Good Friday Sermon: Obstacles Along the Pilgrim’s Road

April 3rd, 2015

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Kate spoke last night about flowers springing up around the pilgrim’s feet. Tonight there are no flowers. Tonight is the night when the opponents to pilgrimage appear.

Judas is the most obvious example. But there are others. There is the High Priest, Caiaphas, who Jesus had never met until tonight. And there is his friend, Peter. Opponents to pilgrimage appear, as friends and foes and strangers. And this makes life hard, and sometimes painful. But opponents to pilgrimage can also be blessings, for their opposition is often necessary for moving us along the pilgrim’s way. We meet opponents to our pilgrimage, just as Jesus did. And they either focus us on God or distract us from God. It is our choice. And if they focus us on God, then they are to be thanked and even blessed. And though they do not know what they do, what they have done has been redeemed by God. So consider that tonight as we consider opponents to pilgrimage.

But also consider this, that though we are pilgrims, we can also be opponents to pilgrimage. We can be friend or foe or stranger that stand in the pilgrim’s way. Tonight we will look at the opponents to pilgrimage that Jesus encountered: Peter, Judas, and Caiaphas.

We begin with Peter. He was Jesus’ friend. For Peter, Jesus was the Messiah crafted from the Jewish model of David as ruler and king. The Messiah was to unite the Jewish people, to scatter the occupiers, particularly Rome, and to sit upon the throne of Zion. The Messiah was also to be a faithful servant of God. These were the expectations of the Messiah, and Peter knew that Jesus was capable of this. He had the skills, the smarts, the charisma, the faithfulness. When Jesus asked, “Who do people say that I am?” “You are the Messiah,” Peter replied. They were close friends. And yet, as they left Caesarea Philippi, and Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, he shared with his disciples that he would die in that city. Peter pulled him aside, “No, Master, that is not the trajectory of a Messiah.” And Jesus said to his close friend, “Get behind me Satan.”

The pilgrim path for Jesus was different than Peter’s expectation. It was not about accomplishment or achievement or change. It was about God, and relationship with God, and the kingdom where God reigns. There was no final destination, no throne, no legacy, no monarchy. The goal of the pilgrim is never toward achievement. The pilgrim’s path is toward relationship with God, and then deeper relationship with God, and then deeper relationship with God still. Peter was an opponent to Jesus’ pilgrimage because he missed the point. He was a friend who sought what he thought was best for Jesus. And he was wrong. Peter contextualized Jesus’s relationship in the world, rather than his life with God. And yet, without Peter there would have been no foil, no faithful friend who cared so deeply and yet was so profoundly misguided.

Maybe we have a friend like that. Maybe we have been that friend? How often are we opponents to someone’s pilgrimage? How often does our view of someone else’s life inhibit their journey toward God?

And how often are those who love us opponents to our pilgrimage? How often, I wonder? An important part of pilgrimage is seeing the unwitting obstructionist, and also seeing ourselves as the unwitting obstructionist. Friends can be opponents to pilgrimage and we can be friends.

There are also foes to pilgrimage, bad guys. Judas was a bad guy. He betrayed Jesus. There is often a betrayer on the pilgrim’s way who seeks to derail our relationship with God, often under the guise of a greater good. That is the lie. Judas was a lair.

On the night that Judas betrayed Jesus he came to the garden of Gethsemane with soldiers. They took hold of Jesus, and dragged him away, and yet this did not derail his pilgrimage. Quite the contrary, it moved him forward. The pilgrim’s path runs toward providence. Everything can be useful for divine purpose. What seems like bumps along the way are really bumpers, like rails used at the bowling alley to keep the child’s ball from going into the gutter. Bumps can be bumpers even when they don’t seem that way, they can keep the pilgrim moving toward deeper relationship with God.

The foe who opposes pilgrimage has his agenda. Judas adopted the pretense of the High Priest who said, “It is better for one man to die than for the whole nation to be destroyed.” (John 11:50 & 18:14) Judas, like Peter, envisioned a Messiah who would conquer Rome. Yet unlike Peter, Judas believed that if Jesus was not that man, then it was better he die and make room for the real Messiah, rather than to stirred the ire of Rome and have the rebellion crushed before it got off the ground. And so, Jesus was expendable for the greater good, in the mind of Judas, the foe.
And I wonder who are your foes that look beyond you to a greater good? Who are you a foe to? Who do you seek to stifle for a greater good? Maybe no one, but that’s unlikely. Consider the question, maybe it is a question to bring to Confession today on Good Friday.

Finally, the pilgrim meets the stranger. Caiaphas was a stranger to Jesus. They had never met until that night the High Priest questioned Jesus about his teaching. Jesus replied, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have no secrets. Ask those who heard, they will tell you.” A policeman slugged Jesus in the mouth. Here is the tension. The High Priest was looking for complexity and secret knowledge, and Jesus’ message was one of clarity and simplicity. The Kingdom of God is here; it is at hand; it has arrived; and it is accessible to everyone.

The High Priest lived in a fortress. His residence was in the halls of power, serpentine, with many doors, and many keys. The complexity and obfuscation was the power. Few knew the way. To the mind of the High Priest Jesus must have been complex, after all he was clearly powerful. So he questioned Jesus. “Tell me about your systems,” he asked. “Tell me how things really work with your disciples?” Jesus was clearly smart, so the High Priest wanted to know the teaching behind the teaching. He wanted Jesus “to let him in on what was really going on.” Had Jesus, the High Priest, would have set him free, and more than that, he would have invited Jesus into the club. Jesus would have been given the keys to the many secret doors in the serpentine halls of power.

But Jesus couldn’t tell any secrets, because there were none. The pilgrim has nothing to hide. There is no hidden power in the kingdom of God, only the power of God itself. It is all pretty simple, and this simple message can offend the very smart and politically adroit. This simple message of the Kingdom is a message that includes everyone. There are no insiders or outsiders, there are no strangers. Caiaphas was included, just like everyone else, and this offended him.

And I wonder who are strangers that you meet, and why do you consider them strangers? What secret knowledge do you hold and not share? What halls of power do you walk? What serpentine corridors do you wander? What keys do you hold? What power do you consider too important to give away?

On Good Friday we meet Jesus in the middle of his pilgrimage. And along the way we meet the friends, and foes, and strangers that he meets. We watch him walk by them, past friends, past foes, past strangers always staying on the pilgrim’s path, always moving toward God.

Tonight we remember we are pilgrims as well. We remember we sit next to pilgrims as well. And we wonder who is Peter to me? Who is Judas to me? Who is Caiaphas to me? What opponents do I encounter on my pilgrim’s journey? What opponents do you encounter on your pilgrims journey? How do we acknowledge them? How do we thank them? How do we bless them? And always, how do we forgive them for they know not what they are doing?

And I wonder, on this Good Friday:

For whom are you Peter? For whom are you Judas? For whom are you Caiaphas? We don’t want to be these people. We want to be super supportive. And yet, we are these people even when we don’t know it. Even when we think we are being super supportive sometimes we are really acting like Peter or Judas or Caiaphas, like friend, like foe, like stranger. Who do we need to ask for forgiveness? Maybe we don’t know, but that’s unlikely. We are pilgrims. We know opponents to pilgrimage. We are opponents to pilgrimage. And that is the reality we bring to the foot of the cross.