In recent weeks, the Revised Common Lectionary has offered passages from Acts which narrate the expansion of the early movement of followers of Jesus. The author of Acts provides a clear schematic account of how the good news spread out from the centre of the Jewish nation, Jerusalem, to the edges of Samaria and beyond (starting with a court official from Ethiopia), and into the widespread Gentile world (starting with a Roman soldier based in Caesarea).
In a couple of weeks, we will read the story of Pentecost, with Mews gathered in Jerusalem from many of the surrounding regions and nations. Encountering God in a dramatic new way, they return to their homes with good news bubbling over in joyful ways.
The Iona Community has a fine Affirmation which fits well within the context of these readings, reflecting God’s openness to the outsider, welcoming the diversity of humanity, affirming grace at work . Here it is:
Affirming the Global Church
We believe in God,
who befriended a wandering people,
calling them from slavery into freedom,
yet who in Rahab, Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba,
Cyrus, Darius and many others,
called outsiders to be agents of God’s purpose.
We believe in Jesus,
who was revered by Persian sages,
sought and found asylum in Egypt,
preached the love of God to Syrians,
attracted Greeks to his cause,
found his first evangelist in a Samaritan,
saw incomparable faith in a Roman,
had his cross shouldered by a Libyan,
and ascended to his native land
that he might be present in all places.
We believe in the Holy Spirit,
who at Pentecost proved
that heaven has no mother tongue;
who, in the baptism of an Ethiopian,
denied racism a foothold in faith;
and who, in the ancient and modern worlds,
founded churches in different cultures.
We believe that God is supremely known in Jesus,
yet we affirm that the love of God is beyond our understanding.
Therefore we celebrate
that God’s ways are not our ways,
that God knows whom God chooses,
and reserves the right to surpass all human expectation.
From A Wee Worship Book, 2015, from Wild Goose Publications (page 105)
The Acts reading offered in the lectionary for this Sunday comes after an account of a healing, performed by Peter and John at the Beautiful Gate of the temple (Acts 3:1-11). The apostles heal a man who had been lame from birth. The passage we hear on Sunday places the focus on Peter, who provides an interpretation of what has taken place, just as he did on the day of Pentecost. The reading includes a part of Peter’s third speech (3:12-26).
Peter begins his speech by accusing the people of thinking “as if by our own power or piety we have made him walk” (3:12). Not so, he claims. Peter asserts that it is God — “the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of our ancestors” (3:13) — who has enabled the miracle. Like many speeches in Acts, it begins by acknowledging what God has been doing (2:22; 7:2; 10:34; 13:17; 15:7; 17:24; 21:19).
In addition, the speech contains a number of other key elements of speeches, from the template established in Peter’s Pentecost speech. The healing took place in the name of “the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth” (3:6; see 2:36), who is here represented to the people in ways largely familiar from this earlier speech. Jesus is the one whom God glorified (3:13) and God raised (3:15; see 2:24); he is the one of whom the apostles are witnesses (3:15; see 2:32) for of him they “see and know” (3:16).
Jesus is the suffering Messiah, in fulfilment of “what God announced beforehand through the mouth of all the prophets” (3:18). This extends the fulfilment of prophecy from Jesus’ resurrection (2:25-31) and exaltation (2:34-35) to his crucifixion. Such a claim is important for Luke; he has Paul make the same affirmation, that the suffering of the Messiah fulfils scripture, at 26:23; indeed, he places its initial appearance on the lips of Jesus at Luke 24:26. (However, Peter’s claim that “all the prophets” predicted this is surely one of a number of Lukan exaggerations.)
So the speech both reprises and develops the story of Jesus, using explicit language about how God was at work amongst these happenings, as told in 2:22-36, as well as the prophetic and apostolic witness which characterises the apostolic proclamation.
Luke has Peter once more evoke the response of repentance (3:19) by reference to God, as he did at 2:37-39. Repentance is portrayed as an integral element in the eschatological scenario. The eschatological hope which was often proclaimed by Jesus (Luke 4:43; 9:26-27; 10:1-16; 12:49-56; 13:22-30; 17:20-37; 19:11-27; 21:5-36) continues as an essential element in the apostolic proclamation.
Luke reports Peter as describing the eschatological sequence in some detail (3:19-21). The sovereignty of God is clearly in focus in this eschatological process: God will wipe out sins (3:19b) because people will have already repented and turned to God (3:19a); “times of refreshing” will come “from the presence of the Lord” (3:20a); and God will then send the appointed Messiah (3:20b).
After this, there is an interim period, as the ascended Jesus remains in heaven (cf. 1:11; 2:33), awaiting “the time of universal restoration” which will implement what God has long ago promised (3:21). The delay occasioned by this waiting does not signal a breakdown in God’s providential control of events, for Jesus remains in heaven by divine decree (he “must”, 3:21). This concentrated eschatological proclamation thus underlines the continuing sovereignty of God, which is especially manifested at the end times.
The “times of refreshing” may refer to Jesus’ teaching that “the Lord will cut short the end” (Mark 13:20, but omitted in Luke 21); the sense of “refreshing” is of a breathing space before the next event in sequence takes place (see Exod 8:15).
The “time of universal restoration” transcends the earlier question of the disciples concerning the restoration of the kingdom to Israel (1:6); here, restoration has a universal scope. It may thus correlate with the eschatological events which Peter has already reported at 2:17-21 (citing Joel 2:28-32; see also Mal 4:5-6).
References to the eschaton also appear in Peter’s Caesarea speech (10:42) and in Paul’s Areopagus speech (17:31). On these occasions, however, the description of the eschaton is limited to noting the role that Jesus will perform, as the one “ordained” (10:42) or “appointed” (17:31; cf. 3:20) to execute God’s judgement. Nowhere else in Acts do we find the fulsome eschatological description offered in this speech by Peter at Solomon’s Portico.
The time of universal restoration which Peter declares is that which “God spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets” (3:21; cf. Luke 1:70). In addition to the exaggerated claim that “all the prophets … predicted these days” (3:24), Luke has Peter cite specific scriptural passages in support of his statement about the eschatological role of Jesus.
Peter identifies Jesus in two eschatological roles: as the prophet promised by Moses (3:22-23, quoting Deut 18:15-16,19) and as the one who implements the blessing in the covenantal promise to Abraham (3:25, alluding to Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4). The way that Peter here expresses the eschatological role of Jesus is evocative of the prophetic words of Mary (Luke 1:54-55) and Zechariah (Luke 1:68-75).
This eschatological act of God is still awaited. It is the decisive action which provides the springboard for Peter’s demand for repentance (3:19). Waiting for the coming kingdom is not simply a passive, do-nothing time. It requires active waiting—so Peter concludes his speech by urging the people to “turn, each one, from your sins because God raised up his son and sent him as a blessing to you” (3:26, as a fulfilment of the promise to Abraham cited in 3:25).
In addressing the issue posed in 3:12, Peter thus uses the affirmation that God has been at work in the healing, as the basis for expounding God’s eschatological actions, which will bring blessing to the people. Looking at what has happened in the immediate situation provides an important clue for understanding the larger scheme of things. That might be a clue for how we operate as the church today: sensing that each small, hopeful happening is a glimpse of what is still to come in the overarching plan of God.
