A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Matthew 27:11-26 on Sunday 8 March 2020
Do you know what’s wrong with you? Do you know what your problem is? Well, according to Buddhist teaching your problem is that you suffer. We all suffer. We can’t avoid it. When we are born, we cry. When we are sick, we are miserable. When we are apart from people we love and when we are with people we don’t like, and when we don’t get what we want we suffer.
According to Buddhist teaching, we suffer because of our greed and ignorance. For example, once people get a taste for chocolate, they want more. They can’t get enough. When they can’t have it, they get upset. Although too much gives them a stomach-ache, they still want more. And even if they get all the chocolate they want, they just want something else. Because not even chocolate can fill the hole inside us all. We suffer because we are so greedy and the things we want most cause us the most suffering. We want to be rich. We want to be successful. We want to be young forever. And when we can’t have what we want, we suffer. And getting what we want is never enough.
We suffer because we are greedy. And ignorance makes our suffering worse. For example, one of the most important things that we don’t know is that all these things we want are only temporary or even harmful. We grasp for and cling hard to things that will one day disappear and were never really satisfying. Not knowing that sets us up for crushing disappointment.
According to Buddhist teaching we also don’t realise that we deserve everything we suffer. This is the law of karma, the law of cause and effect. When we do something wrong it will ultimately come back to bite us. So that, according to karma, nothing ever happens to us unless we deserve it. We receive exactly what we earn, whether it is good or bad. If something bad happens to us, if we get sick, if we have an accident, if we are born blind or poor, it is because we have done something wrong. We might not know what it is. We might not even remember it because it was in a previous life. But we deserve what we get.
That’s bad news because it means that avoiding suffering will never work. Avoiding suffering will only delay it temporarily. Eventually it will always find you. If not in this life then the next. So to stop the suffering we have to stop wanting the temporary things in life and not be so disappointed when we lose them. We have to become detached from all the good things in life and do as little harm as possible to others, so we don’t end up deserving more suffering. And we have to grin and bear the suffering that comes our way. Avoiding it will only put it off until later.
Unfortunately, the experience of Jesus contradicts these teachings of Buddhism. We’ve been meandering our way through the Apostles’ Creed over the last few weeks. Today we arrive at the seventh article of the creed. He suffered under Pontius Pilate. This simple phrase achieves two things. Firstly, it anchors the gospel in history. Christianity is not a philosophy. It’s not just a way of looking at the world in a different way. It’s also not just a collection of myths and legends, of stories that happened once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away. Stories that make us feel better but aren’t true. No, the central truths of Christianity, on which the church either stands or falls, concern real events in real places in history.
Pontius Pilate, for example, is not an evil villain with a black cape and twirly moustache. He was a real person. He was governor of the troublesome Roman province of Judea between 26 and 36 AD. An inscription dug up in Israel confirms him as a real live person. His posting to Judea was no Mediterranean holiday. Judea would have tried the patience of Gandhi. The people there didn’t want to be part of the Roman empire and they were never going to happy until they saw the back of the last Roman. It was always going to be hard for Pilate to keep the peace and what made it worse was that he wasn’t really interested in doing that.
Pilate was not a diplomat. Instead, he was a bully. He loved nothing better than to stir the pot of the religious feelings of the Jewish people. When he decided that Jerusalem needed a new aqueduct for the water supply, Pilate had no trouble getting the money for it. He just took it from the offerings given to the Jewish temple. Just like that. Just because he could do it and get away with it. It didn’t matter if it caused a riot, because Pilate had his soldiers to back him up.
A couple of years later, the Jewish religious leaders brought him Jesus of Nazareth. Now Pilate wouldn’t have blinked twice at executing a man he thought was a real threat. He would have put a whole village to the torch if he thought it would advance his career. But he could see that Jesus was no threat. He was just some story teller from Galilee. Add to that Mrs Pilate had been very clear in her message to him. “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man.”
It was all adding up for Pilate. His instincts told him to let Jesus go. His missus was begging him to let Jesus go. He could almost imagine the looks on those pious old Jewish priest when Jesus walked free of their trap. He should do it. He really, really wanted to do it.
