Where Are You?

Where are you in the story of Christ’s Passion?

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Good Friday
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI

Isaiah 52:13–53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:16-25
John 18:1–19-42

I’m a sucker when it comes to certain books, movies and TV shows. We know that show-runners and writers include certain scenes and present them in ways meant to have an emotional impact, and I admit, most of the time, I get swept right up.

Often, it has to do with the music. The musical cues that play when both Yoda and Darth Vader die in Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi get me every time. The moment in Disney’s Inside Out when the character of Sadness finally gets to take control, allowing Riley to express her grief at having moved across the country, makes me tear up too. When President Laura Roslin utters the words “So much life…” in the last episode of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, I lose it. And yes, I will always cry when Mufasa dies in The Lion King, the greatest Disney movie ever made (and I will fight you on that!) It was even on TV this afternoon, and of course, I watched most of it.

It’s not just the sad scenes though. How can I not cheer when the eagles swoop down to help the armies of Gondor and Rohan in the Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King? Or when the horn of Helm Hammerhand blows through the fortress of the Hornburg?

Then there’s the same feeling of excitement during a scene in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, in the second book, The Subtle Knife, when Dr. Mary Malone manages to communicate with sentient dark matter through a simple computer chat program. Or the feeling of dread and terror reading, well, all of George Orwell’s 1984. Or the feeling of apprehension as the story of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno unfolds, the entire time thinking, “Something here isn’t right…”

Stories, when written well, draw us in to the point where we can imagine ourselves as actors and characters in the story. That’s what I love about my favorite books and movies and TV shows—they draw me in.

I must confess though that for the longest time, I did not feel that way about the Passion story. I’m not really sure why. Like many of you, I grew up hearing the story every year during Holy Week. There are other stories I love hearing over and over and over again and never get sick of, but the Passion story just didn’t click with me. I didn’t feel apprehensive when Jesus was arrested. I didn’t feel angry during his trial. I didn’t cry when he died. I just… I’m not sure why, but the story never really moved me like I know it moves other people.

Somewhere along the line that changed. I don’t exactly know when. All I know is that as the years went on, and I kept reading the story, I started to react to it. And my emotional reaction didn’t come when Jesus was beaten, or killed, or mocked. In fact, my emotional reaction came at a place that really surprised me: Peter.

Now, you’ve heard me talk about Peter. Not my favorite guy. Most of the time I’m thinking to myself, “You dunce, what’d you go and do that for?” Peter is not the model of discipleship, folks. When I read about Peter, I usually have a really tough time mustering up any sort of sympathy or empathy for him. He doesn’t listen, he doesn’t pay attention, he flaps his mouth before he thinks, every time he gets the smack-down from Jesus he deserves it–there’s just not a lot of sympathy in my heart for Peter.

So then I read the Passion story, and get to Peter’s part. Not the part about him pulling his sword and cutting off Malchus’s ear—idiot. Typical Peter. No, I mean the later part.

The part where Peter, one of only two disciples who followed behind Jesus after he was arrested, gets to the gate of the high priest’s house and waits. And there, while he waits, he’s identified as one of Jesus’s followers not once, not twice, but three times, the last time by a witness who places him right there in the garden. Each time, he denies the accusation, most likely in an effort to avoid getting arrested himself as a co-conspirator with Jesus.

The last time he does so, he hears the rooster crowing. Just as Jesus predicted, Peter denies even knowing Jesus three times before the rooster crows in the morning. In other versions of this story not from the Gospel according to John, Peter realizes what he’s done and flees the scene, weeping. He doesn’t do that here, but, after this point, Peter disappears from the story, only to reappear after Mary Magdalene finds Jesus’s tomb empty. While Jesus is put on trial, beaten, tortured, mocked, killed, and buried, Peter is nowhere to be found.

And every time I get to this part of the story, I choke up. Maybe it’s the way it’s written, the threefold point and counterpoint, the rising tension, the upping of the ante. Maybe I just feel sorry for Peter, who once again screws everything up because of his pride.

But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that my reaction to this part of the story has nothing to do with Peter and everything to do with me. I think this part of the story chokes me up for the same reason that other stories affect me emotionally—because it draws me in, puts me into the story. I find my place in the story. And here, tonight, I find my place in the Passion story: it’s in the place of Peter.

In Peter, I see my own pride and my own belief that I’m such a good follower of Jesus that nothing could ever change that.

In Peter, I see my own willingness to jump to the nuclear option (like cutting off a servant’s ear) instead of a more reasonable one.

In Peter, I see my own selfish desire to follow Jesus from a distance, just in case I get too close and have to pay the price for being a follower of Jesus.

