Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Martyrdom of the Holy Martyrs tells the story of Justin and four other Christians who were arrested in Rome for the crime of following Christ. Taken before the Roman prefect Rusticus, the account of their resistance and death matched a pattern repeated thousands of times in the early Church:

“RUSTICUS-’What kind of literature and discipline do you profess?

JUSTIN-’I have tried every kind of discipline and learning, but I have finally embraced the Christian discipline, how little soever esteemed by those who were led away by error and false opinions.’

RUSTICUS- ‘Wretch, art thou then taken with that discipline?’

JUSTIN-’Doubtless I am, because it affords me the comfort of being in the right path.’

RUSTICUS-’What are the tenets of the Christian religion?’

JUSTIN-’We Christians believe one God, Creator of all things visible and invisible; and we confess our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, foretold by the prophets, the Author and Preacher of salvation, and the Judge of mankind.” The prefect inquired in what place the Christians assembled. Justin replied, “Where they please, and where they can: God is not confined to a place: as he is invisible, and fills both heaven and earth, he is everywhere adored and glorified by the faithful.’

RUSTICUS-’Tell me where you assemble your disciples.’

JUSTIN-’I have lived till this time near the house of one called Martin, at the Timothin baths. I am come a second time to Rome, and am acquainted with no other place in the city. If any one came to me, I communicated to him the doctrine of truth.’

RUSTICUS-’You are then a Christian?

JUSTIN-’Yes, I am.’

Then the prefect addressed himself again to Justin in this manner: ‘Hear you, who are noted for your eloquence, and think you make profession of the right philosophy, if I cause you to be scourged from head to foot, do you think you shall go to heaven?’

Justin replied, “If I suffer what you mention, I hope to receive the reward which those have already received who hare observed the precepts of Jesus Christ.”

Rusticus said, “You imagine then that you shall go to heaven, and be there rewarded.”

The martyr answered, ‘I do not only imagine it, but I know it; and am so well assured of it, that I have no reason to make the least doubt of it.’

The prefect seeing it was to no purpose to argue, bade them go together and unanimously sacrifice to the gods, and told them that in case of refusal they should be tormented without mercy.

