Sermon for Good Friday 2019
In one of my favorite scenes in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which if you aren’t familiar with it is a somewhat crude, but very funny parody of movies about the life of Jesus, in this scene a band of Judean rebels are plotting to overthrow their Roman oppressors.
What have the Romans ever given us?, their leader shouts.
“The aqueduct”, someone sheepishly replies.
Oh, the aqueduct, yeah they did give us that, that’s true.
Yeah, alright. I’ll grant you that the aqueduct and sanitation are two things the Romans have done.
And the roads.
Well, of course, the roads. The roads go without saying don’t they? But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct and the roads…
Irrigation, medicine, education…
The scene goes on and finally ends with the leader saying, somewhat exasperatingly:
Alright, well apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Oh peace! Shut up!
It is a brilliant and famous scene in that movie, and one of the things that I think this little scene pokes fun at is that it is so easy for us, when talking about the life of Jesus Christ and the world of the ancient near east to simply demonize the Romans. It is so easy to just make them the oppressive enemy or overlords, and yet, the Romans were, in truth, so much more than that.
The Roman Empire was the most progressive, advanced civilization in the ancient Western world. They had the most advanced technology. Without the use of calculators or computers they built some of the most splendid buildings in the world. They were cosmopolitan and multicultural. People from every race and language across the known world participated in the Roman Empire. There were vast open markets where you could buy items shipped from all over the world. Items that had been transported along Roman roads. Roads that were protected by the Roman army and that benefited from the general peace that Rome’s power had created in the region. There was education. There were social services: public baths, libraries. The Romans had official state religion, but they were mostly secular. The Romans didn’t really care how you worshipped so long as it didn’t disturb the public peace or threaten their power. They were very reasonable people. The Romans loved technology and progress and reason, and those three things brought Rome tremendous power. And what today is the most enduring symbol of Roman power?
What piece of technology are the Romans most remembered for today? It is about to be unveiled in front of you. The cross.
This civilization that valued technology and progress and reason; this splendid society of culture and educated people…where is their empire now? Ruins. Ruins everywhere. A few buildings here and there; a few walls; a few reminders of how sophisticated and advanced they were, but their empire is gone. And what we are left with everywhere you look is this; this symbol: two pieces of wood stuck together. A brutal piece of Roman technology.
The sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health…all brought to you by the people that gave us the cross.
You see, the Romans, will all of their technology and progress and reason were able to fix many of the worlds problems, except for two: sin and death.
The Romans could not conquer sin and death; not their own, not anyone else’s. And this thing that we hang on our walls, carry in our pockets, or wear around our necks; this little piece of Roman technology has become the enduring symbol of the two things that Roman technology could not fix: sin and death.
This symbol of Roman advancement and technology; a reminder that the most progressive society in the western world, a society that conquered the entire Mediterranean, couldn’t conquer its own demons: greed, lust, brutality, deception, cruelty and death. Sure the Romans may have done some great things, but if they can’t fix sin and death what good are they? What have the Romans done for us?
So much for progress…
But let’s be fair to the Romans, in every age we find some piece of technology to cling to, some symbol of our advancement as a society, some symbol of progress and the future, we use it thinking that it will fix our problems; that it will create peace and put an end to those age-old problems of sin and death. But the next generation comes along and sees that technology for what it really was: a symbol of the very sin and death that it was trying to conquer.
Think of the guillotine, the rifle, mustard gas, the atomic bomb, drones. In every age we come up with some piece of technology that we think will finally cure our problems and in every age we prove that we still lack the capacity to fix sin and death.
Every wonderful thing we create as humans all of our progress and our technology, it always gets tainted, ruined by our own sinfulness: the internet, medicine, industry, roads, commerce… we always find a way to mess up any human achievement.
Maybe Isaac Watts said it best:
When I survey the wondrous cross,
on which the prince of glory died
my richest gain I count but loss
and pour contempt on all my pride
My friends, I must admit to you that I don’t believe in progress, at least, not in the way we normally talk about it. I don’t believe that through time, effort, education or technology we humans are ever going to save the world. I have examined very closely the story of modernism; you know the story of modernism: new is better. Through progress, human progress, we will make the world a better place. Well I have examined the claims that human achievement and determination can and will some day fix the world. I have examined how one empire after another has risen…and then fallen. I have seen science is used to save lives…and to destroy them. I have seen people place their faith in one –ism after another: rationalism, imperialism, industrialism, modernism, communism, fascism, socialism, liberalism, conservatism. In the end what I find is the same old sin and death, still haunting us after all these years.
Every day I am told: “do this and change the world,” “Do that and change the world.” I am tired of trying to change the world. I am tired of being told that the future of humanity rests on every decision I make at the grocery store. I want to make good and informed decisions in my life; I want to make good choices in how I live in this world and what I leave behind, but I do not suffer from the delusion that human progress can or will conquer sin and death.
You may think that sounds pessimistic, but it isn’t. It’s good news. It’s the best news you are ever going to hear. You are not going to save the world, and you do not have to, the burden is not on your shoulders, because it has already been done.
On the cross, hanging on that grotesque piece of Roman, human technology, God did for us what we could never do for ourselves. God defeated sin and death on Good Friday and that moment when Jesus died on the cross, the world was as saved as it is ever going to get. No roads, no sanitation, no education or medication is ever going to save the world more than God did in that moment on that day.
Use technology, but don’t put your faith in it. Make good decisions. Let Jesus’s life and teachings inspire you to live the best life you can, but stop trying to save the world every day. It’s already been done. We can lay our burdens down at the foot of the cross today, knowing the Jesus has already saved the world more than we ever could. That is why this is a good Friday.