Christ" banners, bulletin covers, website designs, evangelistic booklets, invitation cards and more, complete with a "Passion of the Christ outreach timeline" that tells congregations how to purchase and use all these products - all for the low price of $1,395.00 - or more, depending on which package deal you get! Meanwhile other viewers and commentators have pointed out what they see as serious flaws in the movie:
- a variety of inaccuracies or imagined scenes that have no basis in scripture;
- the way in which Jews are depicted as villains, and the characters are acted by white people leading to charges of anti-Semitism and racism;
- its almost morbid and relentless preoccupation with gore and violence, going way beyond the scriptures' minimal and concise description of Jesus' death.
In our own Mennonite press, a variety of views have been expressed about the movie, ranging from strong opposition against its narrow theology of atonement, to gratitude for the moving portrayal of Christ's solidarity with human suffering. Personally speaking, I actually had less desire to see the movie than to reflect on the cultural and spiritual phenomena evoked by the movie. Regardless of your opinion about the content of the film, it has provoked important discussion about Jesus Christ, salvation, suffering, and the meaning of atonement, religion and the arts, and - for my purposes today - the meaning of "passion."
What is passion?
The American Heritage Dictionary defines Passion in several ways: The English word "passion" comes from the Latin - passio = suffering. It is in this sense that "passion" refers to the suffering and crucifixion of Christ, or a narrative, musical setting, or pictorial representation of it (or a movie, for that matter). But passion can also mean:
1) a powerful emotion or appetite, such as love joy, hatred, anger, or greed;
2) an ardent, adoring love, strong desire, or the object of such love or desire;
3) boundless enthusiasm, or the object of such enthusiasm;
4) an abandoned display of emotion, especially of anger.
Passion goes beyond a cool, calculated approach to life, lukewarm tolerance, or ho-hum ambivalence; passion suggests powerful feelings and convictions - not unlike those evoked by Mel Gibson's movie!
Listen to expressions of passion in today's scripture readings:
The reading from Psalm 126 reflects the strong emotions of those who have been exiled, and now are coming home. Gut-level feelings evoke tears and weeping, contrasting with laughter and shouts of joy. No polite restraint here! Human life is meant to be passionate, whether in the agonizing depths of suffering or in irrepressible expressions of happiness and delight in the face of God's restoring love and power. The passion of Christ means that God, in Christ, has shared in our human experience - our anger and suffering and sorrow, our love and laughter. That means that we don't need to be afraid or restrained in showing our real selves, tears and laughter, warts and all.
The gospel reading tells of Mary's passionate expression of devotion for Jesus. Hers is a fragrant love which fills the whole house, in contrast to the grasping, selfish, and calculating approach of Judas, who would rather have pocketed the money Mary so lavishly spent on the perfume. (We might just say: His attitude stinks!) Mary seems unconcerned with the loss of money and unhampered by other people's opinions as she literally pours out her love for Christ. Her story recalls the last time Jesus was in Bethany, and alerts readers to Jesus' upcoming suffering and death. Earlier, while in Bethany, he raised Lazarus from the dead, angering religious leaders who began then to make plans to kill him. Now Jesus is back in Bethany again, alerting us that the time of his death is near. He comes to the home of friends for dinner, just as he will share a last dinner with his disciples; Mary anoints him with perfume, as he will be later be anointed for burial; she wipes his feet, as he will later wipe his own disciples' feet in humility. In other words, the story of Mary's passion for Christ points toward Christ's own passion. She pours herself out in worship, as he will pour himself out for the world.
Finally, consider the passion of the Apostle Paul: Paul was passionate about his faith, first as a Pharisee and then as a follower of Christ. He gave 110% to the cause which was at the center of his life and has no trouble pointing out the evidence of his great zeal and passion. As a Pharisee this meant circumcision, membership in the tribe of Benjamin, knowledge of and obedience to the law, readiness to root out opposition - which in this case was the Christian church. But when he met Christ, the object of his passion changed; all his credentials seemed worthless in comparison to the priceless treasure of knowing Christ and being found in Christ, and it was to this relationship that he then directed his passion. For Christ's sake, he says, he suffered the loss of all things - which for Paul writing from prison meant the loss of wealth, status, health, mobility, and freedom. But still Paul was passionate about Christ, "in order," he says, "that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ." Another way to translate the original language in that last phrase is "a righteousness that comes through the faith of Christ," through Christ's faith. In other words, Paul was righteous - in right relationship with God - not because of his own credentials (though they were impressive) or his own faith (which was devout) but because of Christ's faith, because of Christ's passionate faithfulness.
The passion of Christ
Jesus demonstrated his passion by committing everything he had to God's purposes of love and justice for humankind. He lived his life in ways that consistently demonstrated that, and he was obedient to these purposes even to the point of death. Contrary to Mel Gibson's film, the passion of Christ did not rest on the extent of his suffering, or the gruesomeness of his wounds or the amount that he bled, or how long he was tortured before he died. Jesus suffered because he had passion, not the other way around. He was willing to die because he was passionately in love with God and God's world and willing to bear the cost of that love. We also have contemporary examples of this kind of passion: This past week again marked the anniversary of the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero on March 24, 1980. Romero, who preached passionately for justice in his war-torn El Salvador, was shot while he was celebrating mass in the hospital chapel where he lived. He did not seek death, but he committed his life to bring justice to the poor and the victims of violence, boldly denouncing the structures, systems, and people causing the injustice and oppression, and which eventually killed him. The best way to honor Romero is not to focus merely on the details of his death, but to continue the kind of work for justice to which he was committed.
Our passion for Christ and with Christ
What, then, does the passion of Christ mean to us? What does it mean for us to have passion for Christ and passion with Christ? It means that we will:
-Be real and honest about our own human passions, and passionate in our love for the world.
-Worship Christ with abandon rather than with self-conscious or self-centered motives. Romero said, "One must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us."
-Root our faith in the resurrection power of Christ as a pre-requisite to sharing in his sufferings.
Romero said, "I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people."
As we move toward Holy Week we have opportunities for sharing in the passion of Christ:
On Palm Sunday we remember the contradictory emotions and expectations surrounding Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem, where he was welcomed like a king yet destined for crucifixion. The Maundy Thursday service will include communion, the "koinonia" of Christ's suffering, as well as sharing by members of our church from their experiences of suffering with others, of being "compassionate"(sharing passion). The dictionary defines compassion as "The deep feeling of sharing the suffering of another, together with the inclination to give aid or support or to show mercy." That evening we will take a special offering to support the Deacons' Caring Ministry Fund, which helps people in very concrete ways such as food, assistance with rent or utilities, health insurance costs, or emergency needs. On Easter Sunday we celebrate the joy of resurrection and Christ's victory over death.
If you also include the movie The Passion of the Christ in your Lenten or Easter season, I'd be interested to hear if you have any passionate responses to it! But even more than that, I would be interested to hear about your passion for Christ and how you are living passionately with Christ. May we join with Paul and say, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead." That is what it means to share the Passion of the Christ.