A Sermon on John 18:1 – 19:42 for Good Friday; preached April 2, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” We have no king but the emperor.
The story we have just heard—the sacred story of Jesus’ passion, crucifixion, and death—this story marches on with nothing but compromise coursing through its veins. That’s right, compromise. It is the tainted blood of compromise that pulses through the heart of Jesus’ passion.
We are pretty ambivalent about the idea of compromise these days. On one hand, our political culture takes it out on politicians who are seen as compromising too much. How often these days does a candidate who is seen as too moderate get ousted in a primary by someone further to the extreme? The insistence on ideological stridency has led to grid-lock in Washington and polarization of the media. And it’s not only in Washington… even in my own local town government not too far from here, a sitting selectman recently got passed over by her party for re-election endorsement because she too often voted the same way as her colleagues from the other party.
On the other hand, though, we lament that same political gridlock. We get frustrated at leaders who are so tied to their positions that those positions take priority over progress. And even in personal life… in our marriages and partnerships, our families, our closest relationships each and every day… we know, like the hit single by Maroon 5 about 10 years ago, that “It’s not always rainbows and butterflies; It’s compromise that moves us along.”
But you know, there’s compromise, and then there’s compromise. There is the sort of compromise that does move us along, that seeks progress and strengthens relationships… and then there’s the sort of compromise that means forsaking what is dearest and deepest, forsaking what we know to be true, forsaking even our very selves. There’s compromise, and then there’s compromise.
“You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” the woman asks good ol’ Peter. Peter, one of Jesus’ very first disciples, brought to Jesus by his own brother Andrew in the very first days, back when they were still following John the Baptist. Peter, the one who when Jesus asks the twelve if they want to go away, asks, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter, the one who argued about whether Jesus should wash his feet. Peter, the one who protested in that upper room, asking, “Lord, why can I not follow you now?” and insisting, “I will lay down my life for you.”
Peter, good ol’ Peter. “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” Twice, of course, he denies it. A third time he denies even having been in the garden with Jesus. Compromise. In the heat of the moment, Peter compromises. He backs away from the path he’s spent the better part of three years of his life on. He backs away from the man he’s followed and confessed as Lord. He compromises all he has been and all he might be.
Inside the walls of the headquarters, Pilate compromised too. Pilate was supposed to be, of course, the ruler of the land, the representative and embodiment of Caesar, the great and mighty Roman Emperor. And yet this so-called ruler finds himself shuttling back and forth, in and out, unable to control or command or even coerce anything other than a farce among all these players. Moreover, as the story goes, in the end Pilate compromises what he knows to be true, forsakes what he believes to be true: “I find no case against him. … Take him yourselves and crucify him. I find no case against him.” But nevertheless, “he handed him over … to be crucified.” And in the process, Pilate compromises who and what he is.
Perhaps most pointedly, though, is the compromise made by the chief priests, the compromise with which I began: “We have no king but the emperor.” Really? No king but the emperor? What ever happened to the hopes for a king of the people’s own, a new king in the line of David? What ever happened simply to the voice of your own people’s struggles under the Romans, under the rule of that emperor that you now say is your only king? And besides all that, whatever happened to that core confession of your faith, chief priests, the confession that the Lord is king…? Those chief priests would in just a matter of hours sit at the Passover feast and share together in a liturgy that makes that confession, that God the Lord was their only king. But now, in the face of this moment, compromise. “We have no king but the emperor.” In seeking to ally themselves with the empire, with the forces of law and order, in order to get Jesus put down, the leaders of religion forsake who they are, and forsake even God.
The stories of compromise that pulse through the heart of the passion story, they are our stories, too, of course. Shame and fear lead us to deny who we most truly are and what we’re most truly about. Anxiety and getting caught up in the flow of things lead us to compromise on what we know to be true. Ambition, expediency, lack of integrity, and more lead us to forsake our God and even ourselves.
But I’m not here tonight to guilt you about that. I’m not here to admonish us all to somehow do better, to be more self-assured, to compromise less. I’m not here, as we stand in the shadow of the cross, to say “stop standing there looking and do something.”
No, in fact… quite the opposite. Stop trying to do something, and stand there and look. Look here at the cross and see the one person in the passion story who did not compromise: Jesus Christ. Look at the cross and see God, who does not compromise, even in the face of our failure.
Here in the cross, we see the very God who would not compromise on showing us just how much we are loved. For indeed, Jesus did not die on the cross in order to convince God to love us, but rather Jesus died on the cross to convince us that we are loved. Here in the cross, we see the steadfast determination of Jesus to walk the path of non-violent resistance, showing us a different possibility for being human at our fullest. Here in the cross, we see One who does not give up the commitment to walk with us through the valleys of the shadow of death, the One who joins with us in saying “hands up, don’t shoot” and “I can’t breathe” and “why, O God, why?” and “how can I go on?” Here in the cross, we see the God who would not and does not forsake us, even when sticking with us means enduring the worst of what we would throw at God. Here in the cross, we see the uncompromised glory of the God revealed in Jesus Christ, the God whose greatest power is revealed in midst of the greatest weakness, the God whose brightest light shines in the midst of the darkest shadows, the God whose greatest love for us is offered right at the moment we dish out our greatest hate for God.
“A cross and nails are not always necessary,” the great preacher Barbara Brown Taylor once observed. “There are a thousand ways to kill him… some of them as obvious as choosing where you will stand when the showdown between the weak and the strong comes along… others of them as subtle as keeping your mouth shut when someone asks you if you know him.” But no matter the way, no matter the compromises you and I have made and do make and will still make, tonight we see the stark truth of Jesus Christ, the one whose great love for us is absolutely uncompromising, even to the end.
Behold, the life-giving cross
on which hung the Savior of the whole world.
O come, let us worship him.
 I attribute this articulation / turn-of-phrase to Michael Piazza, UCC pastor now serving Virginia-Highland Church, Atlanta, GA, and formerly of the Cathedral of Hope, Dallas, TX. Whether it originates with him or is drawn from another source, I cannot attest.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Perfect Mirror”, The Christian Century, 18-25 March 1998, 283; accessed 3 April 2015 at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=642.