Monday, April 17, 2017

"Give us Barabbas"

Good Friday Sermon
Holy Week 2017

“Give us Barabbas.”

Walking toward Golgotha, you would see it before anything else.  

Wooden cross beams bearing the bodies of men condemned to a torturous death.  Closer still, you would see the blood running down the wood of the cross in rivulets from pierced ankles and wrists, soaking and staining it red in the bright noon sun.  

The smell would hit you next.  The pervading aroma of death.  The coppery scent of blood mixed with the stench of men who have soiled themselves from the pain.  The wine soldiers drink as they wait for their prisoners to die.  

Can you hear it?  The weakening gasping of men slowly asphyxiating, slowly suffocating under their own weight?  The sharp snap of the bones in their legs as soldiers take a large hammer to them?  All so the crowd can get home sooner?  The sucking sound of a spear plunged into flesh, then slowly being drawn out of Jesus’ side? 

Not a week ago, the people of Jerusalem joined a procession of Palms and cloaks to welcome this man Jesus into the city.

This man covered in blood with skin ripped and flayed from his body…the marks of a scourging with a whip braided with metal shards.

Hours earlier, he stood before the assembled crowd with a reed for a scepter and a crown of thorns—a mockery of the claim to royalty.
“…he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and held of no account…”
The crowd, spurred on by their religious leaders, were given the choice between Jesus or Barabbas. 

They said “Give us Barabbas.”

Barabbas.  A murderer. A failed insurrectionist.  We translate John calling him a bandit, but the word is often used to describe those who rebel against the Roman Empire.  He was apparently involved in a riot in Jerusalem—these riots were the reason Pilate moved from his typical headquarters in Caesarea on the North coast of Israel to Jerusalem in the first place.  Especially at religious festivals when passions and tempers run high.

Jesus or Barabbas.  That was the choice.

A choice orchestrated by the political and religious leaders of an occupied territory under a tyrannical military empire.  They feared Jesus—what his unorthodox faith but signs of power would mean for them. Caught between keeping their people alive, keeping their faith as they saw it, and doing so in an unstable relationship to an occupying superpower—they feared the Romans, who applied excessive force with subjected peoples got too uppity.

And so as Caiaphas the High Priest said, “It is better to have one man die than have the nation destroyed.”[1] 

“Destroy the threat to our power. Give us Barabbas.”

But this was not the choice of moral monsters. 

At least, if we were to think of them as such, we may as well give ourselves and the rest of humanity that title, too.

Because we also know all too well the same calculations that lead to saying “Give us Barabbas.”

We are ambivalent about power, about violence. We, like those religious leaders, know the cold logic of calculating what it takes to keep safe, to keep comfortable, to keep control. 

We are not immune.  We know the mixed emotions that keep us choosing necessary evils.

We want peace; we choose leaders based on their willingness to war on our behalf. 
We want unity; we choose winners and losers.
We want civility; we blame the downtrodden for the violence they receive.
We want to be moral; we stand in awe of the marvel of our weaponry as we calculate how many of our own may be spared death by our ability to incinerate millions in a flash of atomic fire.

We may want Jesus, but we’ll take Barabbas. 
And we’ll the gamut between lamenting or celebrating our decision. 

After all, we live in a dangerous world.  We ought not be naïve.

We know we have to get our hands dirty sometime; we appreciate those who spare us from proximity to that life and work—as though we, like Pilate, can wash our hands of it all.

Then Jesus comes—preaching a kingdom built on peace and love.

What sort of Messiah is this? 
Doesn’t he know what it takes to beat the Romans?  Our other enemies?
Doesn’t he know what it means to be free?

At least Barabbas knew what was necessary.
At least Barabbas knew the way the world works, even if he failed.
Give us Barabbas.

And so when God comes to earth preaching peace, love, and good news to the poor— what does humanity do?
He whom none may touch is seized.He who looses Adam from the curse is bound.He who tries the hearts and inner thoughts of humankind is unjustly brought to trial;He who closed the abyss is shut in prison.He before whom the powers of heaven stand tremblingstands before Pilate.The Creator is struck by the hand of his creation.He who comes to judge the living and the dead is condemned to the Cross;The destroyer of Hell is enclosed in a tomb.[2]
While one may wonder why God in Christ chose death on the cross as the way to work our salvation; the better question is whether we really think it could have happened any other way.  In our manifold sins and wickedness; the cold logic of the Enemy—the ruler of this world who is now thrown down—that cold calculation is still what we choose, again and again.

Perhaps instead of wondering “why the cross,” there should not have been any doubt that when even our creator showed up on Earth, we would be threatened enough to kill him.  

We scare so easily.   
And humanity is so predictable--and unimaginative of the possibilities of God’s reign.

The span of history reminds us that even with the work of salvation done-and-yet-ongoing, human nature is still warped in a way that no one, not even the Church, can fix without God.  Unfortunately, the drums of war and the banging of gavels are sometimes loud enough to drown the still, small voice calling us to forgo the calculations that keep us estranged from everyone around us and grasping for control.

This is the world we create when we say we want Jesus, but “give us Barabbas.”

What we get instead is God in Christ, who came in weakness and humility to show the power of love and life; who shows that there is power beyond and stronger than the forces of death the powerful rely upon in this world. who chose to conquer the cross as the judgment on our capacity for cruelty.  The crosses we wear, and that we use to decorate our churches and homes ought to confront us with that judgment of God against us—A judgment on our propensity to choose Barabbas.

And that makes us witnesses not only to Christ’s work of salvation, but calls to our attention to the crucifixions and deaths we witness daily as the world tries to justify them.

Every day.  Even this very week.
The world says “give us Barabbas.”
Yet every year.  On this very night,
we are reminded to say “no, give us Jesus.”

Every year, on this night,
we hope as Isaiah did, that:
Just as there were many who were astonished at God’s suffering servant
--so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals--
that he shall startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which had not been told them they shall see,
and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
God came to die at the hands of his Creation.  
His own beloved.  
Let that inspire silence.  
Let Jesus’s work be seen for what it was.  

Let the way of a quiet power over death and the stillness of a tomb shame the powers of the world tonight.

Tomorrow, in the stillness of a tomb the soft gasp of a body resurrected will inspire a chorus of angelic voices that will shout down the powerful and the forces of death.

A savior who proclaims peace and forgiveness and life after death—A death he swallows in victory, and shows that the absolute worst that humanity can do is nothing, nothing, to what Christ has done and will do.  This is worthy of awe and gratitude.  May it be precious in our sight.

May once again the world—and us—be inspired to say, “give us Jesus.”

[1] Jn 11:50.
[2] From Vespers on Good Friday, Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 1st ed. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995).  The final lines: 
O thou who has endured all these things in thy tender love,
who has saved us all from the curse;
O longsuffering lord, glory be to thee.

No comments: