Holy Week has begun, and this is the first of my four sermons that I’ll preach this week. Palm Sunday has us reading not only about the Triumphal Entry but also the Passion from Luke, which became the basis for this sermon.
In his retelling of the Passion, Luke makes certain that we understand one very important thing: Jesus is innocent. Pilate declares three times that there is no basis for charges against Jesus, let alone for crucifixion. Herod doesn’t see any guilt in Jesus either. One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus says it outright, “This man has done nothing wrong.” And when Jesus finally breathes his last from that bloodied cross, the centurion unexpectedly exclaims, “Certainly this man was innocent.”
As commentator William Carter put it, Luke wants to declare “The truth that Rome and Jerusalem would otherwise ignore, Jesus is innocent.” He continues, “Jesus has done nothing wrong. He has not led people down the wrong path. He has not rejected the Scriptures. He has not trained terrorists to resist the empire. He has not spoken against God. There is nothing violent about Jesus.” [ref]Barbara Brown Taylor, David Bartlett, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2. “Pastoral Perspective,” pg 178.[/ref] But it is this very part of him that causes people to strike out.
It wasn’t too long ago that Luke reminded us that Jesus’ own hometown wanted to throw him over a cliff (Luke 4:29). He’d also been warned by the Pharisees that Herod wanted to kill him (Luke 13:31). And yet Luke tells us emphatically during this trial and crucifixion that Jesus is innocent. He’s done nothing to deserve the horrible things happening to him.
Nothing, that is, except faithfully follow God’s desire for his life. Jesus is above all else faithful; he shows who he is both in word and deed. He lives out the life his Father has called him to with integrity.
And it’s that embodiment of God’s desire that gets him killed. By showing the world who God truly is through the way he lived his life. He brought healing and wholeness, advocated justice for the downtrodden, faithfully followed the law, preached forgiveness and gave second chances—Jesus handed out hope to many who were in need. And he also sparked fear in those whose lives would be disrupted by these actions. Why else would the religious leaders demand that he die? Why else would we demand that he die when we played our part in the Passion narrative? Our commentator puts it this way: “We resist the love, mercy and truth of Jesus Christ. We silence the honest voice. We condemn the innocent agitator. We pursue our own agendas for the sake of expediency.”
And we do this because, at our core, we are unsure of following the way of Jesus Christ. While we speak with our lips about following his way, about being Jesus’ followers, our actions speak otherwise. We look out for our own interests. Or at least I do. I want to make sure my needs and wants are taken care of, and at times I do this without regard to others. Why else do I not give more of my time to organizations and ministries in need of help? Why do I sometimes give less than my full self in my relationships? Why don’t I always stand up for those being disrespected in our world, or even for principles I hold to be true? Why do I resist Jesus’ love and mercy and truth, silencing his voice? I know that I fail Christ miserably when I pursue my own agenda simply because it is convenient. Christ’s call is never convenient; it is costly, it is demanding. And so when we are faced with his love, his mercy, his life, we tend to falter.
“If we would follow him,” William Carter writes, “we must honestly appraise the situations before us. We have the choice to push ourselves away from every form of cruelty. Authentic faith takes root when we decide, ‘I am no longer going to participate in something that is vindictive, punitive or evil.’ This stand takes great courage. [And] it will certainly provoke its own controversy and opposition.”
The way of Jesus is the way of love. Of respecting the dignity of every human being and not being drawn in to the easy way of demeaning and belittling others to make ourselves look good. Jesus refused to play that game—he was innocent—and because of that he had to be silenced.
But even then he remained true, saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” How often do we, when faced with cruelty, respond with forgiveness? How much more often would we rather want to make those who’ve slighted us get their due?
On this day we see more clearly than usual that violence is the way of the world and the powers that be. But the way of Jesus is love. We can only watch as he is put to death by this blood-thirsty crowd and is left destitute by those who knew him best. He’s innocent, and it’s only in him that we can find forgiveness when we act in the violent way of our world and don’t comprehend what we are doing. May his way, the way of discipleship and love—the way of the cross—usher peace into our own lives and into this world of ours that so desperately needs it.