April 13th, 2014

“Suffering is the only thing strong enough to destabilize the imperial ego.”  (Rohr)

Matthew 27:11-26

April 13, 2014

Are you ready for Easter?

Are you ready for Easter?  It’s only a week away, you know.  That’s a question we often ask about Christmas, but not for Easter. What does it mean to get ready for Easter?  Maybe you’re thinking about Easter clothes, Easter baskets, family arriving, or traveling to see others.  Those are all important preparations to get ready for Easter.

I hope you’re also remembering that Easter is when more people go to church than any other Sunday.  Last year’s attendance was an all-time high for Corinth, at 1139 for our three services, a 50% increase over the previous Sunday.  Early in my ministry I used to think Easter was a time to chide people, directly or subtly, for coming to church only once a year.  I’d make jokes about the CEOs (Christmas and Easter Onlys). I’d have my retort ready if someone said, “Why is it that every Sunday I come to church y’all sing the same songs:  Crown Him with Many Crowns and the Hallelujah Chorus?”

We should all see Easter as a wonderful evangelistic opportunity.  Be ready to offer a warm welcome next Sunday.  If you see someone you don’t know, don’t say, “Are you new?”  Say, “I don’t think we have met.  I’m Bob Thompson.”  If you need a follow-up question, it could be, “How long have you been coming to Corinth?”  Whatever you say, represent the grace of Jesus.  Between now and then, pray about those who need a relationship with Jesus or a church home and plan to invite them.

There is no better way to be ready for Easter than to ponder Jesus’ suffering.  Join us for the special services this week.  Spend some time in quiet reading about the suffering of Jesus using the Bible or a devotional book or online guide.

The sermon today is designed to help us take a fresh look at Jesus’ suffering.  The title, “Which Jesus?” is based on something new I discovered this week about Jesus’ trial before Pilate.  Or maybe it’s not new but I forgot I knew it.  Some of you are old enough to know what I’m talking about.  You know how people say every time they read the Bible they see things they hadn’t seen before?  When you get to a certain age this happens all the time because you keep seeing things you forgot you already saw.

This one really might be a new discovery for me, based on a comparison between the New International Version that you have in the pews (what I have used for devotional reading and preaching almost all my adult life), and the revision of the NIV published a couple of years ago.  The key difference is in verses 16-17.  If you have the pew Bible or an NIV published before 2011, verse 17 says that Pilate ask the crowd, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas or Jesus who is called Christ?”  If, however, you brought a new NIV to church, or you are reading the text off the web from your smart phone or tablet, the same verse reads, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”

Here’s what I didn’t know until this week – or forgot.  The other guy, the one Pilate offered as an alternative to Jesus in this high stakes version of Survivor – his name was Jesus as well!  Some Christians in the early church were so embarrassed by this notorious traitor having the same name as Jesus, they removed his name from many early copies of the Greek New Testament.  Between the publication of the original NIV in 1973, where that option isn’t even a footnote, and 2011, the best scholars have determined that the name “Jesus” for this other guy does belong in Matthew’s gospel.  So the way Pilate frames this question to the crowd really is, “Which Jesus do you want me to release to you?  Jesus Barabbas or Jesus the Messiah?”

The name Jesus derives from the Hebrew name Joshua, which means “The Lord saves.”  Jesus means “Savior.”  Many boys in first century Palestine were named Jesus.  Still, Pilate’s question is appropriate for us today:  Which Jesus?  Which Savior do you want?  The answer probably depends on what you think we need to be saved from.

Most of us, most of the time, would say we want to be saved from our current suffering.  Would you like to be saved from filing your taxes?  Would you like to be saved from boredom?  Would you like to be saved from an abusive spouse?  Would you like to be saved from painful memories?  Would you like to be saved from an addiction?  Would you like to be saved from cancer?  Would you like to be saved from guilt and shame?  Would you like to be saved from fear or doubt?  Would you like to be saved from criticism or hate or loneliness or rejection?  What you want to be saved from will answer the question, “Which Jesus?”  What Savior do you want?

This passage presents three primary options for a Savior from our suffering.  Which one do you want?

