Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
April 1, 2012
JESUS: THE ONE HANDED OVER
Text: Mark 15: 1-15
“God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made . . . .”1 So begins a poem by Christian Wiman written in the aftermath of a diagnosis of a rare and incurable form of cancer he is living with today as in a new life given him. Riven, adj.: split, torn asunder, fractured, shattered. “God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.”
As I meditated on Mark 15 this past week - as a Holy Week practice - - I found myself first struck, even assaulted, by the violent action; then noticed the nine characters; then saw again with broken heart the anti-Jewishness written into and read out of the text. But then came the phrase repeated there which kept echoing inside: “Handed over.” In today’s section the Jewish leaders hand him over to Pilate, then Pilate hands him over to be crucified.
I was told when young that if I wanted to make something of myself it would come by my action, by what I did. Such is no doubt partly true. God works through our action. What I was not told, though it is there at the heart of the gospel, is that God can make something of our “passion” too, that is, what is done to us.
This week leading to Jesus’ death is sometimes called “Passion” week, and today called Palm/Passion Sunday. In this very service we turn from action to passion. “Passion” in its root meaning comes from the Latin pascho, to be acted upon. It is the opposite of poio, to act. If you look in dictionaries all the first and early definitions for passion have to do with being acted upon, as Jesus was acted upon in Holy Week. Only later do the definitions shift to mean what we normally hear in the word: fervor, zeal, enthusiasm, ardor.
In this life we act and we are acted upon, there is action and there is passion, and God is at work in both for our redemption and the redemption of the world, for healing and wholeness. Can we believe this? Believe it in such a way that it makes a difference? Changes the axis on which we live? “By his stripes we are healed,” Isaiah wrote of God’s suffering servant. This is the mystery of the cross, Jesus’ cross, and ours.
Jesus lived a life of dramatic and purposeful action as God’s servant and son. In the power of God and the kingdom drawing near Jesus healed, forgave sins, spoke words as powerful as deeds, scooped up followers and challenged the powers that be, religious and political. On Palm Sunday he rode into Jerusalem on a young donkey, a re-enactment of the prophet Zechariah’s prophesy of a new kind of king (Zechariah 9:9). He turned over tables in the temple and made a prophetic pronouncement about the destruction of the temple, all of which drove the powers that be to conspire to put him to death.
But there was a turning, from action to passion, from doing to letting himself be acted upon. Did you notice his silence all through the loud machinations of power?
You could say his whole life was such an alternation of action and passion, as all our lives are. We can be acted upon in all kinds of ways, by life, by others. Not just by cruelty or cruel fate, but by beauty and love, too. You see or hear something beautiful and something inside of you awakens, comes to life. You fall in love, or you experience the deep love of a parent, or spouse, or child or friend, and life is blessed with goodness. As Judith Viorst has described friendships: “comforting and exuberant, sacred and miraculous connections.” Jesus surely experienced the goodness of God in the beauty of creation and the glory of human love, in the flowers of the field and in the breaking open of the heart in love. And this week he also received the worst the world can give.
The poet Christopher Wiman found his life utterly changed by two events which happened about the same time in his life: he fell in love and was married, and then he at 39 was diagnosed with cancer. Faith came alive in both.
Wiman was confronted with the contingency of life. Contingent: something happening unpredictably, by chance. Both love and cancer happened unpredictably, by chance. A Jungian therapist friend defines “fate”: “Not as what the gods decide about us but the way of things.” It is life as it presents itself to us. We cannot predict or control. And how we like to be able to predict or control. Christian Wiman now writes of his life and faith:
Christ is the only way toward knowledge of God, and Christ is contingency.
Then he asks,
The only way? . . . Better to say that contingency is the only way to knowledge of God, and contingency, for Christians, is the essence of incarnation.2
Was not Christ’s incarnation, God in human flesh, an entrance of God into the same contingency of life we all experience? And this very contingency can become the occasion for the experience of Christ, of God with us, Immanuel. “God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.”
To be acted upon is to suffer. Illness strikes and you end up in the hospital. Being a patient is no fun. Not only is there the physical pain, but it also has its humiliations. You are powerless, put in someone else’s hands, hands you did not choose. Your hospital gown has no back. I think it was Irma Bomback who quipped: “Why is it we can put a man on the moon but can’t take the moon out of the hospital gown?” We are handed over, done to. Needles inserted, attached to monitors and machines. All these may indeed help us get well, maybe even save our lives, but they are still hard, and they are humbling.