This blog is based on a section of my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. Dunn and Rogerson (Eerdmans, 2003). I have also explored the theme of the plan of God at greater depth in my doctoral research, which was published in 1993 by Cambridge University Press as The plan of God in Luke-Acts (SNTSM 76).
During the weeks that stretch out after Easter Sunday, we are in the season of the year (in the church calendar) that is called, simply, Easter. This coming Sunday will be the second Sunday in Easter (the second of seven, running through to the middle of May). During this season, the lectionary we use replaces the first reading from Hebrew Scripture with sections from the book of Acts—the second of two volumes attributed to Luke.
Acts recounts, from one perspective, the way that the church emerged as the key organisational response to the teachings and example of Jesus. Luke, the presumed author of the two volumes which provide an orderly account of the things fulfilled among us (Luke 1:1, 3), takes pains to indicate multiple lines of connection and continuity between his account of Jesus (the Gospel of Luke) and his subsequent account of the church (the book of Acts).
In this second volume, there are many indications of how Luke understood the emergence of the church to have occurred. It began as a series of loosely-connected Jewish communities, bonded by their common belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah (Acts 2:31,36,38; 3:6,18; 4:10; 8:5,37; 9:22; 10:36,48; 11:17; 15:26; 16:18; 17:3; 18:5; 20:21; 28:31).
They were messianic communities, followers of ‘The Way’ (9:2; 18:25; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14,22) which grew, over time, into groups identified as Christians (11:26)—and from that developed the Christian church. From these descriptive narratives, the church has drawn guidance for ways to shape its life in subsequent eras.
How do we characterise the church? A classic way from the traditions of the church is to cite ‘The Marks of the Church’: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Those four descriptions have been derived from various biblical sources (including the narrative shaped in Acts), and have certainly influenced theology, church organisation, and preaching over the centuries.
The first mark is unity of purpose (4:32; see 2:42,46). A second mark refers to the powerful testimony to the resurrection that the church offers (4:33; see 2:24,32; 3:15; 4:2). A third mark is the manifestation of grace (4:33b; see 2:47).
The major focus in this summary description is on the first feature, which is introduced with a striking phrase: the believers were “one in heart and soul”, to which is added a repetition of the earlier comment that “for them all things were common” (4:32; see 2:44).
Fellowship is identified as a key aspect of the community (2:42). The precise term koinonia occurs only here in Acts; however, the notion of sharing or togetherness which is inherent in it is evident in other ways. Members of the community gather with one mind (2:46) in a way that will consistently characterise the community (4:24; 5:12; 15:25).
These phrases used evoke the traditional Greek proverbs, ‘friends have one soul’ and ‘the goods of friends are common property’, which were known since the time of Aristotle (Aristotle, Nicomedian Ethics 9.8.2; Cicero, De officiis 1.16.51; Plutarch, On Brotherly Love 490E, How to Tell a Flatterer 65A and De amic. mult. 96E; Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras 65A; Dio Chrysostom Oration 34.20; Diogenes Laertius Lives 5.20, 8.10).
The Essenes were described in a similar way by Philo, Every Good Man is Free 85, and Josephus, Jewish War 2 §122. The first phrase is also reminiscent of the common Deuteronomic reference to ‘heart and soul’ (Deut 6:5; 10:12; 11:13; 13:4; 26:16; 30:2,6,10). The early messianic communities shared in this central characteristic. For the author of this book, it was to be a defining mark of the messianic communities in each place they were found.
2. A second mark refers to the powerful testimony to the resurrection that the church offers (4:33; see 2:24,32; 3:15; 4:2). The proclamation the apostles, of course, is a regular element in the story of Acts: there is a comprehensive list of no less than thirty-six speeches in Act at
Proclaiming the good news about Jesus was at the centre of these messianic communities, as Acts takes pains to indicate (2:23; 3:7, 15, 26; 4:10; 5:30; 10:40; 13:30-37).
3. A third mark of these communities was the manifestation of grace (4:33b). The community in Jerusalem was earlier described in this way, as “having grace towards the whole of the people”—the NRSV translates this, less accurately, as “having the goodwill of all the people” (2:47). This introduces another term which will have significance in the narrative of Acts: charis. In 2:47, charis is linked with the inner life of the community as they “ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having grace towards the whole of the people”.
Grace is a characteristic which also marks Stephen, enabling him to perform “great wonders and signs” (6:8); in his speech, he notes that God ascribed grace to Moses (7:10) and to David (7:46). It is this grace of God which is evident in the growing community in Antioch (11:23) and continues to be a characteristic of the community in Iconium, where once again it is evident through the signs and wonders granted by God (14:3).
Such grace is regarded as the means of salvation (15:11) which enables people to believe that Jesus is Messiah (18:27-28). This same grace of God is attested by Paul throughout his ministry (20:24,32). It thus forms another of the characteristics of messianic communities in Jerusalem and beyond.
This blog is based on a section of my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. Dunn and Rogerson (Eerdmans, 2003). I have also explored the theme of the plan of God at greater depth in my doctoral research, which was published in 1993 by Cambridge University Press as The plan of God in Luke-Acts (SNTSM 76).
Events in Australian society over recent weeks have seen the emergence of a powerful hashtag: #IBelieveHer.
The announcement of Grace Tame as Australian of the Year for 2021 set in train a dramatic series of events. Grace’s testimony to the abuse she has suffered is powerful. Her appointment to this role validates the stories of countless survivors with similar stories.
Since Australia Day, it has been fascinating, and disturbing, to see how the announcement of this particular Australian of the Year has set in train a powerful and disturbing sequence of events in Australian public life. Sexual abuse, and especially male mistreatment of females, has been in the news each day since then.
The announcement about Grace Tame was soon followed by the testimony of Brittany Higgins, about being raped in Parliament House. This was another key catalyst in the public discussion of sexual abuse and misogyny in our society. In contrast to the shocking and shameful characterisation of her testimony by a Federal minister, her public words invited the clear response: #IBelieveHer.
The turmoil swirling around these revelations soon encompassed a matter that, apparently, had long been a widely-known secret in the corridors of Parliament House and amongst the media in the national capital. That secret started to leak into public awareness; rumour and supposition spread.
When the then Attorney General eventually spoke publicly, identifying himself as the subject of the rumours, we were offered the options: believe him, with his emotionally theatrical presentation of denial; or listen to the testimony of the sadly-deceased woman, as she grappled with her recollection of events in 1988, and attested to friends of her abuse by him at that time. The opportunity arose, once more, to consider our response; and many have responded with heightened intensity: #IBelieveHer.
And in the ensuing weeks, many other females: members of parliaments, parliamentary staffers, public figures, and private individuals, have borne testimony to their experiences of harassment, discrimination, and abuse. Each of them invites us to consider whether #IBelieveHer.
In this context, it is sobering for us to read and reflect on the Gospel texts which provide the underlying narrative for The Easter Story, which we remember and reflect on each year at this time.
The earliest of our Gospels affirms that women were involved with the movement started by Jesus. They were present, they experienced life on the road with him, they heard his words and saw his deeds; and they remained faithful until the very end.
In his beginning of the good news about Jesus, Mark reports:
There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem. (Mark 15:40–41)
The passage raises questions: how do we know about what happened to Jesus on the cross? Do we attend to, and give credence to, the testimony of the women? Do we respond, #IBelieveHer ?
