We can read the Bible for spiritual growth as we imagine ourselves being part of the story, as we imagine the reactions and feelings of people in the story. Over the years the church has found that the dramatic reading of the Passion can help us grow in our spiritual life. It is not easy. Our natural tendency is first denial. We are rightfully uncomfortable as we begin to put ourselves spiritually into the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
One spiritual effect of this personal participation in the Passion of Our Lord is that us recognize our own guilt, our own participation in the sin that brought Jesus to his painful death on the cross. When we hear Jesus say to the disciples at the Last Supper,, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me,” we begin with the disciples “to be distressed and” we want “to say to him . . ., “Surely, not I?” But Jesus says to us, “It is . . . one who is dipping bread . . . with me”
In our time and in our country we are blessed. We are not in the situation of the Syrian Christians in our own time facing decapitation from ISIS or the 17th century Japanese forced to stamp on a crucifix or Jan Hus burned at Constance, or Martin Luther in protective custody at Wartburg, or Bishops Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley burned at Oxford. Our denials tend to be little ones, mostly sins of omission, failing to give an account of the faith that in in us, keeping silent when we should speak up in witness.
Next Sunday we ask the congregation to read three parts: the parts of the priests and of the disciples, and of the crowd, who cried, “Crucify him, crucify him!” In Jesus’ time the responsibility for maintaining stable political and economic structures was assigned to the priests. We are all in some way or another implicated in maintaining the injustice and sin of the political and economic structures of our time, so we get to share in the priests’ response to Jesus. And we call ourselves disciples, spiritual descendants of the 12 whom Jesus called to follow and serve him, so we get to share the disciples’ response to Jesus. And finally we are all spiritual descendants of the bystanders and the crowd that called for Jesus’ crucifixion and jeered at him on the cross. We don’t escape our participation in the sin of the world that brought Jesus to the cross because we share in the joy of his salvation.
Sin is both individual and collective. We have each fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) in some way, and the society of which we are a part has also fallen short of the glory of God. As Article II of the Augsburg Confession teaches, “all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mothers’ wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God.” The Prayer Book Catechism tells us, “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with others, and with all creation.”
So as we read the Passion we are spiritually convicted of our sin and convinced of our need for the redemption Jesus Christ secured for us and for all the world by his death on the cross. We live in thanksgiving for Jesus’ redemption.
Today’s reading from Jeremiah immediately follows his prophecy (31:29-30), “29 In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ 30 But every one shall die for his own sin; each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.” Jeremiah prophesies a new covenant, written not on tablets of stone like the Sinai covenant but on our hearts, not an external law we obey out of fear, but an internal law of love, a law of gratitude. We are so grateful for God’s covenant of love and continuing presence that we seek to love and serve him in our lives,.
And when we sin, as we will (it is our nature) by God’s grace we are able to repent and return again and again to our Lord Jesus who receives us with open arms, as he did in Galilee, and on the cross, and in the resurrection, and as he receives us forgiven sinners at his table today.