A S E R M O N F R O M W A S H I N G T O N M E M O R I A L C H A P E L
Sermon preached at all services by
the Reverend Mark Nestlehutt
In the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem lies the Via Dolorosa or the Way of the Cross—a route that follows the last hours of Jesus’ life from trial by Pontius Pilate (Station One) through his body being placed into a tomb (Station Fourteen). The geographical Via Dolorosa is de-fined by faith and not by history. Beginning in the fourth century, Christian pilgrims would process through Jerusalem as an act of piety. And this practice continued through the Mid-dle Ages and into the present, with the current stations taking shape in the 19th century. About half of the fourteen stations can be found in scripture—the trial, the carrying of the cross, the striping of his clothes, being nailed to the cross, his death, removal from the cross, and the placement of his body into a tomb
The Via Dolorosa begins well after Jesus’ en-try into Jerusalem. There’s no need to deal with the change in tone from the excitement of Palm Sunday to the despair of the Passion. Most of what we find on the Via Dolorosa occurred out-side walls of the Old City at a place called Gol-gotha—the place of the skull. It is the place where this morning’s Passion story ends—where Jesus calls to God, commends his spirit, and takes his last breath and where the Centu-rion proclaims, “Certainly, this man was inno-cent.” It leaves us in an uncomfortable place—a place we’d like to avoid. We’d like to focus on the joy of Easter and the Resurrection, without the discomfort of the cross and the crucifixion. One way that we make this easier is by skipping Palm Sunday and Good Friday altogether. Another, less overt way to accomplish this, is by assigning Jesus superhuman attributes and ig-noring his humanity. We downplay his suffer-ing, his feelings of abandonment, any of the all-too-human responses to his situation.
If there is anything that Mel Gibson accom-plished with his film The Passion of the Christ, it was to bring home the agony and suffering of the earthly Jesus—the whips, the floggings, the nails being driven through his hands and feet. A more clinical description provided by the Mayo Clinic notes how once the cross was lift-ed into place, the weight of Jesus—or any man’s body—would tear tissue and tendons as gravity pulled against the weight of the body. Breathing becomes labored—shallow breaths, with an inability to exhale. Actual death would result, not from injury, but from asphyxia-tion—you literally suffocated on the cross. In the end Jesus death on the cross would look like any other person’s death on a cross—a case of a man being tortured to death. And if the death itself wasn’t bad enough, we have to contend with Jesus’ abandonment by his closest friends—especially Peter, who denies knowing Jesus not just once, but three times.
Most of us are familiar with the Passion sto-ry. Many of us can tell it from memory. We remember Pontius Pilate Herod, Peter, and the others. But there is one character in the Passion drama who doesn’t merit his own line—even though he appears in three of the gospel ac-counts of Jesus death. Earlier in the story, after Jesus is condemned to death, another man is asked to carry the cross for Jesus. His name is Simon of Cyrene. We read in te various Gos-pels that he was a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, a father of two boys Alexan-der and Rufus. Regardless, he is the man who comes to Jesus’ aid. He helps to carry the bur-den.
Each of us is given the opportunity from time to time to lift some burden from someone else’s back, and when we do so, it is as if we lift the weight of the cross from Jesus’ back. And as Christians, we are asked to be Jesus’ hands and heart in this world. It doesn’t matter whether it is helping someone carry a bag of groceries, paying a utility bill, or rebuilding a hurricane damaged home. Anytime that we Chris-tians lend our hand to help someone in need, to ease someone’s burden, we follow Simon’s example. Yet, most of us find ourselves in the crowd, watching the events unfold with all the others. In Luke’s Gospel, we are either at the foot of the cross beating our breasts, or off at a dis-tance with Jesus’ friends and the women from Galilee. Jesus is dead and they are left alone in the moment. They will never forget that mo-ment. Are they in shock? Are they sad or con-fused? Are they angry or hopeless? Perhaps, they are all of the above? If so, it is a most ap-propriate state in which to begin this Holy Week journey.