Just a few verses later, Mark provides the first account of the scene at the tomb, where a group of female followers of Jesus were the first to discover that the tomb was empty. He ends the scene with the women fleeing, and the abrupt observation that “they said nothing to anyone” (Mark 16:8). Was that because they feared that nobody would believe them?
However, others who report this scene feels that this ending is quite inadequate—after all, we do have a story about that empty tomb encounter, so surely someone there must have spoken about it?
With that in mind, in his book oforigins, Matthew modifies the story, even as he repeats it: “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” (Matt 28:8) And the silence of the text about how this news was received, invites the unspoken question about their testimony: do #IBelieveHer ?
In narrating his orderly account of things being fulfilled, Luke provides a more nuanced account of the scene, more directly reflecting an awareness of the strong patriarchal context of his day. Why would men believe this report from the women? Would not the typical response be that this was simply women, gossiping, repeating hearsay, even causing trouble??
Luke notes: They remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. (Luke 24:10-11).
The male apostles (identified so by the same author at Acts 1:13) clearly did not believe the women. #IBelieveHer appears not to apply here.
So Luke continues: Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. (Luke 24:12)
Male authorisation of female claims was still needed, even in this Gospel where women appear to have a stronger voice. Those male leaders did not respond with #IBelieveHer, until they were able to see and experience for themselves. In the house where they gathered in Jerusalem, them men at last believe the women—because one of their own had validated their words.
The latest of the four canonical Gospels locates this response of disbelief at the empty tomb, rather than in the house in Jerusalem. In this Gospel, the book of signs, Mary has come by herself to the tomb, found it empty, and returned to tell Simon Peter and the beloved disciple of this news.
As a result, John notes:
Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.
Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed. (John 20:3–8)
Yet again, the males were required to inspect and authorise the claims of the women. In this Gospel, “seeing is believing” (see John 1:39, 46, 50; 4:29; 4:48–53; 6:30: 7:3; 9:15–17, 25; 11:9; 11:34–40; 12:21; 20:25–27). #IBeliveHer was conditional on male affirmation. They saw; we believe. Yet we take the story of Mary, in the garden, seeing Jesus, as part of our “Gospel truth”. It is clear that believers affirm: #IBelieveHer—even when the early male leaders did not!
John recounts another, more personal, more profound story, focussed solely on Mary of Magdala, who later encounters a man in the garden. Uncertain of his identity, she thinks he is the gardener. It takes only one word from the man to persuade her that he is, indeed, Jesus:
Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). (John 20:16)
This story ends, as the earlier accounts do, with a woman testifying to the male (and presumably other female) followers of Jesus:
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:18).
#IBelieveHer. This is the logical deduction to draw from each of these narratives—at times, in counterpoint to the males in the story, but eventually, in relation to each account, with assurance that the voice of the females is acceptable, trustworthy, believable. #IBelieveHer.
And other Gospel narratives contain stories in which women are placed alongside men as experiencing the ministry of Jesus (most notably, Luke 8:1–3; John 11:20–27; Mark 1:29–31; and many other scenes), as well as accounts where the word of a woman was heard and believed: for instance, the woman of the Samaritan village (John 4:39–42); the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus in Bethany (Mark 14:3–9 and parallels); and the Syrophoenician woman in the region of Tyre (Mark 7:24–30), whose pushback against Jesus convinces him! In these stories, also, our response is: #IBelieveHer!
Of course, the passages noted above with women as the key protagonists raise the question: who told the evangelists about these incidents? Are they based on eye-witness testimony? Are they historical narratives, attested from the very beginning? Or are they stories developed and expanded over time, imaginative recreations of what is assumed to have taken place, shaped as stories for later generations?
One of these criteria was “dissimilarity”: does the saying sit uneasily, both with Judaism of the time, and in terms of what we know about the early church? The same criteria can be used, by extension, to consider narrative accounts in the Gospels: they are more likely to have been authentic if they reflect “dissimilarity”. Why would an author create something that sat uneasily within the worldview of the day?
On this basis, placing weight on the testimony of women might be seen to be as close as we can get to an authentic account. There is an argument that women were not regarded as valid witnesses—a passage in the Talmud (Shavuot 30a) interprets Deut 19:17 as requiring males only to be witnesses.
And they shall stand the two men, who have them the conflict, before God. Before the priests, and the judges, that will be, in those days.
Deliberately casting doubt on the testimony of women (Mark 16:8; Luke 24:11; John 20:3–8) would be a counter-productive move, if that testimony was to serve as the earliest account of what happened to Jesus. More likely than not, this was a tradition received and valued as plausible, perhaps even historical.
Indeed, feminist theological reflection on these and other narratives moves away from the “kyriachal” nature of these male-generated criteria, and into a “hermeneutic of remembrance” in which the voices of women—present, but often diluted, softened, or hidden in the final,form of the biblical text—are valued and accorded primary significance.
(See a useful discussion of the hermeneutics of remembrance, focussed on the writings of Schüssler Fiorenza, at https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/opth-2020-0117/html) In this approach to the texts, we read carefully and listen attentively, to hear the voices of ancient women, and respond affirmatively: #IBelieveHer.
At any rate, however we assess these early narratives, the way they have been handled throughout the ensuing two millennia is clear: #IBelieveHer. That is how we deal with the narratives of cross and resurrection that we receive in the scriptures. #IBelieveHer. And that principle is surely valid and valuable to guide us in life today. #IBelieveHer.
“Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith … endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Heb 12:2).
As we draw near to the annual recollection of the death of Jesus on the cross, in our worship on Passion Sunday and Good Friday, and in our devotional attention to that story at this time, we would do well to pay attention to what the anonymous author of this lengthy “word of exhortation” says, about the cross. It was a moment of shame.
The notion of shame is integral to the honour–shame culture which runs through the Hebrew Scriptures. The ancient Hebrews affirmed that honour belongs primarily to God (1 Chron 16:27), so that God could bestow honour on those who were faithful to his ways (Ps 92:14-15).
Just as God can honour human beings (Ps 8:5), even those regarded as shameful (Zeph 3:19), so, conversely, God can shame those accorded honour by humans (Isa 23:9). Paul later reflects this in one of his letters to Corinth, writing that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor 1:27).
However, honour was spread across other cultures. It was praised by the Greek philosopher Aristotle as “the greatest of all external goods” (Aristotle, Nic. Eth. 1), whilst Xenophon considered that honour was what differentiated humans from animals (Hiero 7.3). Philo of Alexandria, bridging both Jewish and Hellenistic worlds, affirmed that “fame and honour are a most precarious possession, tossed about on the reckless tempers and flighty words of careless men” (Abraham 264).
Honour was acquired and increased through the public actions undertaken in interactions between two parties—two male individuals, or two all-male groups. Actions that occurred would signal that honour was upheld by one party; the other party lost honour, and was thus shamed. Words especially were the mechanism by which honour was redistributed. The victor in a verbal interchange had his honour restored, or increased. The loser experienced public shaming.
The typical process of crucifixion involved moment after moment of humiliation, undermining any sense of honour that the victim had, increasing the sense of public shame that they were experiencing. We see many of these elements reflected in the narratives that recount the crucifixion of Jesus in the four canonical Gospels.
First of all, we should note that in the Roman world, crucifixion was variously identified as a punishment for slaves (Cicero, In Verrem 2.5.168), bandits (Josephus, Jewish War 5.449-451), prisoners of war (Josephus, Jewish War 5.451), and political rebels (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.295). These were people whose situations or actions had generated shame.
