A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”
Intro to Scripture
We have another long reading this week. But this one……this one we have to do all together. There’s no splitting it up, no skipping parts. Matthew himself has written it in a way that weaves the themes and stories so closely together that you simply cannot stop reading until the end.
We often focus on the story of the Triumphal Entry of Jesus on Palm Sunday. But—if we are not engaged in services of remembrances and worship throughout the week—we end up skipping from the celebration of Jesus entering the city to the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. And yet—as many of our songs and artistic images over the years have testified—it is the cross that is central to the work of Jesus—the very cross that we tend to skip right over. The resurrection is the work of God, but the cross demonstrates Jesus’ love for us.
And so today—in a move that is quite traditional in the broader Christian world—we focus on the Passion of Jesus, a phrase that refers to his suffering and death.
Who Is Jesus?
This entire reading begins with a question. It is—in a sense—the most commonly asked and answered question in the gospels. And no, despite our need to hear the answer to that question, this one is not “Who is my neighbor?”
The question I’m talking about is: “Who are you, Jesus of Nazareth?”
Or as Pilate frames it at the beginning of the story: “Are you the King of the Jews?”
We’ve been reading a lot from John’s gospel lately. And John wants us to know who Jesus is from the get go:
Jesus is the Word of God, who became flesh and lived among us.
Jesus is the true light, who shines in the heart of everyone, and came into the world.
Jesus is the complete revelation of God, who perfectly reflects God’s heart.
All these things John presents in the first chapter of his gospel. The story that follows—in John’s gospel and the others—is the story of everyone else coming to know what the reader knows at the beginning.
In the stories of Jesus’ temptation (Matt 4; March 5), this question is posed to Jesus himself by the devil: “Who are you, Jesus of Nazareth?”
In the story of Nicodemus‘ midnight inquiry (John 3; March 12), this question of Jesus’ identity is never far below the surface.
In the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4; March 19), she all but asks him “Who do you think you are?” before Jesus says that he is the Christ.
The story of the blind man (John 9; March 26) tells of a series of inquiries aimed to disprove that Jesus is the Messiah.
Even last week’s story of Lazarus being raised from the dead (John 11; Apr 2) has Jesus’ identity at its heart. There he proclaims to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn 11:25; adapted from the VOICE).
To these stories, we can add the numerous times Jesus was directly asked “Who exactly are you?”, such as in John 8:25.
There’s that time Jesus asked about what the crowds thought of him, followed by asking the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15; Mk 8:29; Lk 9:30).
Especially today, we cannot forget the Triumphal Entry itself, as the procession of Jesus into Jerusalem left many marveling “Who is this?” (Mt 21:10 ESV)
And even before he lands on Pilate’s doorstep, he is questioned by the Sanhedrin: “If you are the Christ, tell us” (Luke 22:67 ESV).
And so by the time we get to today’s lengthy scripture reading, we should almost expect it to begin with the same inquiry, the same investigation: “Who are you, Jesus of Nazareth?”
You see, this is the story where the loose ends are tied up.
This is the story that all those other stories were hinting at.
This is the story where Jesus fully answers the question.
This is where Jesus reveals who he is.
And who is he?
That answer—the answer to the question everyone has been asking—is found in the mouth of a pagan, a Roman, a coarse soldier of all people: “Surely he was the son of God” (Matthew 27:54 NIV).
Now maybe you don’t see it, but there’s something completely confounding about this. Over and over in the Bible, it’s the wrong people who realize things.
As one example, it is not Peter (the rock on whom I will build my church) who discovers that Jesus is no longer in the grave. It is who? Two women: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary.
As another, it is not the disciples who lived and mentored Jesus who realized that his mission extended beyond the Jews. Who first comes to appreciate that fully? Saul who became Paul, a noted persecutor of the church who likely never even encountered Jesus in the flesh.
The question “Who is Jesus?” is not an question that can be answered in the ways we are used to. Pilate wants to answer the question by popular vote. That’s one of the ways we claim to know things. If enough people believe it to be true, then that’s good enough (……sadly). But today’s reading reveals that the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” is not discovered in popular opinion (contra Pilate & the masses) but in individual awakening (cf. Centurian). Something happened that defied logic, that defied explanation, that broke through the Centurion’s inability to see “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” that was right in front of him.
Similarly, the question “Who is Jesus?” is not a question that can be reasoned out; it’s answer is not the product of cognitive or intellectual thought. That’s another way we claim to know things: we think them through. We gather the evidence and piece it together to support what we already believe……oops, that’s not the way we’re supposed to do it, but that is how it usually seems to work. And we Christians can be the worst about this.
I was down to Council Grove last week. There’s a billboard somewhere along the way (maybe around Topeka?) that has a picture of a very new baby with the caption: “There Is Evidence for God.”
Now, I have a hard time looking at a baby without being amazed at God’s handiwork and inspired to live more fully into God’s desires—to help make the world a little more kinder and a little more like God’s Kingdom. But the existence of a baby is not proof of God……not really.
And more to the point—whoever is behind these signs has missed a fundamental reality of faith. We cannot answer faith questions by reason alone; we cannot “prove” the existence of God to those who disbelieve. The gospels are filled with stories of people witnessing unexplainable phenomenon performed by Jesus—who the text tells us continued to disbelieve. Faith, as Paul suggests in Romans 12:3 and other places, is gifted to us and grown in us by God. We know Christ because God reveals him to us and we move toward him.
Our scripture today is the pinnacle of that revelation as we encounter Jesus through the eyes of the Centurion and we (too) proclaim the truth that is revealed to us in the moment of his death: “He really [is] God’s Son” (Mt 27:54 VOICE).
Of course, all this has simply been an introduction to the most important question of all: Who is Jesus……to you?
If you’ve made the decision to take up your cross and follow him, then Jesus is your friend, your mentor, your savior, your king, and the best picture of God’s heart we can know in this life.
But if you haven’t, I wonder if maybe God is at work—right now—gifting you with a moment’s faith, an individual awakening, a revelation that Jesus really is the Son of God. You don’t have to understand what that all means yet; even I don’t understand what it all means. But what God asks of us is not comprehension, but a turning of submission and obedience……a shift away from ourselves and towards Jesus.
If you’ve never really done that, I’d like to have the opportunity to talk with you about it. I’d like to ask you to come see me during our closing hymn, or even after the service. I’m not a salesman. I’m not a persuasive debater. But Jesus is my friend, and that has changed my life.
Who is Jesus to you?