April 14, 2019 sermon

Posted by on Apr 13, 2019 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

April 14, 2019

On this Sunday that we traditionally call Palm Sunday, we take one final look at the Gospel of John’s account of Jesus life before he encounters the cross of Good Friday. We will do that by looking at the arrest and trial of Jesus on the night before his death and leave the crucifixion itself for Good Friday. Even though there is a story in the Gospel of John about Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, his real triumph is his death and resurrection and so I choose to turn to the events leading up to that today instead of when we would normally do so on Maundy Thursday.

A middle aged man asks the small group of Jewish Christian’s religious leader, John, about a statement he has just made. “You said that Jesus was someone who was able to make the transition from self-focused love to a love focused on others and because of that Jesus knew that a life of unconditional, unbounded love is more important than a life lived with love that has all kinds of conditions put upon it, even if that life of unconditional love is much shorter in years than a life of conditional love. You also said that when we are freed from the need to live, we are finally freed to live fully with a joy and a peace that comes without fear. Did I understand you, correctly?” the man asks.

“You did,” John says. “That’s an excellent summary of what I claimed is made known by Jesus in his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.”

“So,” the man continues, “how do we make such a transition?”

“I’ve tried to explain this already, but I’m obviously not doing a great job of it,” John replies, smiling at the group of 20 some people gathered in his home. “Our sister who is with us has demonstrated that such a transition is possible by the life she lives so we all know it is possible. If it was just my words, they would never convince you that we can love like Jesus did even though that is the commandment he left for us. But her actions, her loving deeds, are all the proof we need to know it is possible and to believe that it is possible for us as well. Thank you so much, sister, for your life example.”

The elderly woman smiles graciously and bows her head in humility, but says nothing.

“Let me try once more,” John says, “because it is very important that we make this transition from self-consciousness to Christ-like consciousness if we hope to be the disciples Jesus wants us to be and the people we want to be. This is not simply about what we believe but who we are. If we can love as Jesus loved, our lives will be so much better, and so will the lives of those around us. Even one person who is able to love without boundaries or conditions can have a profound, positive impact on their community. Some can even have a great, positive influence on the world. All we have to do is look at Jesus to know this is true.”

Several voices murmur in approval.

John continues. “We have all heard the various stories about Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane and his trial before the Jewish high priest of Jerusalem and the Roman procurator of Judea. In this story we encounter, Judas, a follower of Jesus who eventually rejects Jesus and betrays him. We also encounter, Peter, another of Jesus’ disciples, who also rejects Jesus and denies knowing him. The high priest, Caiaphas and the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate also reject Jesus. Even many of Jesus’ fellow countrymen and women reject him in favour of Barabbas, who is said to be a bandit. In John’s gospel, it appears that nobody will stand up for Jesus or take their place beside Jesus, except for possibly, the one known as the beloved disciple. Yet, this gospel also tells us that this is Jesus’ moment of glory. It is essential that we understand this if we hope to make the transition from selfish to selfless love, as Jesus did.”

“Then help us to understand,” a young woman says. “If everyone abandoned him, including his closest friends, what hope do we have?”

“Peter is the pivotal figure in this gospel in many ways,” John says. “In some ways, we are all Peter or like Peter.” Remember that this is a mystical gospel, one that is not to be taken as literal truth but spiritual truth. Peter is bold at times, declaring his faith in Jesus so that all can hear, but Peter is also hesitant at times, doubting his faith in Jesus, even seeming to be embarrassed about it. Peter is full of confidence and bravado at times, sure that he will never fail Jesus, only to turn around and deny Jesus when his own safety and well-being is on the line. Time after time, Peter flips back and forth between belief and unbelief, between living in the light and hiding in the dark. Like Peter, we all struggle with making the transition from self-focused love and the need to protect ourselves first and foremost to other-focused love with the ability to put our own safety and well-being in jeopardy if it allows us to help others with their well-being.”

