Note: I preached a version of this sermon at Messiah Lutheran Church on Good Friday, 2016
In a scene in the Netflix series House of Cards, the main character, President Frank Underwood, goes to a church. He wants to talk with a bishop about God and justice and the duty to love enemies.
Frank, the politician, doesn’t understand the idea of Jesus ruling through love and loving the people who killed him. “Jesus loved the Romans,” the bishop tells him. He prayed to God to forgive them.
Why didn’t he fight, Frank asks. “Why did he allow himself to be sacrificed?” I ask myself that all the time, the bishop tells him. And the president may not be able to understand it, but Jesus was chosen, not him. “It’s not your place to choose the version of God you like best.”
The president asks for a moment alone to pray. So the bishop leaves him at the altar, before the statue of Christ hanging on the cross.
Now it’s important to note that Frank Underwood is a villain. He’s murderous, dishonest, disloyal, and interested only in his own ambition. He lies even to the bishop. He goes up to the altar, where Jesus hangs on the cross, looking down. “Love,” he says to Jesus. “That’s what you’re selling?” As he says this, Jesus just hangs there, looking down at him. “Well I don’t buy it,” he says. Then he spits on the statue of the crucified Christ.
Then, whether out of remorse or fear of his sacrilege being discovered, he takes out his handkerchief to wipe away the spit. And as he does that, he accidentally knocks the statue to the floor, shattering it.
Apparently some Christians with extra time on their hands condemned the scene as blasphemous. But I was shocked at how beautiful I found it. I honestly didn’t expect anything like it in such a pulpy, trashy show that I watch for escapism. It showed a scene repeated over and over again: a ruler of this world, mad for power and bent on justifying himself, confronting a crucified Christ. And all Christ does is look down from his cross, with a face full of weariness and suffering and silent love.
“Love. That’s what you’re selling?”
Of course Frank doesn’t buy it. If he bought it, his whole life would have to fall apart. His whole world would have to be broken down piece by piece and put back together in a new way. Powerful men are not often receptive to the idea that true power comes from love. Those who occupy the world’s thrones are not often eager to hear that the world’s one great throne is a cross.
To be honest, I’m not always sure I buy it. I want to buy it. I hope to buy it. But like most people I make other arrangements, too. I want to prefer my own suffering to the possibility that I might harm anyone else. I want to respond to wickedness with goodness. I want to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. But I know I don’t.
And this is the thing, the startling, beautiful, painful thing: Jesus doesn’t reproach nasty President Underwood. Jesus doesn’t rebuke me. Or the cruel Pontius Pilate, or the vindictive leaders, or the fleeing disciples, or the abusive soldiers. They spit, they strike, they deny, they miscarry justice. They rationalize, they condemn, they excuse themselves. They lie, they fight, they strike with the sword. And Jesus hangs there, on the cross.
It is the one final divine answer to all our demands, from that day in Jerusalem until now.
Why are you letting yourself be sacrificed, Jesus?
Convince me, Jesus.
Tell me everything will be fine, Jesus.
Hear me out, Jesus.
This is my counter-offer, Jesus.
These are my reasons, Jesus.
Explain yourself, Jesus.
Every time, in every age, to every demand the answer has been the same. Here is my suffering. Here is my betrayal with a kiss. Here is my disciple’s sword put back in its sheath. Here is my silence before Pilate. Here is my rejection, here is my thorn-crowned head and my spat-upon body, here is my thirst, here is my silence, here is my death, here is my pierced side. Here is my love.
And as dreadful as this scene is, the more dreadful thought is that Jesus allows us to turn away and put it out of mind. Golgotha is only one little hill in one city, after all. Tomorrow Pontius Pilate will have a full agenda to get through at his headquarters. Tomorrow there will be work to do. There will be children to care for. There will be prayers to say. Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life, and nothing would be simpler than to look away from the dead gaze. Nothing would be easier than to say, “I don’t buy it.” If we bought it, our whole lives would fall apart. Our whole world would be broken down piece by piece and put back together in a totally new way. It is wiser, more realistic, to walk down the hill, get some rest, and make our own arrangements.
But what if this love leaves us with a wound, too? What if that sorrowful, broken Christ has managed to pierce our sides, too? Even a little bit? Enough, perhaps, to make all of our demands and confusion and even our hostility spill out in a stream we can’t quite control? Maybe the offended questions are a bandage for our own wounds. Maybe the urgent demands of Pilate and the mocking of the soldiers and the denial of Peter—even the angry spitting of nasty President Underwood—are just a way to keep ourselves whole when we have been pierced by love.
Maybe we don’t have to buy it at all. Love lodges in you like shrapnel. It won’t go away. We can stifle our conscience, we can shut out of the voice of Christ, we can even kill him. But his love doesn’t flee. It lingers. The love of Jesus pleads to the Father for us, begs mercy for us who have better things to do and other plans to make, for us who are not in the market for a new soul or a new world or a devastating abundance of love. The love of Jesus pleads for us who want our lives to fall apart and our world to be broken down and put together anew, but who lack the strength to do it.
The love of Jesus pleads for our own wounds of love—not that they may be patched up, but that they may open more fully, and flow more generously, and embrace a hurting world. A world that doesn’t deserve him, that may not even want him, but that needs him all the same.
Great stuff, Ben. My wife and I got through maybe the second season of “Frank,” and then have not (probably not coincidentally) continued since troubles have befallen the real-life Frank. Powerful scene – along with your commentary on it. Thanks.
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