In Peter, I see my own all-too-willingness to deny Christ when it’s more convenient to do so, or at the very least, not make a big deal out of it.

In Peter, I see the ever-present possibility that I’ll turn around and run away, abandoning Jesus, even if only for a time.

We all have a place in the story. It pulls us in because we can see ourselves in it. We can place ourselves right in the middle of it because we identify with it. Where do you see yourself in the story?

Are you Annas, the deposed high priest who can’t let go and still influences events from behind the scenes?

Are you Caiaphas, the current puppet high priest, who is so worried and obsessed with keeping order and not upsetting the balance that he thinks executing an innocent man is an acceptable price to pay?

Are you Malchus, just a soldier doing his job?

Are you one of the slaves, oblivious to events, just trying to keep warm in the cold?

Are you the relative of Malchus, angry at the man who cut off your relative’s ear and are calling him out on it?

Are you the police who brought Jesus to Pilate, but wouldn’t set foot in the palace, because you didn’t want blood on your hands before you went to celebrate the Passover with your family?

Are you the priests who, when asked what Jesus has done to deserve being arrested, evade the question by saying, “Well, obviously he’s a criminal, or we wouldn’t have brought him here, duh!”

Are you Pilate, the ruthless governor for whom order and submission is everything, and deviating from that order earns one a ticket to execution?

Are you the priests who, in order to get what they want—Jesus dead—are willing to give up everything they believe in, everything they are, and submit themselves fully to a tyrannical government?

Are you the crowd who, instead of saving a man dedicated to love and peace, demands the release of a terrorist who glorifies violence and armed uprising as the only solution?

Are you the soldiers dividing up Jesus’s clothes between them, before he’s even dead?

Are you the faithful women, Mary, her sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, or the unnamed disciple, who are the only ones at the foot of the cross, staying with Jesus while he dies?

Are you Joseph of Arimathea, the respectable leader who has to follow Jesus in secret, because he’s afraid if people knew, his career would be over?

Are you Nicodemus, who goes from confused by Jesus’s words to a follower, and one of the few who is there to take care of his body after his death?

We all have a place in the story. For though it happened 2000 years ago, it happened for that time and for our own. The hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus” puts it this way:

“Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my teason, Jesus, hath undone thee. ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.”

We all have our places in the story. One of the remarkable things about the story is that not only is it because of all of us, but it is for all of us. Good Friday is for Nicodemus. And Joseph. And Malchus. And Mary, Mary, and Mary. And Pilate. And the crowd. And the high priests. And the soldiers. And Annas. And Caiaphas.

And Peter. And Me. And You.

Where are you in the story of Christ’s Passion?

Fury and Control

We thought that if we were in control, we could make the world a better place, a place that better reflected our wants and values. Instead, we’re no better off than we were before, and we’re probably worse. I see what we’ve done to our world in our attempt to control it, and it infuriates me.

Good Friday
Preached at St. Peter the Fisherman Roman Catholic Church in Eagle River, WI, at the ecumenical Good Friday service organized by the Vacationland Ministerial Association.

John 18:1–19:42

Back in grade school, I hated when we’d break up into teams and play sports. I wasn’t very good at sports—to this day, I’m still not good at sports—and that usually meant I was picked last or close to last. Unless it was something like “who could climb the monkey bars the fastest”, because I was a speed demon on the playground equipment. But basketball, baseball, soccer, ugh. I hated it.

But then, then, I got smart–or at least, I liked to think I got smart. Games have rules, right? And most games need someone to make sure the rules are followed. So I started volunteering to sit out and be the referee, or the umpire, when we’d play team games. As far as I was concerned, this was a win-win. I got to participate without the embarrassment of being picked last, but I also wasn’t really participating, and therefore, couldn’t let my team down. Perfect!

Of course, there was also another reason I liked playing ref or ump. That’s because being ref or ump in a game gives one an enormous amount of power and control in the game. Now I like to think that I was a pretty fair ref, and that even though I didn’t have any real authority I pretended to use it in a just and right way. But there’s no denying that I liked being in that position of control. It was fun. It was really, really fun.

I’m of course not the first human being to be in a position of power and control, and I’m not the first on which it took a hold. From the moment of our creation, we human beings have sought ever higher and higher levels of control. It seems to be wired into our makeup. We always want more control. Whether we’re toddlers demanding that we set our own bed time, children who want to play ref instead of team member, teens in rebellion against their parents, or older church folk clinging to the ways of the past, we live our whole lives looking for more and more control, to shape the world in our image.