In the case of Jesus, he is accused of treason through the inference that he is King of the Jews—a claim that was anathema to the Romans (John 19:12)—and he is crucified in the company of political rebels (Mark 15:27; Matt 27:38; the term used, lēstēs, is the one most often found in the writings of Josephus to denote a political rebel).
A public trial, followed by a public execution on the cross, was a ritual in which the accused person was shamed, through a public ritual of status degradation. Cicero, in speaking as the counsel of Rabinio, a man accused of treason, asserted that “the ignominy of a public trial is a miserable thing” and described a public execution as “the assembly being polluted by the contagion of an executioner … [exhibiting] traces of nefarious wickedness” (Pro Rabinio 11, 16).
In their Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh describe the passion narratives as reporting a “status degradation ritual”. By the sequence of events that are reported, “Jesus’ lofty status in the eyes of the people begins to crumble … these events [are] a public ritual of humiliation aimed at destroying the status that until now had given Jesus credibility in the eyes of the public” (p.160).
As well as the actual crucifixion itself, many of the key practices typically involved in crucifixions inflicted shame on the criminals: flogging, torture, the blinding of eyes, the scourging of the body, and the shedding of blood. We can find these practices reported by numerous writers, such as the Jewish historian Josephus, the politician and philosopher Seneca, the Roman historian Livy, the Jewish philosopher and exegete Philo of Alexandria, the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, and even the venerable Greek philosopher Plato.
(These references, and many of the other references to ancient authors below, have been drawn from the detailed work of Jeyrome Neyrey, in “‘Despising the Shame of the Cross’: Honor and Shame in the Johannine Passion Narrative”, https://www3.nd.edu/~jneyrey1/shame.html, accessed on 15 March 2021.)
One section of the Jewish writings, the Mishnah (Makkot 3.12) reports how a public scourging should take place: “How do they flog him? He ties the two hands of the person being flogged on this side and that side of a post, and the attendant of the congregation takes hold of his garments to remove them.”
The Mishnah continues, “The attendant of the congregation stands on it [a raised stone] with a strap in his hand. It is a strap of calf hide, and is doubled, one into two, and two into four, and two straps of donkey hide go up and down the doubled strap of calf hide.” There is further discussion of the dimensions of the instrument used in this scourging and the scripture verses to be recited as the scourging takes place.
One rabbi explicitly relates this activity to the honour-shame code: “If the one being flogged involuntarily sullies himself, due to fear or pain, whether with excrement or with urine, he is exempt from further lashes. Rabbi Yehuda says that the threshold of shame for men and women is different: The man is exempted if he sullies himself with excrement, and the woman is exempted even with urine.”
The scourging of Jesus is noted in three of the four Gospel accounts (Mark 15:15; Matt 27:26; John 19:1).
Historian Didorus Siculus reported that the clothing and property of victims was confiscated in crucifixion (Universal History 33.15.1), an action that we see inflicted on Jesus as reported by the fourth evangelist (John 19:23). Without clothing, the victim is nude—another shaming element in the process.
The second century biographer Plutarch notes that the victim was required to carry the cross beam (Delay 554B). We see this shaming action varied in the account of the crucifixion of Jesus; as Jesus is unable to carry his cross beam, Simon of Cyrene is pressed into service (Mark 15:21; Matt 27:32; Luke 23:26). Luke adds a note about the mourners following the crucifixion procession at this point, adding to the sense of shame and impending doom (Luke 23:27-31).
Crucifixions served as a form of entertainment for the masses, with the public spectacle heightened by some victims being fixed to the cross in odd ways, including impalement. The process of dying as a crucified person was a slow process; it could take days before a victim was deceased. In the process, the bodies of victims could distort and control z as over bodily functions could be lost. These elements also added to the shame of the event.
Death itself was caused by suffocation, as the person nailed to the cross was not able to raise himself to inhale air. The loss of agency, by having hands and feet nailed to the cross, symbolised the loss of power and thus of honour, as Philo notes, describing “those who are fixed to a cross [as] nailed as it were to the tree of hopeless and helpless ignorance” (On Dreams 2.213; and see also On the Posterity of Cain 61).
Crucifixion was a graphic public demonstration of the loss of honour, an intensified shaming of the person being crucified. Many of the typical actions in crucifixion carried, as we have seen, a sense of public shaming. This shaming could also be expressed through verbal means, such as mocking and taunting. The passion narrative includes this element at many places.
The Roman soldiers taunt and mock Jesus (Mark 15:16-20; Matt 27:27-31; Luke 23:36-37), as do Herod with his soldiers (Luke 23:11). The chief priests and scribes also mock Jesus (Mark 15:31-32; Matt 27:41-43; Luke 23:35), as does a police officer, earlier, at the trial before the Sanhedrin (John 18:22). Those crucified with him also taunt him (Mark 15:32; Matt 27:44).
Herod and his soldiers treat Jesus with contempt (Luke 23:11), although a more accurate translation of this phrase would be, “treated as though he were nothing”.
As the Roman soldiers mock Jesus, they strike his face (Mark 14:65, 15:9; John 19:2-3) or his body (Luke 22:63-65). People passing by shake their heads at him as they deride him, intensifying the element of shaming (Mark 15:29-30; Matt 27:29-30). The verbal and physical indications of shaming are many.
In the third of the three passion predictions reported in the middle section of Mark’s Gospel (Mark 8-10), Jesus says that the Gentiles “will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him” (Mark 10:34). That is duly reported in Mark’s later narrative, at the end of the scene where Jesus stands before the Sanhedrin. “Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’” (Mark 14:65).
In the ancient Near East, spitting was one of the most humiliating of disgraces, long considered a suitable response to reprehensible behavior. We see this in the scene when Aaron and Miriam speak against Moses, and Miriam is made leprous (Num 12:1-16). In the course of this scene, God declares to Moses, “If her father had but spit in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? (Num 12:14).
The action of spitting on Jesus is thus yet another act of public shaming. (See also Deut 25:5-10; Job 17:6, 30:10). The link between insulting and spitting, and being put to shame, is made clear in the third Servant Song (Isa 50:6-8a).
Finally, the bodies of crucified victims were most often not accorded an honourable burial. Corpses were regularly left hanging, whilst carrion birds and scavenger animals devoured the body, as Pliny describes in his Natural History (36.107-108).
The remains of these bodies were then thrown unceremoniously—shamefully—into a common grave, although in the case of Jesus, we are told by all four evangelists that his body was retrieved and placed in the grave of a wealthy supporter (Mark 15:42-46; Matt 27:57-60; Luke 23:50-53; John 19:38-42).
Thus, we can conclude that, in the narratives that recount the crucifixion of Jesus, it is not so much the physical torment of Jesus which is highlighted (although, admittedly, a slow death by suffocation whilst hanging on a cross for hours, even days, was a terrible fate).
Rather, it is the various ways in which Jesus was shamed: he was spat upon, striped naked, physically struck on the face and the head, verbally ridiculed and insulted, and treated contemptuously; then as he hung dying, he was wracked with pain before he eventually succumbed to death. This was a shameful spectacle by any reckoning.
