Towards a Whole-Hearted Faith, Part 5 (Palm Sunday 2024)

We turn now to the last week of Jesus’ earthly life and walk where Jesus walked.  These events will be told through the lens of four individuals who played a role in the unfolding drama.  You and I are called to participate:  notice the cue to respond as the crowd, the hymns, and prayers.  The importance of this holy week for Christians has tragically and too often been expressed by hatred and contempt towards Jews.  If nothing else, let this service remind us that Jews are no more responsible for Jesus’ death than every other human being who has ever taken a breath on this planet.  Jesus died to redeem the whole world.     

So have courage.  We do not walk alone.  And though the road takes us to the cross by Friday, believe in your heart that it is not a dead end. . . but the beginning of something else.  Listen for God’s Word.

First Person Narrative – Barabbas

Jesus died for my sins.

I am Barabbas, son of Abbas—son of the Covenant— a faithful Jew who worshiped the Most High God my whole life long. And I am the man who was pardoned for capital crimes at the demand of the crowds and religious leaders, rather than Jesus of Nazareth.

Oh, I knew Jesus. We were both Galileans. I heard him teach in the synagogue. I watched as he healed the sick and encouraged the sorrowful. My heart was heavy with compassion for my people, who had suffered so long under tyrannical Roman rule. I knew Jesus also cared about others and the plight of our people, but what did he do about it? Nothing! Because here’s the thing: he preached a gospel of non-violence. Turn the other cheek, he said. Love your enemies, and do good to those who persecute you. I’ve lived long enough to know that you have to stand up to the oppressor if you want to be free of it. You have to take matters into your own hands. Meet violence with violence.
So though our paths crossed often, I always felt Jesus was too……well, passive. He really didn’t confront the civil authorities. In fact, once he was asked about the righteousness of paying the hated tax the Romans had levied and that was breaking our backs. Jesus responded by saying to “pay Caesar what is owed to Caesar, and to God what is God’s.” (Though I’ve privately wondered whether that was his subtle way of suggesting that Caesar was owed NOTHING, and God was owed EVERYTHING). He faced plenty of conflict with the religious authorities. They argued all the time, but it was more in that rabbinical style of asking questions and answering with more questions. Telling stories to make a point. Inviting others to respond. Just a lot of talk, if you’d asked me then.

I took another path. I joined the Zealots, a group which in my mind represented the true believers, the patriots who would take back the country that was Divinely promised to us. This group was dedicated to the downfall of empire and we didn’t care how it would be accomplished.

I helped plan and execute an insurrection, as we struck at the very heart of Rome’s authority in Palestine: the Governor’s Palace. Yes, we did it stealthily with some inside help. And yes, several people lost their lives in the chaos of those hours. But very soon the guard was summoned; the rowdy band of rebels arrested. We were quickly tried and sentenced to death. The empire did not show mercy to revolutionaries.

So I was stunned that morning, when a guard came, put me in chains and took me from my cell to the porch of Pilate’s palace, overlooking a courtyard where dozens of people had gathered. The first surprise was seeing Jesus also in chains standing there. I wondered why he had been arrested for? What had he done that was deserving of death?
Every year during the high holy days of Passover our Roman oppressors would free one prisoner, that the people could choose. I’ve been told that the Governor, presiding over the trial of Jesus, had tried to get the crowd to choose him as the criminal to release. But the crowd, incited by the religious leaders who believed Jesus had blasphemed the very God they worshiped and served, would have none of it. They kept crying out ….

“Crucify Jesus!” “Crucify Jesus!” “Give us Barabbas!”

Give. . . us. . . Barabbas. . . . . and here I am.

It’s ironic really. I —a murderer and insurrectionist—-am free. Jesus—a man of peace and love—was condemned to death. I watched as he made his way toward the hill of crucifixion, the heavy cross balanced on his weakened frame….I thought that was the end of it.

But now I’m not sure. Jesus died for my sins. . . could I live for him? Show his unconditional love for others? Practice his way of peace? His words echo in my soul: Come, follow me.

[Walks to Communion Table and place chains on it]

First Person Narrative – Servant Girl

Hello.  I’m a servant girl in the house of the high priest.  My parents were servants there before me.  They always thought of it as an honor to serve the most important religious leader of the time, but it just felt like a lot of work to me. Prepare his meals.  Launder all his clothing and special robes.  Clean his house and the areas in which he counsels people.  We servants have to be on our toes and ready to answer his beck and call. “Reverend” Ananias has been known to get angry if you’re not quick enough to suit him.    It doesn’t seem fair, if you ask me.  We’re Jews too!   My mother says I’ve got a mouth on me, and need to watch it if I want to stay out of trouble.