And on some level, we’re pretty successful. Life is a constant struggle for control, losing some here, gaining some here. Some are better than others at it.

There’s just one problem, one barrier to our seizing total control. That problem is God.

And that brings us to Good Friday.

More than anything else, Good Friday was an attempt by humankind to take control away from God. You could argue that we already tried that in the garden of Eden. According to that story, we tried to take control away from God by making ourselves better, smarter, more like God. It didn’t work.

So we needed a new plan. And when God was foolish enough to come incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, we were presented with the perfect opportunity to take control. We killed God.

And you know what? We’re still not in control.

We thought that if we were in control, we could make the world a better place, a place that better reflected our wants and values. Instead, we’re no better off than we were before, and we’re probably worse. I see what we’ve done to our world in our attempt to control it, and it infuriates me.

It infuriates me that chemical weapons are still being used as tools of war and terror, and that there are people dumb enough to try defending it or try using it to justify even more killing.

It infuriates me that no one seems capable of doing anything to stop people like Assad and Kim Jong-un, or the human rights violations in Egypt, Russia, the United States, Israel, Pakistan, China, without invasion or bombs.

It infuriates me that my own country drops bombs on the people of Syria and then denies the refugees safe haven, literally condemning them to death, and somehow thinking its doing some great and noble service in the process.

It infuriates me that the most holy region of the world for three major religions has been reduced to a literal war zone because we can’t learn to get along, instead using our sacred writings as billy clubs to beat on our neighbors and justify unleashing our rage and hatred against those who don’t think like we do, because “the Tanakh/Bible/Quran says it’s okay”.

It infuriates me that around the world the LGBTQ+ community is hunted and murdered, and that our own thinking in our churches not only accepts that reality but cultivates it and allows it to continue, because instead of worrying about people being attacked and killed for their sexuality and gender identity, we’re more worried about offending people.

It infuriates me that we laud praises on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then go about our lives as a racist community, a racist country, because our white privilege allows us to ignore the tragedies we leave in our wake and pretend we’re not responsible for fixing them.

It infuriates me that around the world those of us with the most stuff on the whole refuse to help the poor and the needy as Jesus did, without qualification or stipulation, because by telling ourselves that they deserve their position or are responsible for their own condition we can justify doing nothing.

It infuriates me that congregations and churches will sacrifice people, ideas, hopes, dreams, their mission in order to hold onto their precious buildings and “the way they’ve always done things”, as if the building and our less-than-useful European traditions could do the work of God without the people and their dreams.

This is the world we created when we attempted to take control of it away from God? We thought this was a better future than the one God had planned? We thought that we were actually capable of overcoming our sinful natures on our own? We thought we could maintain control?

But we’re not in control.

If we were in control, the death of Jesus Christ on Good Friday would have been just that: his death, the ultimate price we human beings can exact from one another.

If we were in control, there would have been no harrowing of the dead.

If we were in control, the tomb would have never opened. There would be no resurrection. Death would still be in control. Mary Magdalene would not have become the first apostle, sharing the good news of the risen Christ with the other disciples. God’s unconditional love and willingness to be sacrificed on the altar of hate in order to end the cycle of hate and broken promises that had characterized God’s relationship with humanity would never have been proved.

But we aren’t in control. We never have been, we never will be, and if our current and past attempts at remaking the world in our own image are any indicator, we never should be. We have always been slaves to a control that is not our own.

Once, that was Sin and Death, cruel masters of our own making that turned on us and shackled us. But today, today is Good Friday.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that we are not in control.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that, though we continue to act as though Sin and Death still rule over us, God reclaimed us, banishing the hold Sin and Death had over us, reaffirming our place as beloved, if unruly and rebellious, children of God.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that God, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen, is in control, and that one day, our seemingly-endless struggle against that control will cease, that the reign of God that has already broken into the world will come to completion.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that we tried to take control from God, and we lost.

We are still a world in rebellion; we don’t like to lose. We still inflict hardship and calamity and pain and suffering and torture and death on each other in our attempt to maintain what little control we might have. But thanks be to God that our sins are not the final word.

Thanks be to God that our power is fleeting.

Thanks be to God that our revolution did not sever our relationship with God, but rather provided God the perfect opportunity to re-imagine, restore, renew, and redeem that relationship.

Thanks be to God for Good Friday.

Featured Image: “Cross at ‘Dawn'” by *Robert* is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Stubborn to the End

There has to be more to Jesus’s death than just a payment.

Good Friday
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI as a Good Friday reflection.

Isaiah 52:13—53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:16-25
John 18:1—19:42

There’s always an out.

