Today, I had the chance to preach a Good Friday message during a unity service in our small community. Matthew's record of the events of the Friday Jesus died hasn't left me this week. Perhaps it will be a Word that speaks to you.
It was in the wee hours of a Friday morning just like this that an angry contingent of people descended in the courtyard outside the home of the High Priest. They’d already been to see his father-in-law, and Annas had been in no mood for any discussion about the rabble-rouser they’d come to talk about. After all… serving as the conduit between God and man wasn’t his job anymore. But it was his son’s.
Caiaphas was no more excited to see them coming. But the wake-up call was more than necessary in his eyes. Sabbath was less than 24 hours away, and something needed to be done with this man. The religious Congress of the day, the Sanhedrin, assembled under the cloak of darkness to discuss the matter, because daybreak was at hand. They made no bones about the need to get rid of Jesus. There was easily enough evidence to convict this rebel prophet from Nazareth on blasphemy charges. He’d audaciously claimed to be the Son of God. But the quandary came in realizing that, though blasphemy was an offense punishable by death in Jewish tradition, none of this would hold water in Rome. Jewish leaders didn’t have authority to execute the death penalty. It would take a civil violation, a capital offense, to make the death sentence stick. Good news was, Caiaphas knew that the Roman governor had a weak spot, and the Sanhedrin were about to exploit it.
When the large group of elders and others marched Jesus into Jerusalem’s Roman HQ before the sixth hour of the day, the governor knew something wasn’t right. He also knew this was the last place in the world he wanted to be. Pilate was stuck. He was always concerned with needing to appease the Jewish people, as they’d threatened more than once to report him to his superiors for his less-than-stellar leadership qualities. He’d taken money from their Temple treasury to build better water lines; he’d ignored their personal worship space and paraded graven images in their presence knowing it was offensive to them. Now, Pilate was on edge; the threat of losing his job loomed large. But neither did Pilate want to do the scut work of local religious leaders who were overly fanatical about their God.
He nearly found a way out. On learning Jesus was from Galilee, Pilate sent the case to Herod Antipas, the Galilean tetrarch with primary jurisdiction in the matter. But, after making Jesus his court jester, Herod sent the problem right back to Pilate with a verdict: not guilty. Still, the chief priests, rulers and the people bought a bevy of trumped up charges against Jesus: tax evasion (because He opposed paying taxes to Caesar), treason (He said He is the King of the Jews) and troublemaking (He caused riots around the city), so Pilate heard the case. On multiple occasions, Pilate stated he found no basis for the charges against Jesus. He even reasoned with Jesus in private: “Don’t you realize I have power to either free you or crucify you?” Jesus remained silent. And Pilate, with all his perceived power, wanted none of it, so he made his final move in the critical chess match of life and death. Hear again how Matthew’s Gospel (27:15-26) tells the story:
Now it was the governor's custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?" For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him. While Pilate was sitting on the judge's seat, his wife sent him this message: "Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him." But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered.
“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked.
They all answered, “Crucify him!”
“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!”
When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
All the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Perhaps you’ve heard this story so often, you missed the incredible tension Pilate faces in answering the most important question of his life. Perhaps you’ve heard the story so often, you moved right past the question that holds the tension to whether you can call this Friday Good. How do you answer the question:“What shall I do, then, with Jesus?”
Pilate’s paranoia held him captive from answering this question personally. He was trying only to answer it professionally. How, as a ruler, should I deal with an innocent man who everyone else wants to die? Fear caused Pilate to respond in a way that protected his public position, but cost him his personal peace. He chose to deal with Jesus by literally washing his hands of the whole situation. Yet in trying to excuse himself and make no decision, Pilate’ answered his own critical question by choosing to let someone else choose for him: the crowd.
Pilate’s response led to Jesus’ crucifixion at the cries of the crowd. But how do you respond to this question? What DO you DO with Jesus? And why does it matter?
Because the question still rings out through the ages. What shall I do, then, with Jesus? The Jewish leaders, the Council, the Sanhedrin, the High Priest, all the most respected leaders entrusted with knowing God the best and making Him known to others… they condemned Him without seeking to understand. Jesus threatened their existence, their livelihood, their reputations among the people. Rather than be exposed as frauds to the world, they connived to have their biggest problem solved by someone else — today we call that “putting out a hit.”
Centuries of people have wrestled with the question of what to do with Jesus. Atheists respond with refusal. Zealots respond with extremism. Every version and denomination of evangelicalism responds with a message that their interpretive flavor of Jesus is the “right one” and everyone else is missing the boat. Regardless of where others landed in the past, the question is a present day prerequisite for every person. Because it is not a collective question, it is an individual one. A personal one. What shall I do with Jesus? Everyone of us is Pilate today, reconciling what we do with the One we call Jesus.
The question must be answered because our answer frames how we live. What shall I do, then, with Jesus — Who loved His enemies and prayed for those who cursed and persecuted Him, who turned over temple tables in the face of the “church leaders,” who won’t always give me what I want, but always gives me what I need? What shall I do, then, with Jesus — Who ate with the most undesirable, who spent His last days pursuing the unseen and unloved, who turns our understanding of all things upside down? What shall I do, then, with Jesus — Who calls me to deny myself daily, surrender to suffering and give myself away in order to receive eternal life, who said that in being first we are actually last, who in moments of greatest pain asked His Father to forgive those who tortured and wounded Him most? What shall I do, then, with Jesus — who suffered and bled and died?
What shall I do, then, with Jesus? He is not neat and tidy, He isn’t a personal god you can put in a box and dole Him out as you see fit. He is not dispensable or disposable. To embrace Jesus as He came and lived and taught and showed us God’s love is messy. It’s confusing to the world around us. Sometimes even to us. But we must decide what we do with Him.
The choices seem to be these:
What shall [you] do, then, with Jesus? If today you haven’t answered that question in the way that leads to life, then this Friday is just another day to you, an extra “vacation day.” If you cannot answer the question, then Friday is just Friday, it’s not Good. It’s not Good News. It’s not God News. It’s just News.
Is He a story, or is He is a Savior? Is He someone you cheer for, or is He someone you live for? Is He a great figure in history, or is He the greatest gift God gave to make His story known to all of man? You must choose today. You must answer.
As he faced making the decision that would alter the course of human history, Pilate could not know he was asking the question that shapes every life today. What shall I do, then, with Jesus? Pilate made his decision. Today, the God who “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” is asking you to make yours.
(Sermon for Good Friday, 2018. Rev. Joy L. Sherman)
Jesus follower. Wife. Mom. Daughter. Friend. Pastor. Learner.