Other circumstances can thrust us in to the status of a patient, of being acted upon: unemployment, retirement, poverty, divorce, depression, mental illness, bigotry. Consider the woman in a nursing facility. All her life she has been active, independent, competent, resourceful, unweary in well doing. Now she is stuck in a bed and wheelchair, afflicted with time, being done to and done for, and she wonders what to make of her life now. But God goes belonging to her still.
The last week of Jesus’ life reminds us that there is a truth more profound than the early lessons we learn. God is as much at work in our passion as in our action.
The very phrase “handed over” has become in the New Testament an almost sacred phrase, luminous with meaning. Paradidomi. It is lifted from the lexicon into our heart of hearts and into God’s heart of hearts.
Thirty-two times it is a word used to describe what Judas did to Jesus - - and every time we have ill-translated it “betray.” Only once, in Luke is the specific word “to betray” used. Judas “handed him over.”
So we read, and say, at the Lord’s Table:
On the night Jesus was handed over he took bread and when he had given thanks, broke it and gave it to them and said, “This is my body given for you.” (See I Corinthians 11:23-4).
In today’s text the Jewish leaders hand Jesus over to Pilate, and he hands Jesus over to be crucified. Paul used the word in Romans 8:
If God is for us, who can be against us? God who did not even withhold his own son, but handed him over for us all? Will God not also freely give us all things? (See Romans 8:32.)
We are speaking here not only about the cross, Jesus’ death, but about his whole life given us, Jesus handed over to us from birth to death, manger to cross.
Do you remember the first time you took your child to church and left him or her in the nursery, in other peoples’ hands? It was an early lesson in handing your child over to God, to life, to others, into a world beyond your controlling.
God placed Jesus into a world of contingency and chance. Anything could happen to him. And God has placed us all into such a world where any thing can happen, the beautiful and the terrible. And God has promised to be with us in it all - - which means that God suffers too, as a parent who suffers with all that happens to their child. “God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.”
We are of course much more comfortable with action than passion. So Henri Nouwen writes:
I am inclined to protest against this and want all to be action, originated by me. But the truth is that my passion is a much greater part of my life than my action. Not to recognize this is a self-deception and not to embrace my passion with love is self-rejection.3
This is what Jesus is teaching us this week where he is handed over and over and over: to embrace our passion with love and thus escape self-rejection. Is this not what he teaches as he prays in the Garden: “Abba, not my will, thine be done.” And on the cross, “Abba, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Both are a lifting up of oneself to God, a letting go, a relinquishment, a peace.
Hannah Coulter, the main character in Wendell Berry’s novel by that name tells about trying to go to sleep at night as her mind worries with all whom she loves. She says:
Finally, as a gift, as a mercy, I remember to pray, “Thy will be done,” and then again I am free and can go to sleep.”4
Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent over two years in prison before he was executed. When the last attempt to assassinate Hitler failed his doom was set. Soon after he wrote his best friend, Bethge, July 21, 1944:
Later I discovered and am still discovering up to this very moment that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to believe. One must abandon every attempt to make something of oneself . . . . This is what I mean by this-worldliness - - taking life in one’s stride, with all its duties and problems, its successes and failures, its experiences and helplessness. It is in such a life we throw ourselves utterly in the arms of God and participate in his sufferings in the world (which for him included the Jews) and watch with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, that is metanoia, and that is how one becomes a human being, a Christian.5
So, may we this day lift it all, our action and our passion, our doing and our being acted upon, to God as we walk the way of the One handed over.
1 Christian Wiman, “Every Riven Thing” in Every Riven Thing (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), p. 24.
2 Christian Wiman, “By Love We Are Led To God,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Winter/Spring 2012 (Vol. 40, Nos. 1 & 2).
3 Henri Nouwen, The Road To Daybreak (New York: Doubleday, 1988), p. 156.
4 Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter, (Berkeley: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2004), p. 83.
5 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lakers and Papers From Prison (London: SCM Press, 1956), p. 169. And Letters And Papers from Prison (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), p. 486. I have borrowed from both translations.