Good Friday Sermon: WERE YOU THERE?

April 9, 2009

The Passion of Christ according to Luke



One of the features of last week’s G20 summit was the reluctance of some world leaders to get into the blame-game; while others felt it quite legitimate to point the finger at what’s being called “the Anglo-Saxon” approach to international finance—in other words, Britain and America’s light-touch regulatory system.  I heard President Obama say that while America had to take it’s share of the blame for the present crisis, it wasn’t America alone.  And anyway, what’s to be gained by going over old ground.  Better to look ahead.  That’s usually the attitude taken by those who know fine well most of the responsibility lies with them.



The old negro spiritual asks the questions: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? 


It’s asking us to recognize that there is a sense in which all of us were present at Calvary, all of us had a hand in our Lord’s crucifixion; even at a distance of 2000 years.  Whenever there’s a political crisis, and the opposition party is asked what they would do if they were in power, they’ll often say, We wouldn’t have got the country into this mess in the first place! 


It’s tempting to say the same about the crucifixion.  If I had been one of the disciples I wouldn’t have run away.  If I had been Peter I wouldn’t have denied knowing Jesus.  If I had been a member of the Sanhedrin I wouldn’t have voted for Jesus’ death.  If I had been Pilate I would have had the courage to let Jesus go free. 


Why?  What makes you think that?  What makes you think you’d be any different? 


We’ve been hearing Luke’s account of our Lord’s arrest and trial.  Let’s home in on some of the characters he mentions and how they behave.  I want to suggest that you are there too somewhere in among them all.  Indeed, perhaps there is something of us all reflected in each and every player in this most dramatic of stories.



First, the disciples.  Never the most discerning or sensitive of men, they reach a new low during the Last Supper.  Jesus is pouring out his heart to them; trying to prepare them for what’s about to happen.  (22:19):

This is my body given for you, says Jesus.

This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is poured out for you, he says.


We expect the disciples to be moved to tears; at the very least to be full of questions.  Instead we read, Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.  (22:24)


They’re like kids in the playground.  Why would this argument even arise?  It’s because they are expecting Jesus to establish a political kingdom and they are vying for position.  And not for the first time.  James and John had already got their mother to lobby Jesus for the best seats in the kingdom. 


We of course would never be so crass as to make a bid for power in the church.  No one here would ever claim that their ministry is superior to any other ministry.  But are we never tempted to think that without us the whole structure would come tumbling down?  Are there never times when we think that others should stand aside for us? 


Churches can be held to ransom by certain people who threaten to leave (and along with them their offerings) if they don’t get their own way.  Like the boy threatening to take his ball away if doesn’t get to be captain of the team.  It’s childish, it’s immature.


Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.  (Phil.2:3,4)


If all of us had that attitude then none need worry about being overlooked or side-lined. 


The disciples were there all right.  But pride and ambition blinded them to the significance of Calvary. 


Two disciples come into special focus, though for different reasons: Judas and Peter.


Judas the traitor, who betrays his friend for nothing more than money.  Who among us could identify with him?  Yet are there not times when we hesitate when the offering plate comes round?  In these times of economic austerity, is the Lord’s work to be cut-back too? 


And what about Peter, who, as predicted, denied knowing Jesus three times? 


Peter liked to think of himself as the Lord’s champion; the one who speaks up for Jesus; the one who draws his sword for Jesus.  The image Peter created for himself and the reality were miles apart.  At the heart of Peter’s failure was an inflated self-confidence; a confidence in his own ability to be a disciple come-what-may. 


It’s one of the greatest dangers in any ministry—the belief that “I can do it.” The attitude that I don’t need to prepare, I don’t need to pray; I’ve been doing this for years.  It’s fatal.  And it will lead to failure.  I can do all things, says Paul, but then he adds through him who strengthens me.  (Phil.4:13)



So much for the disciples.  What about the religious authorities?  Surely we’re on safer ground.  Surely nothing of them is reflected in us?


The question that interests them is Jesus’ identity (22:67):

If you are the Christ, they said, tell us.

But they aren’t asking out of genuine curiosity.  They want him to incriminate himself. 


Jesus refuses to go along with their charade:

If I tell you, you will not believe me and if I asked you, you would not answer. 

They’ve made up their minds already.


However, Jesus does make a more extraordinary claim; one that Pilate would never understand; but which was perfectly clear to the Jews:

But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.


That’s a reference to Dan.7:13,14 where one like a son of man approaches the Ancient of Days and is given authority, glory and sovereign power.  Moreover, all peoples, nations, and men of every language worshipped him. 


Jesus is claiming divinity for himself (v.70):

Are you then the Son of God? they ask.  Jesus replies, You are right in saying I am.


