The annual reading of the passion history offers us an opportunity to see our sinfulness and our salvation.
Peter M. Prange
Since about the fourth century, Christians have read the gospel accounts of the Savior’s suffering and death annually. Perhaps no other Christian tradition has been more beneficial to the life of the church. The Scriptures don’t command us to do this every Lent. But we would be spiritually poorer if we left the passion history unread in public worship during the 40 days leading up to Easter.
LAYING THE FOUNDATION
A small minority might argue that there’s no reason to repeat this tradition year after year because Christians already know the story so well. But how did we come to know it so well? Probably from the yearly reading of the passion history in worship! And while we might know the story well, every new generation of Christians needs the same regular exposure to this central biblical account.
So can those of us who know the story so well simply “check out” during that part of the service, putting up with it for the sake of those who don’t know it as well? Is there any benefit for us to retrace the steps of Jesus’ Lenten journey?
Simply put, it’s necessary and beneficial for every Christian because the passion history—along with the gospel accounts of Jesus’ victorious resurrection—form the very foundation of our Christian faith-life of repentance. These readings are both the ABCs and the 123s of our lives. We can never ponder them enough.
TAKING A NECESSARY JOURNEY
If we don’t receive any benefit from retracing those steps with Jesus, the problem isn’t with tradition; it’s with our hearts and ears. In a sermon preached around 1520 entitled “The True and False Views of Christ’s Sufferings,” Martin Luther highlighted how Christians often fail to weigh the passion history properly, merely considering it a matter of routine reading. “Christ’s Passion must be dealt with not in words and a show,” he asserted, “but in our lives and in truth.” He instructs us how to retrain our hearts and ears so we can receive the benefit the Holy Spirit desires to give us when we hear the story again.
First, hearing the passion history should lead us to ponder both the depth of our sinfulness and the enormity of our sins. When God’s faithful people carefully contemplate how much wrath the eternal Father poured out on his sinless Son because of our sin, “they become terror-stricken in heart at the sight, and their conscience at once sinks in despair.” If God should treat his perfectly obedient Son in this way, how would he have dealt with me, a sinful slug?
But the pondering of the passion must never end there, otherwise you will “miss the opportunity of stilling your heart . . . [and] never secure peace.” It does us no good simply to hear the account only to wallow in self-loathing and sinful despair. Instead, “when we see that [our sins] are laid on Christ and he has triumphed over them by his resurrection and we fearlessly believe it, then they are dead and have become as nothing . . . they are swallowed up by his resurrection.”
Retracing the steps of Jesus’ Lenten journey produces “godly sorrow” which “brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
We may think we know that journey well, but it’s a journey worth retracing every year and every day with ears and hearts open each time.
Peter Prange is pastor at Living Word, Gray, Tennessee.
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Author: Peter M. Prange
Volume 103, Number 3
Issue: March 2016
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