The Savior who avoids suffering: Barabbas

Remember that Jesus means “God saves” or “Savior,” so it’s not illegitimate to say that Pilate is offering as one option to the crowd, “Do you want me to release to you Savior Barabbas?”  What kind of Savior is Barabbas?  He’s a Savior who avoids suffering.

Let’s recall what we know about Barabbas.  It’s not much.  “Barabbas” either means “son of the father” or “son of the rabbi.”  That doesn’t tell us much.  The four gospels each identify him with a slightly different twist.  Matthew calls him a famous prisoner (Matthew 27:16).  Mark and Luke call him a murderer who participated in an rebellion in Jerusalem (Mark 15:7 and Luke 23:19).  John uses a word that really parallels what we would call a terrorist (John 18:40).  The picture that emerges is that of a well-known, scrupulously violent man who joined with others in an attempted uprising against the Roman occupation and landed in prison.  He may have thought of himself as a Jesus, a Savior who would restore freedom to the Jews.

Undoubtedly many Jews died in that failed rebellion.  The Roman soldiers were not lenient in such situations.  But Jesus Barabbas was captured alive and imprisoned.  And now Pilate brings him out and offers his release to the crowd as an alternative to Jesus the Christ.  Knowing what we know about our Savior, we are appalled that they would choose Jesus Barabbas for release.  But given their context, it’s not surprising.  He was a fighter for their cause. He was a survivor.  They choose him, and he walks free.

There’s still something about us that would prefer a Savior who avoids suffering.  Honestly, when we read this story it’s like watching a move about Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy.  We know how the story ends, but even understanding the meaning of Jesus’ death we still wish we could change the story line.  We would like a Savior who avoids suffering for himself because it would mean he would do that for us.  We prefer a Savior who stands up to the bullies and still escapes with his life and his freedom.  This is the Savior Judas wanted. This is the Savior Peter wanted.  And if we’re honest, we are still drawn to this Jesus – the one who avoids suffering.

The Savior who prevents suffering: Pilate

The key name in the Roman trial of Jesus is a man named Pilate.  What I’m going to say about him might surprise you a little bit.  It would have surprised me earlier in the week before I pondered this story.  I’m going to put him in the category of a Savior, another Jesus.  I see Pilate as the savior who prevents suffering.

If you could poll Christians around the world across all two thousand years since the time of Jesus, I would say that the non-Christian with the highest name recognition would be Pilate.  That’s because he gets a shout out in the Apostles’ Creed, which says that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”  He’s probably in there to ground the creed in a specific historical setting.  Jesus is no myth.  Here’s something I bet you didn’t know about Pilate.   The Coptic Church (a branch of the Orthodox church in Egypt) names Pilate a saint.  Their tradition is that both he and his wife later became Christians.

Here’s what we know about Pilate that has more solid historical basis.  Pilate secured the governorship of Palestine in A.D. 26 through the patronage of a man named Sejanus, commander of the praetorian guard in Rome.  Both Sejanus and Pilate hated the Jews.  Shortly before, or maybe shortly after, Jesus’ trial, Sejanus was executed in Rome for a coup attempt against the emperor Tiberius.  Politics in the Roman outposts was always tricky.  Pilate wanted to climb the ladder, and in order to do so he had to (1) survive, (2) please Rome by maintaining order, and (3) pacify the local masses and their leaders.  We know that through the years Pilate faced various uprisings.  Sometimes he gave in to popular demands, and sometimes he brutally crushed revolts.  Pilate knew that he would always be judged by the end, not the means.  He had to maintain control.

Let’s be honest.  In Matthew 27, we find Pilate in an awkward position at best.  He really does believe Jesus is innocent of the trumped up charges of rebellion, advocacy of tax avoidance, and claiming to be the Jews’ true king.  His wife sends a note to him and says a dream has affirmed Jesus’ innocence.  Dreams in Matthew’s gospel are always valid messages from God.  Pilate does have options.  He can take Jesus into protective custody, he can release him outright, or he can delay the trial.