Well, I was sweeping the inner courtyard when they brought him in.  You know, the one they call Jesus of Nazareth.   I’d never met him personally, but have seen him and his band of followers from time to time.  And I sure have heard a lot about him.  That he heals the sick and eats with sinners. That he proclaims a message of love for everyone.   I honestly can’t tell you why that would make him a…. criminal.   But maybe it was because he said that the Kingdom of God was near.   Maybe the Romans thought he was a potential rival to Governor Pilate or maybe even CAESAR himself!!     Maybe they thought he was a threat to their power.  If only he were!   Because I’ll tell you—our people need help!   We’re looking for someone who can free us from the oppression of the Roman empire.

Jesus didn’t look dangerous or a threat to anyone when they brought him here.  He’d been roughed up, but that’s common for the rabble when something or someone has stirred them up.    I caught his eye as he passed by and I can’t describe the look he gave me.  Not pity; not a silent plea for help. . . . .more like. . . I don’t know, like he saw me.  Here he was in trouble and he wanted me to know he cared about me.

After they took him inside, the usual crowd gathered in the courtyard and as it was chilly, kindled a fire.   And that’s when I saw the other man.  I recognized him as one of the followers of Jesus.   I’d seen him with Jesus.  So I spoke up:   This man was with him, as I pointed to the figure in the firelight.  Honestly, I wasn’t trying to get him in trouble; I was curious whether he might say more about Jesus.   But he immediately responded angrily “I don’t know him.   I was going to back down, but then someone else added that he also was one of Jesus’ disciples.   The man got even more agitated and swore he was not.   Finally another person pointed out an obvious connection:  he must be with Jesus, for they were both Galileans (that’s code for “country folk”).    Then the man exploded with an oath and almost screamed his denial:  I don’t know the man!

It was suddenly very silent.   A rooster crowed in the distance.   I saw that they had brought Jesus out to the elevated porch above the courtyard.  It was as ifhe looked down and locked eyes with the man.  The follower of Jesus pushed himself up from his pallet by the fire and ran out of the courtyard.  No one said anything.  But I was close enough to see that this big brawny man with fishermen’s hands had tears in his eyes.   And I wondered. . . who is Jesus, and how can he have such an effect on people?

I don’t think I’ll ever forget him.

[Walks to Communion Table, and carefully lays broom upon it]

First Person Narrative – Mary, Mother of Jesus

It was as if the sword that pierced my son’s chest had pierced my own. Had I been able, I would have taken his death upon myself. But of course, that was not to be. I am Mary, Jesus’ mother, and from that first announcement of his impending birth, through his young years growing up in the carpentry shop, and then his preaching and healing ministry throughout Galilee, we have been close. There were times I did not understand what he was doing—or why. I might have preferred he play it a little safer and avoid some of the conflict with our religious leaders. And like any mother, I wish he would have returned home to Nazareth a bit more often. But my deep love for him has been constant.

I could never completely shake the shadow of the prophecy uttered when Joseph and I presented him in the temple for his dedication service. A very old man named Simeon blessed us all, and then turned to me and said words I never forgot: This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too. Simeon was right, and some part of me always remembered.

But that didn’t mean our lives were gloomy. Jesus had a joyous temperament, and a big laugh. He loved people and continually reached out to them to hear their concerns, heal their infirmities, and point them to God. Once at a wedding of friends, the wine ran out to the great embarrassment of the hosts. A word from me was all it took, and Jesus memorably changed gallons of water collected in the huge stone jars for the purification ceremony, into delicious wine in overflowing abundance. His sense of humor was keen and showed up in his stories where the usual way of doing things got turned upside down. He cared about lepers and outcasts, people who were judged to be unacceptable sinners, and little children. To tell you the truth, I never understood why he posed such a threat to our religious leaders and to the civil authorities. He preached love, for heaven’s sake! He showed compassion to everyone; he shared meals with friends and disciples and so-called “enemies” alike. We had a good life, even after Joseph’s death.

Still, I always felt Jesus was looking beyond it, toward a Divine purpose gradually unfolding in his awareness. His eyes were fixed on something the rest of us couldn’t see, but which guided his decisions and choices…

…including the one to travel to the capital city, Jerusalem that last time. It was completely unwise—he had tangled with powerful leaders. I know his disciples begged him to reconsider. I made my opinion known. But he was determined.

And you know the horrifying consequences: his betrayal and arrest; the so-called “trials” before Governor Pilate and King Herod and the high priest Ananias; the death march to Golgatha, the place of the skull. Things a mother should never have to witness; things that should never happen to anyone, let alone my beloved son.

