Monday, March 29, 2010

Sermon on Luke 23, for Palm Sunday. "Presumed Innocent!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Our sermon text is Luke 23, the narrative of Jesus’ passion, but I want to re-read one section from verse 39-43:

39One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

This scene of Jesus’ crucifixion, where two criminals hung together with Jesus, are discussing His punishment and guilt or innocence, reminds me of a scene from a movie where an innocent man goes to prison for a crime that he didn’t commit. Though he had at one point the motive and intention to do it. When he arrives in prison, one inmate asks what crime he committed to get locked up like this. He professes his innocence, to which the inmates respond in a chorus of laughter. One by one, each of the inmates chime in that they too are innocent—in fact everyone in the prison is innocent! They all jokingly supply the excuses for why they got locked up. The inmate who first asked the question confesses wryly that he’s the only guilty one in the whole prison. The prisoners facetiously presumed they were innocent, while of course all of them were guilty. And they all presumed the guilt of their new inmate.

In such a setting as a prison, it’d be natural to presume the guilt of those inside. In the setting of a government execution, that was considered the worst penalty assigned for crimes in the Roman empire, it would’ve been natural for all the onlookers to presume the guilt of the condemned—those who hung on the crosses. At the crucifixion of Jesus there was a strange mix of perceptions of innocence or guilt. At first, both criminals crucified with Jesus mocked and ridiculed Him (Matt. 27:44). As the hours wore on, one of those who first thought Jesus was guilty began to believe in Jesus’ innocence. The second thief recognized that a terrible injustice was being done to an innocent man. He finally rebuked the first, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” Strange that in this scene of capital punishment, where it was natural to presume guilt, he identified Jesus innocence.

But he wasn’t the only one. Pontius Pilate, the governor and the one who finally permitted the verdict of death to fall on Jesus, also said three times that Jesus was innocent. He found no guilt in Jesus—none of the charges made against Him had any basis, nor did Jesus deserve death. Pontius Pilate said with his own mouth that this was an innocent man, and asked that they prove what evil Jesus had done. He saw the injustice of what he was doing, and yet the pressure of the people caused him to crumble. First he tried to escape the blame for such an obvious injustice by passing the responsibility off to Herod’s jurisdiction. We’re all familiar with trying to pass the buck when we don’t want to face a difficult decision. But even Herod regarded Jesus as innocent, or at least harmless, as he sent Jesus back to Pilate, after mocking and ridiculing Him. Finally Pilate tried to maintain his innocence by washing his hands of the matter, trying to presume his own innocence, while this was anything but the truth.

Even the crowds had no answer to Pilate, when he weakly pleaded for them to show what guilt or evil Jesus had done to deserve death. Instead they just shouted and shouted for His crucifixion, and mob rules won the day. Their insistent cries overpowered Pilate’s weak integrity and caved his will to their criminal demands. Others too recognized Jesus’ innocence—crowds of men and women following Jesus, mourning this injustice. The centurion who stood watch over Jesus’ death also professed Jesus’ innocence. He saw all that had taken place, how Jesus forgave His persecutors, how He remained silent in the face of such mockery, and how the sky turned dark at midday while He hung on the cross for the final three hours of His life. Seeing all this, the centurion praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” The crowds who saw the spectacle also ran home, beating their breasts. Only then did some begin to understand the great evil that had been done in condemning this innocent man.

Finally, even one or two of the members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council that had decreed Jesus to be worthy of death—even these recognized Jesus’ innocence. Joseph of Arimathea, did not consent to their decision, and he boldly took responsibility to give Jesus an honorable burial in his own unused tomb. Surrounded by people who saw His innocence, Jesus nevertheless died a criminal’s death, while false accusers presumed their own innocence, and proclaimed His guilt. Some like Pilate and Herod, knew his innocence, but permitted the injustice. Others knew his innocence only through witnessing His death and the miraculous events that surrounded it. People were divided for and against Jesus’ innocence. People were divided between presuming their own innocence, and acknowledging their own guilt.

We can fall into the same traps. We can become like those who presumed their own innocence of the matter, and looked at Jesus in judgment. After all, don’t we live in a society where you are presumed innocent until proven guilty? How often do we live like those inmates in the movie I described, all professing our own innocence? In countless situations we presume our own innocence. We get into an argument with someone, and all our effort is spent trying to prove our own innocence instead of working toward a solution or seeing the other side of things. Pridefully presuming our own innocence, we fail to admit our own mistakes and misunderstandings. Often the blame is shared. Yet when we’re confronted with some sin we’ve committed, we cling to the act or behavior, and try to defend it by rationalizations or excuses. We find other people who seem worse than us, and so justify our behavior. But aren’t we just living in denial? And what will that gain us?

In human relationships, from situation to situation, it may be that we are guilty of certain things and innocent of others. But on a much deeper level, considering the total of all our thoughts, words, and actions, we are all guilty—totally guilty before our God. So will we presume our own innocence before God, while the innocent Son of God hangs condemned on the cross? The 2nd thief provides a correction to our mistaken behaviors and words, and our presumption of innocence. His words call us to recognize the just condemnation of our sins. “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” While we do not hang on a cross next to Jesus, the just penalty for our sins is death, no matter what we try to do to deny it. We spend time trying to prove ourselves innocent before God when we’re not. And here the innocent substitute for our sins is condemned as guilty...taking our 'rap.'

So first we need to admit our sins, as that thief did, and to associate ourselves with Jesus. When the disciple Peter was accused of being an associate of Jesus, he wanted to disavow his connection the innocent Jesus, to clear himself. In fact the exact opposite was needed. To clear ourselves, to actually have true innocence, that stands not just before other human beings, but especially before God—we have to attach ourselves to Christ Jesus. When that thief, who justly deserved his present and eternal punishment, confessed his sin and asked: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”—he was immediately granted forgiveness of all his sins, and Jesus gladly responded: “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Instantly his fate changed from eternal death to eternal life. While others were greedily casting lots for Jesus’ clothing, this thief cast his lot in with Jesus, and reaped eternal rewards from the death that Jesus was suffering before his eyes.
If we wish to be innocent, we must forgo any claims of our own innocence, and hold tightly to the innocence of Jesus, as the Word sets Him before our eyes, crucified. We’ll doubtless have to swallow our pride and give up the rationalizations and excuses for sin, and admit our guilt. No other innocence measures up or matters. Only the innocence of Jesus will count for our salvation—and it’s full and complete. Covering every sin, Jesus’ innocence alone grants us entrance into paradise.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. Who among the onlookers and participants in Jesus’ crucifixion identified His innocence? What helped each of them to realize this? What discussion transpired between the two thieves? How did the attitude of the second change as the crucifixion wore on?

2. How did Pontius Pilate acknowledge Jesus innocence? What did he do to try to maintain his own innocence and shirk responsibility? What caused him to give in to injustice? When have we seen injustice but taken no action? What are some concrete ways we can take action against injustice?

3. What lead the centurion and the crowds to recognize Jesus’ innocence? How were people divided around Jesus?

4. We often presume our own innocence when confronted with our sins, in arguments and otherwise. Can you think of some examples? How does this help or hinder relationships?

5. How does the 2nd thief’s statements from the cross correct our tendency to presume our innocence before God? Who is really guilty? Who is really innocent? What is our just reward?

6. How is our fate changed if we cast our lot in with Jesus? How does He grant us His innocence?

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