But like every bully, Pilate was a coward at heart. And the priests stirred up the crowd against him. “Take him away, take him away, crucify him,” they screamed like a mob of soccer hooligans. In the end it was easier for one man to die instead of the whole crowd. Pilate washed his hands. “This is not my fault,” he said and gave the order for Jesus to suffer.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate. Firstly, it anchors the story of Jesus in history. The gospel is not something some wise old man thought up. It’s about what real people did. Something that happened in a real place at a real time.
The second thing it does, of course, is to confirm that the suffering of Jesus was real. The lashings with the barbed whips were real. The forced march to the place of execution, carrying the cross beam – it was real. The nails driven into his wrists and feet – all according to Roman law and custom. The death reserved for runaway slaves and bandits and rebels – all real. None of it faked. No horror was spared the one who claimed to be the son of God. As the creed says, he was crucified, dead, and was buried.
And perhaps the worst thing, the greatest indignity, maybe the one thing that you wouldn’t even imagine, but the fate worse than death, even such a painful death, was the shame. Not just failure. Nor the mocking. But the curse of God. “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree,” thunders the law of God. And so if you believe in karma, if you believe in the law of cause and effect, if you believe that every good deed has its just reward, or that as ye sow so shall ye reap, it’s no wonder that it made people feel at the time that Jesus, a man who suffered like that, maybe deserved it.
It also explains why, over the centuries, well-meaning people have tried to spare Jesus the pain and suffering of the cross. It didn’t really happen, some have said. He was only faking it. The heaven born son of God would never have been put through something like that. It was an illusion. He only fainted. It only happened to someone who looked like him. That’s what the teachers of Islam say. The great prophet Jesus would never have suffered like that. It was really Judas on the cross. Jesus went straight to heaven, do not pass the cross, do not collect pain and suffering. Against which the church has fought to affirm with all its might, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.”
For the cross that horrifies so many people, that instrument of pain and shame and such obvious evil, actually stands as the decisive moment, the crucial fact, the central truth of the gospel. That Jesus died for us.
I mean for what crime did he hang on the cross? Did he kill anyone? Did he rob or steal? Did he actually plan a rebellion? Did he run a red light? Did he speed through a school zone? Was he double parked outside the post office? Did he put his feet up on the seat on the train? Did he smoke in a public building? Did he talk too loudly on his mobile phone in a restaurant? Did he send an offensive tweet? What was his crime? What evil did he do that the law of karma would find him deserving of crucifixion? What great sin did he commit to receive the curse of God?
The good news of Jesus Christ says that the sin was ours. For Jesus did not come to preach the law of karma, cause and effect, what you do is what you will get. Instead he came to preach the law of grace. Love your enemies, said Jesus, and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be the children of God. For he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For the Father of Jesus is a God of grace. He showers his blessings on the wicked and undeserving, and in the cross of his Son he provides his greatest gift of grace, salvation, redemption, forgiveness, life, joy, peace, love, through the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ. He suffered under Pontius Pilate.
It contradicts the teaching of the Buddha and in more ways than one. For you can avoid doing all the harm you can, you can learn not to cling too hard to the temporary things of life, and you will still suffer. For as Jesus said,
A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.
His suffering means that our hopes to avoid suffering are just illusions. Fantasies that will never come true. But by sharing our sufferings he also redeems our suffering. And in his cross Jesus has left us an example to follow. As it is written in 1 Peter chapter 2.
If you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate. When he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
It reminds us that the cross of Jesus is not just the instrument of our salvation, but it also shapes the life we live in following Jesus. For we follow the way of the cross. As Jesus said,
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
The law of karma teaches us that we deserve what we get and that we reap what we sow. But the law of grace reminds us that the Lord makes the sun to shine on the good and the bad and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. Following Jesus is not about just giving up our desires and putting up with our suffering. It’s not about letting go of our passions. It’s about remembering that Jesus was a passionate man who lived his life and gave his life in order to bring healing and justice and reconciliation. Following him is about being passionate people too, so that through the Spirit we love what Jesus loved and we want what he gave his life for. It’s about not letting evil consume us with a thirst for revenge, but that we consume evil with good. It’s about being prepared to suffer for Jesus even if we don’t deserve it. It’s about living to fight for justice and to bring healing to those who suffer. And it’s about striving for reconciliation, actually forgiving when our enemies say sorry and mean it too. Because the Lord who suffered under Pontius Pilate for you has left you an example to follow- the way of the cross. To give your life for him who gave his life for you.