Sunday, March 27, 2011

Condemned by the Righteous (Mark 14:53-72)

They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled.

Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none.

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death. Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying “Prophesy!” The guards also took him over and beat him.

While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” But he denied it, saying, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

Today we are continuing in our series of messages that remains our focus throughout Lent. We are studying 24 Hours that Changed the World, looking together at the events of the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life before the crucifixion. My hope is that you will experience and understand the significance of Jesus’ suffering and death in a way you never have before as we share this heart-breaking and inspiring journey.

Last week, we spent time with Jesus as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. We heard Jesus struggle as he prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” We also spent some with Judas, who truly loved Jesus, Nevertheless, he still betrayed Jesus. The betrayal of Jesus was an inside job. Rarely is the ministry of Christ, whether in that time or in ours, torn apart by outsiders. We are always more of a threat to ourselves than any force or factor outside.

Today, our attention shifts to the next scene. Following his arrest in the garden, Jesus was taken to the house of the high priest for a rushed trial in the middle of the night, and that’s where we pick up the story. May we pray.

Early Friday Morning

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry is brought up on charges and brought to trial before the Ministry of Magic for practicing a certain kind of magic in the presence of a regular person. Alone, he is brought into a trial where no due process is followed, and it doesn’t look good. Professor Dumbledore, the headmaster of his school, shows up mid-trial and comes to Harry’s aid. The trial had been secretly moved several hours ahead of schedule, but Professor Dumbledore anticipated this breach of due process, and just happened to arrive at the ministry three hours early.

In some ways, it is a scene reminiscent of the trial of Jesus before the Jewish ruling council.

Sometime between 1am and 3am Friday morning, Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. The crowds who had greeted him with adulation on Sunday morning were now asleep in their beds. The disciples who had followed him for three years since hearing him call their names by the edge of the Galilean lake had all fled into the darkness. Bound hand and foot by the temple guards, as they made their way back into the city, Jesus had never been more alone.

Jesus was brought to the home of the high priest in the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness, and in that secrecy, the Jewish Sanhedrin, the high ruling council, was hastily assembled. The Sanhedrin were 71 men who ruled over the religious affairs of the people, some of the wisest and most pious men of the time. They had devoted themselves to God, and their high priest was the most important religious figure of their day.

Normally, the Sanhedrin met during the day in the temple courts, and never during religious feasts. Think about that for a minute. The temple was a very public place. People were constantly coming to make their sacrificial offerings. The rabbis would gather to teach and debate. The temple was not only where you went to worship; it was the center of community life for the Jewish people. Under normal circumstances, this was where the Sanhedrin conducted its business – in a very public, visible, well-traveled place where anybody and everybody could observe what happened.

However, for Jesus’ trial, this is not where they gathered. Roused from their beds, called into special session, away from the busyness of the temple and in the home of the high priest, not in broad daylight but in secret and shadow, during the biggest religious festival of the year. All these irregularities speak to the urgency and the secrecy the council felt necessary in dealing with Jesus.

Condemned by the Righteous in That Day

Don’t miss the irony of what happened. In Jesus, God walked in human flesh on this earth. So much did he want to know us and relate to us that he willingly gave up the splendor of heaven in order to be one of us. And while he was with us, he healed the sick, forgave sinners, showed compassion to the lost, and taught people what God was really like. And who had a problem with that? The most religious, godly, and pious people on the planet. They were charter members, Sunday School teachers, members of the Church Council, tithing members. They had served on the building committee, the scholarship committee, the finance committee, and the missions committee. They were pastors and professors, district superintendents and bishops, president of the United Methodist Women – they were good, honest, hard-working, godly people – entrusted with leadership in discerning the ongoing work of God in the world.

