Good Friday Sermon at First United Methodist Church, Sweeny TX
47 While Jesus was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, came. With him was a large crowd carrying swords and clubs. They had been sent by the chief priests and elders of the people. 48 His betrayer had given them a sign: “Arrest the man I kiss.” 49 Just then he came to Jesus and said, “Hello, Rabbi.” Then he kissed him.
50 But Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came and grabbed Jesus and arrested him.
51 One of those with Jesus reached for his sword. Striking the high priest’s slave, he cut off his ear.
69 Meanwhile, Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant woman came and said to him, “You were also with Jesus the Galilean.”
70 But he denied it in front of all of them, saying, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
71 When he went over to the gate, another woman saw him and said to those who were there, “This man was with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.”
72 With a solemn pledge, he denied it again, saying, “I don’t know the man.”
73 A short time later those standing there came and said to Peter, “You must be one of them. The way you talk gives you away.”
74 Then he cursed and swore, “I don’t know the man!” At that very moment the rooster crowed. 75 Peter remembered Jesus’ words, “Before the rooster crows you will deny me three times.” And Peter went out and cried uncontrollably. (Matthew 6:47-51, 69-75 Common English Bible).
For many people, the lesson tonight is something they find troublesome. As I told you Sunday, at Elwood, my first appointment, we had a Bible study that had been a part of that congregation’s Christian education program for many years. They had begun reading in the first chapter of Genesis and would continue, studying two chapters a week, until they reached the end of Revelation. Then they would start over. I have no idea how many times they went through the Bible during those years. When I arrived they were studying Matthew 20. When I left, they were somewhere in Galatians.
I was really surprised a four weeks later when a few members of the study wanted to skip past chapters 26 and 27 and go straight to Matthew 28. They wanted to skip the crucifixion and go straight to the resurrection. I heard some say, words I had heard before and really heard after Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ. “I just hate what THEY did to Jesus.” I heard my grandmother say it. With nobody admitting their sins were just as much a part of what WE all did to Jesus. As we got to each of the other Gospels the same scene played itself out.
Since those days at Elwood, I have thought more about what they were saying. I am not sure what triggered the resolution in my mind. I did, however, come to realize that many of us came to realize many of us want to skip over the pain of the crucifixion. It does little to make us feel good. The resurrection, on the other hand, now there is an event of which we want to have a part. It’s an event where we can jump in and celebrate.
Though it was not a popular decision with some in the group, we didn’t skip over Matthew 26 and 27. After all, you cannot have the resurrection without first having the crucifixion. As we read Matthew 26, the discussion turned first to Judas and then later to Peter. The discussion led in the direction we all might imagine. “How could Judas betray Jesus? How could Peter deny Jesus? After all, Jesus loved them both so much. Jesus had taught them so much. Now, after all that they had been through together, these two, two of the most trusted disciples turned their backs on Jesus. How could they do it?
As the discussion continued I heard things like, “I wouldn’t have turned away from Jesus. I would have stood right there beside Him. They could crucify me right there with him, but I would never, ever, deny him.” Those were the kinds of comments made again and again at that night’s Bible study.
Funny, I believe Peter said almost those exact same words to Jesus only a short time before he denied ever having seen Jesus, much less knowing him. It is really easy for us to say we wouldn’t do the same putting us in the disciple’s place. It is easy for us to say what we would do if we were in the place of one of the martyrs of the early Church. It is a far different thing to live and experience Christian persecution. We live in a relatively free society. We can worship if we want, when we want, and even where we want. Some may pester us and nag us, they may question us about the existence of God in a world such as the one we live in. But when you get right down to it, living in the United States, we don’t really face much physical harm for worshipping God. We might take some emotional abuse, but our lives are not in any real danger.
The same isn’t true in other parts of the world. Nor has it been true in the long history of the Christian Church. Throughout the Church’s history there have been men and women who have lost their lives for the faith. Peter, who we often criticize for his actions in our lesson, tradition says was himself crucified for his faith. When we read the book of Acts we can read the story of Stephen who was stoned to death because of his faith in Christ. Others could be named right along with those heroes of the faith.
During times of persecution of the Christian Church has not been filled with just these martyrs alone. There are others who in some way or another, often for reasons we will never understand, have, at least for a time denied Christ. They have betrayed Christ.
There are two characters of note in Shusaku Endo’s novel producers turned into a movie a year or so ago, Silence. This powerful, gripping book is set in Japan in the sixteenth century. The book has two very different characters who are central to the story.
The first is Father Sebastian Rodrigues, a Catholic priest and missionary from Portugal. As the book opens we find a very committed priest who just learned his mentor, who was a missionary to Japan, has just denied the faith. Father Rodrigues wants to travel to Japan to search for Father Ferreira and to minister to Japanese Christians and witness to those who are not Christians.
