Rev. Kit Billings
February 29, 2004
This week I watched “The Passion of The Christ”, the new movie by Mel Gibson, with a clergy friend of mine, the Rev. Bill Foglesong. He and I both felt it was important for us to see this controversial film because we are ministering to congregations of people who may want or need our evaluation or input about the movie. I knew ahead of time that it was going to be the most graphic and violent depiction of the last twelve hours of Jesus' life on earth, and the movie definitely lived up to that billing. However, it also delivered something to me which I feel forever grateful for—a new and deeper feeling for God's great Love for us, as well as a renewed feeling within me that life everywhere has been lifted and protected and healed because of Christ's sacrificical Love and resurrection, which ultimately enabled Him to save us from enslavement to the hells. More than ever before, given the extreme detail with which Mel Gibson labored to help us imagine what Jesus' suffering or passion may have been like, I come away from seeing this film feeling so utterly thankful for what our Lord accomplished and how He fulfilled His mission here on earth within the worst possible situation ever known—through physical torture and crucifixion, through rejection and betrayal, encountering temptations from the demons all along the way.
Yet this film has blessed my own Christian faith. I would agree with Mel Gibson that the Spirit of God was involved in making it. Something very special happened to me by experiencing this film…I believe it's a great tribute to the life and glory of Jesus Christ our Lord.
“The Passion of The Christ” was a very painful movie to watch, one in which I spent time in prayer before hand, asking God to surround me in His Love and Light. I am one of these rather sensitive sorts of human beings, and so there was a part of me that felt worried given how much gore and extreme torture and suffering the critics were saying about this film. As I watched the film I truly felt like I was really “right there” with Jesus as He walked faithfully and courageously into the end of His days on earth, incarnate within a body like my own. It was a stressful movie to watch, in part, because I believe that the Capenter from Nazareth was much more than a really good man, He was Emanuel, “God with us.” And so, whenever His face was struck with terrible blows, it was the Face of Love being hit and spat upon……..whenever the temple guards or Roman soldiers slugged and tortured Him, it was a glorifying Body of Grace which they abused. This is not a film for children to see. It is not a film for those who have great difficulty watching graphic bloodshed and violence, not unless something within you is simply calling you to see it, I believe, in order to walk with Christ through a good depiction of what He suffered on our behalf. That is my advice anyway. It has a lot of bloodshed in it and a lot of suffering. But for certain there was deep, deep purpose in Jesus' passion, since it brought God victory over the hells and so delivered us all out of bondage to evil.
Part of the purpose in the passion of Jesus Christ, for me, is that it reveals that the Divine Humanity of the Lord is willing to suffer with us and not be overwhelmed by even the worst kinds of pain and suffering. Jesus' final twelve hours of life shows us that God's Love is more resolute and devoted to our salvation and support than the evil spirits are in their mission in life, which is plain and simply our destruction and the damnation of our souls. The Lord was scourged, which means His skin was whipped terribly with rawhide strands that had bone fragments in them. He was beaten and slugged and then was forced to carry His cross all the way to His horrifying death. While hanging upon the cross Jesus experienced the worst forms of pain on earth and died slowly over some three hours, as His lungs were gradually suffocated by His body weight while He bled.
So what meaning can we gather from this? Why was this part of Christ's journey? In short because He came to fulfill the Scriptures which foretold of the terrible suffering of the Messiah. Also, because it reminds us that pain and suffering are part of life—in some way, shape or form, our stuggles and battles with evil in life will involve deep suffering at times. Also, that even though physical pain and suffering may come our way, we know from Jesus' choices to litterally hang in there with us that He will not leave our side; He is willing to suffer with you rather than forsake you. Also, the passionate suffering in the Lord's final chapter reveals without a doubt that His Love for us is stronger than hatred. His Love for you is stronger than cruelty. His Love for you is stronger than any cowardice the hells throw at you. His devotion to peace and forgiveness, much greater than anger and hard-heartedness. It just amazed me as I watched the movie how many different instances I would have been tempted to run away in fear, or felt tempted to return wrath for being beaten, or give out condemnation for being rejected. Yet Jesus never did such evil things.
This, we discover, is how the Lord glorified His humanity—He chose love and truth, goodness and faith, over fear, hatred and hard-heartedness. The Lord saved or redeemed humanity by taking on every form and aspect of evil and falsity, choosing His way of love and wisdom instead. He brought His divine Love, and the truth it is wedded to, into every degree and particle of His thought, His affection, His words and His actions. And by doing this completely, never once choosing the way of sin, Jesus Christ saved the world from the overwhelming imbalance of the demonic spirits in life and gave us back our freedom to love Him and follow Him like never before.
In the New Church we teach that Christ's death on the cross was not the greatest moment of it all—it was His resurrection into new life, rising into full Divinity which deserves our greatest praise! That victory, and the truth that God in His Divine Human is not only with us in every possible way but also that His Love has been brought within us, as close as possible to our grasp if we but choose to receive and go with it. The Infinite God of the universe came into our human condition and glorified it…making His own humanness Divine. Thus, we learn, now His Divine Love and power is here fully within your very essence and being, and able to now help you in your own grappling and battling with the hellish forces that are often so terribly attractive to us.
You may wonder to yourself just what does it mean, then, that Jesus came to “bear our suffering” and take upon Himself the sins of the world? Our theology gives us much insight to make sense of this important biblical concept. Our teachings reveal the following:
It is well known in the Church that the Lord is said to have borne sins on behalf of the human race, yet there is no knowledge of what to understand by bearing iniquities and sins. Some think it means that He took the sins of the human race onto Himself and allowed Himself to be condemned even to death on a cross, and that since, because of this, the condemnation for sins was cast onto Him, people in the world have been made free from condemnation. It is also thought that condemnation was taken away by the Lord through His fulfilling the law, for the law would have condemned everyone who did not fulfill it.
