Second Quarter 2003
The Death of Innocence
by David L. Tiede, President
The Easter season is full of wonder, repentance and hope. Just after Easter, we welcomed 85 pastors and lay leaders to a special week of continuing education (Kairos). This program gave me a brief privilege to return to my first vocation as a New Testament teacher. Under the title of "The Death of Innocence," we searched the scriptures of Luke's account of Jesus' execution. As we listened for God's word for us, we were aware that this Easter season is also filled with the public celebrations and agonies of the conquest of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. This is a difficult time, a humbling time for our witness to the mercy of God in Christ Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus both reveals the reality of sin and restores God's mission in a broken world.
As Jesus enters Jerusalem in Luke's story, he is confronted by an unholy alliance of adversaries, including Satan himself, who has been waiting for "an opportune time" since Jesus' temptation (4.13). Now Satan enters Judas in his collusion with the religious leaders who were glad to give him "an opportunity to betray Jesus to them when no crowd was present," (22.1-6). The High Priest, Herod, and Pilate are thoroughly evil, making a charade of justice in Jesus' trials and taking malevolent delight in Jesus' capture (see 22.63-65; 23.8-11). Herod and Pilate, old enemies, become friends (23.12). They have wanted to get their hands on Jesus for a long time.
Condemned repeatedly, Jesus is led to death with a sarcastic charge posted over his head, "The King of the Jews," which is the prophetic truth. As the soldiers carry out the execution, the Centurion in charge pronounces the final verdict, "Certainly this man was innocent" (23.47). The word could be translated, "righteous," announcing the deep biblical conviction that Jesus is "the righteous one," the Messiah for whom Israel yearned. But "innocent" is strong enough.
The people are the tragic chorus in the drama, at first Jesus' defense against the tyrants (19.47-48; 20.19,26, 45; 21.38; 22.2, 6). Then caught with Jesus in Pilate's condemnation (23.14), their shout for his crucifixion prevails (23.18-25), as if it were their intent. But instantly a great number of the people join the wailing of the women as Jesus is led off to death (23.27). And when "all the crowds...saw what had taken place" as he died, "they returned home beating their breasts" (23.48). Complicit in the death of the innocent one, their innocence also has died.
The April 21, 2003 issue of Time magazine tells the terrible story of the fight for Karbala when small Iraqi boys were apparently pushed into the battle to pick up rocket propelled grenades to throw back at the Americans. "It sounds terrible when you hear about this cold, away from the fight," says commander Lieut. Colonel Chris Holden. "We shot and killed children. But I accept full responsibility for that. That's the kind of fight it was" (p. 57).
"Full responsibility" is a heavy burden, more than Lieut. Colonel Holden can be asked to bear. Nor could the Roman Centurion alone accept "full responsibility" for Jesus' death. The Iraqi boys were not innocent. The soldiers were doing their duty. But as Time concludes, "as weeks fade to months to years, the remembered gaze of a clear-eyed Iraqi boy is certain to linger."
With exceptions, Lutherans are not absolute pacifists.We know the reality of evil. In the past months at Luther Seminary, Dr. Gary Simpson has taught us on "just war," petitions were signed against American military action in Iraq, and prayers offered in support of our troops with names and photos of friends and family members posted in the chapel. Our graduates serve with distinction as military chaplains, and Dr. Roland Martinson has traveled to Europe to support their service. Now our congregations throughout the church will welcome back their sons and daughters who risked their lives and even their souls. Neither they nor we are "innocent." The only "innocent" one was executed long ago. All are implicated, complicit. Our innocence died long ago with him. But what shall we say to those with whom "the remembered gaze of a clear-eyed Iraqi boy is certain to linger"? How dare we witness in a broken world to the hope that is ours in Christ Jesus?
Luke reveals a profound promise, hidden in a human story. Judas, the religious leaders, Herod, Pilate and the people with them are set against the Lord and his Messiah (Acts 4.26-27), but the apostle Peter who denied Jesus became the witness to his resurrection. Before Peter caved in with threefold denials (Luke 22.54-62), Jesus warned, then promised: "Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers" (22.31-32). After his denials, Peter "remembered the word of the Lord," and like the people, he wept bitterly (22.61-62). His heart was broken by the Lord's remembered gaze. The "turning back" toward his calling had begun.
In Luke's account, Jesus saw it coming. Peter's denial led both to Jesus' death and to Peter's apostolic leadership. God's mission to the world will be entrusted to sinful humans. The risen Jesus is not waiting for perfect or innocent witnesses. The death of our innocence marks the beginning of the reign of the innocent Lord Jesus. The greatest apostles are forgiven sinners. And what about the Centurion, the Colonel who is burdened with "full responsibility"? The New Testament does not tell us more about this Centurion, although early Christian tradition developed a lore about his conversion and sought to connect him with the Centurion whose slave Jesus had healed in Luke 7. Luke later tells a long story about Peter's call from God into the house of another Roman Centurion, Cornelius. There is no hint this is the same soldier who was Jesus' executioner, but Peter gets the point: "God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection" (Acts 10.28-29).
Jesus' resurrection vindicates his innocence. Jesus is God's "righteous one." The risen Jesus restores his apostles to Israel's calling into God's mission of saving love for the world. Peter, whose innocence died in the night of his denials, has "turned back." Now he "strengthens his brothers" by proclaiming the Easter promise to all the people: "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are far away" (Acts 2.37-38). Peter's innocence has been replaced by a bold calling. Now this forgiven apostle will be sent even to the homes of the occupation forces.
Our combat veterans are now arriving home. We rejoice in our reunions and grieve our losses, including their innocence and ours. We refuse to forget what we have seen. We know God has deeper healing in store for all of us in repentance (turning) and faith. As Easter turns into Pentecost, we also know the risen Christ will send a new generation of forgiven apostles into God's mission of mercy for the world.
David L. Tiede