Sermon by Burton Cooper
Matt 26:14 -- 27:66
The soldiers took Jesus … and … they stripped him,
and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisted thorns into a crown,
and put it on his head ... and knelt before him
and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”
And they spat on him, and struck him on the head.
And after mocking him … they led him away and crucified him.
… And Jesus cried out with a loud voice …
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
... and breathed his last.
“Dark, dark, dark, we all go into the dark.” The words are T.S. Eliot’s, that great poet of the troubled soul. What was he thinking? Was he thinking of Judas, the disciple of Jesus who once loved Jesus, gave up his way of life to follow him, listen to him, eat with him, and then, with a kiss, betrayed him ... and fell into darkness, and hung himself. Was Eliot thinking of Peter, that impetuous disciple, who had said, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you,” and then, in fear of his life, found himself denying Jesus three times … and wept and wept. Was Eliot thinking of the Jewish priests and elders, those princes of the religious establishment, who, hating criticism or fearing loss of authority, or who knows what, turned on one of their own, one innocent of any crime, bringing him to the detested Roman authorities to get rid of him. Was he thinking of the crowd, the citizens of 1Judah, God’s elect, who one day hail Jesus, singing, “Hosanna to the son of David,” and the next day shout, “Crucify him, crucify him.” Was he thinking of Pilate, a prince of the governing class, who, in the name of keeping the peace, presides over the execution of many, innocent and guilty alike. Was he thinking of the soldiers, who, like bullies everywhere, mock and abuse a defenseless one that has fallen into their hands. Was Eliot thinking of the gospel writer, bless his heart, writing thirty, forty years after the death of Jesus, so upset by Jewish hostility to the growing Christian communities, and so desirous of gaining Roman approval for the new Christian religion, that he tells the passion story as a whitewash of the Roman governor, Pilate, absolving Rome of guilt in the execution of Jesus, laying full blame for Jesus’ death on the Jewish authorities and the Jewish people. And how dire were the unforeseen, unintended consequences of that well intentioned retelling: a disaster for the Jewish people, a black mark upon the church. No, it’s not likely that Eliot gave a thought to the gospel writer’s responsibility for the church’s later anti-semitism, for Eliot’s writings reveal, in a few small places --- and what a bitter pill this is for those of us who love those writings --- (those writings reveal) Eliot’s own anti-semitic feelings. Eliot, an anti-semite. How could he? Others, too. Even Luther. Heroes of the faith. All tarnished.
Dark, dark, dark, we all go into the dark.
Is it any wonder that in this morning’s reading, the psalmist cries, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, have mercy, for I am in trouble.” Are there any, even amongst the righteous, who do not need mercy? Jesus thought not, asking those ready to throw stones at an adulterous woman, who amongst them is without sin.
In one of Walker Percy’s novels, I forget which, the protagonist, seated at a restaurant table, finds himself so enraged by some remark of the waiter, that he can barely control himself from getting up and smacking the waiter in the face. When he calms himself, the protagonist, normally a peaceful man, ponders this urge towards violence, in himself, in others, wondering where it comes from, and then goes on to ask the deeper, more troubling question, “whether, in the end, the world yields only to violence.” That question rose in my mind as I thought about the passion story. The priests and elders can seize Jesus because they have the coercive power of violence. Similarly, the Roman governor can order Jesus’ crucifixion because he has the authority to order violence upon another. The soldiers can mock and physically abuse Jesus because they have the right to use violence. In the passion story, event after event after event yields to violence. Something profound is being indirectly said here about the meaning and power of Christ. It looks as if Christ has less coercive power than the priests, the governor and the soldiers, as if the problem is that he’s weaker than these authorities. But the deeper meaning is that Christ cannot have that kind of power at all --- the power of coercion, the power of violence --- and still be the Christ. The gospel, early on, intimates this understanding in Christ’s wilderness experience, where Christ rejects the devil’s offer to rule over the kingdoms of the world, seeing this offer as a temptation. But what is the temptation except the realization that to rule over the kingdoms of this world --- kingdoms pursuing their own security, their own national interests --- (that to rule over these kingdoms) necessitates the use of coercive power, the willingness to use violence against others. Saint Augustine saw this long ago, watching over the Roman Empire at its height and living long enough to see the beginning of its fall, (Augustine,) noted, paradoxically, tragically, that “the peace of the world is maintained by strife;” that nations and their citizens cannot live in even relative peace without a police force, a military, a judiciary, all empowered to punish, with force and violence where necessary. We only have to turn on the news to see that tragedy of human existence every day in our lives.
Christ, whom we confess as incarnating the very spirit of God, a spirit of love, a spirit of goodness, a spirit of inclusiveness, a spirit that is anathema to coercion, for love respects the freedom of the other, all others; and coercion against another violates the freedom, and the integrity, of the other. Christ, God’s spirit, looks for other means to defeat evil than coercion and violence, looking not to destroy, looking not to violate the self, but looking to redeem the self, and the way to redemption can only be by inner transformation of the repentant soul. The model is Peter in the passion narrative. Out of fear, he has denied Christ, despite his bravado statement that he would never deny him even unto death. Peter has learned humility. He now knows he is not as good or as righteous or as faithful as he thought he was. He weeps. He repents. And significantly, unlike Judas, he returns to the community of brothers and sisters in Christ. For Peter, again unlike Judas, knows how to accept God’s forgiveness, a trait even more important than knowing that God forgives.
Christ, embodying love, enters the world and is thought dangerous. He suffers from the powerful, who find him defenseless; he suffers from those who care only about maintaining power and order; he suffers, also, from the righteous who do not know how unrighteous they are. The fate of Christ in our world is the cross. As if goodness, as if love, is a failure; as if the world does indeed, finally, yield only to violence. And yet, that seemingly failed life reveals the deep, redemptive, saving truth of our biblical faith. For though history defeats Christ, crucifies him, as if he were a criminal, a failure, as if he were forsaken by God, yet Christ on the cross is the spirit of God on the cross, love itself on the cross, God’s suffering love on the cross, God’s compassion for us, God’s mercy, all revealed on the cross. The very norm of life, that which gives meaning and purpose to our life, is on the cross. Sisters and brothers in Christ, we stumble here upon the good news: the cross cannot, does not, defeat the meaning of life. History may defeat love again and again, and yet love remains the norm, the norm of meaning, the norm which we ever seek to fulfill, and which we partially fulfill, day in, day out. And every act of love, large and small, points to an ultimate triumph, an ultimate fulfillment of love, a fulfillment that lies beyond history, in what we call the kingdom of God; and though we hardly know what we are talking about when we say, “beyond history,” except that it
means life in God, yet, in faith, we surely know this: that God is the ground and goal of our existence, that our acts of love and mercy, of goodness and justice, not only heal and renew, not only give zest and hope and meaning to life, but that they enter into God, enter into eternal life, so that in the end, the world does not yield to violence, does not yield to darkness, but yields to love, yields to goodness, for the goodness we do, the love that we give, the justice we achieve, does not come to nothing, but triumphs, lives on, eternally, in God.
Praise God for this great faith.