 But no such ideas should be understood by 'bearing iniquity', for every individual person's deeds await him after death, when he is judged according to the essential nature of those deeds either to life or to death. The essential nature of them depends on his love and faith, for love and faith constitute the life of a deed. No one's deeds therefore can be taken away by transference onto another who will bear them. From these considerations it is evident that something other than those ideas should be understood by 'bearing iniquities'; but what should be understood may be recognized from the actual bearing of iniquities or sins by the Lord. The Lord bears them when He fights on behalf of a person against the hells; for no one is able by himself to fight against them. Rather the Lord alone does so, indeed constantly for every individual person, yet differently with each one according to their reception of Divine Good and Divine Truth.
When He was in the world the Lord fought against all the hells and completely subdued them, as a result of which also He became Righteousness. By doing that He has rescued from damnation those who receive Divine Good and Truth from Him. If the Lord had not done so, no person could have been saved, for the hells are unceasingly present with a person, exercising control over him to the extent that the Lord does not shift them away. And He shifts them away to the extent that the person refrains from evils. He who is victorious once over the hells is victorious forever over them; and to achieve this the Lord made Divine His Human. The One therefore who alone fights for a person against the hells [Jesus Christ our Lord] - or what amounts to the same thing, against evils and falsities, since they arise from the hells - is said [therefore] to bear sins; for He bears that burden, alone.
(Heavenly Secrets, no. 9937)
The Book of Revelation makes it clear that we will be judged after our natural death according to our choices, or our deeds. It is against divine law that we would instantly merit, through confession of faith, the full salvation of our will and understanding. For the Kingdom of God, and the goodness of its love, must be chosen over time, gradually wanted more than the evil and falsity that our inherited naturalness has lust for within. Clearly spiritual conversion is an enormously relevant victory, but further development and ripening is needed. The Lord does not regenerate our natural will and mind all at once, but gradually, just as He did not instantly glorify His own humanness but only after thirty-three good, long years of life and growth. The holy Scriptures teach that after conversion we must continue our growth in Jesus Christ. They teach that must follow Him and be sanctified through His grace through a life of holiness, goodness and righteousness, which allows Him to regenerate us.
Yet the Lord did indeed bear our iniquity and did suffer for humanity's sins—not to appease an angry God but rather to overcome evil with His goodness and redeem us from slavery to sin. In addition, by suffering on our behalf, as Isaiah's powerful words reveal, the Lord brought and brings wonderful HEALING into our inward, as well as physical, degrees of life. As the New King James version of the Word reads: “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities;…and by His stripes we are healed.” After seeing “The Passion” I feel God's power of healing more than ever before.
The Lord came to bring Divine Love and Truth into our lives, showing us that as we personally take on evil and selfishness as well, God in Christ is with us, helping us remain strong to the end. He showed on the cross that we can truly forgive our enemies, even those who would prefer that we were dead, and pray for those who severely bring us pain. And He is still suffering with us and fighting on our behalf. Ultimately, He is the One who gains victory in our lives, for He is the power who makes it possible for us to fight against evil.
The story of Christ's passion and victory in the four Gospels, in all their bloody detail, makes it crystal clear that God loved us so very much that He came into our world and took our nature upon Him. He fought back then on our behalf and gave us our freedom. He glorified His humanity, making it Divine from His own infinite Love within Him. He ultimately lifted all life everywhere upon His resurrection, and proved that His Love is stronger than hell and every temptation we will suffer through…amen.
As a side note, there appear to be certain parts of the Gospel account that are at variance with historical information. To see a good scholarly article about the nature of crucifixion, see on the web: http://www.uncc.edu/jdtabor/crucifixion.html. Crucifixion was horrifying, yet was done in several different ways. In any way it was performed, it was one of history's most cruel punishments, inflicted as a deterrent to rebellion, as well as inhumane punishment. It is also doubtful that Pontius Pilot would have wanted to avoid crucifying an avowed, albeit philosophical, traitor to the state. Anyone claiming to be “King of the Jews” would most likely have been quickly executed, very likely by means of crucifixion. But then, I believe it is also possible that in Jesus' case, maybe the very cruel, merciless Pilot would have felt something unique. Historically, Pilot was a terrifyingly brutal, ruthless governor. The Gospel depiction of him may have been written into the account to help Rome feel less perturbed with the new Jewish-Christian sect growing following Christ's death. Either way, both the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilot would have very likely wanted to kill anyone who threatened their rule and power over the Jews.
Luke tells us that Pilate tried to appease the Jews by scourging the Lord Jesus rather than crucifying him (Luke 23:22). But the Jews wanted his death. Therefore we read here that the order was given first for our Lord to be scourged and then crucified. This act of scourging was almost as cruel, inhumane, and barbaric as crucifixion. It was done with a multistranded whip. The cords were made of something like rawhide. Each strand had numerous pieces of bone fragments tied into it. When the whip was dragged across a man's back, it literally plowed it up. One lash would be indescribably painful. Our Lord Jesus received thirty-nine lashes from the scourge! Thus the Scriptures were fulfilled. Psalms 129:3 "The plowers plowed upon my back: they made long their furrows." Isaiah 50:6 "I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting." Matthew 20:19 "And shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again.”