Sermon: Taking Calvary from Tyranny to Testimony

crucifixion-of-jesus-247x300[Given on Good Friday, April 18, 2014 by The Rev. Fr. Marcus Halley – St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Kansas City, MO]

I speak to you in the name of God who said to Moses “I Am, that I Am.” Amen. +

This past Sunday, on the eve of Jewish Holy Week Passover, a man opened fire outside the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and Village Shalom, killing three people. As he was apprehended, the gunman rattled off an impassioned battle cry from long ago – “Heil Hitler.”

This battle cry is hard to hear because it raises the specter of a ghost that we thought we vanquished. In this season, in this holiest of weeks, where we seek to experience the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord, we are likewise reminded that evil vanquished always seeks to rise again.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King echoes this notion when he writes “All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem. The Kingdom of God as a universal reality is not yet. Because sin exists on every level of man’s existence, the death of one tyranny is followed by the emergence of another tyranny.”[1]

Evil, it seems, is a continual cycle whose grasp we cannot seem to escape.

What makes evil even more insidious is that often it seeks divine sanction, a sacred canopy, for its destructive work. “No one argues that Adolf Hitler functioned as a Christian in the promulgation of his racist theories, but it can hardly be doubted that centuries of anti-Semitic readings of Christian scripture gave him cultural permission, indeed encouragement, to do as he did.”[2]

Over the past week we’ve heard and over that it was “the Jews” who cried out for the blood of Jesus. Pilate tried to reason with them, but they cried out all the more “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

How are we to hear this story in light of events five days ago?

How are we to hear this story in light of events sixty years ago when a people, enflamed by blind patriotism, set about the task of eradicating an entire people from the face of the earth?

How are we to hear this story in light of people all over the world who, in the name of faith and religion, have been trampled and destroyed under the tyranny of Calvary?

We know, in our hearts, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is one of “love divine, all loves excelling,” but what then are we do with these accounts of the Passion of Our Lord?

In his book The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, the late Dr. Peter J. Gomes, Pusey Minister in Harvard’s Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals for Harvard Divinity School, writes that “anti-Semitism is Christianity’s original sin” and further suggests that such prejudice in Christianity stems from a misunderstanding of scripture through the centuries.[3]

Take John’s Gospel for example, where our account of the Passion comes from this evening. Conventional wisdom says that this Gospel is the most “anti-Semitic of them all.” A casual reading of this Gospel presents the “Jews” as representative of an “ossified orthodoxy critical of Jesus and eager to do him harm and prevent his teaching from being heard.”[4]

Think about it. How many times in John’s Gospel does Jesus have a run-in with “the Jews” where he throws off tradition and ushers in a new, “greater” understanding? Throughout John’s Gospel we have this tension between old and new, between people who are spiritually blind and those who see the light of Christ that has come into the world. I want to suggest that this climate of comparison is the breeding ground for religiously sanctioned hate.

But the centuries have dulled one important fact – nearly everyone in John’s Gospel was Jewish. The other characters are merely ancillary, extra, if you will. As Paul Raushenbush, Executive Religion Editor for the “Huffington Post,” states, “Jesus was a Jew… all his followers were Jewish, every disciple, all the early people of the Jesus movement were Jewish. To say Jews killed Jesus erases Jesus’ true identity – which was a Jew.”[5] The Gospel of John was written by one community of Jewish people in response to their exclusion from the synagogue because of their belief in Jesus. What we have here is “one side of a bitter family quarrel.”[6] We don’t get the other side, the response, the rebuttal.

Therefore, centuries of reading this Gospel alone and out of context have contributed to our faith too often being hijacked in the name of religiously sanctioned hate.

I want to expand Dr. Gomes’ thought a little wider – Christianity’s original sin is not just anti-Semitism; it is the othering, hatred, and subordination of people in general – women, Muslims, African-Americans, Gay and Lesbian persons, immigrants and foreigners. Each of these prejudices have found, and in some instances continue to find, their spiritual sanction in the very book that we call “Holy.”

So what does the crucifixion of Christ, the lynching of our Lord, the murder of our Messiah have to say to these things? What is God’s response to our temptation to use religion to hate?

In the Passion of Our Lord we see clearly that God’s response to hatred is to carry it in love.

At her best, that’s what Christianity teaches. That God deigned from heaven, entered into the muddiness and the messiness of the human condition, that God entered this endless cycle of evil, that God was literally touched by those things that touch us on a daily basis – fear, hatred, deceit, betrayal, disappointment, and ultimately death – and that for us Jesus carried those things. Yet through it all we hear God transcribing a testimony of love.

I believe that the Love of God that we experience in Christ has to be the foundational lens through which we not only read scripture, but if we are serious about healing the world, then love must be foundational lens through which we view the world. To be counted among the children of God means to love with a steady mind. Beloved, that is the truth that makes us free.[7]

To break the endless cycle of evil, love has to be unleashed. We cannot heal the world with a fettered, controlled, conditional kind of love. With his life, and even in his death, Jesus calls us to take the limits off of love.

…love that looks at the death of the cross and sees the glittering reality of new life.

…love that looks at the pain of the cross and sees the paradise of Heaven.

…love that looks at the constraining nails of the cross and sees the freedom of Resurrection.

The power of Love is still the antidote, the solution, to the sin and evil of this world.

If we allow ourselves to be tempted to hatred and prejudice, or worse, apathy and indifference, then the cross of Christ becomes an emblem of war; a weapon of mass destruction; a twisted, crooked swastika of evil. That’s the tyranny of Calvary.

But, if we allow ourselves to be “caught up in the rapture of love” – real, deep, abiding, selfless, life-changing, crazy, courageous, challenging, divine love – then the cross becomes something else altogether. It becomes a symbol of solidarity with those who dwell in darkness and live daily in the “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” a reminder of the lengths to which God would go to in order reach us, to find us, to save us, indeed even safe us from ourselves. That, dear friends, is the transformative testimony of Calvary.

A testimony of love unrestrained. Love unconquered. Loved unrestricted.

Love. Love. Love. That is the transformative testimony scrawled in the crimson blood on the hard, rough, jagged wood of the cross.

That kind of love is what Jesus bore witness to as he hung there in agony, blood cascading from his marred body, the light of life slowly fleeting with each labored breath until finally, he died.

Holy Week

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[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. “The Death of Evil upon the Seashore” from Strength to Love (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 82-83.

[2] Peter J. Gomes. The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (New York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 1996), 113.

[3] Ibid., 109.

[4] Ibid., 114.

[5] Paul Raushenbush “The Thing I Never Want to Hear Again on Good Friday,” Huffington Post, last modified April 17, 2014, accessed April 18, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-raushenbush/good-friday-anti-semitism_b_5169053.html?utm_hp_ref=tw.

[6] Gomes. The Good Book, 115.

[7] Howard Thurman. The Inward Journey (Richmond, IN; Friends United Press, 2007), 102.

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