Sunday, March 24, 2013

And They Became Friends

"And They Became Friends"
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 24, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 23: 1-12 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

23 Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. 2 They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” 3 Then Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He answered, “You say so.” 4 Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.” 5 But they were insistent and said, “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.”
6 When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. 7 And when he learned that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. 8 When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. 9 He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11 Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. 12 That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies. [1]  

Palm Sunday, as I figured out this week, being my first time through this season preaching from the lectionary, Palm Sunday, you get some choices. This Sunday has actually two names, Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday, so the first choice you get to make is whether you choose a Palm parade text, or whether you choose a passion text. It gives you some options because there is a lot to the texts this week. There is a lot to cover, so a week away from Easter do you talk about Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, and then jump ahead,  all the way to the Resurrection in one week? Or do you focus on a passion text, making a closer connection to Easter next week. I chose the latter of the two options, mostly because, not having a Good Friday special service, it seemed like a pretty big jump forward in the story, skipping way too much. I wanted to have a better setup for Easter. Then there was the next choice. The Lectionary puts forward the entire selection of the passion story from Luke, something like Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49. I thought that was too long and too broad of a focus, but within that text, I was drawn to a line that I didn't remember from prior readings, but this time seemed to jump right out. This line is the last line I read, Luke 23:12 -- "That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies."
I don't know why it jumped out, but it did. I've always been fascinated by the trial of Jesus, and all the steps, but yet the whirlwind nature of it all, going from arrest to trial by religious officials, to trial by Pilate, to trial by Herod, back to Pilate, to trial by the mob, sentence and crucifixion. Elaborate yes, but  all very quick. Last year I preached on the idea that the facts of the trial are irrelevant. That Pilate isn't going to convict without a confession, Herod isn't going to convict without some kind of miracle sign which would show that Jesus posed more than a joke by an obvious fraud, but rather a real threat to his position, and then lastly the mob makes the final decision, and the mob isn't interested in facts. I made the parallel to today, how Jesus is still on trial, and often we feel called to be his trial lawyers, but that calling is futile, and seemingly errant to Jesus' actual call and plans for us. You see last year I made the same choice, preaching on the passion texts on Palm Sunday rather than the parade. I guess it's hard to focus on Palm Sunday this close to Good Friday, it seems late, like the palms have already been traded in for crosses, and the shouts of Hosannas turned to Crucify him. I've often thought that Palm Sunday would make some sense to be the first Sunday in Lent rather than the last because so much happens during Jesus' journey to the cross that it is entirely impossible to fit it all in, in one week. Having the entire Lenten season to tell all parts of the story would make sense, but I did that type of thing last year, so this year I'm playing along.
So let's look at this, Herod and Pilate, all of a sudden are friends. Fascinating. Is this a good thing though or a bad thing for the occupied Jews? Does it mean that some real work is going to be done, that the politicians and powers that be have put aside their differences and can start coexisting together? Can they get together finally and start working for the people, start putting in real reforms, start making a positive difference, now that the political bickering is finally over? Peace between Rome and Judea finally possible, an end to the fighting, an end to the abuses, a beginning of talking, and talking is good. It all seems so good. Don't many of us wish that our very own squabbling politicians would find a way for this change to be the case. There could be a little by-line in an AP wire, "John Boehner and President Obama, once were enemies, but on this same day they became friends." "Rand Paul and Debbie Wasserman Schultz sign into law groundbreaking bipartisan bill." "Senate comes together in a historical unanimous passing of a budget."
Maybe it's the skeptic in me, maybe it's the historian, but I shudder to think what would be the results of the bipartisan leadership we say we all claim to want. History shows that when powerful people put aside enmity for friendship it is because they have joined together not in humble agreement, but in a new common enemy to crush. But is that me just looking at this without faith, selling Jesus short. . . I decided to look up this passage in good old Matthew Henry's Commentary. He wrote this:

