Sermon for Good Friday, April, 10, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Isaiah 52:13-53:12+Psalm 22+Hebrews 10:16-25+John 18:1-19:42

I don’t watch a lot of television, but every now and then. I’ll take a scroll through the seemingly endless supply of channels to see if there is anything interesting to watch, just to occupy my mind for a while. Invariably – I mean about four times out of five – I’ll come across the 1992 Navy-courtroom drama “A Few Good Men.” I swear it is always playing somewhere! I’m sure you’ve probably seen it. It seems that I usually tune in just in time for the climactic final scene in the courtroom in which Colonel Nathan Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson at his Jack Nicholson-est, squares off against Naval prosecutor Lt. Kaffee played by Tom Cruise. The colonel is pushed relentlessly under questioning to confess to ordering the killing of a PFC at Guantanamo who just wasn’t up to snuff. In the final explosion of dialogue, Nicholson’s character asks Cruise’s, “You want answers?” to which Cruise responds, “I want the truth.” And then Nicholson, with an angry and disdainful sneer responds, “You can’t handle the truth!”

I sometimes wonder if Jesus wasn’t tempted to say this exact thing to Pilate. You can’t handle the truth.

You can’t handle that your exalted Roman empire is nothing against the power of the cross.

You can’t handle that the only reason anyone will even remember your name is because of this interrogation of a poor, itinerant preacher from Galilee.

You can’t handle that the cross – your symbol of torture and death – will be transformed into the most recognized symbol of triumph and faith in the history of the world.

You can’t handle the fact that love wins.

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The way John paints this scene almost transforms Pilate into a sympathetic figure. History tells us he was anything but – he was ruthless. He would not have been able to keep his position had he not kept the peace using any means available in this troublesome corner of the empire. But John’s intention is to lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of the religious leaders, so Pilate gets to engage in another one of these Johannine dialogues in which the characters are simply talking on different levels. When Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” there is really no need to even answer, because it’s a set-up. We know that he simply wouldn’t get it anyway.

How might those religious leaders, urging him to do their dirty work, have answered Pilate? What is truth? Truth is that we are afraid of losing control of our carefully constructed hold on right religious practice. If that happens, we will be utterly destroyed, our temple in ruins, and our people once again scattered to the four corners of the world. Our truth is that we need your help, Pilate, to keep our shoestring-thin hold on our tradition – a tradition that this upstart Jesus is threatening to upend. John’s relentless blame levelled against “the Jews,” used through the centuries to fuel anti-Semitism, is, as I have said many times, a family quarrel. All Jews, just following divergent paths. And those leaders entrusted with upholding the community and Jewish law and tradition could not handle the truth that was Jesus.

How might Peter have answered Pilate’s question in this moment? Wracked with shame over the threefold denial that his friend predicted, he probably would have said something about his lack of worthiness. But what about later? John gives us a lovely scene over breakfast on the beach where Peter gets to give a threefold affirmation of his love, at which point he, like the Apostle Paul, might say something like, “Truth is that there is nothing in all creation – not even our denials and fear and lack of faith – that can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:34, para.).

 How might you have answered the question, “What is truth?”

Even now, how would you respond?

Can you handle the truth of the cross? That love wins, even in the depths of tragedy and pain and loss? That our worst is no match for God’s best?

Listen to the stories of the self-sacrificial love we see all around us during this pandemic: medical personnel quarantining themselves from their families in order to serve others; an Italian priest declining a donated ventilator that then went to a younger person; the abundant donations of food and needed items to local charities.

Evil, hate, selfishness, greed – all of these will do their best to flourish, especially when times are hard. When doubt and uncertainty and fear are pervasive. But the truth of the cross is that love wins. Love cannot be overcome, not even by death.

The motto of the Order of the Holy Cross, carved across the entrance to their monastery in West Park, NY, is “crux est mundi medicina” – the cross is medicine for the world.

That’s a truth that Pilate would not be able to handle. Can we? 

ASEPSermon for Good Friday, April, 10, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas