A few days ago, a jolt of excitement swept through my wife and children. They released the first trailer of the new Star Wars movie coming out in December. And of course these days, once it is out it is everywhere immediately, including on my phone. (A small confession, our family gets very engrossed in epic fantasy fiction like The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars and The Avengers. The Avengers: End Game comes out at the end of the month. We already have our tickets.)
These stories share basic elements of what they call “the hero journey.” An ordinary person is minding his or her own business, quite apart from and unaware that there is real trouble afoot. Our hero gets drawn, often reluctantly, into circumstances which eventually lead to confrontation with evil on a grand scale. Along the way, they discover attributes, qualities and/or abilities they sometimes didn’t know they had. They face the problem and save their world, or even the galaxy.
Whatever their special abilities or powers may be, victory depends on their courage, their faithfulness. And in that we find that such stories, although obviously and very clearly fiction, carry deep truths. Those stories work on a huge scale. Harry Potter is credited with having significantly improved world literacy because children just had to read those books. Epic fantasy movies make billions in ticket sales because the basic elements of the hero narrative speak so directly to our existence.
Some of those elements can be found in our readings today, but the story of Jesus going to the cross has its own compelling narrative. God is perfect and created everything there is. Humanity is distinct from all other forms of life in that we are self-aware, “in the image of God.” God has spoken and acted throughout history, yet, we continued to fail and suffer for it.
Our sin against God and each other requires justice. Justice demands atonement. The scales need to be balanced. For centuries Israel used animal and grain sacrifices as a means of atonement for sin against God. Giving of one’s harvest, the produce of one’s life and labor – one’s right action – offset the debt incurred by one’s wrong action, balancing the scales of justice.
But the weight of human sin, the intractable flaw in our being, is so great that we could not possibly balance it with the produce of our right action.
And so in his infinite love, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, God in his mercy sent Jesus Christ, his only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to him, the God and Father of us all.
And this story is true. There really was a man called Jesus of Nazareth. He was known as a prophet and a miracle worker, and people followed him. He really did enter Jerusalem on the Passover. He really died on the cross. The record of those events exists in history. The meaning of those events was recorded by those who knew and loved Jesus and followed him most closely.
Jesus suffering himself to live in a mortal body for a time, with all our pains and limitations, was a sacrifice. Suffering the sneering disdain of the Pharisees and Sadducees and other leaders was a sacrifice. Suffering the ignorance and indifference of most people was a sacrifice. Suffering fear and opposition, especially from leaders and authorities, was a sacrifice.
He clearly loved his intimate moments with those he served and who did follow him. But then he was betrayed. He offered himself, perfect in every way, to serve as the atoning sacrifice for all who would call upon his name, proclaim him as Lord and follow him.
That sacrifice was real. It was impossibly difficult. The mental strain under those conditions was extreme. His physical pain was beyond measure. The grief of his spirit was greater still. We can scarcely think about it, scarcely look upon it; some of us cannot bear even a glance at it.
And at his end, Jesus shared the most loving words ever spoken, “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.” He promises that if we will follow him, he will heal the root causes of sin within us, and reconcile us to be with Our Father forever.
That’s why we call this The Passion: God’s unyielding love is poured out for us in atonement at terrifying cost for our eternal reconciliation with him. Unlike the hero narratives I noted earlier, this one is real. It happened. It saved the creation.
I’ve been hearing other stories, other heroic stories. Your stories. Your suffering. Your victories. Your losses and griefs. The ways you are still struggling and waiting for Jesus. The ways you have found him. The ways you are trying to discern and answer his call.
All our stories are bound up in his. He is the author of life and he is our hope in the end. That is why Paul exhorts us to be like him, be of the same mind as Christ Jesus. We’ve been invited into the glory of God. Do not grasp it, but empty yourself, even to death. His promise is true, but for now let us remember the cost. AMEN