The pending release of the film Son of God reminded me of what I wrote back in 2004 with the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Which also reminded me of the large scale recruitment of church audiences by the producers of The Mission in 1986.
Experiencing the Passion of the Christ
The following was originally written in 2004 while Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was during its long run in theaters and many evangelical Christians were expect the movie to provide a great evangelistic opportunity. It was only a few months later that I check into The Founder’s Inn, Pat Robertson’s very classy hotel on the grounds of CBN and Regent University, with the bellhop breathlessly informing me that Mel Gibson was the immediate previous guest in the executive suite where I would be staying.
A week ago Sunday I experienced the Passion of Christ. It made Jesus more real to me than anything else I could imagine. Through it God actually spoke to me and testified to me of His love for me through Jesus. I felt convicted of my sins—my wandering, cold heart, my diffuse purpose in life. It was as a friend told me his own teenage daughter had said: “I did that to Him.”
But my sorrow was eased by the hope of Christ’s pleading for my forgiveness and His rising from the dead for my life. I left there with new confidence that God loved me and that I could truly experience freedom from the powerlessness of a fallen nature. My confidence was renewed that the gospel is the hope of the world.
Later that week I saw Mel Gibson’s movie. Confused? I expect so. What I was talking about before was not the movie, but Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. Are you nonplused now? I suspect a lot of people might be. After all, seeing The Passion of the Christ has been a memorable experience for almost everyone who has seen it, including me.
This is not a critique of the movie. There are, of course, questions that need to be considered. Is the movie faithful to the history recorded in the Gospels? How do the beatific visions of a 19th century nun or the Eucharistic theology of the Roman Catholic Church influence the film? Given evangelical furor over Judge Roy Moore’s stand for the Ten Commandments, why aren’t evangelicals at least discussing how Number Two (the graven images thing) applies, especially given the Larger Catechism’s prohibition against the use of images? There is probably a helpful distinction to be made between uses of images in worship versus instructional representations of Jesus, but I haven’t even heard the issue raised. What about how the movie stretches, if not breaks, the hypostatic union – the simultaneous full humanity and divinity of the one person Jesus? The sustained beating and scourging of Jesus in the movie – granted enormously more proportion than in the four canonical gospels – leaves the viewer with the impression that Jesus had superhuman strength. Is this sound Christology? I felt as if I were really seeing Mel Gibson on the screen, the architectonic hero who takes a licking and keeps on ticking, rather than the fully human Jesus.
The movie may distract us into thinking that the greatest suffering of Jesus was the physical pain of the crucifixion. Without question, the greatest dimension of his suffering was his bearing the wrath of God upon His soul, including alienation from the Father—draining to the dregs the sour cup of the God’s wrath. (cf. Isaiah 51:17; John 19:30). This cup was taken from our lips and touched the lips of Jesus so that he was able to say “It is finished.” (Isaiah 51:22) We mustn’t forget either that the humiliation of the second person of the Trinity began at the incarnation, that his whole life constituted vicarious (substitutionary) misery.
Worthy questions to consider (if not answer), but they have nothing to do with my point. It remains to be seen whether God is going to use The Passion (possibly our confidence might be tempered to reflect back upon the religious awakening promised as a result of 9/11) or whether we evangelicals have once again demonstrated our own passion for consuming all things Christian. “Slap a fish on and sell it to the born again at a 20% markup.” But whether or not God is using The Passion, He has sworn to use His ordinances—prayer, sacraments, the Word and the preaching of it.
Think about what Holy Communion means. In it, we Presbyterians believe that Christ is spiritually (really, not just symbolically) present. His death becomes bread and drink to us. It’s not just a reminder. It’s not just to make us feel bad about what it took. We get fed . As I like to say, “The funeral becomes a feast.” And the communion with Christ we enjoy is so intimate, that eating and drinking are not too intimate to describe it. In the eating and drinking, I look around and see that I am part of the new people of God as I rightly discern His body—the church—as a people from every tribe, tongue and nation.
Further, in baptism I was buried with Jesus in His death and raised with Him to newness of life. And, if I take the advice of WLC 167, I improve upon that baptism every time I hear a pastor audacious enough to claim a little child of the covenant on behalf of the Church of Jesus Christ and, in the name of the Triune God, command Satan to stay away from this believer’s child because holy terror guards her.
Then there’s the preached Word. Romans 10:14-17 tells me that Jesus kept the promise he made when He said other sheep (you and me and every other non-Jewish Christian) would hear His voice (John 10:16). Faithful preachers don’t just preach about Jesus, they are the voice of Jesus to His sheep. The “sent ones” (we call them ministers of the Word) are the very voice of the Good Shepherd.
There are other ordinances that provide us grace—the Lord’s Day, fasting, solemn vows, church discipline—but the Word, sacraments and prayer are the big ones.
In a sense I feel sorry for Jesus, having to compete with Dolby Surround Soundâ and Hollywood’s juggernaut of a publicity machine. We would wait in vain for Katie Couric and Mary Hart to tell us when the bread and cup are going video. I love movies. I had a beatific experience when I saw Forrest Gump (all three times). Mel’s movie is powerful. But it never occurred to me that it was even a close second to the sacraments. Do you want to make disciples of Jesus? Make sure they move from the popcorn stand to the table. As you know, it’s been almost two millennia since Christians were accused of cannibalism because they ate the body and blood of Jesus. Let’s try to gain back this undeserved, but understandable reputation.
2014 Postscript: Movies come and go, but producers of all-things-Christian have faith that the Faithful are usually faithful consumers. I confess that when these great Christian cultural events come along I feel like that high school janitor waiting for the senior prom to end. The kids are cute in their gowns and tuxes, love blossoms, but when the lights come on life goes on.
Let’s not forget what actually does make a difference. The Word of our God stands forever (Isaiah 40:8). In these final days God has spoken his ultimate and final word in His Son (Hebrews 1:1-2). The promise Jesus made that His sheep would hear His voice (John 10:16) is kept in the preaching of His word (Romans 10:14-17).
 Wesminster Shorter Catechism Q. 27. Wherein did Christ’s humiliation consist?
A. Christ’s humiliation consisted in his being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross; in being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time.
 Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 167. How is our Baptism to be improved by us?
A. The needful but much neglected duty of improving our Baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others; by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.
 “The preaching of the word of God is the word of God: Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.” (Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter 1)