Monday, March 24, 2014

Sermon, "24 Hours that Changed the World: Condemned by the Righteous," Mark 14:53-55, 60-72

Sermon 3/23/2014
Mark 14:53-55, 60-72

24 Hours that Changed the World: Condemned by the Righteous

            We continue, today, following Jesus through the last 24 hours of his life on earth, 24 hours that changed the world. First, we started with the Last Supper. Last week, we spent time with Jesus, Peter, James, and John, in the garden, as Jesus anguished. Now, we find Jesus arrested, having been betrayed by Judas. He’s brought to trial by the Sanhedrin. Meanwhile, Peter, confronted about his association with Jesus, denies, three times, ever knowing Jesus, just as Jesus told him he would.
            The Sanhedrin was a body of the religious leaders in Jerusalem who were appointed to judge in disputes among the people. Their origins trace back to the days of Moses, when Moses found he alone could not judge in all the matters that came before him. Sanhedrin means literally “sit together.” They were the ones who could try the king, extend the boundaries of the Temple and Jerusalem, and they were the ones to whom all questions of law were finally put. (Wikipedia) Although in the gospels we see them as enemies of Jesus, they were a body of incredibly respected, devoted, religious leaders. And they are looking, we read, for a reason to condemn Jesus to death. Why? Because he’s been breaking rules, repeatedly. Challenging their authority. Drawing crowds to him and teaching in a way that suggest that they, who have been properly invested with power and authority, have actually been getting it all wrong. He’s upsetting the whole order of things, and calling everything they think they know into question. Jesus frightens them, badly. If they thought Jesus was just crazy, he probably wouldn’t have posed such a threat to them. But since they can’t find a way to dispute his teachings, since he speaks with authority they don’t have or understand, they’re frightened. They recognize his power, and the power they would have to give up if they admitted Jesus was right. They’re afraid.
            Peter – I don’t know if it is harder or easier to understand Peter’s actions. The Sanhedrin weren’t Jesus’ friends, his disciples for three years. You could say, it wasn’t “personal.” But with Peter: he has followed Jesus everywhere, tried to do everything Jesus wanted for three years. But he’s afraid too. Not of giving up power, maybe, but of the authority Jesus seems to want Peter to take. Afraid, especially that continuing to follow Jesus will find Peter following a little too literally in his footsteps. Yes, he thinks Jesus is the Messiah. But what if claiming that results in Peter’s arrest, Peter’s trial, Peter’s death? Peter’s very afraid.
What are you afraid of? Adam Hamilton suggests in our congregation Bible study book that both Peter and the Sanhedrin do what they do because of their fears – because they were afraid of the consequences. Afraid of losing their power. Afraid of being condemned like Jesus if they spoke up. Afraid to act. Afraid to even object to the unfolding of events. What are you afraid of?
I wonder if, every day, we don’t live our lives shaped by fear, at least in part. Sometimes little fears – we like to call them “worries.” Sometimes we struggle with big fears – usually fear of major loss – of home, career, loved ones, our own lives. And our fears prevent us from living the life we believe, somewhere deep in our hearts, we should be living. I think the gap between the life we have and the life we think God wants for us is created in part by the fears we let rule us. I’ve shared with you before that the scriptures tell us “Do not be afraid” more than 80 times. I don’t think this is accidental, but rather, God’s knowing how much we’re ruled by fear.
One of my favorite passages from scripture is from 1 John 4:18-19: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because God first loved us.” Perfect love casts out fear. Think of all the relationships in your life – of all the people you love. How does fear in relationship prevent you from experiencing perfect love? Fear of being hurt. Fear of hurting. Fear of a commitment. Fear of being vulnerable. Fear of not being deeply understood. Fear you aren’t worth love. Perfect love casts out fear, which Jesus demonstrates for us, even as he stands trial, faces death.
Finding no other testimony that would justify putting Jesus to death, finally the high priest asks Jesus a question he can’t really expect Jesus to answer affirmatively. That would make things too easy! “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” And yet, Jesus answers, “I am.” I am. The defining moment has arrived. The moment of truth. And Jesus is condemned as “deserving death.”
