Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday Sermon

Preached at Holy Cross Monastery, Good Friday, April 22, 2011

Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 22: 1-11
Hebrews 10:1-25
John 18:1-19:37

Every year on Good Friday I look out at the congregation and hope that there is someone there who is hearing the Passion for the first time. I wonder what it would be like to hear it as something completely new, to be caught up in its drama with no preconceptions, to meet its characters and hear its words and feel its emotion completely fresh. Is that person here today?

What is the power of the Passion story? Is the power in the retelling of the final moments of Jesus of Nazareth, with its memorable characters, words and actions? Is the power in its superb narrative, stripped to the bone, so to speak, stark and plain, leaving, as the best stories do, room for our imagination to insert ourselves into the action? Is the power in the figure of Jesus, at once humble and exalted in John, whose words and deeds reveal more than just glimpses of the presence of God? Is the power in that man, whom we have grown to love, brought to a grisly and terrifying end, which cannot help but move even the stoniest heart? Is the power of the passion in the art of the story? Or is its power in something greater than art? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and ... yes.

Because this is a story of power. It is a story with power, and a story about power, and a story that confers power.

What sort of power would an early Christian find in this story? Imagine an early Christian assembly, before the Gospels were published, before St. Paul had written his letters, before the stories of the disciples were gathered into collections and shared, in a time when the community was telling the story to itself from memory. The Lord is risen, His life is the life of our community. We really don’t know how. We hardly have words to describe why we believe, although Isaiah is a good guide. But at the center of our faith is this mystery: Jesus showed us the power and the wisdom and the life of God and died precisely because of who he was and what he did: God was in what he did and was in him. And the death he died was not the end but the beginning. What he said and did is still alive and growing, and in ways we have a hard time putting into words, there is a new power loose in the world because of him. The story of his death is the story of life. And it transforms the lives of those who begin to live in the power of his story.

As early Christians we would also understand that the story is about power. Power is real in the world. We all live with it every day. But the reality of power has been transformed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the Passion narrative, the world’s power realities are personified by Pilate, but they are true of power the world over. The world’s power is a hierarchy, up and down. The one with the power is above, and acts upon those with less power. It is his business to get up in the morning, hear cases, make decisions, and supervise their implementation. Power, in fact, is work, in all its scheduled banality. It is the work of deciding things about other people according to the larger story of power of the system this person represents. It is also the worry that it will lose its place if it slips up. Today’s agenda is the same as every day’s: Public tranquility so that money may be made so that taxes may be collected so that the powerful may be glorified. Really, there’s nothing personal here. In the Passion story Pilate is urbane, even witty. He enjoys a bit of banter with Jesus, and at least at first doesn’t seem to mind much that Jesus gets the better of him. But the obscenity of this urbane chatter is in the fact that it doesn’t matter: There is a loser and a winner here, and the loser will be dead before sundown. Cat and mouse. Clever word games in the antechamber of death.

Except to the early Christian, the joke is on Pilate, the joke is on all the holders of the world’s deadly levers of power. Because God’s power is not like theirs, and God’s power will win. We do not need to be without hope as we are used by the powerful of the world for their gain and for their glory. There is another glory, another use to which our lives can be put: we are not raw material for the exploitation of our betters, but each of us is made for God’s glory, for a life in God beyond human imagining.

And because the Passion is a story of power and a story about power, it is also a story that confers power. People who have heard about, seen and understood what God’s power is and how it works and what it is aiming for are no longer easily fooled by the other kind. When told to bow down to that power as if it is God, they will ask rather what is the good it confers on its subjects. When told to pay taxes without murmuring, they will ask what public benefit public money is used for. When advised to reverence persons in high places, they will inquire of their virtuous life and whether they dispense impartial, righteous justice. In other words, they will give to the power of this world its rightful place: an instrument of God for the good of all, not a means for the glorification of those who possess it. When people begin to live in the realm of God’s power, we cast off the fear that poisons self worth, and stand and walk as God wished us to from the beginning.

You will notice that my pronouns are shifting from they to we. We are not early Christians. We don’t have to be. The power of the Passion story is still as much at work in our own day as it ever has been. In fact, it is hard to find anyone at all, Christian or not, who does not already know the outlines of this story. And why is that? Because the power of this story is that it is true. The power of goodness, righteousness and justice rests on a stronger foundation than greed, violence and tyranny, whether goodness, righteousness and justice are labeled “God” or not, and that’s the truth. And at a very basic level the world has learned this truth. It springs up in unlikely places and does inconvenient things to people who thought they were born to rule. The weak who die for good are never lost in God. The Passion of Jesus Christ is truth for everyone.

So we listen to the words of Jesus to Pilate once again this year, fearing what is to come, feeling the pain and the suffering he will shortly endure, but also knowing the truth about power. Oh the irony of the eternal dialog of the Word of God with the word of the world: "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." And the one who does not belong to the truth has only a witty question in reply: "What is truth?" And then, as a detectable anxiety creeps into Pilate’s voice, as he perhaps senses something else is going on here, and tries to get others to take the responsibility from him, he finds he really has no power except the power of death, unless he wants to betray his masters. Which he will not do. Which is his tragedy, and the tragedy of all in power who follow Pilate’s path.

The power of the Passion story is not the power of public order and exploitation administered with the threat of death, but the power of truth: Power, real power, is from God, does God’s will, and builds God’s kingdom. God’s power is built from below and side by side, not from above. Those with the least are the favored of God. The one who told us and showed us and then died for us when we started to hope we could live in God’s kingdom is the one with the power, power so different from what we are used to we can hardly find words for it. We can’t really define it, or even describe it. And since we can’t reduce it to a set of propositions, that’s why we tell the story.