In a few minutes, we will pray together the “Solemn Collects” for Good Friday. Terry will lead us off with the reminder that “our heavenly Father sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”
Particularly today, Good Friday, we celebrate Christ’s saving work on the cross. Christ died to save us and, I mean this literally, thank God for it!
But as the Solemn Collects remind us, Christ didn’t die just for us. Christ died to save the world. It’s a good thing, too, because our world needs saving. A LOT is wrong with our world. That was true in the first century and, although the details are different, it’s true today.
I’m glad Christ is on the saving job, because saving the world is WAY above my pay grade.
But my temptation, I think the temptation of many Christian people, is to get so totally overwhelmed by the work to be done that I turn away from the problems of the world altogether, that I leave the saving entirely to Christ, as if I, we, have no role to play, as if God’s mission happens without us.
That is a temptation, and giving in to that temptation is sin.
On this day, we see an example of that temptation-become-sin in Pontius Pilate.
To his credit, Pilate didn’t want to kill Jesus. When he first heard the accusations against Jesus, Pilate told the high priest and his henchmen to kill Jesus themselves. They pointed out, quite rightly, that according to Roman law, the law Pilate was supposed to enforce, they didn’t have the authority to execute anyone. Only a Roman judge could condemn people to death in the Roman Empire.
Then Pilate tried to release Jesus by appealing to the odd tradition of freeing a political prisoner every Passover. The crowd didn’t want him. Twice more Pilate insisted that he found no case against Jesus. Each time Pilate was shouted down.
Finally, Pilate agreed to have Jesus crucified.
But not before washing his hands of the whole sordid business. We get this detail from Matthew, which we heard last Sunday. Pilate “took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood’” (27:24).
But is that true? Is Pilate in fact innocent of Jesus’ blood?
It is true that Pilate tried to release Jesus. And I certainly understand that Pilate preferred to think of himself as an innocent in the whole ugly episode.
But was Pilate really innocent?
After all, Pilate was the one with the authority of the Roman empire, the authority to condemn Jesus or else to release him. Pilate himself says as much to Jesus. The crowd did pressure Pilate. But neither the chief priests nor the crowd as a whole could make Pilate say the words. The condemnation had to come from Pilate himself.
The crowd was unruly. The crowd might have rioted if Pilate had released Jesus. But Pilate had an army at his disposal for the express purpose of controlling crowds. And the Roman army was good at crowd control. If the crowd did riot, they would be the ones to die, not Pilate and probably not any Romans at all.
And even if Pilate had been genuinely at risk, which he almost certainly was not, that wouldn’t justify condemning an innocent man to death. It would only make doing the right thing harder.
Here’s the point. Despite what Pilate tries to claim, Pilate can’t actually wash his hands of responsibility for Jesus’ death. Pilate wanted to think of himself as an innocent participant in what he knew was an unjust action. But on that first Good Friday, Pilate bore the ultimate responsibility for Jesus’ death, both legally and morally.
The contrast with Pilate in the Passion story is, of course, Jesus himself.
Pilate claimed to be innocent, when he was, in fact, responsible for what happened. Jesus did the exact opposite.
Jesus was the only perfectly innocent human being ever to live, the only person to never deserve punishment for any action he took.
But Jesus, who was innocent, accepted responsibility for the sins of the whole world. Jesus willingly went to the cross on our behalf, so that we, who actually are guilty, who actually deserve condemnation, would not have to suffer the consequences of our guilt.
Jesus going to the cross is the ultimate example of an innocent man accepting responsibility not for things he had done, not even for things done in his name, but for things for which everyone acknowledges he was entirely and perfectly innocent.
And how about us? Are we more like Pilate or Jesus?
There is much that is wrong with our world. None of us gathered here this evening had anything to do with most of it. Does that mean we can wash our hands of it, as if we have no responsibility for our world?
Sometimes we try. Sometimes we duck responsibility. We insist on our innocence. We say, truly enough, that our intentions are good. That was true for Pilate, too. We say, often truly enough, that we seem powerless to stop the bad things that do happen. Pilate thought that, too.
So, can we wash our hands of the violence, and the injustice, and the suffering of our world?
Although I often try to do just that, every Christian should know better. We don’t follow the one who washed his hands of a problem he thought he couldn’t solve. We follow the one who accepted responsibility for every bit of sin and suffering in the entire world, sin and suffering he did not cause and for which he bore no guilt.
As Christians, as followers of Jesus, we have a responsibility for our world, too. It is not that we are necessarily guilty of the problems, although we may well contribute to them. It is that Christ calls us to join him in his mission to save the world. Christ makes our world our responsibility, whether or not we are innocent of its problems.
We can’t carry the full weight that Jesus carried, of course. That would be too much responsibility. But we can’t simply look away from the problems of the world either. As Christian people, we are called to do our best to face the problems of the world head on, with courage and compassion and Christian love.
That’s why we pray for the world every week, including in our Solemn Collects this evening. That’s why we accept the obligation to love and serve the people of our communities and even, as we are able, around the world.
And that’s why we keep coming back here, to pray and worship, to hear God’s word, to share the sacrament of Christ’s blood, to encounter the living God who sends us into the world to do what seems like more than we can do and who accompanies us along the way to help us do it.
My prayer for us on this Good Friday is that we can hear God’s calling, accept the responsibility that comes with being God’s people, and commit ourselves to God’s mission in the world. And I pray this in the name of our crucified Lord. Amen.
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Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan