Traditionally Protestants call the fifth Sunday in Lent (and the second Sunday before Easter) ‘Passion Sunday, which is the beginning of what is known as ‘Passiontide’. As I began to reflect on the passion or ‘suffering’ of Jesus, my mind went to the first prediction by Jesus of his passion: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering (polla paschein)” (Mark 8.31).
Mark tells us very little about the suffering of Jesus. As in the other Gospels, Mark gives us no detailed description of the horrors of crucifixion. He simply states: “they crucified him” (Mark 15.24). For his readers that was, of course, more than enough. Like everybody else, they knew the truth of Cicero’s words that death by crucifixion was “the most cruel and most terrible punishment”.
The nearest Mark gets to describing the passion or suffering of Jesus is in his account of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. There we read that Jesus “began to be distressed and agitated” (Mark 14.34 NRSV); or as other translations put it, “distress and anguish came over him” (GNB), “horror and anguish overwhelmed him” (REB). According to C.E.B Cranfield in his classic commentary on Mark’s Gospel, the first Greek word (ekthambeisthai) “denotes a being in the grip of a shuddering horror in the face of the dreadful prospect before him”, while according to Karl Barth, the second word (ademonein) denotes “an anxiety from which there was no escaping and in which He saw no help and no comfort”. Or in the down-to-earth language of Eugene Peterson: “He plunged into a sinkhole of dreadful agony” (The Message).
Although for three long years Jesus had been going the way of the Cross, now the reality of what lay ahead began to bit well and truly, and Jesus was appalled. The prospect before him was truly frightening. No wonder he went on to say to Peter, James and John: “I am deeply grieved, even to death” (14.35) NRSV), or in the words of the GNB: “The sorrow in my heart is so great that it almost crushes me”. In many an account we find Christian martyrs facing death with apparent joyful serenity – but not Jesus. “No one”, wrote Martin Luther, “ever feared death so much as this man”. Did Jesus dread the physical agony of crucifixion? Or did Jesus dread even more that moment when he would drink “the cup” of suffering (Mark 10.38: see Isaiah 51.17; Jer 25.15, 27) when he would experience to the full the holy wrath of God against all that is wrong in this world?
All this is familiar territory to any preacher. However, it was not until recently that I began to take a closer look at Jesus’ prediction of his Passion. For Jesus did not simply say that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering”; he went on, “and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed” (Mark 8.31). The suffering lay not just in his death, but also in his rejection at the hands of the religious leaders of his day. This is well brought out by James R. Edwards in his commentary, “It is not humanity at its worst that will crucify the Son of God but humanity at its absolute best. The death of Jesus will not be the result of a momentary lapse or aberration of human nature, but rather the result of careful deliberations from respected religious leaders who will justify their actions by the highest standards of law and morality, even believing them to render service to God (John 16.2).” .
It is in this context that Jesus then said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8.34). In other words, we too are called to share in the Passion of Jesus. For only very few followers of Jesus in the West will this entail literally dying for Jesus; but it may well mean misunderstanding and rejection by people with positions of influence in the church today. There was, for instance, a stage within my own ministry when the leadership I sought to exercise was rejected– my vision was not shared by other members of the board, and I began to know something of the passion of Jesus. What was true in my experience has, alas, been repeated in the experience of many ministers. The fact is that vision means change, and change can be a threat to self-interest and to the status quo, with the result that people invent apparently ‘godly’ reasons to resist and reject not just the vision, but also the vision-bearer, and much suffering can then ensure. As many pastors have discovered to their cost, going the way of Jesus can involve sharing in the passion of Jesus.