Jesus did not die a good death, at least, not in Matthew’s or Mark’s Gospels. It was not a martyr’s death–well rehearsed and full of confidence to the end. He was not “silent as a lamb before the sheerer.” It was messy and gruesome and in the end Jesus did not go quietly. This carries over into Matthew’s version of the resurrection, the Great Commission passage in this Sunday’s lections, and into our own calls to mission.
Yes, I know it’s Trinity Sunday and everyone wants to jump into explaining just what that means. But before you dust off your favourite three-in-one metaphors and launch into a full-blown apologetic for the dogma of the Trinity–all clovers and trees branches and what not–you would be wise to go back and consider the crucifixion and resurrection for a minute. This will probably lead you away from doctrinal apologetics and towards proclaiming Jesus, which is always good thing. “Put down the three-leafed clover and step away, Reverend, no one needs to get hurt!”
The Gospel of Matthew appointed for this Sunday wants to wrap things up as neatly as possible, which turns out not be very neatly at all. The disciples, now reduced from the elegant and immanently divisible twelve to a broken, prime-numbered eleven, shuffle back to Galilee as commanded by an angel and Jesus himself (if Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” were to be believed). Matthew puts them onto an unnamed mountain (aren’t all Palestinian mountains the same, anyway?) to have an encounter with Jesus, now resurrected.
It’s an odd scene. When Jesus finally does appear to the eleven “they worshipped him; but some doubted” (28.17b). What’s that doubt about? Isn’t the appearance of the Resurrected Jesus enough to stir faith? I think to get at the heart of this doubt we have to understand just how far Matthew’s vision has drifted from the expectations set-up throughout the preceding 26 chapters.
All through the Gospel of Matthew we have seen the secret Messiah preach an uncompromising ethical code. In Matthew 18 we are advised to self-mutilate rather than succumb to temptation. All the talk of hell and burning fire and millstones doesn’t soften the message much; this is a Jesus who means business. So what happened? How could he die screaming, convinced that God had abandoned him? What happened to the perfect crusader purifying the Temple and demanding that his disciples put a hand on the plow without looking backward?
Jesus’s death, in Matthew’s telling, just wasn’t a hero’s death afterall. Consider the last moments in the different Gospels. John gives a portrait worthy of a great martyr:
19.28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
This Jesus is in total control of the circumstances, timing, and meaning of his death. Now, think on Luke’s picture:
23.44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last. 47When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.’
This is a death with cosmic significance whose meaning is evident to all who observed it. But in Mark and Matthew we get a much more “human” Jesus. Here’s is Matthew’s account:
27.45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ 47When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘This man is calling for Elijah.’ 48At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49But the others said, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.’50Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.
Jesus is utterly broken and desolate. He did not proclaim his mission to be finished. He did not surrender his spirit into the Father’s hands. He went screaming into the abyss of death. A human death.
Richard Swanson tells a story of reading this passage in a class on dramatizing scripture. After a session a student came to him and said that he shouldn’t ask the class to read this passage because it would confuse the weak-of-faith. Matthew’s version of events is disturbing to Christians who assume that Jesus died like a god should die–full of Truth and gravitas.
It’s a human execution–and only when we embrace that can we find a human resurrection on the other side of it. Not a mere resuscitation–a resurrection able to transcend the blood and fear and screaming of a few days previous. Perhaps no one was more surprised by the resurrection than our Lord, himself, when we “woke up.”
This is good news for those worshipping-yet-doubting disciples then and now. It’s not about marching in confidence through the veil of death like it’s wispy curtain. It’s not about perfect behaviour or perfect faith. This is a religion for people who don’t necessarily go to their deaths like gods full of perfect knowledge and steadfast faith–this is a religion for world in which tortured people break, and where the dead go screaming and feeling abandoned. If you can find resurrection in that, than a handful of doubt is mere straw to God’s life-giving power.
Sermons on the doctrine of the Trinity are probably important, and I won’t blame you if you go down that route. But sermons on doubt are probably even more important. Don’t be afraid to down into the hellish depths of what real death or real doubt look like, because that’s precisely what Jesus did–and see, he is alive and sends us out to teach and to baptize.