The Gospel reading for today is breath taking. As it is read we hear the unfolding of the steps from a moment in a garden with friends to the road that takes us to the cross. John lays it out step by step, moment by moment.
First there is Judas. He betrays Jesus. He leads an army to the place where Jesus is with the disciples.
A simple carpenter turned religious leader is such a threat to those in power that an army is sent. They expect rebellion.
They meet Jesus.
“I am the man you are looking for.”
The tension in the garden is thick. Peter steps forward, ready to do battle. Jesus pulls him back. The crowd parts. Jesus is lead to the first man in the bureaucratic chain, to Annas, the high priest for that year. He quickly passes him up the chain to Caiaphas, the power behind the throne. This is the man who pulls the strings that leads those who seek to have Jesus killed. His rationale is that it would be better for this one man to die than to risk rebellion, Roman retaliation.
Religious law forbids a priest to have someone killed. The priest wants to remain ceremonially clean.
Jesus is quickly passed off to governmental authority. Religious hands are clean. Pilate doesn’t know what hit him. He confronts Jesus. “Have you claimed to be a King? What have you done that is stirring up these people?”
Jesus’ only response is that he came to talk about truth.
Pilate asks, “What is truth?”
However, he can find nothing wrong with this man, Jesus. He goes back with the offer of Jesus or Barabbas. The people insist on Barabbas. Jesus is mocked, flogged, sentenced to die, to hang on a cross.
At each juncture – at each moment in this process another choice could have been made. Judas did not have to betray Jesus. Annas could have stopped the process. Caiaphas had other options. Pilate was overwhelmed by the hysteria of the crowd. There is a sense of destiny here.
There were other times in the three years of Jesus’ leadership when choices were presented. Positive times like the call of Peter and the other disciples, “Come follow me,” boats and fish are left behind.
A whole new world opens to those who choose to follow. There was the rich young ruler. He has done everything, followed the letter of the law. When the choice comes, give up your wealth and come, he turns away with deep sadness.
Jesus preaches in the synagogue. His authority is recognized. He heals the sick, brings sight to the blind. He talks about the least of these – those who need food, water and shelter.
When did we see you hungry, thirsty, in jail?
Truth is portrayed as an invitation to live in the moment. The Kingdom of God is right here. Right now. It’s not something in the future, some compelling force that will subdue all our enemies and restore us to power. It’s more about a forgiving father waiting for his wayward son. About a man on the side of the road who is identified as neighbor.
It’s about hospitality. Welcoming the stranger at the gate, having dinner with sinners, having compassion for those people who followed looking for a word from the Lord, a sign from God.
It was a radical message.
God as love.
It became God as a threat. The status quo, the power structure could not live with the freedom Jesus offered. The religious authority, the political authority lived in fear. Fear of each other and fear of the distant enemy, Rome. The high priest offers the rationale of better that one should die than all of us be punished for reaching for a life of freedom, a life of mutual respect, a life of love of neighbor.
There was great anxiety 2,000 years ago. So much so that the crowd could be manipulated into a frenzy.
Two thousand years later there is great anxiety. Every day the headlines blaze, nuclear war, religious tension, temples bombed.
The idea of truth, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, is a radical ideal. Rather, we build more bombs, live with racial tension, attack rather than listen, belittle rather than build up.
As we come to the end of this Lenten pilgrimage, we hear the story of the past. We see the steps unfold. People who have names, Judas, Annas, Caiaphas, and Pilate. Each one with an opportunity to participate in another choice. A radical new way of understanding how God works. Each one swept along by hysteria and driven by fear.
That past is our present. That same Jesus who is crucified offers us the same choice. The Kingdom of God is now, not something coming in the future. It’s right here. Love our neighbor, feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, visit those imprisoned. See the face of God in the persons we meet – black, white, brown, yellow, male, female, gay or straight. Find our brother or sister in the Muslim, the Jew, the Buddhist, those who are not believing.
Here we are on Good Friday reminded again that one was given to death so that we might live. Another choice can be made.