We use the phrase “moment of truth” to mean a “defining moment,” a moment where it becomes clear what someone really thinks or believes, when previously it had been unclear, or when a decision is made known explicitly. For example, election day is the “moment of truth” on how the nation feels about political candidates, after months of polls, for example, only give a partial picture. A high school senior deciding between different schools to attend has a moment of truth when they have to make a final decision about where to go.
We also face moments of truth, personally, when we have opportunities to reconcile what we say we believe with what we actually do. We say that we detest racism, and we hear someone telling a joke that is racist. Moment of truth: do we speak up, or stay silent? We say that we hate it when people talk about someone else behind their back, but we’re presented with an opportunity to malign our nemesis to a friend. Do we take it? How much do we really believe what we’ve said we believe?
When Jesus answers the high priest’s question, “Are you the Messiah?” so clearly, so directly, “I am,” it is the moment of truth. It’s decision time. His followers, the crowds, the religious leaders – all of them, all of us – we can no longer pretend that Jesus is saying something else, that he’s making some other claim. He lays out who he is so clearly, and we have to react. The Sanhedrin certainly reacts – they condemn him, beat him, spit on him, blindfold him, and hand him over to guards. And Peter – Peter, earlier in Mark’s gospel, as we read a few weeks ago, said he believed Jesus to be the Messiah – but here Peter has a moment of truth too. When his own life is in danger, will Peter admit to being a Jesus-follower? And the answer is: No. No, he won’t even admit knowing Jesus.
And that’s the end of the story, right, for Peter? For the Sanhedrin surely, at least, right? The moment of truth came and they let fear rule their actions, and the end.
I appreciate the stories people have of the moments in their life that stand out as defining moments: There was a moment that they knew that they were in love with their now-spouse. The moment that one discovered they were to become a parent. A specific moment they accepted Jesus as their savior. Those are some important moments. But although less exciting, sometimes, marriage is the relationship over time. Parenthood is the unfolding of your child’s life. And our relationship with Jesus is a journey of two-steps forward that hopefully outweigh our frequent steps backward. In John’s gospel, Jesus describes himself as being The Way. We often think of this is as “the moment of truth” – we choose Jesus instead of other possible ways – a defining moment. And that’s certainly one way to think of it. But the “the way” in Greek means “the road,” “the path.” It’s something you travel on – it suggests movement. Jesus is the journey, a lifelong direction we try to travel, not just a moment in time.
In our United Methodist heritage, we understand salvation in the same way – not only a moment of truth, but instead, a life-long experience of stepping into the wholeness that God offers us – we believe that grace is evident before we even know it. We call that prevenient grace. And we believe that we have the experience of becoming aware of and accepting God’s grace – we call that justifying grace. And then we have a lifetime of figuring out how to live in God’s grace – we call that sanctifying grace. It’s the road we’re on, the way we’re going.
We know at least one member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, eventually became a Jesus-follower, claiming Jesus’ body after the crucifixion and laying him to rest in Joseph’s own family tomb. He’s remembered as a saint. His fearful response at Jesus’ trial wasn’t the end of the story. And we certainly know Peter’s story didn’t end with his denial. Later he’ll declare that he loves Jesus three times, and preach on Pentecost before the crowds, and baptize in the name of Jesus, and be put to death because of Jesus. His fearful response was not the end of the story. Those moments of truth didn’t become the whole story, thanks be to God.
And so too it is with us. We don’t have just one moment to love perfectly in a way that casts out fear. God loves us perfectly already. And so God is not afraid to wait and love us as we see more clearly, know more fully, even as God so fully knows us. Thanks be to God, there is more to our story than our worst fear-filled moments of turning from God’s love, failing to love one another so fantastically, rejecting who God has created us to be, making of our lives less than the abundant blessing God means for them to be. Thank goodness there is more to our story as we journey on the way, the road, the path, following Jesus.
If fear has been defining us, catching us in those moments of truth, let it be for us just that: a moment. A moment that God, thankfully, doesn’t see as the end of our stories. There is no fear in love. And God loves us perfectly. And perfect love casts out all fear, moment by moment. Amen.  

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