Condemned By the Righteous
March 4, 2018
Luke 22: 54 – 71
This morning we continue our journey through the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life. Last week we ended in the Garden of Gethsemane, where sometime around midnight, Jesus was betrayed over to the authorities by his disciple Judas. After a brief skirmish, all Jesus’ disciples fled, leaving him, for the first time in his young life, no longer free, but under arrest, led away by his captors alone to face his judgment.
According to the Gospels, that initial judgment will occur before the Jewish Sanhedrin, a council of seventy-one elders, considered to be the wisest and most devout men of the time. Their leader is the high priest, who at this time was a man named Caiaphas.
I think, if there is any common theme to this episode, it is the pervasive feeling of fear, and its resulting outcomes, in Jesus, in the Sanhedrin, and in us. As I mentioned it was in these last hours of Jesus’ life that our Lord emptied himself and became fully human, no different than you and me.
It was manifested in Jesus’ plea to God to take the cup of crucifixion from his presence while praying in Gethsemane. So, let us look at this prevailing fear that casted it’s shadow upon the main characters in this life and death drama.
First, there is the fear in Jesus. Perhaps I’m only judging by what I would have been feeling, but I think I would have been very afraid.
Remember, it’s the middle of the night, and there are no streetlights in 1st century Jerusalem. The path is dark and steep, and you’re alone, likely bound, and at the mercy of your captors, who’ve already begun to rough you up.
Upon arrival at Caiaphas’ house, you’re ridiculed and beaten more, before being lowered into a dungeon, which was a likely a pit, perhaps in darkness, where you await whatever is to happen next. What was Jesus thinking and feeling?
Was it fear, or trust, or a mixture of both? As he hung there in the darkness, did the words of the psalmist come to mind? Like psalm 88;
Lord, you are the God who saves me;
day and night I cry out to you.
2 May my prayer come before you;
turn your ear to my cry.
3 I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one without strength.
5 I am set apart with the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
who are cut off from your care.
Though written centuries earlier, it’s eerie how well it fits, isn’t it? Just goes to show us how valuable those Psalms are, and how, if they were the prayers of Jesus, shouldn’t they be our prayers as well?
As we sit here this morning, what is it that we are most afraid of? Can we allow that fear not to make us bitter, but to make us better, as it turns us to God, as Jesus’ fear did? Yes, I know it’s easier to propose than to do, but the alternative – as we shall see next – is worse.
Because the second place I think we see fear as a motivating factor, is, I believe, among those Temple leaders.
When the council met, what happened is confusing, and the gospels authors themselves differ, perhaps because none of them were there. Plainly, at this point the religious leaders needed to get rid of Jesus, however possible. Failing to find legitimate accusers who could get their story straight, they asked Jesus to convict himself. Caiaphas rose and asked Jesus; ”Are you the son of the most high God?” and it was there Jesus said; “I am” . It was clear from Jesus’ response that in it they heard the charge of blasphemy.
Even then, lacking the power of capital punishment, they had to send him off to the Roman governor Pilate, on a different charge. The way the Gospels portray it, the whole thing was unjust by any and every standard.
Let me acknowledge, that we have to tread carefully here, because through the centuries, it is a historical fact that the Jewish people have been persecuted and killed from rampant anti-semitism, stoked by charges of being “Christ-killers.” Yes, some Temple leaders in Jesus’ time were complicit, but Jesus was actually executed by the Romans.
The important point for us is, that these were the religious leaders, the best and brightest of the time, our kind of people. How could this happen? How could they condemn Jesus, a good and innocent man – to a horrible death to torture. Of the seventy-one, was there not one who would stand up and say, “You know, brothers, what we are doing here is not right.” I believe that there were a few voices of reason and compassion, but their voices were drowned out by those crying out he is a blasphemer!
The reason, why, I believe, is fear. These men saw Jesus as a threat to their way of life, their positions of authority, their status among the Jews. Their inherent fear worked on them, ate at them, until fear bred hate, which inevitably leads to tragedy. This story is not simply about seventy-one righteous people: it is the human condition and about all of us.
How many times in history has this been played out? How many times have we seen professedly religious people act in such a way that it made us wonder if we want to be associated with them? Some critics of the Muslim faith point to violence committed in the name of Allah as a way to disparage the religion. Before we get so high and mighty as followers of Jesus Christ let me remind you of our collective sins
Consider the persecution laid upon the Jewish people by Christian crusaders on their way to the Holy Land? What about the Spanish Inquisition? What about during the Salem Witch trials in 1692, or during the Holocaust, or during Joseph McCarthy’s “Red Scare” in 1952? What about Jim Crow America, or South Africa, or Christian communities divided in Northern Ireland.
For fear of paying a price, would no one stand up and say this is wrong? Or let me put it this way: how many times have we known something was wrong, but were afraid to speak up for fear of being labeled a snitch or a whistleblower, a liberal, a conservative, and made to pay a consequent price? Because the story of Jesus also makes it clear: when we do this – precisely because of the fear it evokes – there will be a price to pay. Do we have the courage to do it?
But history also makes it clear that there is also a price to pay when we do not stand up for what is right. Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) stated it most clearly when he wrote about the inactivity of German clergy and intellectuals following the Nazi’s rise to power and the purging of their chosen targets, group after group.
“In Germany, they came first for the Communists,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then . . . they came for me . . .
And by that time there was no one left to speak up.”
Right now, we’re a society blanketed in fear. We are afraid of people taking away our guns or afraid to even send their kids to school. We’re fearful of liberal and conservatives, I can stand here and the list can go on and on. Politicians are playing upon it, even some religious leaders are playing upon it. And while this is happening our fears take on a life of their own. Who will stand up and say, enough! Beware! There will be a price to pay!
Finally, there is poor Peter, who out of his own fear denied his Lord three times.
Where do you and I stand this very moment? Do we stand on the side of fear or do we stand on the side of LOVE?
Perhaps we can learn an important lesson from those first centuries Christians, when some were put to death for bowing to Christ and not to Caesar.
Can you understand the consolation and encouragement they found this story, where Peter says, in effect: “I know what it’s like to deny Jesus, I’ve done it myself. But he forgave me and restored me, and what I am today I am by his grace. If he did that for me, he can do that for you.”
When fear gets the best of us; by turning us to hatred rather than to God, by making us afraid to stand up for what is right, by tempting us, by our words or actions, to deny Christ, what a comfort to know: “If there is hope for Peter, there is hope for us.” Amen.