Sermon: The Right Thing To Do

The Crowd, Pilate, Caiaphas, Judas, and Peter: They all try to do the right thing, and we can see ourselves in them; because they are us in this story.

One central lesson of Palm Sunday is that that no matter how powerful we may be, no matter how well intentioned we are, no matter how wise, or how foolish, or how rich, or how poor, we all constantly make choices that widen the chasm that lies between us and God. We can’t help it, we can’t change it: … it’s part of being human. That is what Sin is: Sin with a Capital “S”; the Sin that has been passed down to us as our share in the brokenness of all existence, the Sin that began with Adam.

…But, God knew this all along…


"The Last Supper" (1494-98); Leonardo Da Vinci
“The Last Supper” (1494-98); Leonardo Da Vinci

How does it feel?

How does it feel to be one of those shouting “Crucify Him!” during our dramatic reading of the Passion from the Gospel of Mark this morning?

How does it feel to be one of them, one of the mob, one of those calling for His death?  To turn on him in his hour of need?

How does it feel?

Let us pray…

Lord God, we lift up this morning’s message.  May it touch our hearts, may it speak clearly to our souls.  We believe your word and your love will rescue us from the depths of our doubt, unbelief, and Sin.  Speak to us now, Lord.  Help us to know you in the way you have wanted us to know you since the beginning. Amen.

Peter really tried to do the right thing.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, he really tried to stay awake while Jesus prayed, but failed. We’ve all been there: like many of you, I have a hard time staying awake for my son after a long day of work, let alone during a sermon. Peter was no different!

But then, when Jesus was arrested, Peter ran away, just like everyone else.  He tried again, tried to be there for his friend, the man he knew to be God’s anointed: stumbling along in the dark behind that mob, following their torches to the house of Caiaphas. He then sat in the courtyard, wondering what to do, listening to the voices coming through the window above him, hoping to hear his master speak, hoping that – somehow – Jesus would escape the fate they’d all feared for him.  But, Peter also feared for his own safety, fearing he would be recognized as he warmed himself beside that fire.

He did his best, but it was too much for him.  When the test came, when that servant girl called him out, he did the only thing he could do: he lied.

And then, when he heard the cock crow the second time, he wept.  His failure was complete, his weakness contributed to the death of the man he loved. But Jesus had known this all along, and out of an abundance of compassion and love, had warned Peter this would happen.

We all know how this feels.  We’ve all been confronted by situations we could not overcome.  How many of us are Peters?

And what about Judas?  Judas was certain that Jesus was the Messiah.  Some think Judas wanted to force Jesus to show his power and so end Roman Rule.  Others believe that Judas was hurt by Jesus’ rejection of his plans and methods; and so, in anger and humiliation, sought revenge.  In either case, Jesus failed to meet Judas’s expectations.

And then Judas’s world came tumbling down when he realized – too late – that the man he loved more than life itself was to be crucified because of his betrayal.

Judas realized he’d killed the one person he could turn to for help in his time of darkness and pain. He sought to expunge this sin that he found within himself in the only way he knew, the example of the temple, sacrificing the only thing he had left.  It was all he could do.  Judas never understood that Jesus was more than the man Judas thought him to be.

I believe Judas was angry at God, because he felt God had failed him.  How many of us can deny that we’ve also been angry because we felt God failed us?  How many of us fail to see God at work, because we are blinded by our own pain, our own preconceptions or our own agendas?  How many of us are Judases?

And what of the High Priest? Caiaphas took his responsibility to God for the welfare of the people seriously.  But, he had to be careful to not anger his Roman masters; nor his own people.

For Caiaphas, Jesus was a threat: he undermined the established order, threatened Caiaphas’s own position, and might even eventually anger the Romans.  What else could he do but get rid of this rabble rouser who claimed to be the Messiah and King of the Jews?

Caiaphas believed that maintaining the status quo – with him as Chief Priest – was the best option for his people. So something had to be done, this self proclaimed Messiah had to be stopped.  It was the right thing to do.

How often have we fought, like Caiaphas, to preserve our own position, our own sense of what is right?  How many of us are Caiaphases?

And what of Pontius Pilate, appointed Governor of Judea by the Emperor himself?  Being a Governor was rewarding, but also risky.  A good governor kept the locals in line and peaceful.  A good governor generated a healthy flow of tax revenue and income for themselves and for the Emperor.  Bad governors risked the Emperor’s displeasure; which meant humiliation, exile, or even death.  Pilate really wanted to be a good Governor.

It seems Pilate had some sympathy for Jesus, but feared displeasing those shouting for Jesus’ death … they might riot.  He couldn’t allow his position or the peace to be jeopardized by this puzzling prophet; this man who, in some odd way, claimed to be King of the Jews but not the ruler of any Kingdom.  For Pilate, killing a man he knew was innocent was the right thing to do.  Jesus’ crucifixion preserved Roman Order and Peace, and Pilate’s position.

