Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Sermon: Wednesday of Laetare (Lent 4)

21 March 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Passion Narrative (IV: The Praetorium) & Holy Baptism

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

After His arrest and following His kangaroo trial at the home of the high priest, Jesus is brought before the Roman governor of Judea to finally come before the Law. His Excellency Pontius Pilate stood as a representative of Caesar Augustus himself – to be known after his death as the divine Augustus, Augustus the god. This minister of a false god is, ironically, given real authority by the true God to execute justice.

Jesus, the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets, has been treated by the priests and children of Israel in the same disgraceful way as the prophets of old, and now, he stands accused by the law, being put on trial by an unwitting minister of the true God to execute divine judgment upon the scapegoat for all the sin of the world.

The old saying “lex semper accusat”, that is, “the law always accuses” holds true yet again – even when the one being accused is God in the flesh.

Pontius Pilate is a study in contradiction. He finds Jesus “not guilty” in a criminal trial, and yet allows the innocent Prisoner’s execution to go forth. He is a servant of the false god Caesar, and yet his wife has great sympathy for Jesus (she may herself have been a Christian). Pilate has been vilified by name every day around the world for two millennia as Christians recite his infamy in the Nicene and Apostles Creeds, and yet Pilate is eager to acquit and release Jesus (in fact, there is a tradition among some Christians that Pilate later became a Christian himself).

This complex figure is known for his famous quote: “Ecce homo!” – “Behold the Man!” as he presents to the world the true King of the Jews, the true Divine Emperor, the One who wears a crown of thorns, a royal robe of mockery, and the bruises and blood befitting His royal sacrifice.

Pilate is also known for the gesture of washing his hands. For even as the fastidious and self-righteous Pharisees mocked Jesus and the disciples for refusing to take part in a hand-washing ritual designed to place oneself in the spotlight, Pilate washes his hands in a ritual designed to remove himself from the spotlight: “I am innocent of the blood of this man; see to it yourselves.” The mob replied: “His blood be on us and on our children.” Unwittingly, in praying a curse upon themselves, they were recognizing Jesus as exactly what He is: the living and incarnate fulfillment of the lamb sacrificed for the sins of Israel. For on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would literally throw the blood of the lamb onto the people.

However, the true Lamb, the “Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world” – is Himself the once-for-all Victim and the highest Priest, whose precious blood covers the sins of all mankind, who offers it and sheds it of His own accord. While Pilate believes he has ultimate power – it is actually Jesus who is the executor of justice. And while the Jewish mob claims to enforce the Law of Moses – it is actually Jesus who fulfills the Law of Moses.

Pilate is the law. He puts Jesus on trial and finds Him innocent. And yet, the law still accuses. The law of God, the debt of our transgressions, the wages of sin, fall squarely on the gory back of Him by whose stripes we are healed. For in spite of the law’s verdict of “not guilty,” the Lamb goes uncomplaining forth. The Imperial Governor finally washes his hands in a bowl of water before the very people who pray for the blood of the Lamb to be upon them and their children.

We are like Pilate in many ways. How often we have had the opportunity to do what is right, but out of cowardice, laziness, or a desire to not make waves, we wash our hands of our obligation to bear the fruits of repentance and good works. How often we wash our hands rather than stepping up to the plate and following in the footsteps of our Lord and carrying our cross. How often we think that our ineffectual attempts to appease the enemies of Jesus somehow absolve us from our duty to confess the faith in word and in deed.

And so, just as the law accuses our Lord, the law accuses us. And if the law condemns our Lord, dear friends, what does the law do to us? If the law brought forth the passion, the cross, and the death of our perfect and divine Lord Jesus, what do we deserve?

Even as we hang our heads at our unfaithfulness, our deceit, our misplaced priorities, our weakness, our own inability to stand up for what is right, our own desire to make nice with the enemies of the cross – we too wash our hands of our guilt.

More accurately, our Lord washes our hands of our guilt. Our High Priest washes our hands, by throwing His blood on us, he washes our bodies with water that isn’t merely the external removal of dirt, but rather the washing of regeneration.

For we too are washed in a basin and declared innocent of the blood of Jesus, innocent of all transgressions of the law, and yes, even innocent of our own Pilate-like cowardice and shameful treatment of our Lord.

And in that washing, the priestly blood of Jesus is truly “on us and on our children.” However, to those who confess Jesus as the Messiah, as the Lord and God, the presence of the Lord’s blood is not bloodguilt, but blood-innocence.

And as a result, we are all not only like Pontius Pilate, but also like Barabbas (whose name means “Son of the Father”), whose own worthy sentence of death was commuted by the substitutionary death of the One who allowed Pilate’s weakness and the mob’s bloodthirst to work out the very will of God. For our blessed Lord outwitting the wily devil by trickery, cheated death by dying, and abolished sin through submitting to the worst sin imaginable: Deicide: the murder of God.

It is fitting that in the creeds, especially the Apostles Creed, the creed confessed at baptism, the name “Pontius Pilate” is repeated by the Church again and again. For his act of infamy led to the washing of many hands – indeed, every hand in the body of Christ. It is also fitting that we make the sign of the cross with our sacramentally-washed hands to remember our own baptism – for under the authority of the Roman governor of Judea, under the execution of the law by God’s accidental minister Pontius Pilate, our Lord was sent to the cross, where his blood was shed for the sins of the world, where it was indeed poured out in mercy on us and on our children. It was under Pilate’s order that the King of Creation bore the title “Rex” above his head, even as he wore the thorny crown and sat upon the throne of the cross.

The law always accuses, and always finds us wanting. The law demands payment, and the wages of sin is death. But the good news, dear Christians, is that the tab has been picked up, the debt has been paid. The accuser’s gaze has been redirected to the Lamb upon whose thorn-encircled head, that sacred head now wounded, our sins have been laid. We, like Barabbas, guilty and deserving of death, sons of the Father through Holy Baptism, walk away with a resounding verdict of innocent.

For we have washed our robes in the blood of the Lamb. We have washed our hands in the holy font, those same hands that trace the sign of the holy cross upon ourselves. We are declared innocent by virtue “of the blood of this man.” His life-giving blood is on us and on our children: the blood of Christ, shed for you.

“Ecce homo!” Behold, the Man! Behold your King! Behold your God! Behold your Savior! Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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