Ecce Homo by Honoré Daumier, c. 1851
A sermon for Palm Sunday: The Sunday of the Passion, April 13, 2014. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, and Matthew 26:14- 27:66.
A few weeks ago, I went to see the movie, “Son of God.” Some of you may have this dramatic retelling of highlights from the Gospel of John, or you might have seen the related miniseries on the History Channel. Like most movies based on scripture, this one has its problems—the largest of which (for me, anyway) has to do with a pale, weak, former model from Portugal playing a sanctimonious Jesus who seems slightly bored with his whole mission.
But there are some good points. I like how the movie shows Mary Magdalene fully as one of the early disciples. She’s simply one of the gang, which seems true to the Gospel. Some of the disciples seem cast particularly well, their personality coming out here and there. But the most helpful part of the new “Son of God” movie for me, has to do with the way the film shows the political dynamics swirling around those last days of Jesus in Jerusalem. Not so much a “House of Cards” this movie, but almost a “Temple of Dreidels,” with all the scheming, double-crossing, and conniving that’s going on.
As we hear the story of Christ’s Passion, recall that Jerusalem is the heart of Judaism. All the religious Jews who can are coming into the city to make an offering at the temple and celebrate the Passover feast. But remember also that Jerusalem is an occupied city—that’s why the Roman soldiers are there, because Rome is running things. King Herod—Herod (Antipas) who killed John the Baptist—is a puppet king, as was his father, propped up by the Romans to help keep the peace. And the Romans loved what they understood as peace, Pax Romana , peace at all cost. And as anyone knows, peace does come at a cost—the cost of tradeoffs, wars, treaties, settlements, betrayals, and sellouts.
Among the many questions the Passion asks of us, for me, the one that carries a note beyond the chanting of the Gospel is a question around betrayal, around cost. The question is basically this: What’s my price? For what price would I sell out? For what would I sell out my soul? For what would I sell out my Lord and friend Jesus?
Judas, of course, is the clearest example of someone willing to sell out, to do business with the leaders of the temple. He sells out for thirty pieces of silver. But the religious leaders were selling out, themselves. The leaders are worried about the Passover celebration, the biggest feast of the year. John’s Gospel fills in some of the details as the Jewish religious leaders go to Caiaphas, the High Priest. They’re worried. “What are we to do?” they ask. “This man is performing many signs… [and] if we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” Caiaphas sees what’s at stake. To keep the peace, to keep the temple in business, to keep the Passover as the great feast that it should be, Caiaphas names the terms of a deal, “You know nothing at all!” he tells them. “Don’t you understand that it is better … to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed?” (John 11:49-50)
The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ is the story of Christ giving himself for all—for the good, for the evil, for those who believe, and those who don’t, for those who are afraid of him, and for those who are plotting against him. But just about everyone else around him is giving nothing, but taking all they can. They’re cutting deals and selling out.
Judas sells out for silver. Peter the disciple is afraid, so he sells out for momentary comfort and security. Caiaphas the High Priest sells out to keep his position, to keep the status quo, and to keep peace with the Romans. The Pharisees sell out so as not to have to think about the foundations of their lists and laws. Pontius Pilate sells out to keep his job and to keep Caesar happy. The wife of Pontius Pilate— she whose name we don’t know but whose dreams we hear about—she compromises her own known truth for what—her marriage, her position, her weariness of just one more disagreement with her husband?
And then there’s the crowd—the crowd which represents most of us— the crowd sells out by choosing Barabbas (the criminal, the local, the drinking partner, the fun one) over Jesus, the one who preaches a hard way of love.
Each of these people or groups has a price, though I doubt they thought much about it beforehand. And so, the question arises for me, and for you—what is our price, the price of our betrayal of truth, of love, of Christ?
Is it comfort—if we speak out we might lose our job, our benefits, or our retirement? That’s a high cost. Do we fail to do the right thing for fear of what others would say, or think about us? Do we deny Christ in small or large ways, going along with the joke we hear, not wanting to be the killjoy; or remaining quiet when a conversation about Christianity only focuses on the easy targets, the hypocrisy and sinfulness in any institution or person? What’s the cost of compromise, for us?
Another way for us to think about this is to flip it around and think of the cost of discipleship. This term is often associated with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Reformed pastor and theologian who was killed by the Nazis in 1945. Bonhoeffer wrote about “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” He wrote
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate…
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son. (The Cost of Discipleship)
Bonhoeffer was killed on April 9, the anniversary of which we commemorated last week in our prayers. But Bonhoeffer’s message of costly grace spread. In his day, Bonhoeffer worked closely with others around the world who did their best to get work out about the persecution of the Jews in Germany, about the rise of Hitler, and especially about the German resistance that needed support. But the Allied nations had decided war was the answer. The Rt. Rev. George Bell, bishop of Chichester, from his seat in the House of Lords, warned the British Parliament of Nazi aggression. At the same time, Bell preached against this rush to war, arguing that there were people like Bonhoeffer in Germany who needed support and should not be bombed indiscriminately. Bell quickly got on the wrong side of Churchill, which many believe is why Geoffrey Fisher became archbishop of Canterbury, and not Bell. For Bishop Bell, the cost of discipleship was not getting a particular job. For Bonhoeffer, it was his life. And for us, there will be a cost, if we’re faithful.
But the cost is nothing in comparison to the gift, the grace, the joy, the love, the life never ending that is ours because of the cross of Christ, because of his love and his sacrifice.
The liturgies and prayers of Holy Week invite us to the foot of the cross, so that with Christ’s forgiveness, sacrifice, and love, we can be transformed and join him in the resurrection to eternal life.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.