Last week, I introduced our theme around making sense of the cross. That we are going to ask questions about the cross: what does it mean? what does it mean to us today? Because throughout Christianity, faithful Christians have not always agreed on what the cross means. Why? Because no one expected the cross. People thought the Messiah, the Savior, would come with power and might. No one imagined the Messiah dying on a cross.
In fact, this disagreement goes all the way back to the gospels. The four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – do not all agree on who Jesus is and what happened on the cross. That’s what I want to do tonight. I want to give us a snapshot of how each of the Gospels gives a slightly and sometimes drastically different picture of Jesus.
Let me ask this: if I asked my mother, my best friend, my wife, and a stranger to each paint a portrait of me…would they all look the same? Why not? Because each of the knows me in a different way, right? Each has experienced me in different settings and situations. Would any of the portraits be wrong? No, they are just different. They simply say something different about me and together they create a fuller picture of who I am.
It is the same way with the gospels. As we come across differences in the gospels about who Jesus is and what Jesus did on the cross, the question shouldn’t be, “Who is right?” Instead, we should ask the question, “What is this gospel trying to say about Jesus?” While they are different stories, they all center around one thing – that a man named Jesus, who is said to be the long awaited Messiah, died on a cross. And now they are trying to make sense of that within their communities. Each Gospel is written to a specific community and thus is addressing the needs of the community. For example, if I were preaching at an inner city church on Sunday, I would preach a different sermon than I would preach to our rural churches. We are different communities, experiencing different things.
Look at all of the words we put on the cross last week – words describing what we think of when we see the cross. Love. Forgiveness. Execution. Salvation. These are all different words that mean different things but none of them are wrong.
So let’s dive into the gospels.
The Gospel of Mark. Mark is writing to a community that has recently gone through suffering and persecution. Fighting between the Romans and the Jews. Their temple has been destroyed and they are afraid for their future.
Listen to the way Mark describes Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane the night before he will die – He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. Jesus says that he is deeply grieved, even to death. Jesus is scared to death about what is about to happen. And then Jesus prays to God to take this cup from him, to get him out of this situation.
This is a very human image of Jesus. He’s afraid. He is distressed. He doesn’t want what coming to him. Remember, Jesus even cries out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Don’t you think Mark’s community could be saying the very same things? So, in some sense, Mark is supporting his community by letting them know that Jesus suffered too and understands what they’re going through. That on the cross Jesus is one who suffers with us.
And did you notice how the disciples are portrayed in Mark’s story? They fall asleep three times when Jesus specifically asks them not to. They completely fail during Jesus’ time of need. Why would Mark portray the disciples like that? I wonder if Mark’s community was feeling like failures. Here their temple is in ruins. Some of them have maybe even denied their faith out of fear of being persecuted. So maybe Mark is trying to emphasize that even Jesus’ disciples were failures, who become afraid, who aren’t very dependable, and who even deny their faith like Peter. Mark is saying to his people – you don’t have to be a hero to be a disciple; you don’t have to have it all together. And that God is found whenever people come alongside those who are suffering.
So that’s Mark. Now, Matthew. Matthew is very similar to Mark. Matthew wants to portray Jesus as one who suffers and is very human. Just as in Mark, Jesus also cries out in Matthew, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But Matthew is writing to a community that is primarily Jewish. But there is controversy in the community about whether he really is the Messiah or not. And it is likely that Matthew’s community is the minority. They are being told by the other Jews around them that Jesus is not the Messiah. So Matthew wants to reassure them and thus, in his telling of the story, emphasizes that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jewish prophecies found in the Old Testament. In the scene at the Garden of Gethsemane, when the soldiers come to take him away, Jesus says two times that this is to fulfill the Scriptures, which is something that Mark does not have in his story. So for Matthew, Jesus is one who is very human, who suffers along with us, and that this really is to fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament.
