The Revd. J. Michael Povey at St. Boniface Church, Siesta Key, FL
John 18:1 - 19:37
There is a necessary prelude to my sermon. Whoever wrote the Gospel according to John frequently refers to “The Jews”. In the story of Mary, Martha and Lazarus which we had the other week the disciples say that it is “the Jews” who are seeking to stone Jesus In an earlier story, the one about the man born blind it is reported by John that “the Jews did not believe that (he) the man had been born blind. In the passion according to John “the Jews” cried out (to Pilate) “If you release this man you are not a friend of Caesar”.
It all makes for very painful reading, since John so often refers to “the Jews” as being the skeptics, or the adversaries of Jesus, or the ones who wanted him to be crucified. “The Jews” get all the blame, and this had led to nearly two thousand years of Christian anti-Judaism and persecution unto death. At best we can hope that John meant “some of the Jewish or Judean leaders”, but he says “the Jews”.
In the face of what John wrote, and the ways in which his words have been interpreted I offer a contradictory word. It is that I rejoice because the sons and daughters of Abraham who follow the Torah, and exalt G-d as King of the Universe, that is – modern day religious Jews - are our friends and allies as we, with them seek to rebuild a broken world.
John’s account of the passion makes for riveting reading. It’s the story of a crucifixion in a world where crucifixions for rebels against Roman authority were a dime a dozen.
This one is a bit different. The whole world is there. The might of Rome is seen in the face of the soldiers. The religious establishment, every anxious to preserve its prerogatives is there. The country hicks from Galilee should have been there, but most of the disciples fled and hid, save for four of them, Mary, Jesus’ mother, her sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdelane. The secret disciple Joseph of Arimathea is there. And in Mathew’s version an immigrant from Africa is there to carry the cross. Unlike most other crucifixions, the whole world is there.
The whole world is there. But of course for earlier in John’s Gospel he records Jesus as saying “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32).
The suffering of Jesus before and during his crucifixion was not different than that of the thousands of others whom Rome had crucified. In fact his suffering was lesser than that of the millions who have died on the battle fields, or in death camps, or in ghastly genocides. So why is this suffering, this crucifixion, this death so different?
We discover the answer to that in the words of Jesus at the end of the Gospel passage: “it is finished”, or “it is accomplished”. Jesus gave up his spirit as another Gospel puts it because he has accomplished what he came to do.
What he came to do is referenced in many images in John. “He is the one who creates a quality vintage wine from plain old water – that is the bringer of joy!’ He is the true vine, the way the truth and the life, the light of the world, the Christ and Son of God (according to Mary of Bethany), the one who offers life giving water to a woman in Samaria.
Above all else he is, in John “the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep”. All that and much more has been the reason for his being and the reason for his life, and all that is now accomplished in his death on a cross.
And why? It is to draw the world to himself and to God. The late Bishop Paul Moore once asked us to the horizontal beams of the cross as extending in a circle around the globe, so that we could see the cross as God’s living embrace of the world.
But the world refuses to be embraced. The world continues in its violence, its worship of force and weapons of mass destruction, its disdain of the poor in every country, its ethnic and nationalistic prides, its greed and ravaging of the gifts of God in what we call “natural resources” when in truth they are God’s provisions. The world, overwhelmed in a drunken orgy of greed, selfishness and suffering refuses to be embraced by God in Christ.
And we, do we embrace this embrace?
“Yes” we say.
“Not so soon” I say, it is sometimes simpler and more convenient for us to resist the embrace and gifts of God.
I must speak for myself. I often find it simpler and more convenient to resist God’s grace.
For there are dark places within me: places of anger, or fear, of old and petty grudges and hatreds. There are places of greed, of lust and of a residual racism. I harbor envy and jealousy. I sometimes shade the truth for my own advantage. I sometimes lie.
These are sins, some of them of the deadly kind. They are a canker on my soul. But there are times when I cannot imagine life without them. It’s a bit like living in a rundown, dark and dangerous house, but feeling so comfortable in that mess and chaos that the very idea of moving in to a safe and secure place is terrifying. Maybe I am a hoarder of sin.
But this is a gospel church and there is gospel hope, rooted in the life and death of Jesus. St. Paul puts it this way “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 9:15).
But God cannot reconcile those who refuse to be reconciled.
It is only when I am honest and I accept the truth about my darkness and sin that God can offer me hope and new life in the cross of Jesus. His word is this “Jesus died on the cross for you, and in doing so he absorbed all that keeps you from freedom and grace. Let me take that load of sin off your back so that you can stand and walk upright. Leave your garbage at the Cross lest Jesus died for you in vain”.
When I was child I used to sing this in Sunday School:
“There’s a way back to God from the dark paths of sin
There’s a door which is open and you may go in.
At Calvary’s Cross is where you begin
When you come as a sinner to Jesus”
That is a gospel word for all of us.