But what will happen if Pilate does anything but yield to the Jews’ demands?  You may remember last week we said there were at least hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Jews in Jerusalem for the Passover.  The crowd has greatly swelled since Sunday’s triumphal entry on a donkey, when it was likely a large crowd of mostly Galileans who shouted, “Hosanna!”  Now we have Jerusalem insiders mixed with people who may not have heard Jesus preach one sermon or perform one miracle, and they have been whipped into a frenzy by Caiaphas and the other priests and teachers.  When they thunder in unison, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  what are his options?

If Pilate had done anything but what they demanded, he may have had another bloody rebellion on his hands.  The mob may have charged him again.  Barabbas would have loved another shot at insurrection.  There’s little doubt that Pilate had the military manpower and weaponry to defend Rome and restore order, but who knows how many people would have died that day – hundreds, maybe thousands.  Rivers of blood would have flowed in the streets of Jerusalem.  What Pilate did saved his own position, yes, but he also used his power that day to prevent much suffering among the Jews.  Disgusted with being placed in that position, he washed his hands and said, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.  It is your responsibility!”  They answer, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” prefiguring the worst blood bath ever in Jerusalem, the burning of the city and destruction of the temple in A.D. 70.

It dawned on me this week that Pilate is another Jesus we tend to prefer, another option for a Savior.  We want a Savior who prevents suffering.  We get that this is an evil world, but we want God to weigh the options and use his power in such a way to save the most people from the greatest suffering.  But that’s exactly what Pilate did!

The Savior who redeems suffering: Jesus

So in our choices of “Which Jesus,” we have the Savior who prevents suffering (Pilate), and on one side of him the Savior who escapes suffering (Barabbas).  Now we come to the third option – the Savior who redeems suffering (Jesus).

Jesus doesn’t even answer Pilate’s questions, which mystifies Pilate.  If Jesus is innocent, as Pilate thinks he is, why doesn’t he defend himself?  The answer is because Jesus isn’t trying to escape suffering.  Nor is he interested in preventing suffering.  The night before, when Peter used his sword to cut off the ear of Caiaphas’ servant, Jesus told Peter, “Put away your sword.  I could call legions of angels to fight for me if I wanted to.”  The legions also could have prevented a riot.  But Jesus’ primary role is not to use his power to escape or prevent suffering.

My friend Todd Byrd sent me a devotional article this week by a man named Richard Rohr.  I loved many parts of this brief devotional, but here’s my favorite line:  “Suffering is the only thing strong enough to destabilize the imperial ego.”  The greatest human problem is not suffering.  What I need to be saved from is my own independence, my self-sufficiency, the “imperial ego.”  When Self is King, it erects indestructible barriers between us and God, between us and each other.  The vast majority of suffering in this world is caused by human egos.

But God doesn’t step in.  At least he doesn’t step in as often as we would like, does he?  His ultimate goal is not to end your suffering.  His ultimate goal is to bring you to him by softening your heart and creating complete dependency.  Richard Rohr reminds us, “On the cross, God took the worst thing, the killing of God, and made it into the best thing – the redemption of the world!”  Drawing on Jesus’ own parallel between his death and the story of Jonah, Rohr writes, “Sooner or later, life is going to lead you (as it did Jesus) into the belly of the beast, into a place where you can’t fix it, you can’t control it, and you can’t explain it or understand it.”

In that place, we meet the only Savior we truly need.  He’s not a Savior who escapes suffering.  He’s not a Savior who prevents suffering.  He’s a Savior who redeems suffering – who takes the ugly, misshapen clay of our suffering, strains and crushes and squeezes and molds it, and never wastes even one moment of it as he fashions our lives into vessels of usefulness and beauty.

Which Jesus?

We are told in the Gospels that it was Pilate’s custom to release one prisoner of the crowd’s choosing each Passover.  This particular year he gave them a choice: Which Jesus?  Jesus Barabbas or Jesus called Christ?  The duped and deceived crowd chose wrong.

We still have a choice:  Which Jesus?  Will we pursue a Savior whom we worship only if and when he reduces or eliminates our suffering?  Or will we choose a Savior who says, “I will meet you in the midst of your suffering, turn it into good, and bring you home”? As we gather today around the table of the Lord, we remember the One who remembered us as his body was broken and his blood was shed.  Because he remembered us, he embraced his suffering that from it our salvation would come. Amen.

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