“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances….”
There are two dramas in Jesus’ life that are often portrayed as plays: The nativity story, of course; and the Passion of Jesus, his crucifixion and burial.
Today, after Communion, we hear the Passion presented in parts; all the men and women merely players. We know the story well. At least we think we do. Yet like all great stories, it is always new, ready to gut-punch us in some new spot where we don’t expect it.
Our reading of the Passion Narrative on Palm Sunday rotates among Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Each one has a distinctive feel, and they vary in many details if you compare them. Luke has a particular lens: we see and hear the story through the eyes and ears of individuals in need of healing, we feel their fear and sorrow, their shame in betrayal, their utter sense of powerlessness and vulnerability. We hear this especially in Jesus: his gentleness, his refusal to resort to violence. The most profound “last words” of Jesus come from Luke:
Each year, we take the scripture and make a script for reading it in parts, with a narrator tying it all together. The congregation is usually invited to participate by being the voice of the crowd at Jesus’ trials…the crowd who turn on him and shout, “Crucify him!” It is jarring, and it’s meant to be. None of us has clean hands.
But in Luke, there is no crowd, only the chief priests and elders. So I have assigned to you, the congregation, several parts. You will take your place in the drama: you will be Peter, denying ever having known Jesus. You will be the elders, urging Pilate to kill Jesus, based on trumped up charges. You will be the thief who hangs next to Jesus, who recognizes Jesus as a righteous man, whom Jesus grants a place in paradise. And you will be the Roman centurion who gazes on the macabre spectacle of a vulnerable, innocent man hanging on a cross; and who praises God saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!”
Which part in this drama has your name on it this year? I can easily identify with cowardly Peter, trying to save his own skin. I understand the priests and temple officials, trying to protect the status quo, their small claim on power and prestige in the hostile Roman environment. I get Pilate, whose job it was to keep the peace in occupied Jerusalem, never easy among the Jews, and especially not at Passover. I like to keep the peace, sometimes too much, sometimes at the expense of truth.
But I’ve never identified much with Judas, the traitor. Since I have lived a fairly respectable life, Judas’ wanton betrayal seems foreign to me. And yet I do betray Jesus and his law of love. My deeds are not as obvious, but I, like Judas, want Jesus to be someone he is not…I want him to rise up and vanquish my enemies. I’d like Jesus to stop talking about the centrality of the poor people among us, and the need for sacrifice. I compromise Jesus in his refusal to use violence to attain his goals. I stop short of following Jesus into the risky, vulnerable places he goes. When push comes to shove, like Peter I cry, “I do not know the man!”
I don’t know with whom you might identify on this Palm Sunday; only you and God know. But I hope you let this great drama wash over you once more today, and keep your hearts open to God’s challenging and cleansing Spirit. We men and women are the players on God’s stage. That is why we are here.
Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was an Anglican priest of Irish descent in the early 1900s, who went to war as a chaplain and embedded himself with the troops in the trenches of World War I. Studdert Kennedy went to where the pain and horror were, and there he ministered…pretty much what Jesus did. There he met Christ in the face of the least and the lost. He was also a gifted poet, and expressed his faith in his verse. Finding God in the most unlikely places, he wrote these lines which have always spoken to me: