Jesus Saves Us Even From Ourselves

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Good Friday
April 15, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary : Because many people have heard the Good Friday story so often, they may think they know it through and through. But what they overlook in the story can be as important as what they think they already know.

The Good Friday story is so familiar to many Christians that it's possible for them to miss some parts of it that shouldn't be missed.

Let's consider some of those points.

First, what we read today in John's gospel about Jesus' arrest says that "Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees."

What does "a detachment" mean? Scholars say the Greek word "speira," rendered as "detachment," can mean 600 soldiers or it can mean a cohort of auxiliary soldiers numbering 1,000 men or, more rarely, it can mean a smaller force of 200.1

t's true that none of the gospel stories of Jesus' arrest gives us an actual number of troops, though Matthew and Mark say a "great multitude" and Luke simply says a "multitude." And some scholars are skeptical that hundreds and hundreds of Roman soldiers marched through the Kidron Valley at night to sneak up on and arrest one man.

But officials clearly took Jesus seriously. This wasn't a case of a street cop or two picking up a homeless man on a trumped-up charge of vagrancy. Jesus represented a genuine threat in the minds of the Roman rulers and the synagogue leaders to whom Judas had spoken about him, and they responded with force to arrest the unarmed Prince of Peace.

Are we taking Jesus seriously?

Which, of course, raises the question of whether today we take the power and influence of Jesus as seriously as leaders did in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. Or have we defanged Jesus and turned him into a sweet man who never loses his temper, who speaks so quietly you need an amplifier to hear him and who has no prayer against the world's powers and principalities? If that's what we've done, we might want to rethink that and get back to the Jesus that scared the pants off the religious and civil leaders of Jerusalem.

That Jesus, after all, was then and is now none other than the eternal God incarnated, embodied. And as author Annie Dillard reminds us in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, this is a God of love, yes, but also of unimaginable power. She writes: "Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? ...The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews."2

Annie Dillard gets it, even if the Jesus we see on that first Good Friday was weak, beaten and crushed to death by the state. As we know, Good Friday is not -- thank God -- the end of the story of Jesus.

Who got served at the Last Supper?

Next, let's put the Good Friday story in a bit of context. It came soon after what we call the "Last Supper," after which our Holy Communion, or Eucharist, is patterned. And what do we know about what happened at that supper? We know that Jesus served all his disciples, not just some. And we know that he commanded them to love one another and to bathe the world in love.

So Judas, who was about to betray him, which Jesus surely knew, received the bread. And so did Peter, who was about to deny him three times, just as Jesus already had predicted. Given controversies today about which politicians should receive Communion and which shouldn't, perhaps there's an answer if we look back to the original version of the Eucharist and who got served there.

A third point to notice: The first time, in chapter 18, that Peter denies being one of Jesus' disciples, Peter and a few others were standing around a charcoal fire to warm themselves. Do you see that in verse 18? And do you remember where else in Peter's life we find him standing by a charcoal fire?

Well, although the final chapter of John's gospel is not part of what we read today, let's briefly skip over to it. In chapter 21, Jesus shows his resurrected self to his disciples by a seashore. What they saw from their fishing boats was Jesus by a charcoal fire on which fish and bread were cooking.

So we have two charcoal fires. At the first one, Peter denies Jesus three times. But what happens at the second fire? Jesus asks Peter directly three times if he loves him. And three times, paralleling his denials of his Lord, Peter responds with a resounding yes.

Jesus gave Peter a new past

So do you see what Jesus did there? Jesus gave Peter a new past. From that latter moment on, whenever Peter saw or thought about a charcoal fire, he no doubt would remember both fires but certainly he would be most grateful for the second fire, when he got to undo his past denials and focus, instead, on Jesus' charge to him to "feed my sheep."

You and I, too, can be finished with some sorrowful, even reprehensible, things in our past by taking the opportunity that Jesus gives us to repent and accept the gift of life in the body of Christ. We, too, can have a new past, one cleansed of sin, of error, of misjudgment, of destructive behavior. All we need to do is accept the future Jesus offers us.

In many ways, that idea is at the core of Good Friday. Jesus arranges for us to be saved, and one of the meanings of that is to be saved from ourselves and our past. Jesus sets us free from the past and points us in the direction he would have us go. What direction is that? To be of service to humanity, to feed Jesus' own sheep, to work to heal this wounded world. And one way we do that is to tell people that Jesus is ready to give them a new past and a brighter future, too. That's surely a big part of what Jesus meant by his direction to Peter to "feed my sheep." Feed them the good news of the gospel. Tell them that they, too, may have a new past and, thus, a new future.

One more small matter that you might want to notice in the Good Friday story: There's an intriguing play on words going on at the end of chapter 18. Pontius Pilate has interviewed Jesus and then reports this to the crowd: "I find no case against him." Then Pilate notes the annual Passover custom of releasing a prisoner. So Pilate asks the crowd if he should release Jesus.

"Not this man, but Barabbas!" the crowd shouts, referring to a bandit in custody.

As you may know, the word Jesus often used to refer to God the Father was "Abba." It reflected a particular closeness in relationship. You also may know that the word "bar" in a Hebrew name means "son of." So the crowd told Pilate to give them Barabbas, whose name means son of the father, and not Jesus, who actually was and is the Son of the Father.

Sometimes crowds can be mobs and mobs often have no clue what they're asking for and certainly aren't thinking clearly enough to notice profound ironies.

Jesus trusted that God was in charge

At any rate, Pilate's actions condemned Jesus to death by crucifixion, and the gruesome story plays out through the 19th chapter of John. The sad reality is that Jesus has run directly into -- and, by his death, challenges -- human sinfulness. His life, ministry and death reveal the extent to which power, evil and corruption have stained the human condition.

There is only one way for Jesus to overcome all of that and to show it for what it is, and that is to face it head on and to demonstrate what the fate of goodness and love and compassion will be if humanity doesn't turn from fear and its lust for power and commit itself to the way of love.

The faith of Jesus told him that God would prevail in the end. His job was to be faithful to his mission. Friends, that is our job, too. We may not be able to throw all the corrupt politicians out of office, though we should try. And we may not be able to end poverty, crime, racism, environmental degradation, sexism, ageism and war, though we should try.

But we can trust that just as Good Friday was not the end of the story of Jesus, so God will, in the end, write a beautiful, happy ending to the story of humanity. In anticipation, we can live under the reign of God this very day by committing ourselves to the values Jesus taught us -- values of mercy, compassion, justice, forgiveness and love. May it be so.

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