Ironic, that when God walked among us in the person of Jesus, it was the most religious, godly, and righteous people who condemned him. The God they claimed to serve walked among them in the flesh, but they could not see him. They were so blinded by their love of power and their fear of losing it that they missed him. The people you would most expect to recognize and hail Jesus instead arrested him in darkness and brought him to trial. They put God on trial for blasphemy. They convicted God-in-flesh of a crime worthy of the death penalty – blasphemy against himself!

The religious folks were so angry and hostile toward Jesus, failing to recognize that before them stood the answer to centuries of prayer. They mocked him, they blindfolded him, they spat on him. Can you imagine it – good, religious folks doing this to the very one God sent into their midst as an answer to their prayers?

The question we must ask is, “How could this happen?” How could 71 righteous men, dedicated to God, do what these men did? Why did they condemn an innocent man to death? And even if they thought he was a false messiah, why would pious men, pillars of the community, spit on him? Why would they mock him, blindfold him, and strike him?

Fear. They feared Jesus. Jesus was a threat to their way of life, their position, their standing, the very fabric of their social order. What I have noticed is that religious folks, over time, tend to get very protective. Sometimes the more religious we are, the longer we have considered ourselves religious, the greater the threat we sense from Jesus. And when anything comes along that threatens our power, our standing, our way of doing things, our institutions, even when that thing is directly from God, we lash out in fear.

It was those who were righteous who condemned Jesus. The sinners of Jesus’ day celebrated him. They flocked to Jesus and they wanted to hear what he had to say. Over and over again, Jesus reached directly into the lives of sinners and touched their hearts, and sinners found themselves transformed. I’m inclined to think that if Jesus walked among us today, you’d be hard-pressed to find him in a church. Through the Gospels, Jesus’ preference was always to hang out with tax collectors and prostitutes and other sinners. When he did show up at the temple, he did stuff that pissed off the religious people, like turning over tables and teaching them things they didn’t want to hear. The more religious they were, the more pissed off they were at what Jesus did.

Condemned by the Righteous in Our Day

The great tragedy is when we consider ourselves so religious, so spiritual, so superior, so convinced of our own correctness, that we stop asking for forgiveness from God, that we stop admitting our own shortcomings, that we stop doing what is necessary to continue to grow in grace. Because, what I find is that the closer I draw to God, the more acutely I realize just how distant I am from God. The more I grow in God’s grace, the more I realize just how much growing I still have to do. I am leery of anyone who brags about what a good Christian they are; such bragging runs counter to the spirit of humility and submission to Christ that is fundamentally required for those who are growing in God’s grace. Those who claim to be godly but whose lives fail to evidence a growth in God’s grace are dangerous, indeed.

Perhaps that’s why more evil has been advanced in the name of God and religion through the centuries than any of us would care to admit. Sure, we could name the ways the Bible has been abused and misinterpreted to justify and glorify war, slavery, sexism, racism, and homophobia, but I wondered if there were some examples a little closer to home.

On facebook this week, I put this question out there: “When have you seen devout, faithful, religious people work against God or get in the way of what God was doing?” Randy Blanton said, “We have some ladies who are overly consumed with the state of our physical buildings. Their hearts are in the right place, but they are such sticklers for details that many people are afraid to use the buildings. Thus ministry is inhibited.”

Elise Kennedy said, “We have some folks who really have great gifts, but instead of use their gifts to bring people to God they use them for control and 'power.'”

And then, Jonathan Brake: “The men of the church did home repair for a needy family and invited them to church. They had been hurt by churches before but took a chance and found Christian love this time. Several months later the mother overheard someone's comment that ‘we don't want people LIKE THAT in OUR church.’ So much for Christian love.” These were all United Methodist churches right here in Western North Carolina.

It is possible to be a good, pious, godly, religious person, and yet remain blind to what God is actually doing. In each instance, the purpose of the Church – to be the physical presence of Christ in the world, to make disciples of Christ, to bridge the gulf of separation between God and ALL humanity, to transform the world one life and one heart at a time – was made subservient to some special interest – the building, control and power, and social class. In each instance, godly, righteous, pious church members missed the point entirely, they missed the forest for the trees, and anytime we put special interests ahead of our core purpose, we are like the righteous members of the Sanhedrin who condemned Jesus. Sinners didn’t push for Jesus’ death; righteous people did.

