A sermon delivered from the back of the sanctuary at the Maundy Thursday Service, March 27, 2013.
There is in all of us, light and dark. There is a capacity for compassion and loyalty and creativity. And there is also a capacity for cruelty – a capacity for the seven deadly sins: rage, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony.
We know that as we go through life, what we’re called to do what we can to allow the light to shine forth, and, as much as possible, to keep the darkness reigned in.
But it’s important to know that the darkness within us never disappears – that it still lurks within us, even if we have managed to reign in the most obvious expressions of the darkness.
And the temptation to think that we have succeeded in leaving the darkness behind is a very dangerous thing.
It goes hand in hand with imagining that the good we manage to do in life is primarily an expression of our superior effort, leading us to feel better than the people we see about us in whom the darkness is more readily apparent.
We are tempted to deny just how much the grace of God is responsible for the light that shines through us.
We overlook the many ways God’s grace has come to us:
What did we ever do to deserve the gift of loving parents, a stable home – the gift of a roof over our heads and daily food to eat?
What did we ever do to deserve the gift of the DNA that meant we wouldn’t live as so many others do with disability or disease, or with an inclination towards addiction? What did we do to deserve the DNA that gave us the potential to do the things we naturally excel at?
Nothing. It was all a gift.
And what about all the people who were given to us along the way who nurtured us – teachers, friends, and other bearers of kindness and grace?
The light that shines through us should move us to humbly give thanks, but it is so easy for us to flip it – to take a kind of arrogant pride in the manifestation of the light that leads us to look down on others.
What I’m describing is self-righteousness, the very quality that lead the Pharisees and other religious authorities to conspire to have Jesus killed.
Later this evening we will hear again the familiar story of the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life on earth.
The story invites us to own the darkness within us — to identify with the characters surrounding Jesus in the story, who generally speaking don’t come off very well.
There’s Judas. Maybe we look at Judas and say to ourselves, “Oh, I can identify with the others, but not Judas. He went too far.” Jesus taught us to pray each day, “Lead us not into temptation,” precisely because the potential to be Judas lives within each of us.
Judas presumably wasn’t bad to the bone – that is, evil from the start. He was a good man who was taken over by evil.
How did this happen? We aren’t really told. We are told there was a moment when Satan took over Judas, but presumably there had been a path taken that, over time, lead him to that moment where he was vulnerable to being taken over by evil.
What might that have looked like? We can imagine that Judas had an attachment to a certain idea of how things should play out with Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps he hoped that eventually the movement Jesus was leading would lead to the overthrow of the hated Romans.
As time passed, it would have become more and more obvious to him that this wasn’t going to happen. It’s not hard to imagine Judas thinking he knows better what should happen, and that a festering resentment grew within him over the fact that his point of view wasn’t being honored. He wouldn’t, or couldn’t let go of it. Feeling unappreciated, bitterness took root. A hardness of heart solidified that he was powerless to avoid. And then the opportunity presented itself for him to take action – to simultaneously express his resentment and force things to go the way he knew was right – to force Jesus to lead the armed rebellion all of Israel was waiting for.
Who hasn’t felt them selves at times at least moving in that direction, feeling a festering resentment – a sense of bitterness in our hearts? Hopefully, thankfully, some grace allowed you to let it go before it took over your heart. But if you’ve ever felt a festering resentment within your heart, then Judas is no stranger to you.
Then there’s Peter. He’s probably easier to identify with than Judas. His story reminds us of the gap that at times is invariably in every person’s life – the gap between who we want to think we are – and who, in fact, yet remain. Peter wants to see himself as possessing great courage, and that his love for Jesus is of such depth that he will stand strong come what may. As such, he wants to see himself as being better than the other disciples. At the moment in which he makes his bold declarations, it all seems quite plausible to him. But later, when he comes face to face with a direct threat to his life, the gap opens up — he finds himself paralyzed with fear.
And maybe we can also identify with the Peter who, after the cock’s crowing, feels a deep sense of shame – of self-contempt — of despair of ever being worthy of love. We’ve had our moments as well.
How about the members of the ruling council who bring their accusations against Jesus? They believe the accusations they make against Jesus are true and unbiased. They assume anybody who looked clearly at what they were looking at would see the same thing; after all, everybody they associate with sees it the way they do.
They are blind to their “group think.” They feel a righteous indignation that has no basis in reality. They are required to take this point of view in order to maintain their membership in their group. They are blind, but think they see.
How much of what you and I believe to be true is little more than a recitation of what the people we happen to hang out with tells us is true?
And then there’s Pilate. The life of Jesus is in his hands. He doesn’t belong to the Council, and so he isn’t blinded by their group think. Pilate can see that Jesus is innocent of their charges. All Pilate needs to do is say, “No, I will not put this innocent man to death,” and Jesus’ life will be spared. But if he were to do that, he’ll probably have a riot on his hands. And the riot won’t be looked upon kindly by Caesar back in Rome. He has a comfortable life that he’s grown accustomed to as the Roman governor in Judea. He doesn’t want to lose the creature comforts. So he doesn’t do what he knows is right.
Perhaps we’ve all felt the same thing at times.
There’s the soldiers who blindfolded Jesus, then hit him, mocking him by asking, “Who just hit you?! Prophesy holy man!” We can’t identify with such cruelty, can we?
But maybe these soldiers wouldn’t have been quite so cruel if they hadn’t had an audience of their peers to play to, to get a laugh from — to impress.
We wouldn’t do that, we think. But, do we ever join in the gossip, even the slander of somebody, because, you know, the person can’t see us, and sharing the laugh is fun, and makes us feel we’re one of the insiders at the expense of the one who becomes the object of our scorn?
We can say that’s not the same as beating up somebody, and that’s true. But, fortunately, we will hopefully never be in a situation where we might be seriously tempted to physically harm another. We don’t find ourselves living out the life of a Roman soldier, or anything near it. We are, however, in plenty of situations where we the test we are given comes in the form of a temptation to gossip and slander. We can we say we always pass the test?
So, you see, there are many characters we can identify with in this terrible story. And in recognizing that truth, we realize that we, too have a hand in putting Jesus up on that cross. We share in the darkness that continues to ravage the world.
What are we to do with this recognition?
Jesus told a parable about two men going up to the Temple to pray. One was a sinner, a taxcollector. The other was a Pharisee, with impeccable credentials. The Pharisee’s prayer was simply an opportunity to congratulate him self for being superior to others. Jesus said that the Pharisee left the Temple that day cut off from the grace of God.
The other man knew he had no right to boast. He had looked deep down into the darkness within him, and all he could say, was, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
It was this man, said Jesus, who went home justified that day. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Towards the end of the story we hear astonishing words of grace. Jesus looks down from the cross on the people below, who in various ways have contributed to nailing him to that cross. He sees them, and then he prays a prayer. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
This night, we acknowledge our sin, and behold, we discover there is truly astonishing mercy in the heart of God.