Jerome Neyrey, however, offers the suggestion that, “despite all the shameful treatment of Jesus, he is portrayed, not only as maintaining his honor, but even gaining glory and prestige. Far from being a status degradation ritual, his passion is seen as a status elevation ritual.” (https://www3.nd.edu/~jneyrey1/shame.html)
This is certainly consistent with the way that Jesus spoke earlier in his ministry of the inversion of shame and honour through the cross. When he makes his own identification with the cross (Mark 8:34), he does not consider this to be a cause of shame, but rather a sign of honour.
It would be seen by other humans as being shameful. However, that is not the case in God’s eyes, as Jesus articulates it; the cross would become the badge of honour for the followers of Jesus, not the mark of shame.
The movement that is articulated by Paul, in his citation of am early hymn in his letter to Philippi, marks out the progression from shaming by human beings (“emptied himself … humbled himself … to death on a cross”, Phil 2:7–8) to being honoured by God (“highly exalted him … bestowed on him the name above all names … so that every knee should bow”, Phil 2:9-11). The progression takes Jesus, once equal with God (Phil 2:6), to the shame of the cross, and then to the glory of universal recognition “to the glory of God” (Phil 2:11).
So the declaration of shame that Jesus makes in his teaching to his disciples (Mark 8:38) reflects the shame, in God’s eyes, of rejecting Jesus. Here is the paradox: to gain honour, Jesus had to be subjected to the shame of the cross. Likewise, to gain honour as a disciple following Jesus, a person must take up the shameful instrument of punishment (the cross), lay aside all desire to gain prestigious and powerful positions of honour, give up any claim on life itself, and (as Jesus later asserts), live as a servant, being willing to be dishonoured for the sake of the shame of the Gospel.
As we approach Easter, we note it is also the time of Passover for Jews. This year, the final few days of the eight days of the Jewish Passover (27 March to 4 April) overlap with the Christian Easter Triduum (the three days of Easter, 2 to 4 April). There is a handy reckoner of how the dates of Passover and Easter intersect or overlap at http://jewishaustralia.com/JWL/easter-dates.asp
Integral to the way that Jews today (and indeed through much of history) celebrate the Passover, is that they hold a Seder meal to mark the beginning of the Passover festival season. The Passover commemorates the time when Israel escaped from Egypt, when God “passed over” the houses whose doors had been marked with blood to signal that they were Hebrew houses (Exodus 14).
The word Seder simply means “order” or “arrangement”. It signals the fact that there is a well-established order of events that are to take place within the Seder meal—an order that evolved and developed over time (over many centuries, in fact!). The modern Seder contains fifteen distinct elements, which take the participants right through the whole story of Passover.
A Seder begins with the Kadesh (the blessing over the first cup of wine), and moves through the various symbolic actions, the retelling of the story through the asking of four questions, blessings over a further three cups of wine and the food, the eating of the meal, and then the concluding recitation of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118) with the final traditional saying, “next year in Jerusalem!”
It is important for Christians that we respect the integrity of the Jewish faith, and do not engage in “Passover Seder” meals on our Maundy Thursday. This is simply another form of Christian supersessionism.
Supersessionism is a term used to describe the way that the Church, through the centuries, has simply taken over Jewish elements (such as scripture, the covenant, the Ten Commandments, Pentecost, and the Passover Seder). We have “baptised” them so that believers have the view that these are Christian elements, without any sense of their Jewish origins—and their continuing place in contemporary Jewish life.
The Assembly of the Uniting Church issued a statement in 2009 regarding our relationship with Jews and Judaism. It affirmed the integrity of Judaism as a living faith, and made a commitment to engage in constructive relationships with Jews.
In particular, the Assembly Statement affirmed that “the Uniting Church Encourages its Members and Councils to respect the integrity of Jewish festivals, e.g. refraining from use of a Passover Seder in Holy Week worship” (para. 22).
We should not therefore be offering or promoting such opportunities. They are disrespectful to Jewish practice and beliefs, and in contravention of our strong commitment as a church to work constructively with our Jewish sisters and brothers.
The Working Group on Jewish-Christian Relations in the VicTas Synod has been clear about this, stating that:
1. The Passover Seder meal is not scriptural in itself. It was developed as a universal means whereby the Jewish people could celebrate God’s rescue of the Israelites from Egypt. In the absence of the Temple and its sacrificial system, the Passover Seder could be celebrated in Jewish homes anywhere in the world.
2. This development took place long after the death of Jesus, who lived during the time of the Temple. Jesus never celebrated a Passover Seder. He and his disciples celebrated the Passover meal – with a lamb sacrificed in the Temple.
This last point is a very important point. When Christians enact a Seder meal and represent as “what happened when Jesus had his last meal with his disciples at Passover”, they actually take a large collection of later medieval elements and read them back into the first century meal. That’s not taking seriously the actual story of the meal that Jesus shared with his followers. And, of course, it is completely disrespectful to Jews today, asserting that their rituals have a place in Christian worship.
To conclude this series of blogs about the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one, the narrative which we know as the Gospel according to Mark, let us review the structure of the Passion Narrative in the Gospel of Mark.
Here, we will note that the Passion Narrative is not only about who Jesus was; it is also about the way of Jesus, how those who follow Jesus are to live their lives in the light of Jesus’ example and pattern. This is conveyed through the narrative structure.
There is a careful symmetry in the structure of the Passion Narrative. Almost every scene is balanced by another scene.
The two scenes of the Prelude balance the two scenes of the Postlude. In each case, Jesus is attended by his faithful followers, both men and women. The scenes in Gethsemane and Golgotha also balance each other. Memories of the “great distress and trouble” of Jesus as he prays in Gethsemane (14:33) are evoked by the “loud voice” (15:34) and “great cry” (15:37) of Jesus as he dies at Golgotha.
The core of this narrative revolves around the distress and agony of Jesus—an emphatically human depiction of Jesus—with the cry, “why have you forsaken me?” (15:34) at the very heart of Mark’s depiction of Jesus.
The balancing of scenes continues in the two trial scenes. At the centre of both narratives stands the central issue of the identity of Jesus.
To the question of the High Priest, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (14:61), Jesus replies quite directly, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man…coming with the clouds of heaven” (14:62). To Pilate’s enquiry, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (15:2a), Jesus responds, somewhat enigmatically, “You have said so” (15:2b).
Both trials also include direct agitation against Jesus: the Council hears false witnesses concerning the destruction of Temple (14:56) whilst the chief priests agitate the crowd to call for Pilate to release Barabbas rather than Jesus (15:11).
Both trials show the leader of the trial moving outside the regular processes: at 14:63, the High Priest says “why do we still need witnesses?”, contrary to the requirements of Jewish justice (Deut 19:15); whilst at 15:15, Pilate bends in order to “satisfy the crowd”, which is not in accord with Roman justice!
Both trials end with a clear call for death of Jesus: “they all condemned him as deserving death” (14:64) and “crucify him” (15:13,14). Each is followed by acts in which Jesus is tormented (14:65; 15:19) as well as by words in which Jesus is mocked for his impotency: “prophesy” (14:65), and “Hail, King of the Jews” (as Jesus is dressed in mock regalia; 15:18).
In between these two trials scenes, there stands the centrepiece of the whole Passion Narrative: the account of Peter’s denial (14:66–72). This is the only scene that is not balanced against another scene. The story of Peter’s denial is a powerful story which stands alone as the heart of the narrative. It takes us to the very centre of the way of Jesus.
