SERMON PREACHED BY
THE REVEREND DR HAROLD T. LEWIS, RECTOR
CALVARY EPISCOPAL CHURCH,
PALM SUNDAY 2005
Well, here we are again, at the beginning of that Week of weeks, a week full of paradoxes. Thorns take the shape of a crown. Popular acclaim turns to public execution. "Sorrow and love," as the hymn reminds us, "come mingled down." Life ends and life begins. There are other paradoxes, too. A king rides on a donkey. The faithful become fickle. Lovers become betrayers. The fearful become fearless. Who needs Agatha Christie or John Grisham or even Dan Brown? The Bible, with its intrigue, suspense and suspicion, with its plots, its murders and its warfare, still tops the all-time best-seller list. It speaks to the human condition better than any book written before or since. Even those who do not accept the Passion as the centerpiece of the Christian faith have to admit that it is unadulterated high drama. So I thought that this morning, in an attempt to begin to unpack that drama, we would do well to look at it through the eyes of three of the major players in the cast, three participants in the drama we reenact year after year.
The first of these is Caiaphas, the high priest. Now the high priest wore two hats. He was both the head of the Jewish state and the principal religious functionary. As the office grew, high priests became concerned more with matters secular and less with matters sacred. They typically came from the most influential families (Caiaphas had the good sense to marry into one; his father-in-law was Annas, whom he succeeded as high priest). They were covetous of wealth and power, and like the rich man in the parable, "fared sumptuously every day." Caiaphas, more than Judas, and certainly more than Pilate, was responsible for the death of Jesus. Why? He loved the Temple, of which, of course, he was in charge. The Temple was more than a place of worship; it was the symbol of church and state. It was a national shrine. And Caiaphas was clearly astute enough to know that Jesus, this upstart preacher and miracle-worker who raised people from the dead, was a threat, and had to go. What Caiaphas might not have known, however, is that by putting Jesus to death, his own fate was sealed. For when at the moment of the Crucifixion, the veil of the Temple was torn in half (I still prefer the KJV "rent in twain") the high priest was out of a job! Caiaphas was above all concerned with preserving the institutions of religion, so concerned that anything or anybody that would change much less supplant those institutions was deemed treacherous and heretical. Apparently, like Episcopalians, Caiaphas' seven deadly words were "We have always done it that way." Moreover, he loved what might be called "theological rectitude." He deemed it blasphemous to use the divine name in certain ways, so after eliciting certain responses from Jesus, Caiaphas declared him to be a blasphemer, and told the crowd that there was no need for further witnesses. Case closed!
If Caiaphas sounds familiar, it is because he is alive and well in the church today. There are those who jealously guard the Temple precincts still. They try to preserve the institution as they have grown to know and love it in its allegedly pristine glory. But the problem is that their view of the church is static, not dynamic. It is frozen in time, its glory days variously defined. For some it's the Council of Chalcedon, who believe that it was all downhill for the church after 451. For others the period of Anglo-Catholic triumphalism, and for many it is any time before the Civil Rights movement! New insights, new revelations are anathema. Modern-day Caiaphases revere laws, rules and canons to such an extent that the very people whom those regulations were enacted to protect are forgotten, lost in the shuffle. Even Jesus, himself, seems dispensable. But that perhaps is another sermon!
The second character on whom we should focus for a moment is Peter. The impetuous, foot-in-mouth-disease Peter, who always seems to be blurting out something, now has little to say. The serving-maid's question took him off guard. So far as he could figure things out, it was curtains for Jesus and for the movement he had started. So, he reasoned (we always do find justifications for our actions, don't we?) there was no reason to defend Jesus or to admit any knowledge of him. More to the point, there was no reason for him to risk his own neck for someone already doomed. What is more significant, however, is not that he denies Jesus, but that each of his denials becomes more vehement than the one before. A denial, then a denial with an oath, then a denial with curses. Something always gives the criminal away. I must confess that I am an avid watcher of "Law and Order" in which crime, arrest, arraignment, prosecution, trial and sentencing are all wrapped up in a neat 60-minute package. The killer invariably forgets one detail in the otherwise perfect crime that becomes his undoing. Peter forgot that his Galilean accent would give him away. But the good news is that when the rooster crowed, and he was reminded of Jesus' words, he wept bitterly and repented of his betrayal.
The last character is Pontius Pilate, to whom we give an honorable mention in the Creed every Sunday. He has enjoyed a fame that is perhaps disproportionate to the role he played in the Passion. It is clear from every account of the Passion that Pilate believed Jesus to be innocent of the trumped-up charges brought against him. He appealed to the mob, he appealed to Jesus himself, he tried compromise. He did everything in his power to prevent Jesus' execution. But in the end, he gave in. He gave in because the crowd told him that if he were to let Jesus off the hook, he could not be considered Caesar's friend. Pilate was concerned that word would get back to Rome that he had waffled, that he had let down the team. He was concerned that Caesar would send him a pink slip. And the palatial air-conditioned Praetorium, the palace guard, and all the other perks would be history, and that he would be rusticated, sent to some unknown backwater in the corner of the Empire, bereft of the prestige and power of Jerusalem. Pilate, the consummate politician, sacrificed his own principles to receive the approbation of the crowd, a crowd, by the way, who would turn against him later.
Sometimes we are like Pilate. We are like the proverbial fair-weather Christians. We "stand up, stand up for Jesus" when it is convenient so do to, but sit down when standing for our beliefs gets in the way of our personal agendas. Although we can blurt out with Charles Wesley, "O for a thousand tongues to sing our dear Redeemer's praise," we too often don't use the one tongue we have to speak on his behalf. Instead we take a vow of silence when the heat is on, when a word expressing our conviction would well save the day. And P.S.: Like Pilate, we often discover that the people we were trying to impress discard us when we have served their purpose, and won't give us the time of day.
This morning, we have strewn palms at Jesus' feet, all the
while shouting "Hosanna," and a few minutes later joined
with the crowd, demanding "Crucify him." With whom
do we identify? The hypocritical Caiaphas, threatened by change?
The fickle Peter, who deserted Jesus when he needed him most?
Or the self-serving Pilate, the consummate political animal?
The answer, if we are honest, is "All of the above."
The flaws inherent in human nature haven't changed in two thousand
years. The bad news is that, falling short of the glory of God,
we stand in the shadow of the Cross with Caiaphas, Peter and Pilate,
'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee,
I crucified thee.
But the good news is that, as Isaiah reminds us,"All who defy him shall stand ashamed in his presence, but all the children of Israel shall stand victorious and find their glory in the Lord." In the shadow of that same Cross, then, we experience our turning around, our conversion, our repentance, our hope. In the shadow of the Cross, we experience Jesus' mercy and we share in his ultimate triumph over death, as we sing,
Think on thy pity, and thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.
Let us pray:
O Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray thee to set thy passion, cross and death between thy judgment and our souls. Give mercy and grace to the living, pardon and rest to the dead, to thy holy Church peace and concord, and to us sinners everlasting life and glory, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit, livest and reignest one God, now and forever. AMEN.