February 26: Transfiguration of Our Lord Sunday

And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters), and they called together the whole battalion. And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him. 

And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. And it was the third hour when they crucified him. And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him. –Mark 15:16-32  

In the passage last week, we saw a name, Barabbas, who might appear at first to be a foil in the story. Upon a little more investigation, we find that Barabbas may not have been such an important individual, but symbolically he represented Israel’s true love, and it wasn’t Jesus or Jesus’ way of bringing the Kingdom. The passage above also names some people: Simon of Cyrene, who was the father of Alexander and Rufus. Who are these people?

Cyrene was the oldest and most important of the 5 Greek cities in north Africa. The ruins are located in the modern country of Libya. As with Barabbas, it would be easy to think of Simon of Cyrene as incidental to the story, but as it turns out, Mark was communicating something with which his original audience was familiar. Some 20 years after the crucifixion, Christianity had spread with great success, and important and honorable people had emerged. Yes, the Romans were able to compel Simon of Cyrene, because of their sheer power, to carry the horizontal beam of the cross, but this may well have been the beginning of something very big.

Early Christianity indicates from its beginning to have links with Cyrene. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention Simon of Cyrene. In Acts, people from Cyrene are said to be in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (2:10), and men from Cyrene were preaching the Lord Jesus to the Greeks (11:20). Lucius of Cyrene is named as one of several to whom the Holy Spirit spoke, instructing them to appoint Barnabas and Saul (AKA Paul) for missionary service (13:1). Even more amazingly, according to the tradition of the Coptic Orthodox Church, its founder, Mark (the gospel writer), was a native of Cyrene and ordained the first bishop of Cyrene! Perhaps this is the second time Mark has inserted something about his own life into the story—the first being the young man who was disrobed in the garden of Gethsemane.

And then he mentions that Simon of Cyrene was the father of Alexander and Rufus. Mark certainly doesn’t waste space in his relatively short gospel account, but offers no reason for including their names. Did this mean something special to the early Christians? It is highly likely when Paul sends greetings to a Rufus in the Roman church (Romans 16:13), that this is the same fellow. Some early traditions state that both Rufus and Alexander became missionaries. No doubt first-century Christianity was a family affair. Memories of the dramatic events surrounding Jesus’ death would have been told and retold in houses and churches. We get a splendid glimpse into this in Mark’s mention of Simon, our brother, and a hero in the faith.

That’s all very interesting, but we might ask if there is a bigger point to it all. What we are witnessing in the crucifixion story are seemingly unrelated actions brought about by people who are at best confused and at worst evil. Yet when we see these at a distance and through the lens of knowing the end of the story, we are witnessing God’s grace, God’s sovereign and saving presence. This is the love of God doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. This is how the Kingdom comes at last. That’s the gospel! Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.

And as soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole Council. And they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate. And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” And the chief priests accused him of many things. And Pilate again asked him, “Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed.

Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. –Mark 15:1-15

I think it’s interesting to notice whose names get recorded in history. The Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds record Mary’s name, but, interestingly, also Pilate’s. Jesus interacts with some people directly and intensely, and yet they have no name recorded, but others do without much of a pattern as to why or why not. The repentant thief on his own cross is a major part of the story, as is the Gentile centurion confessor at the foot of Jesus’ cross. Neither of their names was recorded, however.

The passage above has one of these recorded names: Barabbas. He’s certainly not commendable, yet most of us have heard his name at least around Holy Week. There was a time when I thought of Barabbas (Bar-Abbas: “son of the father”) as an incidental character in the story. The story goes like this: there was a true criminal and a true righteous man, and the crowd chose the criminal. That is true and important, but I’ve found that there is much more.

Recall how all along Jesus has been against Israel’s rebellious, nationalist zealots. These are the Pharisees, many who were ruling the Temple, scribes, elders, and plenty of “lay-people.” When Jesus condemns the Temple, He says that what should have been a blessing for the nations (Gentiles) had been turned into a den of robbers. But the word for “robbers” is rebels or insurrectionists or revolutionaries. They are seeking to destroy all other nations through violence and war rather than blessing the nations. As in the parable of the wicked tenants, they refuse to give away God’s blessings of His vineyard, Israel, and hoard these blessings instead for the nation of Israel only.

When Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, He used the same term: “Have you come out with your swords and clubs as though I were a revolutionary, nationalist insurrectionist?” When John the Baptizer asked, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” he meant the wrath of God against Judaizers, these revolutionary, nationalist insurrectionists. Jesus preached that the coming of God’s Kingdom for Israel, and then for the world, would not come through war and violence, but through the gospel. You were definitely in the cross hairs of Jesus’ opposition if you were all about the nation of Israel and trying to establish dominance through violence.

Now we return to Barabbas. This guy is in no way incidental, since Mark makes it clear that he was “among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection.” A-ha! He’s one of the revolutionary, nationalist insurrectionists. His name leaves no doubt that he is a Jew. So, what is presented by Pilate to the Jewish crowd is one man who has murdered and rebelled in the name of an Israel who would crush the nations, and another man who has healed and submitted to the Father of Israel who would bless the nations. Which one did they prefer? The answer shows us that Barabbas may not have been that important an individual, but symbolically he represented Israel’s true love, and it isn’t Jesus or Jesus’ way of bringing the Kingdom.

Would we have chosen better in our own strength and understanding? Not likely. As we read on in this story, now with greater depth, of Jesus’ scourging and path to crucifixion, we are witnessing God’s grace, God’s sovereign and saving presence. This is the love of God doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. That’s the gospel! Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.

And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But he said emphatically, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And they all said the same.

And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy, and they did not know what to answer him. And he came the third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man. Seize him and lead him away under guard.” And when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” And he kissed him. And they laid hands on him and seized him. But one of those who stood by drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. And Jesus said to them, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the Scriptures be fulfilled.” And they all left him and fled.

And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked. –Mark 14:26-52

It’s not as though Jesus has been blustery or displayed today’s highly prized Type-A personality, but Gethsemane seems like a big change in His way of being Him. Jesus has been in control of Himself, teaching, guiding, healing, and directing. Now, at Gethsemane, it looks as if He is falling to pieces and full of cynical anxiety: “You will all fall away.” Of course, about that, He was correct.

Raw humanness is put forward as an unbecoming display. Jesus is horrified, and the disciples are powerless—even over sleep. Greek heroic stories have people dying peacefully in control, and Jewish martyrdom stories highlight steadfast bravery to the bitter end. This story is neither. There is so much ordinary humanity in this story that it might even feel a little embarrassing.

Jesus’ words during His distress apparently come from the refrain of Psalms 42 and 43. The Psalms throughout the passion give Jesus a way to express His torment and even find comfort. His prayer to “Abba, Father” for rescue is repeated 3 times. The silence He received in return is tantamount to “No.” It’s hard to imagine a more heartfelt prayer of desperation, yet it goes with silent rejection. I try to keep in mind that if this was the experience for Jesus, then we should not be dismayed if we receive the same apparent silence at times in our lives.

But then where Jesus apparently had been falling to pieces and in a near panic, He arises composed and in charge again: “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

This mirrors what our life should be like now that the Kingdom has come. The way of Christian witness is not usually the way of quietist withdrawal, or the way of compromise with the world, or even the way of angry militant zealots. The way of Christian witness is the way of being in Christ, in the Spirit, at the place where there is pain. Christians should be the people who are moving toward the pain when everyone else is moving away so that the healing love of God may be brought to bear right there. That’s what Jesus did: He stayed in the pain of the garden for the sake of the world until it was time to go do something else for the sake of the world: to deny Himself and take up His cross. And that’s the gospel! Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.