Here is one irony in a story crammed full of ironies.  The one on trial is judging his judges.  Their relationship with God depends on their relationship with Jesus.  By rejecting Jesus, they reject the God they claim to serve.


Isn’t it strange how often we stand in judgement over Jesus? 

We judge his teaching: did he really mean what he said?  Is it relevant for today? 

We judge his authority: does it apply to me? 


Every time we question Christ’s lordship we are in effect saying, “Who are you?  Who are you to tell me what to do?” 


Discipleship boils down to one question only: Who is Jesus?  If he is Lord then let him be Lord. 


The religious leaders were there when Jesus was crucified; they were there to see an end to the threat to their authority.



And then there was Pilate.  Anything for a quiet life.  Anything to prevent a riot.  

You don’t have to look far for “quiet life” Christians; don’t rock the boat believers. 


Nor do we need to look far for those who like Herod dally with Jesus out of curiosity; who think Jesus ought to dance to their tune.  As with Herod, Jesus remains silent, much to their chagrin.  So they declare Christ and Christianity too simple for them; it doesn’t resonate with their 21st century needs.



Let’s add to them the anonymous others.  The guards who mocked Jesus, the apathetic crowds who watched him on the way to the cross, the soldiers who were just doing their job.  All bear responsibility for Christ’s death, just like the ordinary men and women in Nazi Germany who became “Hitler’s willing executioners”. 


The picture Luke builds up suggests that no human being escapes some measure of blame.  It was sin, the sin of religious leaders and of cynical politicians; the sin of outright enemies and of weak friends; the sin of the named and the unnamed—theirs and ours—that nailed Jesus to the cross.  


Were you there when they crucified my Lord?  Yes I was. 



There was another present at the crucifixion; one who thought he had finally triumphed over Jesus.  Satan.


Satan dances and skips his way through this story, sometimes seen, sometimes unseen.  He enters Judas, enlisting his services. 

In 22:31 Jesus warns Peter that Satan has asked to sift you as wheat, in an echo of the story of Job.  For a brief moment he succeeded with Peter.


When Jesus is finally arrested he submits to his captors without a struggle commenting (22:53): But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.


Jesus could see who was really at work. 


I honestly believe that Satan thought he had triumphed.  Remember, Satan is not God’s equal.  He does not know the future any more than you or I.  He cannot have known that Christ’s death would be his undoing.  Like many a tyrant, the seeds of his downfall lay in his ambition. The last thing he expected was the empty tomb.


6. GOD

Which helps us to see that behind it all—behind the human sin and the devilish scheming—God is present.  The Living God is present at Calvary. 


From the very start of his Gospel Luke makes it clear that salvation comes from God.  Old Zecheriah sings (1:68):

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel because he has come and has redeemed his people.


Salvation is God’s conscious initiative, brought about through the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Jesus understood this.  He spoke of his death as a divine necessity:

The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.  (9:22). 


In warning Judas Jesus says (22:22):

The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him. 


The eternal God had decreed that through this historic event of the sacrifice of his Son the salvation of the world should be accomplished.  God the Father, who might seem to be absent at this darkest of hours, is in fact the orchestrator of the whole event, overseeing the implementation of his plan.


And therefore we must never consider our Lord Jesus an unfortunate victim, caught up in the cross fire of mankind’s greed, cowardice, and pride.  The Jesus we worship, the Jesus we remember this evening, is the obedient Son, willingly going to the cross for those whose sins put him there.



Were you there when they crucified my Lord?   It’s only when we admit that yes we were there; that yes, it was my sins that nailed him to the tree, that true spiritual healing can take place. 


For the Christian, coming to the Lord’s Table as we do tonight takes us back; back to the cross, back to the moment of truth, back to where the life of faith began. 


Once again we see our Saviour giving his body, his blood for us. 

Once again we hear the precious words, Father forgive. 


What about you?  You are there too.  What are you doing? 

Mocking?  Probably not. 

More likely just apathetic?  “Nothing to do with me.”


Friend, you can’t say that.  So what should you say?


Here’s we turn to our the last of the people who were present when they crucified our Lord: one of the others who was crucified that day. 


The criminal who speaks to Jesus displays a remarkable insight into what it means to have faith in him.  He says to his partner in crime:

We are punished justly for we are getting what our deeds deserve.  But his man has done nothing wrong.  (23:41)

And then he says to Jesus: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.


He admits his sin, that he deserves to be punished; he recognizes that Jesus is wholly different; that Jesus has done nothing wrong.  He acknowledges that Jesus is a king with a kingdom. 


What better night for confessing your sin to Christ; what better night for surrendering your life to him; what better night for entering the kingdom of God. 


And what better way to greet Easter Day, the Day of Resurrection. 










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