My sermon from Good Friday (March 30, 2018) on the Passion according to John. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
One of the insights to faith that I like to borrow from our Jewish siblings involves the Passover. Tonight, Jewish people all over the world will gather together around tables to tell the story about who they are and what God did for them. They are doing more than celebrating sharing a history lesson. Passover is when every Jewish person is invited to re-experience the story of the Exodus. They are binding themselves to the story of who they are. The words, smells, and tastes of the seder meal re-connects them to the words, smells, and history of their own story. When the Jewish people celebrate Passover, they are emboding and embracing a history, an identity, and a reality that began in the fields of Egypt 3300 years ago and continues into this very day.
So tonight I’m going to invite all of us to do something similar. Let’s spend this moment re-experiencing Jesus’ story. The sights and sounds of Jesus’ story are meant for us. Now, there are moments in tonight’s story that will shock us. And there are words in this version of the passion, especially John’s use of “the Jews” as a catch-all for the small and angry group of leaders opposed to Jesus, that we, as a church, rightly condemn. Yet this is the story that God has given to us. This is the story God wants us to have. And it begins in a garden.
Gardens are powerful places. And in our little part of the world, gardens are stirring. Weeds and bulbs, bushes and branches, are starting to show life. The rich earth of our gardens are the places where life begins anew. The old leaves and vegetation are broken down, providing new nutrients to the soil. And seeds and bulbs use everything in the earth to grow. It is in a garden where new life begins. And since our old life cannot stand the new life that Jesus offers, a garden is the place where the Romans and other political leaders try to end Jesus.
It’s pretty reckless for Peter to be standing by that fire. He just cut off the ear of one of people who arrested Jesus. And now he’s standing with them, trying to warm himself by the fire. It’s hard to know what Peter was thinking. It’s obvious that he will be recognized because, by this point in the story, the disciples are no longer anonymous. People know who they are. They use their network of connections to enter the courtyard of the high priest and then stand, surrounded by the police, around the fire. The text says that it is cold. So Peter probably wanted some heat. But I don’t know if he understood the kind of heat was he getting into by standing next to that fire.
But I imagine that there was something so enticing by this fire that Peter couldn’t help but walk towards it. He had just seen his teacher arrested; he had just cut off someone’s ear; and he’s standing there, outside the rooms, where Jesus is being questioned. It’s probably fair to say that his mind wasn’t in the right place - so when he entered the courtyard, he drifted towards the warmth and the light he thought he needed. Yet that light was not the true light. And the warmth he felt was not as comforting as he thought it would be. He knew he was in a dangerous spot, in a place where he could not be his true and authentic self. So when the heat from the questions finally started to come at him, he denied his relationship with Jesus. How many times do we find ourselves drawn to people, places, and experiences where we can’t be ourselves? How many times do we find ourselves in situations where the light we thought we needed has put us in danger? How many times do we find ourselves being Peter, forgetting that the rooster is about to crow?
Sometimes the words that are not said are the ones that sound the loudest.
Pilate is, to me, the kind of guy who always gets the final word. I’m sure we all know people like that or maybe we, sometimes, do that ourselves. Pilate tonight will race back and forth, from the religious leaders on the outside to Jesus on the inside. Words flow constantly between them and that’s because, in some ways, John is the wordiest of the gospels. It sometimes feels as if Jesus in this gospel uses three sentences even though only one sentence would do. Yet when the wordy Jesus meets the wordy Pilate, it’s the unspoken phrase that speaks the loudest. Pilate finally asks, “what is truth?” And Jesus says….nothing.
That silence in the text is actually even more harsh than that. The text doesn’t record any kind of response. In fact, it doesn’t tell us that Jesus stay silent. All we hear is Pilate asking what is truth - and then we watch as Pilate moves away from it. The truth is right in front of him, yet Pilate can’t see it. The truth is that the values Jesus is bringing into the world are the values the world is not ready to fully embrace. Pilate is busy playing word games while Jesus is busy showing what God’s truth, love, and grace actually looks like. When the Word of God shows up in our world, what we say will not be what defines us. Rather, it’s our relationship, it’s our connection with Jesus, that will carry us through.
I usually can tell when someone has kids that play sports because whenever they give me a ride, the first thing they say as I enter the car is, “I’m sorry about the smell.” And then they point to the duffle bag filled with baseball, soccer, and lacrosse gear. I’ve yet to actually smell anything funky whenever someone says that but I appreciate their concern. I’ve spent enough time in gyms to know what sweat can smell like. I, myself, have sometimes not washed my workout gear as much as I should. Sweat is usually a sign of a body in stress and in motion. And by this point, Pilate must have been sweating. He’s running back and forth, interrogating Jesus and the religious leaders. The author of John writes as if the entire Jewish population is there in the room. But that’s just dangerous hyperbole. The judge’s bench sat outside Pilate’s headquarters and was in a courtyard that could only hold a hundred people at most. The only people who would be in that crowd were the religious and political leaders afraid of what Jesus was up to. The presence of Jesus was upsetting the uneasy social system that existed with the Roman Emperor, who was treated like a god, on top - while everyone else was somewhere below. It didn’t only matter if someone called themselves the Messiah, King, or the Son of God. If other people called them that too, that was enough to disrupt the fragile social order. Jesus, this man who called tax collectors friends, who ate meals with the people he shouldn’t, and who lived a life were service and love was the center of everything - this Jesus was a political problem in a world that believed that violence, power, and might made everything right.
I finished my seminary education at an Episcopal seminary which means people always asked me “what makes Lutherans different anyways?” Every flavor of Christianity has its own uniqueness. We all share the same origin story but we came into our own collective identities at different times and places. For Episcopalians, the marital troubles of a king and the American Revolution itself helped develop who they are. And for us Lutherans, the writings of a German monk / university professor gave birth to our movement. These differences are always easy to point to. But there’s another difference that defines us too. And that difference is centered on where we put our troubles.
It’s odd to talk about putting our troubles somewhere because we usually are told not to do that. Instead, we’re invited to take a deep breath, to get rid of distractions, and to dig deep so that we can overcome whatever issue we’re facing. We live in a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” kind of culture and all our troubles are ones we imagine can personally overcome. But we also know that this isn’t entirely true. There are troubles that we cannot, through our own hardwork and grit, actually overcome. There are troubles in our family members and friends that we can only sit on the sidelines and watch as that trouble unfolds. Our life is going to include moments when we cannot will our self out of the trouble, hurt, and heartbreak we find. Instead, we need to do something different: and that’s learn how to live through it. And that’s why Lutherans, I think, take our troubles and lay them at the foot of the cross. When we admit our own vulnerability and powerlessness, and take everything that we are experiencing and lay it right there at the foot of the cross, we are doing what Mary and Mary did. There was nothing they could do to stop what was what was happening. They couldn’t take Jesus down. Instead, they could only stand at the foot of the cross, stand there in their heartbreak, and look up. Yet in their incredible moment of powerlessness, Jesus made sure they wouldn’t live through this trouble alone. He gave Mary a new family; a new community to help carry her heartbreak. None of us can solve every problem we face. None of us can, on our own, make the troubles our family, friends, and world experience, just magically go away. But when we bring our troubles and lay them at the foot of the cross, we can - with Jesus - find a new community, a new reality, and a new life that will carry us through.
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