Philippians 2:6-11/ Luke 22:-23:56
Imagine you are directing a movie. It’s a controversial movie about the life of Christ. And suddenly, during the Sermon on the Mount, your lead actor, who plays Jesus, is struck by lightning. Someone sees fire on the left side of his head and light all around his body. Smoke is seen coming out of his ears. Cast members are screaming. Wouldn’t you think, if you are the actor playing Jesus that, just maybe, God was telling you something?
Well, such an event really occurred during the shooting of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. Jim Caviezel, the actor who played Jesus, was struck by lightning. In his own words, for a few moments he “looked like he went to boxing promoter Don King’s hairstylist.”
Now, let me hasten to say that I don’t believe God was trying to send Jim the actor a message. Or Mel Gibson. At least, I don’t think so. Still, the movie did offend many people who felt it was unnecessarily anti-Semitic. Of course, Mel Gibson’s later run in with the law did nothing to dispel that perception. And that’s a shame.
Many people were moved by Gibson’s portrayal of Christ’s passion. And why shouldn’t they be? It tells the story of the most magnificent and most important drama ever recorded. You know the story well.
It begins on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus and his disciples have gone to pray. “Pray,” Jesus says to them, “that you will not fall into temptation.” Then he withdraws about a stone’s throw away, kneels down and prays, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” Then something beautiful and mysterious occurs. An angel from heaven appears to him and strengthens him. In his anguish, he prays more earnestly. His sweat, like drops of blood, falls to the ground.
Rising, he returns to the disciples, and finds them asleep. “Why are you sleeping?” he asks. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”
While he is still speaking a crowd comes up, led by his former disciple, Judas. Judas approaches Jesus and kisses him. Jesus asks, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” And, of course, he is. One of Jesus’ disciples wants to defend the Master. He draws a sword and strikes the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. Jesus touches the man’s ear and heals him. So like Jesus! They come to him to do him harm; he comes to them to heal not only their bodies but their hearts.
Then they seize him and lead him to the house of the high priest. Simon Peter follows cautiously behind. He warms himself in front of a fire near the place they are interrogating his Lord, and there in that courtyard on that fateful night, Simon Peter denies his Master three times, just as Jesus had predicted he would.
Inside the house the men who are guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. Then Pilate begins his interrogation, but he can find no basis for charging him. So Pilate shuffles Jesus off to Herod. Herod is pleased. He wants to see Jesus perform a miracle. Who can forget Herod’s taunts in the rock musical of the 70s, Jesus Christ Superstar? “So if you are the Christ, yes the great Jesus Christ, proved to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool.” But Jesus ignores Herod, and so Herod has him beaten and sends him back to Pilate.
Pilate, of course, wants to wash his hands of this man Jesus. And so he offers the mob a choice, Jesus or the murderer, Barabbas. “Give us Barabbas,” they scream. “But what about Jesus?” asks Pilate in dismay. “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
There he hangs on a lonely hill called the Skull. Two other men, both criminals, hang on either side. In the midst of it all Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And the soldiers divide up his clothes by casting lots.
One of the criminals hurls insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebukes him. Then he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Darkness descends over the whole land for about three hours. Then all three of the synoptic Gospels tell us something both fascinating and significant: when Jesus was crucified, the curtain of the temple was torn in two. An important symbol, a torn curtain.
Torn Curtain was the name of a movie filmed during the Cold War by famed director Alfred Hitchcock. It featured a US rocket scientist played by Paul Newman and his fiancée played by Julie Andrews. Torn Curtain was a spy movie set behind the so-called Iron Curtain in East Germany. Many of us grew up with the real significance attached to the figurative curtain that hung between the communist world and the free world. Later, we saw this infamous Iron Curtain torn down. What a great day it was. It happened so quickly, and so unexpectedly. But the tearing of the curtain between East and West was not nearly as significant as the torn curtain we celebrate today.
All of us are familiar with curtains. Many of us think of the curtains hanging in our home. Lace window curtains. Plastic shower curtains.
It is here that I would like to paraphrase Robert Frost, “There’s something that doesn’t like a curtain.” Sometimes it takes courage and compassion to listen to another human being on the other side of a curtain. It takes even more courage to tear a curtain down, a curtain that has been raised by your fears. Curtains. I’ll bet you never thought of them as a test of your faith in Jesus.
“The curtain of the temple was torn in two.” The curtain that was torn on the day Jesus died is more critical than any recollection of curtains that we might have. The curtain in the passion drama is the temple curtain–the curtain used to separate the place called the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple.
According to James Stewart, the great Scottish minister, the curtain was there to fulfill a double function: On the one hand, it was there to keep mortals out— a warning to sinful humanity to stay away, to keep a respectful distance from all of the mystery surrounding God. On the other hand, it was there to shut God in. For behind the curtain there was silence deep as death and darkness black as night even when the Syrian sun was blazing down outside.
Stewart also describes how the people were fearful of whatever lay behind the curtain. In fact, whenever the High Priest entered that sacred area, they would tie a rope around his waist. This was in case he died while standing in the presence of God, so they could pull him out. In effect, “what the curtain seemed to say was, ‘Stand back, keep your distance, God is not for you.”
The curtain not only separated people from God, it also separated people from people. Only the high priest could enter God’s holy presence in the Holy of Holies. Priests could come closer than Jewish men. Jewish men could come closer than Jewish women. And Jewish women could come closer than the Gentiles. The curtain was part of a system that kept up barriers between Jew and Gentile, male and female, clergy and laity.
Today we celebrate the fact that at Christ’s crucifixion the curtain was torn. Matthew and Mark tell us it was torn “from top to bottom.” At that point humanity entered into a new relationship with God and with one another. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the torn curtain.
But there is one more curtain that was rent in two on that cross 2000 years ago. It was the curtain that veiled death–the curtain that separates us from those who have gone before us. We’ll talk more about that next Sunday, Easter Sunday.
Do you remember the name Lee Iacocca? Most of you will remember him as the man who saved Chrysler Corporation from bankruptcy. Iacocca wrote a book when he was still a household name. A book titled Talking Straight. Here is what he had to say about the torn curtain between the living and the dead: “As I get older, I think more and more about what comes next. I know there’s got to be something else after this life is over, because I can’t grasp the alternative. I can’t imagine that through all eternity I’ll never see anyone I love again, that my whole awareness will just be obliterated. I can’t believe that we are only bodies passing through.
“When I muse about this, I think of all the great moments I had with my father. It’s inconceivable that I had this wonderful life with him and then suddenly the curtain dropped. Instead, I want to believe I’m going to meet up with him again. I also want to have the opportunity to catch up with Mary, if only to tell her what I forgot to tell her, and to meet all my lifelong friends who have died. I do think they’re out there someplace.”
He’s right, you know. Another curtain torn into shreds by Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. When Jesus was crucified, the curtain of the temple was torn in two. The curtain separating humanity from God; the curtain separating humanity from one another; the curtain separating us from those we love who have gone ahead of us. And this is how this part of the drama ends: Jesus calls out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Saying this, he breathed his last. A centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.” Beloved, thank God for a torn curtain.