That should have been Jesus’s only thought as he went through his trial, or what attempted to pass for a trial that day before the Passover in the Gospel according to John.

There’s no such thing as the no-win scenario. There’s always a way out.

I went through the story and figured out how many times Jesus could have reasonably and successfully escaped his situation. It’s mind boggling that he was successfully tried and executed.

1) In the garden, when the soldiers and the police come to arrest Jesus, they ask for him to come forward. Jesus does so not once, but twice, asserting that he is the man they’ve come to arrest. If he’d kept his mouth shut or fled, he would never have been arrested in the first place.

2) At his trial before Annas, he is questioned about his teaching. Knowing his teaching to be truthful and right, even in the eyes of his people, he could have answered their questions. There is a reasonable chance that if they had nothing to charge him with, they would have let him go.

3) At his trial before Pilate, the poor case against Jesus is made abundantly clear. When Pilate asked his accusers what Jesus had done, they can’t even give an answer. “Well, obviously he’s a criminal, duh, or we wouldn’t have brought him to you,” they say–clearly avoiding answering the question because they can’t. Jesus could have gotten out if he spoke up.

4) Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews. Jesus asks him if others told Pilate to ask him this, further exposing the fraud of his trial. And yet instead of taking advantage of the situation, Jesus lets Pilate continue.

5) Even after all of this, Pilate still can’t make a case against Jesus. He attempts to set Jesus free, and when the crowd refuses, he has Jesus whipped and beaten, hoping that will satisfy the crowd.

6) When that doesn’t work, Pilate again tries to set Jesus free, and the crowd resists. Pilate again makes the case that Jesus is innocent, but the crowd persists. Pilate is literally fighting to save Jesus and has all authority to do so, but Jesus won’t say a word in his favor.

7) Pilate questions Jesus yet again, hoping to get anything at all he can use to set Jesus free. Again, Jesus refuses to help.

Finally, Pilate acquiesces to the mob’s demands and has Jesus crucified. Jesus makes sure that everything is as it should be—that  his clothes are divided as prophesied, that his family is taken care of, that the scriptures are fulfilled. And then, willing, Jesus lets go of life and dies.

Seven times. Seven times, Jesus had blatant opportunities to escape his torture and death. The tactics used against him were laughable. The case against him indefensible. Seven openings for Jesus to take to get out of his fate.

He didn’t take a single one. And when it looked like he still might be set free anyway, he actually stepped in to ensure he’d go to his death. Seven times.

The most popular explanation for why Jesus did this is summarized in a theory called penal substitutionary atonement. It explains that Jesus went through all of this to his death instead of us because God’s justice needed to be satisfied. We were supposed to die because of our sin. And God, who is incapable of showing mercy or forgiveness, needed someone to die for the world to be right. Therefore, Jesus died in our place, a substitute for us, so that grisly justice might be done. It’s related to the ransom theory of atonement that says there was a price to be paid for us to be free of bondage, and the satisfaction theory that says Jesus’s death was to satisfy God’s wrath—a life needed to be taken, and only Jesus’s life could fully satisfy God.

These are my three least favorite theories of atonement, but they are the most popular of the prominent seven. They reduce Jesus’s sacrifice to a numbers or balance game. God required, Jesus provided. It’s just a transaction.

Nobody goes to their death for a purchase. Not willingly, and certainly not with the same devotion Jesus did. And further, such a transaction diminishes God, who in them is incapable of mercy and forgiveness.

There has to be more to Jesus’s death than just a payment. There has to be more than just this transaction, like Jesus is a product or currency to balance God’s checkbook. There has to be more to Jesus’s death than the idea that God needed Jesus to die.

And maybe there is. Maybe there is more to Jesus’s death than God needing it. Maybe it’s the other way around; maybe we needed Jesus to die.

It’s an interesting theory. Maybe we needed Jesus to die because there was no other way we could see just how far God was willing to go. How far could we push God? What would it take for God to give up and walk away from us, thereby confirming our idea that God is a horrible, angry, merciless God who’s only out to get us. How hard could we push? Could we force God’s hand? And so we did exactly that.

Making Jesus a scapegoat, we heaped on him every torture and pain we could, blaming him for everything wrong in the world. We were going to break God. We were going to be right. We stumbled our way through a trial, we put him up on a cross, and we watched him die. We watched the life bleed out of him until his eyes glassed over and his breathing stopped. Seven times he could have said no, he could have stopped it. But in the end, we did it—we proved how far we could push, how far God was willing to go. We forced God’s hand.

And only then, at the end, did we realize what we’d done.