Say Something

At the same time, I think there were also at least a few of the 71 people on the Sanhedrin who questioned whether it was right to condemn Jesus to death. We don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet two or three people in the room were sitting there thinking, “I don’t believe that what we’re about to do is the right thing.” But, they remained silent. Perhaps not wanting to resist the will of the whole group, perhaps not wanting to appear foolish, perhaps not wanting to draw attention or condemnation to themselves, perhaps afraid and intimidated by those in power, but for whatever reason, they remained silent. Eighteenth-century British philosopher and politician, Edmund Burke, summed it up nicely when he said, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

What would have happened if one or two or three of the members of the Sanhedrin had said, “This isn’t right, regardless of what we think of this man. It’s not in keeping with what God teaches us.”

In our own situations we must be able to say, with great humility and despite our fear, “You know, this just doesn’t feel right.” When you see something you know isn’t right – when you see the will of a group hijacked by someone with less than noble aims, when you witness oppression and injustice and abuse, say something. In that pivotal moment when two things are both pounding in your head, when you mind is torn between “Say something!” and “You dare not say anything,” always say something. The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

Don’t forget Peter

The last part of this episode took place in the courtyard of the high priest, a scene we all know well, as Peter denied his association with Jesus. When the other disciples fled, Peter didn’t run far. He hung back in the shadows, and stealthily followed Jesus and the guards all the way back into the city, right to the high priest’s house. And then, wanting to know what was going on, he stood straight, and walked into the courtyard and began to warm himself by the fire. Do you see the courage it took to do that? Knowing he could be put to death simply because of his association with Jesus, he still went into the courtyard of the high priest.

His courage only lasted to a point, however. I imagine he was trying to blend into the crowd around the fire, but something in his face and demeanor gave him away to one of the servant girls, and she began to give him away to the others, and Peter found himself denying that he had ever known Jesus.

The incident is one of the few that is mentioned in all four Gospels, so all four Gospel writers must have considered this fairly important. None of the other disciples were there, so how did they know this story? Because, Peter must have regularly told the awful truth of this story himself. I can hear him saying, “I know you’ve denied Jesus. I denied him myself. I denied him in a way that I am deeply ashamed of, and yet I have to tell you: I betrayed the Lord, but he gave me grace. He took me back. And if you’ve denied him, he’ll take you back too.”

Peter wanted to reassure others that, despite the fact that there are times when we deny the Lord, he will take us back and continue to use us to accomplish his work. That simple truth is central to every proclamation of the Gospel – none of us, nobody in here and nobody out there – has done anything so awful they can’t be welcomed into the arms of God’s mercy, transformed by God’s grace, and employed for God’s purposes in the world.

So what does it all mean? It was the religious people, the godly people, the righteous people, who let Jesus down. Judas, one of his closest friends, betrayed him. The priests and many members of the religious council actively pursued him. Other members of the council sat silently by, giving their tacit agreement to the sentence handed over. And Peter – headstrong, zealous, and a fierce defender of the faith – denied Jesus. It wasn’t the sinners who conspired against Jesus, it wasn’t the world or “those people out there” who did him in. No, the people working against Jesus and failing Jesus were the religious people.

You know, I hear a lot of religious people talking about the powers of darkness in the world, all that stuff that’s happening “out there” that we need to protect ourselves from and actively fight against.

But for each of us, the greatest danger is right here (in our hearts), not out there. Before we launch a full-scale assault on all the evil out there, maybe we should honestly confront the evil and darkness that lies within each of us. Even if, and perhaps especially if, we consider ourselves righteous and religious, it might simply be a good idea to deal with our own sin and open ourselves up for the Holy Spirit to transform our own hearts. After all, we’ve seen what righteous people are capable of.

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