Someone interrupts John. “Peter wasn’t his original name, was it? He was known as Simon first. Jesus gave him the name Peter, which means ‘rock’ but it seems that Jesus might have made a mistake. Peter seems more like sand to me, shifting from one thing to another, and never providing a solid and firm base.”

“Excellent,” John says, smiling broadly. “That’s exactly what a mystical understanding of Peter is meant to be. Don’t try to see Peter as just a single person but a representation of all people who attempt to follow Jesus but keep floundering in the sand when they should be standing on solid rock. The sand and the rock are metaphors for lives lived with limits on their love and lives lived without limits on their love.”

“You keep referring to a love without limits and a love with limits,” a middle-aged woman says. “You’ve told us that the story of Nicodemus represents those people who cannot get past putting limits on their love and the story of Lazarus represents those people who finally make the transition into limitless love. But if they are both just mystical characters rather than real people, as you claim, then of what use are their examples to us? Anyone can make up stories about people but it is only those people who have truly lived and struggled with the realities of life who are able to inspire us and teach us.”

“Ah, a very wise and interesting insight,” John says. “It can be very difficult to wrap our minds around mystical writings that include stories about real people while also using mystical stories about those real people. Peter was a real disciple of Jesus, and we know that he was a rock of the early Christian movement. We can also be fairly certain that he struggled with his faith at times, from the writings of the apostle Paul and other stories that have circulated among our Christian communities. Something happened to Peter and other followers of Jesus that was so powerful that they experienced a transformation. We will look at that further when we get to the resurrection account. But for now, it is important for us to understand that the failure to always act with love, the desire to avoid suffering, and the struggle with faith is something everyone experiences. There is not one of us here today who has not and will not continue to struggle with these sorts of things. That’s what I’m trying to explain.”

“So, what about Pilate?” someone asks. “Is he also a real person who mystical stories are being told about in this gospel? Can we believe none of it is real?”

“Oh, Pilate was a real person who was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. He was the only person in Judea who could order Jesus’ death. But this gospel account in John transfers most of the blame from the Romans to the Jewish leaders who wanted Jesus dead. Again, I stress that this is not a reference to the Jewish people but only those religious leaders who had the power and influence to goad Pilate into ordering Jesus’ crucifixion. Earlier writings put much or equal blame on Pilate for Jesus’ death but this gospel account shows that the Romans did not want Jesus killed. Time and time again, Pilate attempts to find a way to appease the religious leaders, even declaring that he finds nothing against Jesus. But in the end, when push comes to shove, and Pilate’s own well-being is in danger, Pilate, like all people who are controlled by or in bondage to self-love and self-preservation, bends to the pressure put on him and orders Jesus’ death.”

“Are you telling us that the Romans are our friends more than the Jewish religious leaders?” another person asks.

“No,” John replies. “What I am trying to make clear is that anyone who has put limits on their love will always make choices that protect themselves first and make decisions that benefit themselves over others. Everyone Jesus encountered, except for possibly one, who we will look at later, was not able to make the transformation from self-conscious love to a new level of consciousness and selfless love. At least, they could not do so until after the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is where we must go next.”

“To the cross?” a voice asks.

“Yes, to the cross,” John answers. “And to the glory that goes with it.”

“How you can claim that a painful, humiliating death on a Roman cross is Jesus’ moment of glory is beyond me,” the same voice says.

“Only those who make the transformation that Jesus offered to all who truly believe in him will be able to appreciate this pivotal moment in the life of Jesus,” John says. “So, join me as we journey to the cross and all that it represents in this gospel of John. Join me and be surprised by how different its message is from what you may have been told by others and read in other writings.”

“And I suppose you are going to tell us that this is another mystical story about Jesus’ death and we should not take it literally,” someone says.

“Yes, and no,” John replies. “As Pilate is said to have asked Jesus during his trial, “’What is truth?’”