12. They had been at enmity between themselves, probably upon Pilate’s killing of the Galileans, who were Herod’s subjects (Lu. 13:1), or some other such matter of controversy as usually occurs among princes and great men. Christ is the great peace-maker; both Pilate and Herod owned his innocency, and their agreeing in this cured their disagreeing in other things.[2]  

I really liked this. It had all the hopefulness that you look for when you read Matthew Henry. Christ is the great peacemaker, that he cannot do anything but inspire peace, even between the most unlikely of folks. I mean look at the picture he paints as to the cause of the strife between them, the killing of Herod's subjects, but now peace, forgiveness. There is hope there. Christ even indirectly has the power to bring peace. I am skeptical though, this seems in line with Matthew Henry to try too hard, to put too much significance on things, tying them all to the miracle of the incarnation, and the power of Jesus. Because the question we must ask ourselves is, why is this little factoid included? Is it like Matthew Henry suggests, to show the unconquerable peace-making power of Jesus, or is it to foreshadow something much more diabolical. Oppression on a larger scale because the two most powerful men in Judea are now on the same page. Neither has a strong record of helping the people, so why would they all of a sudden come together and be for them? Most likely it won't turn out good.
Again I was lost, and stuck, trying to get something from this, and having a very hard time? Why is this here and what does it signify? Is it good news, bad news, or indifferent news? Luke is the only gospel writer that includes it, what is he getting at?  I decided in my studies to try to get closer by looking for the Prayer of Preparation for the bulletin. I often use this as a study aid, something to get me closer, some piece of wisdom from antiquity, some poem, some quote that gives me a different look at the idea. So what I did this time was to look for quotes that have the word friends and enemies together. I found so many interesting ones. Most having to do with how you really can't trust your friends. Interesting right? Pilate and Herod, all of a sudden friends, but do they trust one another? Then there were the ones about keeping your friends close, but your enemies closer? Hmm, what does Pilate want from Herod, what does Herod want from Pilate. Then I came across the two quotes that I ended up using, from perhaps the two most amazingly faithful Christians of the 20th century: Martin Luther King, who we are all familiar with, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who you may not know, but was a German pastor who resisted the Nazi's in Germany, even plotting to assassinate Hitler, despite his belief in pacifism. It was for this crime that he was placed in a Concentration Camp, he would be executed just days before the Allied Forces liberated the camp, even to his last day, he was writing, working, and trying to be a disciple regardless of the cost. His writings are truly amazing, and the testimony of his life just gives his insight all the more weight. Let's look at these two quotes, I couldn't get passed their connection to my questions, even if the context of them was very different.
First Dr. King: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” I couldn't help but wonder how this applied to Pilate and Herod. It could support Henry's claim that Jesus' love was so strong that it converted Pilate and Herod from enemies to friends. But then I wondered how real this new found friendship was. What happens with Herod and Pilate after the crucifixion? Does the friendship last? Is it built on love, or something else? I did some more research, finding that there really is no evidence that Pilate ever did anything positive for the people of Judea, or for Herod, for that matter. Jewish historians like Josephus and Philo recount Pilate doing nothing but being antagonistic towards the Jews: One account is that Pilate was using temple money to build aqueducts. When Jews protested his actions, Pilate had soldiers hidden in the crowd while addressing the Jewish protesters. After giving the signal, Pilate's soldiers randomly attacked, beat, and killed scores of Jews to silence their petitions. He also arrogantly put gold shields (idol like) in sacred places, according to Philo, "just to antagonize the people, the emperor Tiberias actually reprimanded Pilate for this. Philo describes Pilate as having great "vindictiveness and a furious temper", and being "naturally inflexible, having a diabolical blend of self-will and relentlessness." No mention from either Historian as a period of detente, between he and the Jews, or between he and Herod. So it would seem that this friendship was not lasting.
But it was Bonhoeffer's quote that seemed to state it more clearly, shedding finally some light, or at least muddying it up enough to get caught in it. He wrote:

“Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work.” 

