Palm Sunday sermon in Holy Nativity Episcopal Church, Panama City, Florida, March 20, 2016. The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke. The Rev. Tom Weller.
How could this happen, how, HOW could this have happened, have you seen movies, films, pictures showing and telling how hideously the Romans tortured, brutally executed criminals by crucifixion? And a man flogged before crucifixion — not covered about his loins as artistic modesty has it, but bloody naked, flayed and bleeding, sinew, bone, veins and arteries laid open by sadistic scourging with a whipping instrument having bits of metal that tore out strips and chunks of flesh left hanging and bleeding.
Then as for the agony of the cross itself, some years ago, if you were here, Father William, physician turned priest, described in excruciating detail the nightmare of death by crucifixion, the suffering, the gasping, the crushing and grinding, the searing pain, the physical, mental and emotional horror. How could this have happened, how could this happen to the Son of the Creating God, hoe logos ton theon, Himself the Divine Word whose utterance brought all things into being? How? HOW? Surely this cannot have been the will and work of God himself?
Luke 22 Now the festival of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was near. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death. Then Satan entered into Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve; he went and conferred with the chief priests and officers of the temple police about how he might betray Jesus to them. They were pleased and agreed to give him money. So he consented to betray Jesus.
So Satan entered into Judas, Satan: the superhuman enemy of God, the one who consorted with God about Job: this outrage was not merely the act of man. And creedal, liturgical, doctrinal, dogmatic, scripturally the will of God, the work of God. Theology of the Church, doctrine of the atonement — this unspeakable bloody sacrifice was the offering of God the Father: that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption, who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world. So, the blood sacrifice of Calvary was in accord with God’s plan of salvation: God offers himself, God the Father of justice and truth Himself Incarnate for the redemption of your sins, that you may be in paradise with Him. “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
How could this happen. How?
God has no hands but our hands to do his work today;
God has no feet but our feet to lead others in his way;
God has no voice but our voice to tell others how he died;
God has no help but our help to lead them to his side. And to the foot of his cross.
With no hands but our hands, God’s plan of salvation enlisted human treachery, the greed of Judas Iscariot, who himself also was called and sacrificed for your salvation. Judas who, by one gospel legend, was so remorsefully repentant for his betrayal of Jesus, that he flung the pieces of silver back at the temple authorities and rushed out and hanged himself. Judas Iscariot, by the Word and Hand of God fully as sacrificed as the body and blood of the Son, and gracefully as forgiven and embraced at heaven’s gate as any man who ever lived, and died to sin, and was born again.
Every gospel writer, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John tell this story one way or other, and every story is perfectly told by its evangelist, the gospel writer. Each one is different, and if you puzzle, “But which one is true, which version is true?” the answer is “Whichever gospel you are reading is true, they all ring true.” And it may occur to you that they are all about you anyway; so take your pick, or choose them all, because you are there, just find yourself, it’s about you.
Of the four Passion Gospels, I may least appreciate the story according to John, which we shall read Good Friday, appreciate it the least of all, I may like GospelJohn the least because John zeroes in on poor Judas Iscariot and makes him the bad guy and a thief; none of the other evangelists castigate Judas that way. Someone in my Tuesday morning Bible Seminar said, “I think Judas got a bad rap.” I’m not a lover of Judas Iscariot, whom the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” calls “damned for all time,” but I don’t hate Judas either. Some New Testament scholars have said Judas was not an actual person, but a metaphor, a symbol of all Judeans, who betrayed Christ, who, as Gospel John has it, “received him not.” But that’s not how the storyteller tells his tale, nor how he means us to hear it. Judas was a trusted disciple, perhaps the intellectual among The Twelve, all of whom Jesus loved and called, each to his own destiny. Some to oblivion, some to the cross. And the penitential, horrific, tormented end of Judas Iscariot convinces me that if Jesus forgives me, if my sins are forgiven, just so with Judas Iscariot, who may welcome you at heaven’s gate.
I don’t know why one gospel casts Judas Iscariot so irredeemably, but “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone,” and I’m certainly dropping my stones and, red-faced and embarrassed, creeping silently away, what about you?
Because the gospel is about you, this obscene account of our brutalization of God is about you.
Except for the extreme violence, which is too sadistic and all too real, one of my favorite films, movies, is The Passion of the Christ, I try to watch it at home alone once each Lent as an offering and sacrifice of my Time. I’ve done so again this Lent, watched it Friday morning a week ago. In the film there is a demon, satanic evil personally present: a demon who taunts Jesus as he prays on the Mount of Olives, the demon who Scripture says “entered into Judas,” the demon who later taunts Judas in his anguish about what he has done, the demon still later drifts along mingling in the back of the crowd as they shout and laugh at Jesus struggling, stumbling naked through the narrow streets of Jerusalem toward Calvary bearing his Cross and your sins, for your salvation. And lurking not so subtle in the background: Satan the face of evil, the being of demonic cruelty and hatred, Lilith, demon of Jewish folklore, Lilith the terrifying Night Hag of Isaiah 34 in the desolation of thorns and nettles and brambles, the habitation of dragons and wild beasts, of satyrs and vultures, Lilith entering and possessing the heart and mind of Judas Iscariot for the bloody New Covenant of God. Lilith/Satan, the super-human enemy of God driving Judas insane; and then Judas, horrified at what he has done, his ungodly mission accomplished, Judas Iscariot driven to suicide in the wilderness of life, hanging, burst open by Beelzebul, lord of stinging, swarming flies.
Judas Iscariot on his earthly mission for God, forgiven and embraced in the life to come. If you cannot believe that for Judas Iscariot, how dare you believe it for yourself. For as our passion hymn confesses, “Ah, holy Jesus, I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.” ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Because the gospel is about you, with your rope — and your mallet and handful of nails. You there at the Cross throwing stones, and epithets mocking the Son of God. Yes, you, enjoying the show.
Shockingly: your sins are forgiven. You and Judas, your sins are forgiven. In this ghastly sacrifice, your sins against God, and against yourself, and against your neighbor, are wiped from the Book of Life. Your slate is clean.
This is what the Holy Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is all about. In a moment we will place a tiny wafer of bread in your hand and proclaim to you, “The Body of Christ.” You are forgiven before you kneel at the rail; forgiven before you start down the aisle to the Altar: your coming for the Bread and Wine is merely your acceptance of Unconditional Grace, as the Body and Blood of your Savior touch your lips and are absorbed into your being.
The Body of Christ,
the Blood of Christ.
Tell me the old, old story. The old, old story of Jesus echoes around this room with the grace of God: Your sins are forgiven. Forgiven.
God the Father, God the + Son, God the Holy Spirit bless, preserve and keep you. The Lord mercifully with his favor look upon you, and wash you clean in the Blood of Jesus Christ.