In this scene, Peter exemplifies the disciples’ consistent failure to understand Jesus. Mark has pointed to this failure on many occasions. Even after Jesus’ had twice fed large crowds of people (6:30–44; 8:1–10), the disciples doubt his capacity to provide food (8:17–21). After Jesus first speaks of the fate in store for the Son of Man in Jerusalem (8:1–10), Peter fails to understanding what Jesus means (8:32–33).
After the second such prediction (9:30–31), all the disciples demonstrate their lack of understand (9:32). After the third and most extensive prediction of the sufferings due to the Son of Man (10:32–34), James and John show their selfish ignorance when they seek heavenly power for themselves (10:35–40).
Once in Jerusalem, there is a series of further misunderstandings by the disciples: the false bravado of Peter and “all of them” (14:29,31), the failure of three disciples to watch and pray (14:37), and then the ultimate act of desertion by all the disciples (14:50). Peter’s increasingly vehement denials (14:68,70,71) thus climax the sequence in a devastatingly dramatic manner!
This is the story which sits at the very heart of the account of Jesus’ betrayal, trials, crucifixion and death. The story sets the failure of Peter into stark contrast with the faithfulness of Jesus. The model for believers is to be Jesus, the righteous sufferer, rather than Peter, the evasive denier.
What Peter did, by denying Jesus, was what other followers of Jesus are not to do. Instead, they are to walk the way of Jesus, following him as he endures suffering. This is the potent message of the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Gospel according to Mark, written for those struggling under Roman occupation and yearning for the release of God’s rule.
The way of Jesus, according to Mark, was the way of suffering obedience and faithful discipleship.
This material was drawn from MARKING THE GOSPEL: an exploration of the Gospel of Mark, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014).
This is the claim that the suffering and death of Jesus was the very essence of his task. The whole narrative of Mark’s Gospel is shaped to direct attention to the events that take place in Jerusalem at Passover. The death of Jesus assumes central importance.
Shaping the story to focus on the passion
Of course, some decades before this Gospel took shape as a written work, the preaching of the early followers of Jesus — all Jews — had drawn on Hebrew Scripture. If the accounts in Acts offer any reliable insight into that preaching, then telling the story of a Jesus and explicitly referring to his death in early sermons was par for the course. (But we have all of this mediated through the author of this Gospel, so we cannot be certain about this claim.)
Some letters of some of those early followers survive, and these letters provide clear and direct evidence for what was the practice of believers in the 40s and 50s. Some of the authentic letters of Paul give indications that even before him, there were simple credal-like statements which focussed on an understanding of the sacrificial nature of the death of Jesus (Gal 2:20; 1 Thess 4:14, 5:9-10; 1 Cor 15:3; 2 Cor 5:14-15; Rom 3:24-25, 5:8).
In the last three chapters of Mark (where the final sequence of events for Jesus in Jerusalem are recounted), we can see further pointers to this central theme.
The prelude to the Passion Narrative recounts two significant meals (14:1–31): one, when a woman anointed Jesus in anticipation of his burial (14:8), the other, the last meal of Jesus when he foreshadowed his death. After the first meal, the betrayal of Jesus by Judas is foreshadowed (14:10–11); after the second meal, the denial of Jesus by Peter is predicted (14:26–31).
The Narrative itself has three main sections, each with two parts. Section One (14:32–52) is based in Gethsemane, where Jesus prays before he is arrested. Section Two (14:53–15:20) revolves around the trials of Jesus, first before the High Priest and the whole Council and then before Pilate, the Roman Governor. In between these trials, Peter denies any knowledge of Jesus. Section Three (15:21–41) is based at Golgotha, where Jesus is crucified and dies.
As a postlude to these scenes, Mark recounts the burial of Jesus and the discovery of the empty tomb on the third day (15:42–16:8). The whole narrative contains a slowly building sense of the inevitable which climaxes in the death of Jesus. All has pointed to this moment; and at the climactic moment, the centurion declares the essential nature of Jesus (15:39).
Table: The Passion Narrative in The Gospel of Mark
Prelude (14:1–31) Two meals: at Bethany, at Jerusalem
Section One (14:32–52) Jesus in Gethsemane
Section Two (14:53–15:20) Jesus on Trial
Section Three (15:21–41) Jesus at Golgotha
Postlude (15:42–16:8) The Tomb: burial, discovery
How are we to make sense of this death? The Passion Narrative of Mark (as, indeed, in all four canonical gospels) relates it to the figure of righteous person who suffers injustice. He takes great pains to show that Jesus remains faithful to his calling despite the pressures he faces.
Jesus, the righteous sufferer
In this Passion Narrative, the author of the beginning of the good news recounts the death of Jesus by relating it to the figure of righteous person who suffers injustice. The author of this Gospel takes great pains to show that Jesus remains faithful to his calling despite the pressures he faces.
The Gethsemane scene draws on imagery from Hebrew Scripture to underline this. The narrative evokes the suffering of the faithful righteous person, a figure found especially in the Psalms.
Like the righteous sufferer, Jesus laments that he is “deeply grieved” in the face of his death (14:34), using the same language as the psalmist (Psalms 42:5,11; 43:5; also 42:6; 55:4; 61:2; 102:9–10; 116:3; and most graphically, 22:14–15).
Jesus continues in prayer, using the language of the prophets who pointed to the divine judgment which Israel would suffer (“remove this cup” evokes the cup of divine judgment; see Psalm 75:8; Isa 51:17; Jer 25:15–16; Ezek 23:31–34; Hab 2:16–17; Lam 4:21). Thus the prophets are used to interpret the suffering which Jesus faced.
Yet this image is transformed from vindictive revenge, to vicarious suffering, in the context of Mark’s Gospel—”the cup” has already been identified with the passion of Jesus at Mark 10:38–39.
The Golgotha scene also contains this orientation. What takes place is interpreted with reference to scripture; here, the allusions are both subtle, and more direct. The cry which Jesus utters at the ninth hour, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” (15:34), is a clear reference to Psalm 22, by quoting its first verse.
As Jesus approaches his death, the psalm focuses attention on the stark moment of utter dereliction. Here, Jesus identifies with the righteous sufferer, who hopes for salvation but still experiences utter desolation. (It may also be important to observe that the psalm moves from the despair of lament (22:1–21) to the hope of thanksgiving (22:22–31). Is this what was intended by the author of the Gospel?)
Indeed, the Golgotha narrative draws extensively on Psalm 22 to express what Jesus experienced on the cross. The dividing of garments and casting of lots (15:24) alludes to the same actions endured by the righteous sufferer at Psalm 22:18 (this is made explicit at John 19:23–24).
Those passing by mock Jesus, wagging their heads at him (15:29), in the fashion of Psalm 22:7, “all who see me mock me”. The taunt, “let him save himself” (15:31–32) reflects the prayer of the righteous sufferer (Psalm 22:8, “he committed his cause to the Lord; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him”).
The offer of wine mingled with myrrh (15:23) evokes Psalm 69:21, which once more is made explicit at John 19:28–30a (this is explicitly “to fulfil the scripture”).
Later reflection, within the early church, recognized that what took place at Golgotha could be understood in the light of the understanding of suffering in the Hebrew Scripture; what happened to Jesus was recognized as fulfilling scripture, as the later addition of 15:28 (added in some ancient version of Mark’s Gospel) indicates (referring to Isa 53:12).
