Passion for the Desperate

Passion for the Desperate

• If you haven’t seen The Passion of Christ, it’s free with Amazon Prime right now. When we read the Gospels, our imaginations take us only so far. It is a thing of force to see the Lord’s trial and death fully imagined and to be awakened by the vision. I read recently of a Russian pastor, Yuri Sipko, who said, “when I meet with brothers in faith, especially young people, I ask them: ‘name three values as Christians that you are ready to die for.’ This is where you see the border between those who are serious about their faith and those who aren’t.” Christ calls us to a death that is the beginning of life and hope. The reflection below is from a few years ago.

• Jesus was crucified. Everyone knows this. No one knows this.

• Everyone knows it in the sense that the crucifixion is a matter of public record. No one knows it in the sense that it long ago became a highly-processed strand of western cultural lore—like Robin Hood or King Arthur. At this distance, the actual setting and circumstances of the crucifixion are rarely the object of realistic reflection. We look at Jesus through the wrong end of the telescope to see just how defeated, dirty, and trivial the man on the cross must have seemed to the casual observer of the day: another victim of an indifferent authority determined to keep order and taxation. For a thousand tickled ears, entertained by Jesus only a few weeks or months prior, it must have been, “Well, that’s over. Let’s get some food.”

• How offensive must a man be before he can be crucified publicly and no one comes to his defense? Technically he was executed by Roman and Jewish leadership on the grounds of sedition and blasphemy. But the crucifixion was also made possible by the passive consent of merely religious onlookers, who tend to have a more vicious hatred for the real thing than those who never believe at all. For the partially-engaged, passion and complete abandonment can become threatening.

• What Jesus offered was not really attractive to any but the desperate and the sick – those whose lives were lying broken at the bottom of some hole until Jesus came and pulled them out, dressed their wounds, and embraced them: a demoniac who lived among the dead; a bleeding woman from whom doctors had taken money and hope; a blind man by the road; a cripple by a Roman bath; a selfish man watching from a tree. To any but these, what he taught sounded like blasphemy or mere nonsense (“born again,” “eating flesh,” and so on). Even those who found themselves drawn to him quickly scattered when the end came, as he had said they would. The only ones who remained were those who had literally nowhere else to go. Literally, nowhere else.

• And there amid squalor The Way began. How lurid the crucifixion and Resurrection must have sounded to first-time hearers, the way the rituals of a Bayou voodoo cult might sound to us. How odd to go to Jerusalem for some annual Jewish festival and be told that the man (“Think hard… several months back…”) who had been crucified with a couple of criminals was in fact not dead. Inexplicably, miraculously his body had left the tomb alive. Then you were urged to see that his death had been connected to you personally, which would have been doubly strange. You were urged to face yourself honestly, to admit fully what you had always known in part: that even from childhood you had harbored and acted on a self-serving evil in your heart. The unspoken blackness. Face it, admit it, confess it and be done with it—forever. This was all possible because the man had died on a cross that had your name on it.

• This two-fold difficulty—vesting hope in a crucified drifter and facing one’s own black heart—has always prevented most people from following. In the end only the desperate are followers. Only those who cannot self-medicate the nagging guilt and indescribable emptiness. All the rest are seeking some way to bear his name without sacrificing too much. Yet the demoniacs know even the loss of all things is a small price to pay to find themselves, for the first time in years, at peace, clothed, and in their right minds.