How often have we done things we knew were unjust or cruel?  How often have we allowed the innocent to suffer because we saw no alternative?  How often have we justified such things as being for the “greater good?”  Is there perhaps a bit of Pilate in all of us?

And what about The Crowd?  First they praise him as their Messiah and King; then call for his death. Some say this was peer pressure: perhaps a few well-planted agents convinced the rest to shout along with them … crowd mentality. Others suggest the people rejected Jesus when he failed to be the kind of Messiah they expected him to be, as Judas had.

Haven’t we also turned against our own when they disappoint us? And, don’t we often go along with the crowd simply because we want to belong; or maybe because we fear judgment and reprisal if we don’t?  How many of us are also shouting for his death?

The Crowd, Pilate, Caiaphas, Judas, and Peter: they all try to do the right thing, and we can see ourselves in them; because they are us in this story.

History does not tell us whether the Crowd or Pilate or Caiaphas felt remorse for their deeds (probably not); but Peter and Judas both knew they had sinned.  They knew their Sin was a prison from which they could not escape.

And this is a lesson that Jesus teaches all of us in this drama that is his final act as a fully human being: that no matter how powerful we may be, no matter how well intentioned we are, no matter how wise, or how foolish, or how rich, or how poor, we all constantly make choices that widen the chasm that lies between us and God.  We can’t help it, we can’t change it: … it’s part of being human.  That is what Sin is: Sin with a Capital “S”; the Sin that has been passed down to us as our share in the brokenness of all existence, the Sin that began with Adam.

In today’s world, we often think of sin as an action, as an event, not as a state of being.  We forget the Bible’s message: that Sin is a deeply embedded and pervasive aspect of us and of all Creation.

The Passion shows that Sin is a deep and undeniable part of who we are, and that Sin distances us from the Love that God so wants to shower us with.  Good intentions don’t help. Great wisdom and power are of no value.  There is nothing we can do through our own strength that can change the power of Sin over our lives.

Because of Sin, the Son of God died.  We killed him, despite the best of intentions, because our Sin does not allow for any other outcome.  We are forever stuck in our Sin, unable to redeem ourselves, unable to make ourselves clean and righteous enough to please God.  But, as with Peter, God knew this all along.

The season of Lent is ending: a time when we confront our Sin and powerlessness.  Lent confronts us with the hopelessness of our existence: nothing we do will make God rescue us.  Nothing we do can erase the fact that we are the ones who killed God’s most prized possession.

Jesus is dead.  We can’t go back.  An apology won’t fix it.

At this point in the story, Peter and the rest are in hiding, fearing for their lives, knowing that the man they loved above all else is gone.  They are guilty of his death; and their only hope died with him.  What will the future bring?

We already know the answer.  We know that Easter is almost here; and we know that when the sun rises on that glorious day, those who love Jesus will find an empty tomb.  We know the end of this tragedy and know the new hope that arises in its place.

But, we’re not there yet.  Easter is coming, but not yet here.  Lent is the season when we are called to remember that the Sin we share – yours and mine – is what crucified Jesus.  We are also participants within the tragedy of Christ’s death, which is why our dramatic reading this morning was so important.  It helps us see that it wasn’t just those of long ago, but we who are here today, who have joined in shouting “Crucify Him!”   …That we did not physically nail Jesus to the Cross does not excuse us.  We are just as human, just as Sin-filled, and therefore just as guilty, as they.

But then there are the words of the Centurion: “Truly, this man was God’s Son!

And for this we can be profoundly thankful.  Jesus is dead, but he came to earth knowing he would die.  We cannot reach God on our own; but through his Son, God reaches out to us.  God is pursuing us and has forgiven us, and seeks to heal our brokenness; to restore the relationship that was meant to be since the beginning.  To claim that Hope, all we need is faith, faith that Jesus words are true, faith that God loves us, faith in the resurrection.

All that is asked of us is to remember and have faith in those words from the Gospel of John, which Pastor Louis Mitchell preached-on from this pulpit just two weeks ago: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

Our Sin prevents us from reaching out to God, but nothing prevents God from reaching out us, not even our own unbelief.

We don’t have to try do to anything to win God’s love, it’s already here for us, no matter what we do, no matter who we are, no matter what we are: we only have to accept it. No pretense, no excuses, no justification, no perfecting of oneself is needed. God likes us, and loves us, just as we are: without reservation and without condemnation. God has Faith in us.

…I love you, too, just as you are – and not because it’s the right thing to do!

Amen.

Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, March 29, 2015 (Palm Sunday).

Sermon Audio:

Copyright (c) 2015, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)

Author: Allen

A would be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is a father of two (ages 28 & 7). He and his wife enjoy life near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PastorAllenV/ or on Twitter @allenvm3.

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