a sermon delivered at Church of the Advent, Federal Hill, Baltimore, on Palm Sunday 2017
It has been said that our lives are constituted by the choices we make. At every point of our lives we are faced with options, alternatives to go one way or the other — and the choices we make determine the shape of our lives, each choice like a bead on a string, strung together by our identity. Some of these choices are dramatic and obvious; some, we may not even be aware of as we make them.
This truth is laid out plainly in Matthew’s account of the Passion. We see the choices people make all along the way, choices to act or refrain from action, options and opportunities taken or rejected. So many options for so many lives! And each of these choices shapes the reality of each one’s world — and our world!
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Think of the terrible choice that Judas makes: the choice of betrayal, the choice to accept a handful of silver to betray a man to death, a man in whose company he could have found eternal life. Instead, he opts for delivering him to death, and when stricken with remorse, chooses death for himself.
Then look at Peter, the unsteady man who totters between heroism and cowardice, pulling out a sword at one point to defend his Lord, and then cowering in the shadows at another, denying that he even knows him. He chooses to deny Jesus, and only the rooster’s crow recalls him to himself, and rebukes him for his choice.
Then there’s the high priest, Caiaphas. Matthew doesn’t supply us with a window into why he acts as he does; for that we have to depend on John’s Gospel, which we will hear on Good Friday. Caiaphas is a practical man — he follows what would later be called the utilitarian ethics of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” So, John tells us, he advises that, given the danger Jesus creates in the fragile political climate of Jerusalem, it is expedient that one man should suffer instead of many. This choice goes against the teaching of the greatest rabbi in Judaism, Hillel the Great, who ended his ministry during Jesus’ childhood. Hillel taught that to save a single human life is to save an entire world. Caiaphas on the other hand, weighs human life in the shopkeeper’s scale, one life against many, and figures the trade-off is reasonable. And by that choice he sets the course for all that follows.
Then we have Pilate, another politician, a man who also weighs his choices carefully. It is easy to sympathize with Pilate — so much is pulling him one way and another — even his wife chimes in to warn him to disengage. And so Pilate makes the interesting choice not to choose. Like many a politician before and since, rather than take a position — he takes a poll. Pilate is a leader who leads from behind, safely insulated — he thinks! — from having to take responsibility should things not work out, sheltered from the consequences of his inaction, able to wash his hands of the whole matter — a perfect example of “plausible deniability” — but only known to ages since for this one choice not to choose, forever immortalized wherever Christians gather with those words: “crucified under Pontius Pilate.”
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All of these choices, all of these lives, swirling in the mix of options and opportunities! And step by step, each one of them choice by choice, each life collapses into reality as each choice is made, all the fuzzy options fading away as each choice becomes concrete, and the path is taken. And amidst this cloud of options, the most important choice, the one that is the eye of the storm around which all of these other possibilities swirl, is the one that Jesus makes, and he keeps right on making it through to the end.
It begins in the garden of Gethsemane, as he appeals to his Father for another option — a way for salvation to be accomplished without his having to drink the cup of suffering set before him. Matthew portrays only one side of the conversation: it is as if we were witnessing a telephone call — we hear what Jesus says, but not the response. God spoke at his Baptism and his Transfiguration. But now? Is God truly silent? Is this the beginning of the terrible silence of God that will lead Jesus to cry out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
We do not know. What we do know is that Jesus has a choice, there in the garden, and throughout the rest of the suffering that follows. There in the garden it is perhaps clearest: even with Judas and the guards on their way, it is still not too late for Jesus to escape, to leave the city and head on back to the safety of Bethany, to flee to far-off Galilee. But he doesn’t.
That same choice is available to Jesus right on up to the end. When they bring him before Caiaphas, he could choose to deny himself and his mission as God’s holy one, the Messiah. But he doesn’t. When brought before Pilate, he could play on Pilate’s weakness for “the art of the deal.” But he doesn’t. Even when they nail him to the cross, he could indeed — as the taunters say — choose to “come down now from the cross.” But he doesn’t.
For he knows at any one of these steps that for him to do so would be to disobey his heavenly Father, to deny the very purpose for which he was born. To choose not to die on the cross — that is the most tempting option, but it is one that he refuses.
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In his novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, author Nikos Kazantzakis explores what it might have been like if Jesus had given in to this last temptation, this option to come down from the cross. In a flash, even as he hangs there crucified, Jesus envisions what it would mean to come down from the cross. He sees himself return to Galilee as an ordinary man, to settle down and get married, to run his carpenter shop — and to leave the world unredeemed, human nature broken, left to lay where — not Jesus — but Adam and Eve “flang it.”
But he doesn’t. Jesus doesn’t do this, in the novel or the Gospel. He rejects that dreamlike fantasy of an ordinary life; he doesn’t give in to that last tempting choice, that seductive option to live instead of dying. He gives himself to death on the cross, knowing that in the options market of Calvary, all of the conniving deals and bartering in human souls are turned upside down. He lays down his life because he knows this is the only investment that will bring a return — and what a return it will be! What had he said? “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world at the cost of his life?” Jesus took that risk, as only he could do. And his gift of himself, his one sacrifice of himself once offered, would bring redemption to the whole world. His act of obedience unto death, even death on the cross, will lead to his exaltation above all earthly things, and the sanctification of all things, in him.
This is the path the Son of God chose on our behalf, for our salvation. It meant pain and suffering and death for him — but life for us. At the cost of his life he gained the whole world.
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We are offered a similar choice each day of our lives: we too are offered the option to take up our cross day by day, and follow him. Or... or will we follow Judas’ choice to betray, Peter’s choice to deny, Caiaphas’ choice to victimize, or Pilate’s choice to abdicate?
Will we bend our knee at the name of Jesus, or bow to other earthly gods of wealth and comfort, or act like we don’t know who he is, or take advantage of our sisters and brothers, or act as if this all has nothing to do with us? Sisters and brothers, how we choose each day of our lives, how we play the stakes in this options market, will determine our fate for all eternity. As we sow, so shall we reap.
You may remember a line from Charles’ Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” when Scrooge asks Marley’s Ghost about the heavy chain that binds him. The unhappy ghost responds: “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link... I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you? Or would you know the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this seven Christmas’s ago, and you have labored on it since. Ah, it is a ponderous chain!”
Such are the choices we make, my friends, day by day: the things we do and refuse to do — “things done and left undone.” The life and death of our Savior is set before us to show us how to free ourselves from the ponderous chain of self-interest that binds us to betrayal, fear, victimization, and evasion of responsibility. Judas, Peter, Caiaphas and Pilate — and their choices — offer their testimony.
But a greater witness still is there as well — there, on the cross. God is calling us to follow him, my sisters and brothers, and he will give us the strength to do so. So let us choose, and choose wisely, to follow him, through whom alone we find the way to eternal life. ✠
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG