Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Saint John
Saint John 18:1 — 19:42
By: Reverend Amandus J. Derr
A heavy responsibility is laid on us this day: On us, this assembly and, particularly on you, the soloists, musicians and choir of Saint Peter’s Church. We have assembled here today to proclaim and experience the Gospel Jesus Christ lived. That, on its own, would be no burden at all.
But we are assembled to experience the Gospel of Jesus through the words which John the Evangelist wrote to his beloved Asia Minor community, 1900 years ago and, even further removed, through the words which Johann Sebastian Bach so movingly and magnificently set to music to be experienced through his beloved choir in Leipzig 285 years ago. The Gospel Jesus lived, the Gospel John’s beloved community first proclaimed; the Gospel Bach interpreted — each in a different time, a different place, in a different language and each in a different context. We are assembled to experience the timeless Gospel, extraordinarily lived, faithfully proclaimed, beautifully composed and, today, magnificently played and sung. It is precisely those last three — faithfully proclaimed, beautifully composed and, today, magnificently played and sung — that makes this as much a responsibility as it is a privilege and as much of a burden as it is a joy to play and sing and hear. Neither John the Evangelist nor Bach the composer intended their work to convey “what really happened” on that day in Jerusalem so very long ago, nor should we expect that today. No, John the Evangelist and Bach the composer wanted to convey to their respective communities what those events in Jerusalem really meant in their time and in their circumstances; and herein lays our burden, for we hope to do the same.
The times and the circumstances of John’s Asia Minor community; the times and the circumstances of Bach’s Leipzig community; and our times and circumstances as a global New York community can — if we ignore or dismiss their affect on the story — deceive us. Tragically this has happened all too often in the past; so that and the Gospel Jesus lived to free us — the Gospel Jesus lived to proclaim how greatly God loves the world — has been turned into a message that binds us, constricts us and grant us pernicious permission to add to the sum of hate in the world which God so loved and sent Christ to redeem and save.
John’s First Century beloved community, Bach’s Eighteenth Century Leipzig community and our Twenty-First Century global community are in many ways quite different, but they have one characteristic and one existential question in common: Each are times of extreme greed-driven uncertainty, instability, perceived deprivation and anger and in each, dominant voices in the community have sought to frame their troubles by asking and answering one simple question:
Who is the guilty? Who brought this upon us?
Are we not asking that every day?
Beloved People of God: In order for the Gospel we experience today to be the Gospel that Jesus lived, the Gospel that is for us; the Gospel of God’s love for the whole world, the answer to that question must always be We, I. Us. Me, But the Gospel John so lovingly wrote and the Gospel Bach so magnificently interpreted has often been perceived as responding with a different answer — “they” or “them” — and, worst, as giving permission to “us” or “me” — in the name of Jesus, no less — to engage in unspeakable actions of revenge, retribution and rage.
We assemble today, not as the pure and innocent, but with hands perpetually stained by the innocent blood of the “thems” and the “theys” (I can mince no words, here) — of the Jews — because “we” have heard this particular gospel and this particular rendering as another Gospel (not that there is another Gospel) which gives permission, even encouragement, to unburden ourselves of our responsibility and to pass that responsibility on, with genocidal consequences, to others. This is a particularly pernicious flaw in humanity — within every human community — and it must not be so among us, neither today nor ever. This is the heavy responsibility laid on us today; a responsibility consistent with every community — from Jesus’ to John’s to Bach’s — even to ours today.
For, despite all-too-frequent misuse, John’s Gospel is not an “us” and “them” Gospel; it was written for a community consciously trying be precisely the opposite — a single one-faith community with two beleaguered branches trying to stay together as one. Not a Christian community versus a Jewish, but an authentic Jewish community made up of some who followed the way of Jesus and some who did not, all struggling to remain together while making equal claim to the heritage of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Miriam, David and Esther. The Jesus whose passion John in the First Century and Bach in the Eighteenth so glorious proclaimed is a Jewish Jesus who, just pages before prayed that all “might be one,” for the sake of the world. He lived and was raised and died a Jew. It is therefore inconceivable for Jesus or the members of John’s First Century community to see that “oneness” as anything but oneness within the Jewish community, neither apart from and certainly not destructive to, the Jewish community. So, when you sing or hear of “the Jews” today, do not think “they” or “them;” think “we” and “us.” Let those words be our confession today.
But let us not stop there, with a confession and a burden. Let us use this Gospel; let it motivate us and energize us, not only to survive these troubled times to change them. Let us take our liturgical experience of shouldering responsibility for Jesus’ dying one step farther by confessing our responsibility and our own contribution to the self-centered foolishness that even now captivates and enslaves us:
Who is the guilty?
Who brought these times and these troubles upon us?
Not just the headline-grabbing “them,” but the not-always-so-complacent us.
Then hear the Gospel, lived, proclaimed and meant for all. Hear the Hebrew biblical text behind John’s Passion narrative: Hear his Passion account as a commentary — a Haggadah — on the Exodus story of God’s Passover promise to God’s people of old. Hear it as a shared text, accounting for the uniqueness of John’s story and the differences between it and the stories told by Matthew, Mark and Luke. Hear it as the Gospel of Christ the Passover Lamb who offers himself on the tree of the Cross to unite as one people, Gentile, Jew and all.
Hear, O Israel: I am the LORD your God who, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, brought you out of the slavery, out of the house of bondage, into freedom of the Promised Land.
This is the Passion of our God. This is the Gospel of the Lord.