A sermon by Brent J Eelman
First Presbyterian Church, Clarks Summit
March 29, 2020
Matt. 26: 57-67
Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’ ” The high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you,
From now on you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of Power
and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?” They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?”
We have a dog, Benson. He was rescued 18 months ago from a high-kill shelter in South Carolina and he has, through his lovable, laidback temperament, won a place in the hearts of our family. He is a 70 pound lap dog! He has, however, one major flaw. He over zealously protects our property and home. He growls and barks at any car or person who dares enter our driveway. If someone attempts to enter our home Benson adopts a completely different personality and barks and growls in an attempt to get the visitor to leave. Needless to say, we have been working on this behavior with a professional and the good news is that we are making progress, but we needed to understand what is going through Benson’s head when he is confronted with a stranger on our property.
We learned that it presents a crisis to him. He feels threatened. His simple comfortable world is about to change radically. Another person will enter it. Will he be safe? Will he be sent to another home? Will the simple comforts of laying around the house with two retired folks end? A crisis.
This crisis invokes an emotion: fear. He is a big dog, a strong dog, but that does not preclude feeling fear. It is the fear of loss: the primal fear all mammals possess (including us). He responds to his fear by barking and growling, hoping that the threat will disappear. Our lovable, laidback dog goes into hyper-vigilant watchdog mode.
The story of Jesus before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin is a narrative that follows the three-fold pattern of our dog, Benson. 1. There is a crisis with a defined threat. 2. The threat triggers an emotion: fear. 3. There is a response to that emotion: do whatever you can to remove the threat.
The Crisis: Jerusalem was in a crisis, a cultural crisis. Judaism was in ferment. Different factions were jostling for authority and power. The Sadducees were the dominant group. They controlled the Sanhedrin (the official court of the Hebrew people). In spite of this, they were beginning to experience a loss of influence to other groups that were forming amongst the Hebrew people.
Amongst these groups were the Pharisees. The Pharisees were devout Jews who focused their faith, not on the temple worship, but rather strict observance of the law that originated with God’s covenant with Moses. Ultimately theirs was a Judaism that was not dependent upon the Temple. The apostle Paul was originally a Pharisee.
A second group were the Zealots. Today they might be labeled as a terrorist organization, but their purpose was understandable: free Jerusalem from foreign occupation. They carried a dagger, hidden beneath their robes, much like the suicide bombing vests of their 21st century progeny. Simon, (not Peter) one of the more obscure of the 12 disciples, was from this group.
A third group were the Essenes. These were the social radicals who completely denounced everything associated with the Temple cultus. They chose to live in desert communities, believing that the Messiah would appear there. They were radically devoted to this hope, and distinguished themselves by their devotion to the law of Moses. The Dead Seas Scrolls, which have been so valuable to modern biblical scholarship, were recorded by them. There is speculation by some that John the Baptist spent time with the Essenes. Remember he referred to the Pharisees and Sadducees as a “brood of vipers.”
A fourth group was the Herodians. These were the pragmatists. They believed that the future of the Hebrew faith and Jerusalem itself, was secured through accommodating their faith and lifestyle to their Roman occupiers. Herod the Great, (from whom they are named) was brilliant at this. He ruled for decades by appeasing both the Roman authorities and also the Hebrew people. For the former, he built a great city, Caesarea to honor the emperor. For the latter, he overhauled and refurbished the Temple, the center of the Hebrew faith.
The epicenter of the crisis for Caiaphas was the Temple itself. It stood as the traditional foundation for the Hebrew faith. It was the dwelling place of the divine. Caiaphas was the High Priest of the temple. He had a lot to lose.
The Fear: Caiaphas was afraid. If there was a rebellion led by Jesus or one of the many messianic upstarts the Temple might be closed, or worse, destroyed. There would be no need for a high priest. Judaism would be forever changed.
Caiaphas was afraid. His fears were expressed in his comment in another gospel.
“You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:50).
Caiaphas was afraid. He was about to lose it all.
The Response: He responded to his fear by arranging a phony trial before the Sanhedrin at his own residence! The Sanhedrin had 70 members so you can imagine the size of the Caiaphas’ residence. They immediately jettison the 9th commandment (so much for piety!) and look for false witnesses. Finally after a brief interrogation of Jesus, Caiaphas exclaims,
“Gotcha! We don’t need any more witnesses. My mind is made up.”
The response to their fears was not merely a death sentence on the one before them, it was a death sentence on truth.
The narrative of this phony trial is important and valuable, because ultimately it preserves the truth. We realize, as we read or hear it, it was not Jesus who stood on trial before the Sanhedrin. It was Caiaphas (and the other members of the court) who were on trial before the record of history and the Divine. They were the the guilty! To quote the Bard in “Merchant of Venice,” The truth will out.
We are in the midst of a crisis. But allow me to be so bold as to say that this is not merely a health crisis. Truth itself is in dock. The COVID 19 pandemic is sweeping across societies and it is revealing who we are. Our response, at all levels, will be judged by history and the divine, just as Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin have been judged. The Quaker poet, James Russell Lowell, responding to the annexation of Texas as a slave state, wrote a broadside entitled, “The Present Crisis”. His familiar words ring true today:
Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God's new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right,
And the choice goes by forever 'twixt that darkness and that light.
We have witnessed the fearful responses: the hoarding of paper goods and food; the tanking of the stock market; and the anxiety that is coloring our relationships with one another. Like Caiaphas, we are experiencing our relatively comfortable existence under siege and we are fearful. I, too, have my fears and I will own them.
But we are also witnessing the response to our fears. Once again it is happening at all levels. Truth has been the first victim of this pandemic. Friends, neighbors and family members have said, “It’s a hoax.” The snake oil sellers have hawked their magic cure-alls, some with deadly results.
Just this week we have heard the words of Caiaphas “better to have one and die than a whole nation…” They were repeated in the words of those in power, that it might be better for some to die from this pandemic (the elderly and the weak), than to lose the entire economy.
Those are the responses that are engendered by fear.
- Fear of losing what we have.
- Fear of change.
- Fear that muzzles truth.
- Fear that dehumanizes.
- Fear that devalues human life… human life that was created in the image of the divine.
Lowell concluded his poem with these words:
New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth;
This is the hope of Christian faith, in good times and in times of crisis. We are people committed to the truth.
- We are people of the resurrection.
- We are people who believe that truth ultimately triumphs and that this same truth calls us to change our habits and our behavior.
- It calls us to value the lives of others as much as we value our own.
- We embody the words of the Apostle when he wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord… again I will say it rejoice.”
“whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…. keep doing them and the God of peace will be with you.”
Whatever is true….. whatever is true…. think about these things.
I was touched this week by the words of Steve Charleston, a retired Episcopal Bishop and Native American.
“Now is the time for which our faith has prepared us. Now is the moment when all that we believe can be put to work. Now we can turn to the inner resources we have been developing over these many years to face the challenge of a world in desperate need. We are not afraid of this crisis for we have been made ready for it. We have devoted our lives to the belief that something greater than fear or disease guides human history. We have studied, prayed and grown in the Spirit. Now we come to the call to use what we believe. Our people need hope, confidence, courage and compassion: the very things for which we have been trained. We are the calm in the midst of a storm. Stand your ground and let your light so shine that others may see it and find their faith as well. “
My Christian friends, in the midst of this crisis, own your fear, but do not react to it. Stand your ground and let your light so shine that others may see it and find their faith as well.
“The Truth will out!” This is Good News. Amen.