Sunday’s Sermon, March 24, 2024: Passion For Life

Rev. Cn. Richard Hogue Jr.

            Stories are so important. The story of Jesus’ Passion is the most important story in Christianity. In the wrong hands, a story can be a dangerous thing. The last time I had the privilege of being in this pulpit, I covered some of that dark history in brief terms. As a quick refresher, supersessionism, or replacement theology, is the idea that Christians superseded or replaced the nation of Israel, assuming the Israelite role as God’s people, asserting that the New Covenant through Jesus Christ has replaced the Mosaic covenant. The Passion narrative is seen as a justification for horrific treatment of Jews. Good Friday, for much of the past two thousand years, has been a day of death and destruction in Jewish communities, as Christian leaders and people took part in the destruction of Jewish neighborhoods and lives, especially in Europe.

But it doesn’t end there. Supersessionist theology feeds our worst instincts, and in nationalist movements, and Christian Nationalism is no different. “Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. Christian nationalists assert that America is and must remain a ‘Christian nation.’”[1] If we doubt this movements power, I suggest we look no further than the Dobbs decision by the United States Supreme Court, which in 2022 overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade, or the banning of books, or other assaults on our democracy from within. Wielded for ill, these Holy Week stories can be quite dangerous. And that’s why we must remember they are stories. As always, everything I am about to say is trying to prayerfully follow Jesus, which sometimes means being critical of how we remember this holiest of stories.

“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” The irony of this exclamation is palpable, as Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem eludes any sense of traditions triumph. The reading of the Liturgy of the Palms is littered with obscure scriptural references to give a sense of prophetic fulfillment, just as the Passion does. But for all these stories’ prophetic hindsight, they are stories, like the Cleansing of the Temple, that are not about historical accuracy. Like most stories in Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, they are our ancestors’ reflections on events they couldn’t witness themselves, and they are informed by their own circumstances.

I’m not here to deny that Jesus died an unjust death at the hands of Pontius Pilate and his minions, nor do I deny that Jesus probably angered the highest religious authorities of his tradition. Yet beyond the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, little else makes sense about the details as we have inherited them. If we read the gospels, or virtually anything in Scripture, for historical value first and foremost, then we have already missed the point. These stories aren’t meant to capture and crystallize a moment in time. They are meant to help us, as Christians, meditate on who and what Jesus was attempting to reveal to the world. The stories ask us to ponder the call on our hearts and lives following him.

This “Triumphal entry” into Jerusalem carries some similarities to well-known triumphal march traditions of the time, but it begs questioning, where is the historical record of it outside the Gospels? If it happened, it certainly would have been met with military action by the Romans, who would have brutally put down this upstart crowd and their supposed Davidic king, and they would have written a lot about it as a warning.[2] Some believe that it was hastily organized and could have snuck by unnoticed, but that belies the idea that a crowd appeared with pre-cut palms (ask our altar guild how much organizing that takes), threw their coats everywhere, and then were able to just as quickly disappear unnoticed by the powers that be. Realistically, this is an example of Mark’s writer upending our expectations of what a king does, as Jesus’ leadership is not about conquest, but about servanthood and suffering.[3] “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” That is the most anticlimactic ending to a triumphal march you will find. Mark’s original listeners and readers would have picked up on how weird this was, challenging their expectations.

Likewise, in the Passion narrative, there are several points where the story doesn’t add up. For one thing, there is no historical record of Pilate or any other Roman governor of Palestine forgiving sentences at Passover like the one for the Barabbas character outside of the gospels, despite the gospel saying it was a tradition. It was understood that no Roman governor would let that sort of character walk. Further, the idea that Pilate would abdicate the choice of who receives capital punishment, to a crowd is utterly ahistorical. The only examples of this in the Roman world come from gladiatorial matches, and this was decidedly not a gladiator match. More, Jewish insurrectionists of Barabbas’ sort were not a widespread phenomena in Jesus’ lifetime. They crop up in the record starting in 66 CE, at the onset of the first Jewish War between Rome and Palestinian Jews. A Jewish crowd that somehow spontaneously appears in a well-guarded precinct of a Roman governor’s palace, demanding a specific person’s death, doesn’t square with everything we know about power in that era.[4]

            Knowing we can’t rely on the gospel stories for historical accuracy, where does that leave us as followers of Jesus as we begin our Holy Week pilgrimage? We can start by humbly recanting the abuse of our church’s Scripture and give up the need for scapegoats of Jesus’ death. We can instead focus on why Jesus chose to live and die. Everything he ever knew about this life was a blessing, just as God had blessed all creation, and as all Scripture points too, even with all its muddy human fingerprints. All life is a blessing, and that is why Jesus led a life of healing, teaching, preaching, and loving the people on the margins. Jesus lived the truth, and the truth is that God’s love and blessing are the reality we live in. We act contrary to it sometimes, in our stress, confusion, and frustrations, and Jesus’ Passion shows that the most powerful reject this idea of love. I say again, the truth is that love has already won. How we live that truth says everything about who we are as Jesus’ disciples. That is the struggle he gave his life for. May Holy Week be a reminder of that truth, and may we experience the truth of God’s love fully this week, honoring Jesus. He chose life and love over power and death, and now it’s our turn.


[1] Miller, Paul D. 2021. “What Is Christian Nationalism?” Christianity Today. March 24, 2024.

[2] Adela Yarbro Collins, Hermeneia–Mark: A Commentary, ed. Harold W. Attridge (Minneapolis, Minn: Fortress Press, 2008), 513-514.

[3] Ibid., 520-521.

[4] Ibid., 712-722.

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