His name was Alan, and he’d been a member of our church for many years; at least he’d been there since before I was pastor. I had come to ask him if he might consider becoming a deacon. And after a long, long silence, he looked at me and with a tone of voice I’m still not sure was half-joking or wholly serious, he answered, “Well, I’m very honored… but I’m not sure you want someone like me to be a Deacon.”
Not sure of how I should respond, I asked him how that could be, and he said, “You see, in my last church, I once walked out of a Passion Play. I’d been given the part of Pilate, and the most important thing I had to do as Pilate was to send Jesus to be crucified – but I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it! I knew it was just a play, and this was just a part I was supposed to play, but to think that this man Pilate could have sentenced God’s own Son to death… to that kind of a death, that was too much. It literally hurt to think about it!
“Maybe it hit too close to home, I don’t know,” Alan went on, “but I couldn’t bring myself to say the words… but I didn’t want any part of it… so I just walked out, and left them all high and stranded.”
Now, being the pastor, I probably said something benign like, “that’s OK, Alan; you can still be a Deacon…” But what I still wish to this day I’d said was, “YES! You really understand, don’t you? You totally get what happened! It’s like YOU WERE THERE!”
You see, the truth is that we all tend to gloss over this part of the story. If we attend to it at all, as we usually do about now, our habit is nonetheless to keep a safe and polite distance. After all, we say to ourselves, it’s an ancient narrative, something that happened in a place a world away 2,000 years ago and long before any of us were around; it really doesn’t have any direct relevance to today’s world. Moreover, it’s also a horrific story; the violence that’s depicted there is heinous and unthinkable, and the ending is tragic! And after Palm Sunday last week and coming up on Easter now, it’s really not the kind of uplifting story we want to hear about now. And besides, we may even conclude, it really doesn’t have anything to do with me, does it? This crucifixion story has nothing to do with how we live our lives here and now; the bottom line? We weren’t there!
Of course, if we had been there, it’d been different:
We wouldn’t have fallen away like the spineless disciples; and we certainly wouldn’t have denied knowing Jesus, like Peter;
And we wouldn’t have been shouting with the rest of the crowd to crucify him; I’d like to think we’d be the ones who were out there still crying out for all we’re worth, “Hosanna, Hosanna!”
And I know we wouldn’t have stood idly by and watched the powers-that-be and their thug soldiers beat Jesus and mock him. We’d have done everything we could to save him, or if we couldn’t do that, then at least we’d gone with him….
But, of course, that’s not really worth thinking about because we weren’t there!
Or were we?
We need to remember that ultimately, what we remember this week is not about an isolated travesty of justice and faithlessness on the part of a very few people in the rather smallish city of Jerusalem during a Passover celebration some 2,000 years ago. Historically speaking, this is how it all unfolded, but in every other way, what happened is not that small. What we remember tonight is about human sin. It’s about the kind of atrocities that humanity is capable of, and how quickly and easily even the most seemingly innocent among us are drawn in.
It’s about death; yes, the death of a man on a cross, a man who was the Son of God. But it’s also about our death, yours and mine, the death we have earned, the death we greatly deserve.
It’s about Jesus, yes; but in a very real way, it’s about you and me; about our hearts and our propensity to go against them time after time after time.
And it’s about all those times when we say and do all the things which we know we should not do, even if it’s denying Jesus. Even if it’s joining with the mob when they shout “Crucify him.” Even if it’s cheering when Pilate gives the order.
There is one difference between us and the disciples, however. You remember how during supper when Jesus said to them, one of you will betray me, and the disciples all answer, “Is it I? Could it be me? Not me, Lord…?” Here’s the difference: we don’t have to ask; we already know.
When we have the chance to speak our faith or to act on it, but like Peter, choose instead to keep mum about it, in some small way or another, we deny him.
When we take the path of least resistance, like so many of the disciples, or put ourselves and our personal gain over God, like Judas, we betray him.
When we persist, again and again, in walking our own road rather than the way of the cross, we crucify him.
We were there. We are there.
And the reason that we’re here tonight is because there is grace that comes in knowing it, confessing it, and above all, in accepting his gift of pardon and salvation for our part in it.
Remember, Jesus went to the cross not to condemn us, but to save us. So as we draw nearer to the cross, let us be honest about it and remember who we are… and above all, let us remember who Jesus is.
c. 2013 and 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry