(Sermon preached at the Ecumenical Good Friday service at First Congregational Church, UCC, Littleton, NH 4/2/2010, using Luke 23)
Christians learn the story of Jesus’ death though four Gospels accounts. Each Gospel tells the account of Jesus’ execution by the Romans differently, sharing some things in common, adding other details, and in some cases, remembering dialogue differently.
We of course don’t remember his trial and execution as four separate stories in our heads. We combine the accounts together, and create an overall narrative about what happened to Jesus.
That’s also true for our liturgies, like the Last Seven Words of Christ, or Stations of the Cross, as well as other mediums like movies, plays and books.
Here's an example. The four Gospels report three different sets of Jesus' final words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is found in both Mark & Matthew, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” is what we just heard, Luke’s Gospel. “It is finished” is the final words of Jesus from the Gospel of John.
Most of us have all of these phrases in our memories of the crucifixion, and that’s a good thing. No one cares if one really came last: we care only that they are all powerful, authentic phrases attributed to Jesus. They all fit into the Gospel memory, and they all are worthy of reflection and study. “Forsaken” points to the truth that at times, we all feel that God is absent, and even Jesus had that feeling. “Commend my spirit” points to Jesus’ faithfulness to God, even in his death, and “Finished” points to Jesus’ own understanding that he remained true to his ministry, and accomplished what he set out to do.
There are, however, a few times where the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion have what I will call “memory contradiction.” For example, the Gospels of Mark and Matthew tell us that the criminals crucified with him mocked him. Luke, however, tells us that one of the criminals defends Jesus, and then asks to be remembered. It’s a “memory contradiction" in that, when we tell the story to someone, or think about it in our heads, we have to remember it one way or the other. People tend to “remember” Luke’s version, because the interplay between Jesus and the criminal tends to be a more powerful image. That’s not something to worry about, but it’s worth remembering when we study the texts in depth.
Here’s another example that may have jumped out at you when it was read: The centurion said “Certainly this man was innocent.” That’s not the version we tend to remember. I’m certain that most of you remember the centurion’s words as “truly this was God’s son.” Mark’s and Matthew’s version gets priority in our heads, because it is considered to be the more powerful statement. That's very understandable.
However, since it is Luke’s text that we have before us today, I wish to consider Luke’s version of the centurion’s words.
First, a few words of biblical scholarship: most biblical scholars believe that Mark was the first Gospel written. Mark, the shortest account, has an unmistakable sense of urgency to it. This is due, in part, to the desire to get Jesus’ ministry down on paper in case there is no one left to orally tell the story. Considering the Roman persecution of the time, this makes a great deal of sense.
Most biblical scholars then believe that Luke and Matthew wrote their Gospel’s with Mark’s “in hand.” They used Mark as a source. However, Matthew and Luke have things in common which are not found in Mark. We call this common source “Q”, the unknown source of Jesus accounts and sayings.
Mark’s revelation that Jesus is God’s son is considered to be the great secret of this Gospel. Jesus never confirms it, and when people say so (that he’s God’s Holy One, or the Christ, or so on) he orders people not to tell others. The reader, however, knows. At the moment of Jesus’ death, the centurion’s words, “Truly this man was God’s Son” is the revealing of the secret to the world. This is often referred to as the Messianic secret of Mark.
There’s no such secret in Luke’s Gospel. Mary and Elizabeth know before Jesus is born that he is the Lord. The angels proclaim it to the shepherds at Jesus’ birth. Simon and Anna proclaim it so at the temple when Jesus is a baby, and some time after his baptism, a voice from heaven comes down for all to hear: “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And that’s all before Jesus gets started with his ministry.
So, for Luke, the centurion proclaiming Jesus to be God’s Son is not a great revelation.
The centurion’s conclusion that Jesus is innocent, however, is a shock in Luke’s Gospel…not for being true, but shocking because the centurion can see the truth. A centurion is a career officer in the Roman army: he knows nothing of Jesus except for what he’s just witnessed: angry and passionate condemnation, and the judgment of death by those in power. And yet, somehow, he sees the truth: Jesus is innocent.
The centurion is the one who finally says the word “innocent,” but he’s not the only one who knows. Three times, Pilate says that he’s found nothing to find Jesus guilty of. Herod, whose jurisdiction Jesus is under, wants a sign of wonder from Jesus. He returns Jesus to Pilate not because of wrongdoing, but because Jesus is silent. The chief priests and scribes know full well that Jesus hasn’t done anything that they’ve charged him of, and has done nothing to deserve death.
When you add in the followers of Jesus: the women who look on, and the men who are hiding, it becomes clear that everyone knows, in one way or another, that Jesus is innocent.
Everyone knows this to be true, and yet everyone fails to do something about it. It's not just "the bad guys": the chief priests and scribes who are clearly out to get Jesus. Pilate, the only one with the authority to have Jesus executed, gives into fear about his own reputation and standing. Herod wants to be entertained; he is unconcerned with getting to the truth. The women who look on witness and weep, but do nothing more out of fear and a sense that they are powerless. And, of course, there's the spectacular failure of the disciples: Judas' betrayal, the attempt to defend Jesus with the violence of the sword, and Peter's denials.
Even our insightful centurion does nothing to stop the innocent Jesus from being killed.
What Luke seems to be drawing us into is the failure of justice, and we are called to consider why. Why would the innocent Jesus be killed? Why was no one willing to risk themselves to do what is right?
Do you remember what Jesus said at the beginning of his ministry in Luke's gospel? He quoted Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor," and then he said that this scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing. (Luke 4:18-21) This is a bold statement of justice. People are excited: they think "now is our time!" Jesus, however, then goes on to say it's not just for us, but for everyone, and people are so mad that they want to throw him off a cliff.
The people under Roman rule were hoping for the tables to be turned. They were hoping that they would overthrow their Roman oppressors, and then become the ones in charge. Jesus brought an uncomfortable message to his people. He said that God's favor isn't about achieving human power, but about justice, peace, and love. He even then went a step further, and told them that it's not about achieving special status with God. We're not in line to receive a special, unique reward in comparison with someone else. Instead, we are called to proclaim God's love for all, regardless of worthiness. That is the radical hospitality shown to the prodigal son…the staple story of the Gospel of Luke. Someone who doesn't deserve it…and be clear, the prodigal son doesn't deserve it…is given love, peace, and forgiveness. He is celebrated. That is what God is about: reconciliation. Justice, love, and peace for all.
That's a really subversive message. That goes against our human ways. What it means is that our agendas for life…the things we want to accomplish, the things we think we deserve, and even our own self-preservation…are to be secondary to the way we stand up for truth, the way we proclaim love, the way we treat one another, and the way that we embrace justice and peace.
Jesus believed that, and it got him killed.
"Certainly, this man was innocent."