Saturday, March 30, 2013

Sermon, Good Friday

Today is the last really big day in Lent.  On Ash Wednesday we were called to the observance of a holy Lent by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.  On Palm Sunday we prayed and contemplated upon those mighty acts whereby we have been given life and immortality.  Through Lent I have been preaching around a theme of wilderness; and if you haven’t noticed the wilderness before, it is certainly unmistakable now with the bare sanctuary and the reading again of the betrayal, desertion, crucifixion and death of Jesus.

But while Palm Sunday can seem shocking at times, what with the festivities around the blessing of palm, procession and triumphant music which becomes overtaken with the reading of the Passion and all of us shouting, “Crucify him!” there is no such shock today.  I think we need time to sit and contemplate those mighty acts on Palm Sunday and begin to acknowledge our role in the event, which is why I traditionally do not preach a sermon that day. 

By now, however, we are fully immersed in the events of Holy Week.  Palm Sunday introduced us to the week.  Yesterday, Maundy Thursday, we shared a meal with friends and turned our backs on Jesus, stripping the altar as a symbolic gesture to show we chose the world over Christ.  Today we turn him over to the authorities, watch him die on a cross and see him buried.  We are all complicit in those acts.  We all played a part in allowing Jesus to be crucified.  We all made our choice on which side we chose to stand.

Yes, Jesus died for our sins.  Yes, Jesus died for the sin of the world.  No, I do not think the Jews are “Christ-killers.”  Yes, I think the Romans were responsible for the act of crucifixion.  Yes, I struggle at times with the Atonement.  No, I don’t hold to Anselm’s penal substitutionary version of atonement which states that Jesus died as a debt paid to the Father.  But amid all of these questions of who is responsible and why Jesus’ death was necessary is the issue of choice.  More than anything, I think the events of the Passion revolve around the issue of choice.

For our part, we chose to shout, “Crucify him!”  We chose to turn our backs on him last night and strip our sanctuary of everything that says, “God is in this place.”  We choose between the power of the world and the power of God.  And in the gospel, people make those same choices.

The Jewish religious leadership of the day, headed by Annas and Caiaphas, made the decision to sacrifice one man for the safety of the nation – “It is better that one man die than all of us.”  They feared repercussions from the Romans and they feared repercussions from other Jewish leadership, so they chose to put the needs of the institution over and above the desires of God.  In Jesus they saw a threat to their place of privilege, so they chose to follow a theology of scarcity rather than the theology of God’s abundance.  They chose to manipulate the legal system in such a way that they could call for the execution of Jesus while maintaining their religious purity.  And, after hundreds of years claiming God was their king, they chose to proclaim the emperor as their king as a political tactic for serving their own purposes.

Pilate also made choices.  The image of Pilate we get from John is more sympathetic that reality.  Historians paint him as a ruthless bully.  But John isn’t necessarily interested in historical fact; John is interested in making a theological point.  So here we see Pilate struggle with the choice of releasing a man of God or of bowing to the political pressures of the day.  He chooses the latter.  He first chooses to attempt to walk a fine line of compromise; but his compromise involves satisfying the blood-lust of the crowd and keeping his own position as governor.  The flogging of Jesus, however, doesn’t work.  When the crowd cries, “You are no friend of the emperor,” Pilate chooses to act in a way that will not send a negative report of him to the emperor.  Ultimately, Pilate chooses to do the safe thing over the right thing, he chooses worldly power over godly power.

Jesus also makes choices.  Jesus chooses to follow the will of God, proclaiming salvation to those near and far, male and female, clean and unclean.  Over and over again Jesus chooses to exhibit the love of God to all people, breaking down barriers and challenging traditions that work to keep oppressed people oppressed and powerful people powerful.  When faced with the angry mob and the power of the Roman Empire, Jesus chooses a path of non-violence over a path of escalating violence.  And he chooses to follow the Truth of God that says all are welcomed and all are loved, as opposed to the claim of the world that says you are only loved if you are of benefit to me.

On this Good Friday, we stand with the Jewish leadership, with Pilate and with Jesus as we all make our choices.  The world will continually choose inequality over equality.  The world will continually choose to put the desires of the ‘haves’ over the needs of the ‘have nots.’  The world will continually fight to maintain institutions and systems that only benefit a few.  God, on the other hand, will choose equality over inequality.  God will choose the needs of the ‘have nots’ over the desires of the ‘haves.’  God will choose a system of love over a system of hate.

Our reading of the Passion may simply have been a reenactment that gives us a sense of being there.  We may not be directly responsible for the betrayal, desertion and crucifixion of Jesus.  But on this Good Friday, we are asked to choose which side we prefer:  will we choose to act the way the world wants us to act, or will we choose to risk everything and act the way God asks us to act?

It is this choice that is the real point of Good Friday.


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