The scenes at Gethsemane and Golgotha are thus steeped in the language and imagery of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is through this Jewish heritage that understanding of this death can be found.
This year in the calendar of the church is what is called Year B. That means that, for the most part, the Gospel reading will be drawn from the earliest, and shortest, account of the life of Jesus that we have in our Bibles: the work that starts, the beginning of the good news of Jesus, which we call, by tradition, the Gospel according to Mark. (In Year A, we have passages from Matthew; in Year C, selections from Luke.)
Except that, with one notable exception, Sunday readings from some weeks ago, right through until Pentecost (this year, falling on 23 May) are not drawn from Mark! Where has Mark gone?
We are in the midst of readings, during Lent, from John (7—28 March); then there will be readings, during Holy Week, once again from John (29 March to 2 April). We will hear an excerpt from Matthew on Holy Saturday (3 April); stories from John and Luke on Easter Sunday (4 April); and then another string of passages from John during the season of Easter (11 April to 16 May).
Pentecost Sunday designates part of John 15, and then Trinity Sunday offers John 3. Stories from Mark are nowhere to be seen. Where has Mark gone?
(To be fair: the lectionary has to do this, if it is to provide a good selection from the Gospel according to John, as that Gospel doesn’t have it’s own year. So its passages are spliced throughout Lent and Easter in all three years.)
The one exception to this Mark-drought is Sunday 28 March. If you celebrate this as Palm Sunday, then a passage from Mark is offered (Mark 11:1-11)—although an alternative from John is provided! If you celebrate this as Passion Sunday, then the whole passion narrative in Mark’s Gospel is offered (Mark 14:1—15:47)—with an alternative being a shorter excerpt from that extended narrative (Mark 15:1-39, with 40-47 as an option).
So it will not be until June before we return to the weekly diet of stories from the beginning of the good news—6 June, to be precise, where we pick up the narrative with Jesus in his home town, surrounded (as is usual in this Gospel) by a crowd, being criticised by his family and accused by some Jerusalem scribes (Mark 3:20-35). Hardly a propitious place to rejoin this early Gospel story.
(And even then, there is a five-week interruption in August, when we hear all bar a handful of the 71 verses in John 6 !)
So: I plan on offering a series of blogs leading up to Passion Sunday (28 March) which deals with elements in the story that Mark first told—at least in written form—about what transpired in Jerusalem, at Passover, during the governorship of Pontius Pilate.
But first, some general comments about this earliest and shortest Gospel.
We know that Jesus did not write an account of his life; in fact, we know of nothing enduring that he wrote. In the New Testament, we have four accounts which relate how Jesus called followers to travelled with him around Galilee, and then to Jerusalem, where they witnessed his arrest, trials, crucifixion, and burial of their leader. Subsequently, they attested that he had been raised from the dead and had appeared to them to commission them for their ongoing task. We have four of these accounts. They each have their own distinctive features.
The story of Jesus is told, first, in thebeginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one, the shortest account. We know this, because of Church tradition, as the gospel according to Mark. This work, it is clear, forms the primary source for two subsequent accounts of Jesus: the book of origins of Jesus, chosen one (the gospel according to Matthew) and an orderly account of the things fulfilled amongst us (the gospel according to Luke).
In this earliest written account of Jesus, we find stories told by Jesus, and stories told about Jesus, which had already been circulating in oral form for some decades. It is likely that some of these stories had already come together in short collections.
The distinctive contribution of this collated story was twofold. First, it places side-by-side a number of different traditions, or collections of stories, about Jesus. Second, these stories are arranged in a dramatic way, beginning with the stories about Jesus in his native area of Galilee, and culminating in the account of Jesus’ passion in Jerusalem.
This work thus provides a much fuller ‘story of Jesus’ than any of the individual oral stories about him. Isolated incidents are placed within a larger context. Individual sayings and deeds of Jesus are grouped together with similar sayings or deeds. Episodes are linked together to form a coherent account of who Jesus was and what it meant to follow his way.
There are two main parts this account of the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one: telling stories about Jesus in Galilee and on his journey to Jerusalem (Mark 1–10) and then telling what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem (Mark 11–16).
But this account of Jesus is more than just a compilation of existing stories. It is infused with vigour and intensity. The story moves from one incident to the next; yet the whole Gospel is a carefully-crafted piece of literature. A sense of drama runs through the Gospel. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is a movie script!
Central to this narrative is a story of conflict. Jesus is set into conflict with the authorities from early on. It is hinted at in the claim that Jesus speaks blasphemy (2:7), and then is revealed in full in the plot that is initiated (3:6). The shadow of destruction hangs over Jesus from the beginnings of his activity.
The tension mounts, from the early days in Galilee, towards the events that will take place in Jerusalem. His own family called him crazy (3:21), the people of his own town took offense at what he was preaching (6:3), and even his closest disciples seemed unable to grasp what he was teaching them (see 8:21; 9:33; 10:35–40).
The popularity of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem was fleeting, even though he acquitted himself so well in arguments with the leaders in Jerusalem (11:27–12:40). His actions in the Temple forecourt were controversial (11:15-17) and it is clear that this incident raised opposition to him to a high level (11:18). The final teachings he gave his disciples begin with a prediction of the destruction of the Temple before recounting the apocalyptic woes that are in store (13:3–37).
The plot hatched by the authorities (12:12; 14:1-2) led them to stir up the crowd to call for his death. Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest followers (14:10, 43-46), all knowledge of him was denied by another (14:30; 14:66-72), and all abandoned him at his point of need (14:50). The tragic climax of Jesus’ death is a scene of utter abandonment: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34). Only some—a group of faithful women—watched from afar (15:40) before they came to provide an honourable burial for the man who was condemned and dishonoured (16:1)—but precisely there, a surprise awaits them (16:2-7).
Yet the account found in thebeginning of the good news is still more than a dramatic account of a tragic death; for this work appears to be a kind of political manifesto, advocating the way of Jesus in a situation of deep tension and widespread conflict. The whole Gospel conveys the significance of Jesus and his message about the kingdom: “the time is near!” (1:15).
This story reveals the key fact that faithful discipleship will mean enduring suffering, as Jesus did. He writes to help believers understand what it means to follow Jesus and to take up the cross (8:34). These were potent words in the Roman Empire; death by crucifixion was the fate in store for criminals, especially those engaged in any political activities which the Roman authorities perceived to be a threat to the peace of the Empire.
Jesus’ injunction to “take up your cross” was advice which was loaded with danger. Was he advocating resistance against an oppressive Roman rule? The story which is told in this Gospel addresses issues which were pressing on the lives of those who told it, read it, and heard it.
Almost all of this work, the beginning of the good news, appears in basically the same order, in the two following accounts—the orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled among us and the book of origins of Jesus, chosen one. (We know these works as the Gospel according to Luke, and the Gospel according to Matthew.)
Both of these accounts expand the story, incorporating additional material—some is found in both accounts, other stories are recounted in one or the other of the orderly account and the book of origins. So the contribution made by the beginning of the good news is significant, and enduring.
In a room in Jerusalem, followers of Jesus gather behind closed doors, their fears intensified by events (John 20:19). They are not connected in any way with the news that had begun to percolate through the city. They are behind locked doors, because their fear was dominating their every thought, their every move.