After receiving permission from the Church to travel to Japan, Father Rodrigues and his companions go first to India and then to China. In China he meets another man, a Japanese man named Kichijiro, the second central character in the story. Kichijiro agrees to take them into Japan and introduce them to Japanese Christians. They make preparations for secretly entering Japan.
Once in Japan, Kichijiro is true to his word and leads them to the Christians. After some time, however, Kichijiro, who himself is a Christian, though he often denies it, he denies Christ, turns Father Rodrigues over to the authorities for 300 pieces of silver. He betrays Jesus by betraying Father Rodrigues. He tells Father Rodrigues he is a weak man and asks for Rodrigues’ forgiveness. Again and again Kichijiro denies faith in Christ to get himself out of a tough spot and again and again he comes back to Father Rodrigues, confessing and asking to be absolved of his sin.
For his part, because he is a priest, Father Rodrigues listens to Kichijiro. He listens but has little use for the man who betrayed him and betrayed Christ. Rodrigues sits in a Japanese jail.
He is treated well by his captors and he wonders how his teacher could have come to deny his faith when treated this way. But after some time has past he discovers the Japanese authorities are not going to torture him, at least not physically. They are, however torturing the Japanese Christians and have been since his capture.
Because of him, the very ones he came to serve are now being tortured. All he has to do is step on an image of Christ and the torture will stop. For Rodrigues, at least in his mind, it means he is being asked to deny Christ.
And that, is exactly what he does. There is a powerful scene where the Japanese officials, with Rodrigues’ teacher present, are trying to convince him to step on the image of Christ. The image seems to come alive and tells him, “Trample, trample.” That moment is a time of crystal clarity for Father Sebastian Rodrigues. Endo writes, “The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross. The priest placed his foot on the fumie (the image of Christ). Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crowed.”
Father Rodrigues realizes what God is saying to him at that moment is “That is why I came into the world, so people could step on me.” In that moment, by the standards of the world, by the standards of the Roman Catholic Church, by the standards of Sebastian Rodrigues, he denied Jesus. He lost his identity. But, in that moment he performed the hardest act of love and self-sacrifice that could ever be asked of him. He gave up his life as he knew it for the lives of the Japanese Christians.
Do you still think you would never deny Christ? Could you stand strong if you saw innocent people suffering and it would stop if you denied Christ? Could you stand by and watch your neighbor tortured or our parent or your child or your spouse?
It is easy to say we would never deny Christ. It is something much harder to live. But, I would further submit to you, while there is, without question, an allusion to Peter in the line, “somewhere off in the distance a cock crowed,” stepping on that image of Christ is the most Christ-like think Father Rodrigues could do. It was all the life he knew. In that moment he picked up his cross and followed He followed out of love of God and love of neighbor. He didn’t deny Christ. In that setting the only way he could have denied Christ was to not step on the image to save those Rodrigues was called to serve.
It would be hard for us to live out our words in such trying times. Why, it is even hard, better yet, it is impossible, for us to live out our claims of faithfulness here and now. We are Kichijiro. We are Judas. We are Peter. We deny Christ, we betray Christ when we fail to live in neighborly. We deny Christ and betray Christ when we fail to feed the hungry or cloth the naked or give the thirsty something to drink, etc. etc. etc. Friends, we deny Christ, we betray Christ every day by the things we say and the things we do. Didn’t Jesus tell those around him and through Matthew tell us, “For if you’ve done it to one of the least of these you’ve done it to me?” When we deny others the love of Christ, we are denying our love of Christ. When we fail to meet the needs of others, we are betraying Christ. And yet, sometimes we even manage to be Father Sebastian Rodrigues.
That is good news and there is more. Sebastian Rodrigues spent the rest of his life living in Japan in exile. He spends the rest of his life believing in his heart that he denied Christ. Still, Kichijiro comes back asking Rodrigues to hear his confession. Each time the priest tries to convince Kichijiro that he is no longer a priest. Kichijiro continues to come. It seems to me, without knowing it, Kichijiro, enables Rodrigues to continue his work as a priest, he allows Rodrigues to maintain some small amount of his identity. Kichijiro was, for Rodrigues, an instrument of God’s grace. And I think it safe to say, every time Kichijiro came back asking for forgiveness, God found a way to forgive too. After all, despite his denials of Christ, we know Peter still managed to find forgiveness and went on to lead the early Church. If God can forgive Peter, God can forgive Sebastian Rodrigues and Kichijiro too. I believe God could have even found a way to forgive Judas, had he asked.
And, if God can forgive them, God can forgive the likes of you and me as well. God will forgive us. Yes, we are just like Peter and Judas and Sebastian and Rodrigues and Kichijiro. Yes, we deny Christ and yes, we betray Christ. But also, just like Peter and Rodrigues and Kichijiro, we can find forgiveness through the grace of God.