Justin replied, ‘there is nothing which we more earnestly desire than to endure torments for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; for this is what will promote our happiness, and give us confidence at his bar, where all men must appear to be judged.’ To this the rest assented, adding, ‘Do quickly what you are about. We are Christians, and will never sacrifice to idols.’”
“The Innocent Man” Mark 15:1-39
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Dear members of the jury:
I thank you for your kind attention this evening as we recall a case and conviction of quite some time ago. Please understand: We are not here to overturn the verdict. The verdict has been rendered by the Supreme Court Justice and cannot be overturned. There is no appeal for what happened that day. Even so, I call your attention the facts of the case to ask you this important question: Is this justice? Consider the evidence you have before you. Consider the case of the innocent Man.
On a Friday, the day before Passover, the Man named Jesus is executed. He has been accused of blasphemous offenses by the religious leaders of His nation: Namely, He claims to be the Son of God and has threatened to destroy the temple, rebuilding it in three days. To claim to be God is blasphemy, punishable by death. Besides these charges, all sorts of witnesses have made all sorts of accusations against Him; few agree with each other, but the statements have been introduced into the court record. However, He has not been condemned only by the religious authorities: The secular rulers have pronounced Him guilty as well. Both Herod and Pilate have heard His case, and both have approved of His execution.
Poll numbers indicate that the rulers have acted in agreement with the wishes of the people. When Pilate gives them the choice between this Man and a notorious murderer and troublemaker, they choose to have the known felon live in their neighborhood. Furthermore, as the soldiers follow their orders and carry out the execution, the crowd gathers once again, publicly protesting the life of Jesus, declaring that He deserves what’s coming to Him.
So far, it all looks quite damning for the Man. The religious leaders-the moral guardians of the people-declare the sentence to be just. The secular rulers hand down the death sentence. The people cheer the decision. Furthermore, not one witness stands to defend the Man who is condemned.
This is not all: Consider the Man Himself. When He is accused of all of these crimes, how does He defend Himself? He doesn’t. Like a lamb led to slaughter, He just stands there, silent, offering no rebuttal to the charges. In fact, the only time He speaks is to acknowledge that He is the King of the Jews. As far as the rest of the accusations go-some of them fantastic and obviously false, He doesn’t say a word. Maybe His silence damns Him as much as all the rest: When an innocent man is accused of all sorts of horrible things, he doesn’t just stand there and take it. He objects to preserve his name and reputation. He speaks to set the record straight. But not Jesus. Even when He’s on the cross, He speaks seven times; but not once does He protest His innocence.
You have the facts in evidence before you, and the verdict seems appropriate: He sure looks guilty. But don’t forget my question: Is this justice? I would propose that, before we do anything else, we consider those who want this Man put to death.
The chief priests, elders and scribes are the ones who first bring charges against Jesus; and given their position in society, that ought to count for something. But observe what else they do: They premeditate His murder: They plot to have Him arrested and killed. They arrange for false witnesses to testify against Him, and the witnesses are so bad that they can’t get their stories straight. If Jesus were truly guilty, why the need for false witnesses? The only charge that they can make stick is that the Man says He is the Son of God and the King of the Jews. Therefore, He is guilty of blasphemy…unless He is the Son of God and the King of the Jews. When they call for Jesus’ death, they have no proof of any guilt or wrongdoing on His part. He’s innocent, but they do it anyway. Is this justice?
Then, of course, there’s Pilate. As the local Roman ruler, it’s his responsibility to dispense justice. He knows Jesus is innocent. He knows that the chief priests are acting out of jealousy. He knows the right thing to do, and even tries to set Jesus free-three times! In the end, however, he abandons the law and acts to gratify the crowd. He releases the guilty Barabbas. Of Jesus he says, “I find no fault with this Man.” He declares Him faultless-innocent! After he declares Jesus not guilty, he sentences Him to die. Once again, note: Even as Pilate sentences Jesus to death, he declares that Jesus does not deserve to die. He knows Jesus is innocent, but he does it anyway. Is this justice?
There’s the crowd, of course: Popular opinion wants Jesus dead. Of course, popular opinion has been wrong before, and everyone ought to know the dangers of a mob mentality. When the crowd calls for Barabbas’ freedom, they do so because the chief priests are swaying popular opinion with their public relations campaign. When they mock Him at the cross, it’s the safe-and socially acceptable thing to do. And when they mock Him there, they mock Him for claiming to be the Christ. They make fun of Him for exactly who He is. Is that justice? Or is it just peer pressure?
Then there are the soldiers, simply following orders. But while “soldier” is an honorable vocation, soldiers must act honorably. Is He guilty? Doesn’t matter; they’ve got a job to do. Is that justice?
Is any of this justice? After looking at those who call for Jesus’ death, we have quite a list of sins: Those involved premeditate evil, lie and promote lying to get Him killed. They blackmail the judge and corrupt the justice system. They wish ill upon others and justify that they are only following orders. They fail to examine the facts, and just go along with what everybody else is saying. They give into cowardice and selfishness, caring more about pleasing the crowd than doing the right thing.
That’s hardly a list of virtues. Clearly, Jesus is put to death because He is the innocent Man. He is the only One who is not guilty. That’s why they want Him dead: Darkness can’t stand light. Evil can’t stand holiness. Sinful man wants the Son of God gone.
But there’s one more piece to the puzzle: If Jesus is so innocent, why doesn’t He speak? Why doesn’t He defend Himself? If everybody else is so guilty, and He’s the only one who isn’t, why does He stay so silent and take the blame?
Here’s the thing. Here’s the miraculous, paradoxical, wonderful Gospel of the cross: The innocent Man stays silent and takes the blame because He’s there to take the blame. There is no other reason for His Passion, His betrayal and suffering and death. He is innocent. Man is guilty. Man deserves death and condemnation for his sin; and there is no greater evidence of sin than to put the Son of God to death. But Jesus comes to be the perfect Sacrifice. He comes to be the Scapegoat, the substitute whipping boy. He isn’t guilty, but He takes the blame: Not just the blame and judgment of man. He takes the blame and accepts the judgment of God. He suffers for the sin and the guilt and the blame of the world; and at the cross, He prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Because He has taken the blame and suffered the judgment for the sins of the world, He prays that His Father would not blame and judge the world for its sin.
This is the salvation of the world: The Son of God takes the blame and dies the death of sinners so that sinners can live. The innocent Man dies so that the guilty might be saved. This is why you are forgiven. This is why you have life and the hope of heaven. Christ has been judged in your place. He has suffered your condemnation and died your death. That is why the Father now says that you are innocent.
Where you have rationalized or justified a sin, the Lord declares, “Sin is sin and merits God’s judgment. I don’t justify your sin; but I’ve died for it. And because I’ve died for your sin, I justify you.” That’s why you’re not guilty of your sin anymore-because Jesus says so.
So once again, I ask: Is the cross justice? Absolutely not. The Lord Jesus Christ suffered a great injustice at the hands of man when He was crucified. The cross isn’t justice for Jesus; but it is justification for you. Finally, it is not the hand of sinful man that smites the Savior; it is God the Father who strikes His Son, who chastises Him for your sin. This is your justification, why you now stand innocent before God: The Lord has taken your blame, and that verdict cannot be overturned. You are forgiven for all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen