April 3, 2015
"We have a law, and according to that law, he ought to die." On the one hand, these are the words that condemn Jesus: "We have a law, and according to that law, he ought to die." But, on the other hand, the words that condemn Jesus really condemn us . . . because what kind of people have a law that exposes the innocent to violence?
"We have a law, and according to that law, he ought to die."
There are other words in this story that condemn Jesus—and condemn us. Words like, "If you release him, you are no friend of the emperor." But what kind of people would rather be friends with the emperor who overpowers them, than serve the powerless who need them?
Christ's execution isn't a result of extreme sins. It's an outcome assisted by law-abiding, loyal, religious people. And Christ's execution isn't a result of people at the highest levels of government using their power abusively. It's about people like Pilate—people with a little bit of power—wanting to stay friends with the emperor. Law-abiding, loyal, tax-paying, news-watching, patriotic people. Maybe people like us.
It's not necessarily bad to be religious, pious, patriotic, or semi-powerful . . . but being religious, pious, patriotic, or powerful makes it so easy to be implicated in sin. When we uphold laws and support leaders in our religious and political communities, blame shifts so easily from our selves to our institutions, and then gets lost completely as violence and evil do their work with or without our direct consent. And the Passion according to John's gospel shows us how blame slides around so easily.
This story is so well-constructed; the machinery of torture, humiliation, and execution are so well-oiled and finely-tuned that no one can be held ultimately responsible. The religious police can blame the high priest for arranging the arrest and interrogation of Jesus. The soldiers can blame their superiors for ordering beatings and permitting abuse. The local community can blame the occupying forces of the Roman empire. And the occupying forces can blame the religiously backward ways of the people whose squabbles they just don't understand.
It's nobody's fault. Everyone can point to some other person, or to some impersonal institution, who is responsible. And no one can be held accountable. And everyone can just keep feeding human beings into the machinery of torture, humiliation, and execution. The machinery that corrupts and destroys the creatures of God. The jaws that consume God's own Son.
And everyone involved can comfort themselves, saying: "We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die." We are friends of the emperor. We are law-abiding. We are loyal.
We can say, "We have a law, and according to that law . . ." this person is eligible for execution; We can say, "We have a law, and according to that law . . ." this category of person doesn't have certain rights; "We have a law, and according to that law . . ." this degree of pain doesn't count as torture.
The religious police just follow their law, and the political authorities just uphold the chain of command. No one is at fault. And yet, we're all condemned.
In these dark days of Christ's passion, and in our own days of war and violence; in the face of the powerful, unaccountable, inhuman machinery of torture, humiliation, and death, we all may know the pressure to be a friend of the emperor: a law-abiding, news-watching, tax-paying friend of the emperor.
Or, we may dare to be like Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus—but a secret disciple because of his fear. We may be like Nicodemus, slinking to Jesus by night without drawing too much attention to ourselves. We may be like Peter, warming ourselves over the slowly cooling coals of Jesus' fond hopes for a kinder and gentler world. And this may be enough for tonight, and for tomorrow: to sit with Jesus' death in secrecy, in privacy, and in darkness.
But will we do this forever? Is this enough for eternity? Will we be content to watch over the dead body of Jesus, the dead body of our teacher, our shepherd, our friend? Week after week, will we be satisfied with wrapping his body in fair linens, seasoning his body with spices and incense, planting flowers around his tomb? Will we quietly tend the grave of the emperor's victim, and yet remain the emperor's friend?
Are we friends of the emperor? Followers of the law? And keepers of a graveyard?
Or . . . are we servants of a king? Jesus said, "If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over." Instead, Jesus' closest followers in today's gospel aren't fighting, but standing at the foot of the cross. Will they—will we— rise to serve our king?
Our salvation is at stake in our living faithfulness to the one consumed by the machinery of torture, humiliation, and death. The one who confronted that machinery without fear, and in full view. The one who will call us to rise up beside him not as tenders of his grave, but as servants of his kingdom.
The one who lived alongside the reviled, and who died among the condemned. Amen.