This is my meditation for this year’s Easter Friday service. The readings are John 18:12-17 (in which Jesus is arrested and taken to Annas and Caiaphas, and Peter follows them to the High Priest’s courtyard but denies being Jesus’ disciple) and Amos 5:18-24 (in which the prophet tells the Israelites their worship is an abomination in the absence of justice and righteousness).
It seems like only yesterday that we were celebrating Christmas. The angels sang “glory to God and peace to men”, the shepherds paid their respects, the magicians brought their gifts. It was a time of hope and joy, anything seemed possible, God was with us and all would be well.
Yet already today is Easter Friday, when all the darkness and violence of the world is revealed and we know ourselves to be powerless against it. It is a day of mourning and weeping, a day of anger and frustration, a day of terror, a day of failure. Soon it will be Easter Sunday and hope will be reborn, but not yet, not today. Today is the day for looking evil in the face and seeing it for what it is.
The day of Jesus and Caiaphas is like the day of Amos, and it is like our own day. The economy is booming, wealth is being created at a rapid rate. But this wealth flows into the hands of a few who live in opulent splendour while many are not sure if they will eat tomorrow. Did you know that in the past 20 years the global economy has grown by 200%? Yet over a billion people, one in five of the earth’s population, still live on less than a dollar a day.
Revolution is in the air. It makes us nervous and insecure. The Jewish authorities that Caiaphas headed felt the same, jealously guarding their privileges in a dangerous world. They kept up the daily sacrifices, the festivals, the singing in the temple even as they raked in the spoils of empire, just like their predecessors in Amos’s day. As Amos says, the day of the Lord will not be light for Caiaphas and his supporters, it will be pitch dark.
They saw Jesus as a threat. John 11 tells us that they called an urgent meeting.
‘What are we accomplishing?’ they asked. ‘Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.’
Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’
He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation…
Don’t we all fear the loss of our nation? Don’t we fear that the vast army of the poor and oppressed will come and sweep away our culture and our way of life and replace it with their own? So we spend billions fighting wars on foreign soil and propping up oppressive dictators in the hope that it will keep the danger in check and buy us peace. Then when people flee these wars and these dictatorships and find their way to our shores we turn them away and imprison them on Nauru or Manus or in Darwin or right here at Pinkenba, and if anyone questions the justice of this we are told “it is essential that we imprison these people, or send them back, otherwise many more will come and we will lose control of our borders" - lose control of our nation.
It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish. It is better for you that we sacrifice the few for the many. You can be certain that Caiaphas was not offering to sacrifice himself for the sake of the people. He was the High Priest, he was much too important. Much better to sacrifice this insignificant, defenceless Galilean miracle worker. Better to sacrifice these poor defenceless young men in their leaky boats, these unarmed women and children. If we get them out of sight quickly, perhaps we will be able to carry on as if nothing serious has happened, and hope something else will turn up, that the problem will somehow solve itself without us having to make sacrifices of our own.
It’s Easter Friday. The evil of the world is on display.
But we in the church can’t afford to be smug and self-righteous, because day after day in the Royal Commission we have been hearing versions of the same story. Someone in a position of authority in the church – a priest, a youth leader, a teacher, a counsellor – has abused an innocent child. Then when that child has finally got up the courage to report the abuse to the man in charge, the principal or the bishop, the man in charge doesn’t believe them, or even blames them for the abuse or accuses them of defaming a good man. Then finally perhaps he is convinced that it was true after all, so he offers them a small amount of money from a compensation fund on condition that they sign a waiver. He pays them to go away.
So the institution survives, and we are still here in our beautiful churches and cathedrals celebrating communion and playing our glorious music and singing our hymns. But you know who is no longer here? That abused child won’t, or can’t, ever walk through that door again because they have been so traumatised, so betrayed.
I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps, or your organs, or your guitars.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
What if the river of justice, or compensation, should wash away our beautiful buildings and we should find ourselves stranded and homeless, worshiping in a school hall, or a park, or someone’s home, but that abused child could join us there in fellowship? I somehow think the exchange would be worth it.
Jesus has a different way. In Mark 10, as the disciples jostled for power and prestige in the coming kingdom, he called a meeting and told them this.
‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’
These are not empty words. Jesus is about to show them just how literally he means them. Jesus’ death means more than just an easy way for us to enter heaven. It’s a pattern for all of us who claim to be his followers. He asks us to be prepared to serve as he served, even to the point of death.
Peter knows it. He was there when Jesus spoke those words. So he follows Jesus after his arrest, right up to the door of the High Priest’s courtyard, right inside the door to where the arresting party is holding Jesus. He is almost there, almost ready to join him.
The serving girl even identifies him:
You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too are you?
But at the last moment his courage fails him and he pulls back from the brink.
I am not.
I am not.
I tell you, I don’t know the man!
I am like Peter. I see the evil of the world all too clearly. I have read Jesus' words many times. I know how far I should be prepared to go to serve those who are entitled to my service, to resist the evil that is so clearly revealed on this Easter Friday. I walk to the edge, I look at what must be done, but I pull back. My courage fails me, I am weak and afraid. Often I feel a physical sickness in my stomach at the evil of the world, my own powerlessness to change it, my own complicity in it.
It is Easter Friday. All the darkness and violence of the world is made plain and we know ourselves to be powerless against it. It is a day of mourning and weeping, a day of anger and frustration, a day of terror.
Don’t ever give in to despair.
In two days it will be Easter Sunday and hope will be reborn.