Thomas was not with them. He was elsewhere; not bound by his fear, not huddled behind locked doors. As we heard his story last week, it may well be that he found some certainty, for himself, after the tragic events of the days around Passover. Perhaps he had moved on, back into his life. But the others were gripped by that fear, that uncertainty.
We know, from our vantage point, that those believers were gripped by fear, even though the most amazing story was being recounted, about what had happened to their leader. The tomb was empty, the body was gone. Some were saying they had seen him, alive. But the group in Jerusalem were unaware, it would seem, of any such dramatic news.
That was the case with others, too. On the road to Emmaus, two followers of Jesus lament that their hopes were shattered (Luke 24:21). They are completely unaware of the identity of the stranger who walks with them; they are caught in their own grief and despair at what they had seen happen.
They knew there had been a betrayal, and a trial; they heard the baying crowd, screaming “crucify him”, they saw a savage whipping. He was nailed to the cross, a savage torture, and they could not bear to watch any more.
He was taken down, they were told, and placed in the tomb. That was it, as far as they were concerned. The movement had ended. Their hopes were all dashed. They were out of there, leaving Jerusalem, heading to Emmaus.
So, on the road, they walk from the fateful city: shoulders stooped, cheeks moist with tears, hearts heavy with grief. A stranger falls into step alongside them. A conversation begins, halting, careful, sensitive. Their deep hopelessness is surely understood by the stranger walking with them. He is gentle. They are grief-stricken. We all know those kinds of conversations: words almost too heavy to utter, sadness from the very depths of distress and despair.
Some days earlier, Thomas had uttered prophetic words, before the critical events had occurred, when he cried, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5). That speaks for how the disciples were feeling, after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. That most certainly points to how the two travellers, on the road to Emmaus, were feeling, that day, as they walked, and talked, with this enigmatic stranger. They did not know which way they were now going. They did not have any sense of joy, or anticipation, about what lay ahead.
The stranger engaged them in a way that led them back, deeper, into what they had hoped for. He talked, asked questions, shared scriptures, offered insight. They told the story, as they knew it, deep in grief, locked into the events of that terrible Friday and the grief of early morning after Sabbath (Luke 24:22-24). They could not hear, could not comprehend, the insights he offered. He pressed hard, berated them as foolish, explained what had happened (24:25-27); but deaf to his words, blind to his presence, they were caught in their unknowing.
Could this sense of fear, uncertainty, and hopelessness, be a point of connection with the story, for us for this current period? In this time of global pandemic, we are in a period of waiting, not knowing, a time of deepened fear and broken hopes. We look around and see that things are different, so, so different, now. We may be afraid for what will happen next. We do not know what is sure and certain, what is transient and passing. Life has suddenly looked so different.
The two on the road arrive at Emmaus arrive and find their home. At this point, they do something quite amazing. They reach out in hospitality, although their hearts are breaking, and they are emotionally tired and worn. As their companion prepares to walk on to his next destination, they implore this stranger—still unknown, still unrecognised to them—to stay with them, to sit at table, to share a meal (24:29).
That was the moment; that was the time, when the familiar actions pierced the darkness of their despair: he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them (24:30). He was in their home; he was guest, they were hosts. Yet he undertook the role of host: they were now in his place, his home.
And as he spoke the words, the familiar words, a recognition dawned in their minds, a hope began to be rekindled, the green shoots of joy began to grow in the midst of their grief (24:31). Could this really be? Could this be the man of Nazareth? The one on whom our hopes depended? The “prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” (24:19)? Yes, the familiar words and actions indicated so. He was, indeed, alive!
It was the breaking of bread which was the transforming event; it was “then their eyes were opened”. In the ordinary and mundane world, suddenly they were aware they were in the presence of God. It was then that the relationship moved into maturity. He was back with them!
Yet at precisely at this moment of recognition, the stranger disappeared from their sight (24:31). The stranger, now known as Jesus, now encountered as risen one. Yet at this moment, they found themselves alone: alone with the certainty of their new-found faith, but together with their leader. And together with others who, in other places, at other times, would experience the same recognition: a flash of awareness, surging joy, and then the sudden disappearance.
Let us remember, then, that precisely at the moment when maturity seemed in view, when the relationship was created: Jesus disappears! Why did Jesus ‘vanish from their sight’? How disturbing that must have been for the disciples!
Perhaps this reminds us, that sooner or later, they were going to have to press on and discover the way ahead for themselves. Those two disciples needed to develop their understanding in relationship with Jesus, but they also needed to go on alone themselves. He couldn’t be around forever. It was impossible for them to hold onto the Jesus they knew.
So too, for all of us, mystical experiences come and go. Moments of assurance are often fleeting. Inspiration is short lived. But despite this, God invites us to remember, and by remembering we create new memories and new possibilities. And as this story notes, hospitality is the open door to enter into a maturity of faith and to gain an expanded vision of what is possible.
And so, at last, the story reaches its climax: not in the spiritual ecstasy of full engagement with Jesus, but rather, returning back home, approaching the gathered group of disciples, zealous to share the excitement of what they had experienced (24:33). “Hey people, look at us; we’ve been changed!! Remember what we were like when we left you? Now we are back, and look what has happened to us!!!”
So the travellers return, expecting to be the missionaries, sharing the gospel, recounting their amazing experience. Out of the darkness of grief and loss, they have moved on to a joyful encounter, to a renewed faith. That’s a sign of hope and encouragement for us, in this period of waiting, unknowing, fearing the worst, hoping for the best. There is the promise of a way out of this current scenario.
The travellers return to Jerusalem, they want to share their excitement, to share that Jesus is alive, to strategise for ways to spread that good news with others. It was time to be identifying with the needy, proclaiming the gospel, being on mission, doing ministry amongst the people.
They have experienced the mission of God, on the road to Emmaus; they know that God has intervened into the passage of history and raised from the dead the once-crucified Jesus. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”, they reflect (24:32). Overflowing with enthusiasm, they want to tell out this news for all to hear! They wanted to tell about the mission of God, at work in the world.
And yet, when they approached the group remaining in Jerusalem, the travellers find they are listening to the stories of the crowd who stayed home – and they too have experienced the mission of God, they too know that God has intervened into the passage of history and raised from the dead the once-crucified Jesus. For they, too, have seen him! (24:34). Overflowing with enthusiasm, they want to tell the travellers from Emmaus what they have experienced!
Might it be, that in these strange, unsettling times, in the midst of continuing uncertainty, in the centre of our unknowing, we might hold to this story? Might we be open to this insight: God comes to us in strange, unpredictable, mysterious ways. May Jesus be present to us, in our unknowing, and enable our eyes to recognise, our hearts to burn, our minds to comprehend. Even now, in this strange, unsettling time. Especially now, in this strange, unsettling time!
As we wait in our homes, as we hope for what will transpire, and we look with faith to the future, may there be a sense that our journey forwards in faith leads us into unexpected delights and enabling encounters, which lead us on to daunting, unforeseen pathways, which become energising, enabling pathways for us all.
So go, journey, travel onwards as the people of the risen one; in the midst of the ordinary, be attentive to the mystery; to the opportunity of the moment, bring gifts and resources; at the time of encounter, be open to the story; and may the stranger that is Jesus guide you, confront you, serve you, equip you to go forth with God’s blessing, to love and to serve. In the name of Christ: Amen.