"Good Friday What Ifs" – Matthew 28:31-45
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”’
A good friend of mine sent me a question – by way of a text message – yesterday morning. I thought I had some idea of what I might say tonight, but since none of it was written yet – or even considered all that deeply, to be honest – I felt this might be an invitation to change course. The question – by way of a text message, remember – was this, exactly:
“Have a philosophical question for you … if you had a time machine … would you go back and save Jesus?”
My response, on Maundy Thursday morning – with a couple of sermons and 5 worship services, among other things, spinning around in my head – was this, exactly:
“That’s a good question, but more than I could text. We’ll have to discuss over beer.”
Well, as tempting as it is, this isn’t the time or the place for beer, but there’s not a much better time to wonder about that question – and what our answers might say to us about how we understand what brings us here tonight. Besides, I figure, if one of my friends is asking and wondering such things, then some of you might be curious or interested in the notion, too.
So, if/when Elon Musk develops the first time machine…who among us would go back and save Jesus?
I suspect that we’d all like to think we would, at first blush, take that time machine back to the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, strap on some sandals, and kick some First Century butt, in the name of our Lord. Or maybe you’re a lover, not a fighter, so you’d find a way to bend Pontius Pilate’s ear and convince him of what we know. Or perhaps we’d meet up with the Chief Priests and the Scribes – or Judas – or Peter – or any of the rest of the principle players on and around Calvary – and Sunday-morning-quarterback this thing, so they could see the error of their ways and change course, themselves; so they could re-write history as easily as a Pastor re-writes a sermon.
But, in spite of all of our best, most faithful intentions, I think we’d be fooling ourselves.
The point of the story is that we are them. They are us. They didn’t have it in them. And neither do we.
Pilate was too proud or too political or just too ignorant, short-sighted or selfish, to do what he knew was right. So he washed his hands of the responsibility.
Peter tried, in the Garden, anyway, to fight for Jesus; to defend his honor; to save him before the arrest. He drew his sword and lopped off that soldier’s ear, but eventually let it happen, at Jesus’ command. And he had three more chances, remember, to at least get into the mix but, in order to save his own skin, Peter denied the One he said he never would.
Judas Iscariot was too selfish. The other disciples were too clueless, or in denial, or too distracted by whatever else was going on in their lives. The women were too powerless or disenfranchised. The Centurion was too late.
So we’d be fooling ourselves, I think, to pretend we’d do any better or different, if given the chance. We are them. They are us. They didn’t have it in them to save Jesus. And neither do we.
And I feel fairly certain about that, because this isn’t as hypothetical as it sounds. I feel fairly certain about this because otherwise, we would save Jesus right here and right now, every time we have the chance. And we have the chance – and the choice to do so – every single day of our lives, no time machine necessary.
“…just as you did it to one of the least of these… you did it to me…” Remember?
Every time we drive by the homeless, hungry stranger on the street corner, roll up our window and pretend to change the station on the car radio, we neglect to do what would have kept Jesus from the Cross.
Every time we vote for our own self-interest at the expense of someone else’s well-being, or benefit from our own advantage while others fight against their disadvantage, we neglect to do what would have kept Jesus from the Cross.
Every time we pretend there’s nothing we can do about the people dying in Syria, or being shot in Chicago we neglect to do what would have kept Jesus from the Cross.
Every time we celebrate or support that war and weapons are a show of strength and a better option than peace, we neglect to do what would have kept Jesus from the Cross.
Every time we spend our money selfishly – use more than our fair share – refuse to give what we know we can and should do without – we neglect to do what would have kept Jesus from the Cross.
Every time we hold a grudge… every time we cast self-righteous judgment… every time we refuse forgiveness… every time we misuse or abuse our planet…we neglect to do what would have kept Jesus from the Cross.
They are us. We are them. And it is why God came for the Cross in the first place.
Jesus had to die on the Cross, you see, because we do not have it in us to do this on our own. We can’t save ourselves – let alone Jesus. We need help. We can’t save ourselves – let alone Jesus. We need an example. We can’t save ourselves – let alone Jesus. We need to see that it can be done by nothing more and nothing less than the love and grace of our God.
They are us. We are them. But God is God – thank God – and that is why we call this Friday “good."
See, God could have undone this at any time along the way. God could have swayed Pilate to choose the good. God could have influenced the crowd to call for Barabbas’ crucifixion, instead of Jesus’. God could have let the cup pass from Jesus, when he prayed for that in the Garden of Gethsemane. I remember singing on Good Friday, in the children’s choir at Providence Lutheran Church when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, “He could have called 10,000 angels, to destroy the world, and set him free…” (I’m pretty sure that was a Loretta Lynn song.)
Anyway, the point is this needed to happen – no matter how much we think we would or could have stopped it.
I haven’t talked to my friend yet, but the twist or the trick to this timeless question, really, supposes that, if we were to stop the crucifixion, if we were to “save” Jesus as it were, then we would also be road-blocking the salvation of the world.
To stop it then, would be to pretend we have the power to stop God from loving us in all the ways God means to love us; it would mean to stop God from forgiving us in all the ways God longs to forgive us; it would mean to stop God from redeeming the world through Christ’s crucifixion, suffering, death and resurrection…
And we can’t stop that kind of love, no matter how hard we try – and boy have tried. We can’t stop that kind of love, no matter how much we sin – and boy have we sinned. We can’t stop this kind of love that comes, no matter what. And we can’t help but see that kind of love in the shadow of Christ’s cross and go looking for it, too, on the other side of Easter’s empty tomb.