He then goes on to quote Luther to close the quote, I chose not to include it in the bulletin because the vitriolic language is typical of Luther, but I wanted to included here, since Bonhoeffer does:

'The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared' (Luther).” 

Bonhoeffer seems to ring with the same idea as that of Matthew Henry, but for some reason it didn't seem like just a happy, stretch to make Jesus more magical, even in this his darkest time, but instead rings with the amazing irony of Jesus' sacrifice. Bonhoeffer says, "he had come to bring peace to the enemies of God." Pilate and Herod? maybe, but not just them, all of us. Bonhoeffer seems to be asking us can we be humble enough to include us, ourselves with the those, whom we consider enemies of God, can we, because all of the disciples, those closest had abandoned him, those who had praised him waving palm branches had demanded him crucified, neither Pilate or Herod do it, neither of them call for Jesus to be executed, are they the enemies of God, or are we? Is it just the Herods and the Pilates, who fit that description? It's hard to know where you would find yourself in such a situation, Peter didn't think he could deny either.
This is the amazing piece of it though, just like Dr. King said,  "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend," and it does, and so we get to Bonhoeffer's, so our place is in the midst of the world, giving it that transforming love. This transforming love, might not have changed Herod and Pilate for good, but it has done so much more. It has made possible our place with God, making it sure, giving us amazing hope, amazing potential, for God so loved the world that he gave his only son. . . this is the type of love that transforms even the most hardest of hearts, the most hardened of enemies into friends. May we be changed by its power? And may we then follow its example, and be beacons of love's power, creating friends out of enemies in real lasting ways, instead of just for the political expedience of the times. Bonhoeffer seems to suggest this is the call of a Christian. Our world is desperately in need of real and true friendship where enemies once stood, through Jesus Christ that transformation is possible.
I'd like to conclude with another one of Bonhoeffer's statements, this one spoken in August 1932,  just 4 months before Hitler was made Chancellor of Germany, his description of the times are eerily similar to ours. . .. He says,

It is as though all the powers of the world had conspired together against peace; money, business, the lust for power; indeed even love for the fatherland have been pressed into the service of hate. Hate of nations, hate of people against their own countrymen. It is already flaring up here and there--what are the events in the Far East and in South America but a proof that all human ties are dissolving to nothing, that there is no fear of anything where the passion of hate is nourished and breaks out? Events are coming to a head more terribly than before--millions hungry, people with cruelly deferred and unfulfilled wishes, desperate men who have nothing to lose but their lives and will lose nothing in losing them--humiliated and degraded nations who cannot get over their shame--political extreme against political extreme, fanatic against fanatic, idol against idol, and behind it all a world which bristles with weapons as never before, a world which feverishly arms to guarantee peace through arming, a world whose idol has become the word security--a world without sacrifice, full of mistrust and suspicion because past fears are still with it--a humanity which trembles at itself, a humanity which is not sure of itself and is ready at any time to lay violent hands on itself--how can one close one's eyes at the fact that the demons themselves have taken over the rule of the world, that it is the powers of darkness who have here made an awful conspiracy and could break out at any moment? --How could one think that these demons could be driven out, these powers annihilated with a bit of education in international understanding or with a bit of goodwill?

One could accuse such a statement, and many did, as being one of just abject cynicism and hopelessness, but not for a Christian, for he concludes that statement with

"Christ must become present to us in preaching and in the sacraments just as in being the crucified one he has made peace with God and with humanity. The crucified Christ is our peace. He alone exorcizes the idols and the demons. The world trembles only before the cross, not before us" 

This week we remember that cross, and that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend. I'm glad that God is love. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 23:1-12). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]Henry, M. (1996, c1991). Matthew Henry's commentary on the whole Bible : Complete and unabridged in one volume (Lk 23:1). Peabody: Hendrickson.