Now, let’s look at Luke. Luke is writing to a community that is mostly made up of Gentile Christians – meaning they weren’t Jewish and they probably aren’t as familiar with the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures.
In Luke’s story at the garden of Gethsemane, the disciples fall asleep only once. Not three times. Which one is correct, Mark or Luke? Well, remember that isn’t the question to ask. Instead, what is Luke trying to say when he writes that they fell asleep only once. And unlike Mark, Luke gives an excuse for why they fell asleep – they were so upset at what was about to happen to Jesus. So Luke paints a more sympathetic view of the disciples. He shows them as decent people who are trying their hardest and sometimes succeeding. And maybe that is because Luke knows that his community is a group of new Christians, who don’t have the Jewish background, who are simply trying their hardest to be disciples.
Also, in Luke’s version, Jesus still comes across as very human, but he isn’t as afraid. In fact, he is shown to be more compassionate. Remember how in the garden scene, one of Jesus’ disciples cuts off the ear of one of the soldiers coming to get him? In Luke’s version of the story, Jesus heals that man’s ear. A man who is coming to arrest him and have him killed! And then when Jesus is on the cross, he says, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” So Jesus is shown as the compassionate, forgiving, healer who has come to forgive and to save the whole world, not just those who are Jewish, but also those who are Gentile. Not just those are good and well-behaved, but even those who kill Jesus on the cross. It is like Luke is saying to his people: Jesus is not just human, he is compassionate. Especially to those who are outside the Jewish circle. It’s okay that you are not Jewish – Jesus came for all people. And that God can be found whenever people are showing compassion and forgiveness towards one another.
Finally, the gospel of John. Like Mark and Matthew, John is writing to a primarily Jewish community that is going through a stressful and difficult time. You see it is likely John’s community has just been kicked out of their synagogue because they believed that Jesus was the Messiah. But John offers a different form of comfort to his people than Mark and Matthew do.
If you read this same story of Jesus at the garden of Gethsemane in the gospel of John, it will seem like a completely different story. In John’s story, Jesus does not cry out to God in fear to be removed from this situation. Instead, Jesus speaks confidently about it, saying, this is exactly what he is supposed to do. What he has been called to do.
In fact, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is portrayed as the one who is in complete control. He is strong and confident. When Judas and the soldiers come to get Jesus in the garden, John says that it was 600 people in all who came to get Jesus. Why? Because that’s how powerful Jesus is. So powerful that Judas needed 600 men to back him up.
In Mark, Matthew, and Luke, after Jesus has been beaten and tortured, Jesus needed another person, Simon of Cyrene, to carry his cross for him because he was so broken down. But not in John. In John, Jesus carries his own cross. Why? Because Jesus is that powerful and is in complete control.
Lastly, when Jesus is on the cross in the gospel of John, he does not cry out in anger at God, he does not forgive the people have done this to him. Instead, he tells his mother and his beloved disciple that they are family to one another. Jesus creates a new family. So maybe John is saying to his community that has just been kicked out of their synagogue because they believe in Jesus, that they are called to stick together as family that Jesus is creating a new family in them. And while life feels chaotic and out of control, hang tight and persevere because Jesus is strong and powerful and confident. And Jesus will bring them through their struggles.
These are the four unique pictures of Jesus that the four gospel paint. But for all of them, God is found most fully in the cross. To know God, to know who God is, we must continue to keep our eyes on the cross. Though each gospel interprets and understands the cross slightly different, together they create a fuller picture of Jesus on the cross. And each of them gives us a message that we will need to hear at some time in our life. And Mark and Matthew want us to know that God knows our suffering and pain and actually suffers with us. Luke wants us to know that God is compassionate and forgiving. And John wants us to know that Jesus is strong enough and powerful enough to bring us through whatever trials and struggles we might be facing. So thanks be to this God, who is found not in the clouds, but in this life, in flesh and blood and on the cross. Amen.
Note: This sermon is highly influenced by the second chapter of David Lose’s book Making Sense of the Cross.