It was such a frightening turn of events. I don’t really blame his disciples for fleeing; we were all afraid for our lives. But I couldn’t leave. As excruciating as it was, I could not turn away from him, the child of my womb, in his hour of greatest need. Along with some of the other women, we stood near the foot of his cross, weeping. We were powerless to stop this miscarriage of justice. And the suffering. Crucifixion takes hours and all we could do was wait, silently sending our love to him as he struggled to breathe.
Suddenly I became aware of a new person joining the little band of women. I turned to find John, his beloved disciple, standing with bowed head and eyes filled with tears. He took my hand.

And then we heard him…in a voice straining through breathlessness and exhaustion: Woman, here is your son. John, here is your mother.

Then I could not contain my grief; the tears flowed until I thought they might never stop. Even in his profound pain, his own private hell, even when I as his mother could not protect him, he would not stop loving. Among his final words were ones of love and provision. Even death could not separate us from his love. Nothing could. Nothing.
It’s in that love that I live now with hope.

[Walks to Communion Table, and places white shroud upon it]

First Person Narrative – Centurion

Have you ever had an experience that changed everything?  For me, it happened on an ordinary day as I was carrying out my duties as a soldier, in the service of the Roman empire.    To be truthful, I had enlisted for purely financial reasons:  the position guaranteed a liveable wage, plus housing and meals. There weren’t many options for healthy young men without patrons or personal wealth.   And the work wasn’t especially hard.  I was sent to Palestine to keep order among those   rebellious people, the Jews.    They were deeply religious and resented the empire’s demand that they worship Caesar as their divine leader.     But we didn’t push too much, and the sight of our well-ordered troops patrolling the city streets with swords and shields kept the peace pretty well.

Now, about Jesus of Nazareth.   As far as I was concerned, he was just another religious teacher who had his 15 minutes of fame.  Oh, he was popular, and drew crowds wherever he went.  My team was called upon to do “crowd control” at these gatherings on more than one occasion.  So I heard him teach.   Most of his words flew in one ear and out the other, but I do remember something he said because it was so strange.    He said, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”   —the thing is, I’ve forced some of these peasants to carry the baggage of the imperial army while in transit through this beastly hot country.   I know they hate it, and here was this teacher telling them not only to obey but do so willingly.  Then when he followed up with an exhortation to “love your enemies” I just shook my head in disbelief.  He made no sense to me, a military man who sees enemies as those to oppose and conquer, not love.

But then came the day.  The assignment.  To be part of the cohort of guards to oversee the execution of this man.    It was an already tense time in the city, as the Jews had come to the capital city to celebrate Passover.  Emotions always ran high as they remembered their God’s miraculous action to liberate them from slavery in Egypt.  Maybe they thought their God was going to do the same for them now, freeing them from Roman rule.   So our troops were on high alert when the call came down.  I didn’t have a choice.   I had to obey orders.  I had been on crucifixion detail before.   They are not a pretty sight and I dreaded each one.

When I entered the governor’s courtyard, they’d already brought Jesus out.  I could see he’d been beaten, stripped of all but a loincloth, and had been “crowned” –mockingly—with roughly woven thorns. Two other criminals were part of this execution as well.

I took charge then and the processional began.  These things are always a public spectacle that draw curious onlookers, but the crowds lining the street this day were huge.  Jews from all corners of the empire were here; I saw weeping women and angry teenagers.  People kept running up to Jesus, some taunting him, others seeking to comfort him.

Weakened by hunger and the multiple beatings he’d received, Jesus stumbled and at one point fell.  I was quick to “recruit” the nearest Black person I saw to carry his cross the rest of the way.

I’ll spare you the mechanics of getting a man on to a cross.  When that bad business was accomplished, the waiting began.  It takes hours for a human body to sag into suffocation.    My cohort stood guard, but there was little to do.  A few people stood a little ways from the three crosses, mostly women crying out in grief—I heard someone say his mother was there…

Time passed slowly.  At one point I heard some muffled conversation between Jesus and the two criminals on either side.  A little later he cried out that he was thirsty, but I don’t know who it was who soaked a rag in vinegar and raised that up to him on a stick.   The day had grown dark and foreboding.  The minutes ticked on interminably.   And then, I heard him call out.

As clear as day, though it must have taken every ounce of energy.  A plea;  a prayer offered from the depths of his tortured soul.  Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.

Forgive them…forgive… me.

Suddenly, I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing.  I was no longer in control of the scene.  A flash of lightning shattered the threatening clouds; the ground seemed to sake as the thunder roared.

Who was this man? How was he able to think beyond his own pain and mortality to express concern for his enemies; his executioners, for God’s sake?

It is finished.   I knelt at the foot of his cross and made my confession: Truly this man was God’s son.  

[Walks to Communion Table and lays spear upon it]

I don’t think I’ll be needing this anymore.  I don’t know exactly what to do now, but I have a feeling it isn’t finished.  It’s just getting started.