I’ll preach the following sermon in just a few hours at today’s “Women’s View of the Cross”: A Service for Good Friday. (I appreciate your prayers!) This sermon takes the perspective of the maidservant in the court of the high priest, Caiphas; if you’ve been a regular here at this intersection between life and God, you may recall that last year I preached in the voice of Pilate’s wife, Claudia, in “Desperate Housewife or God’s Dreamer?“
15 Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. 17 The woman said to Peter, ‘You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ – John 18:15-17
It’s a joy to be part of this very special service for a second, consecutive year, and I’m grateful to Robyn and Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church for the opportunity to be here today.
Last year when I was invited to speak, I was charged with coming up with a whole sermon around just a few words spoken by the wife of Pontius Pilate. (You’ll hear from her in a bit.) I remember thinking at the time that it couldn’t get any harder than this- to extract a nugget of Good News from a seemingly insignificant one-liner.
Well, that was before this year’s assignment. Because all we have from this unnamed woman who watches the door to the high priest’s palace is a question, nothing more. No declaration. No demand. No desperate plea even.
If privilege and aristocracy allow Pilate’s wife such forms of self-expression, the unnamed woman in this passage has no such freedom; she, unlike the wife of any influential Roman official, has no real claim to authority of any kind; and, if entrusted rather uniquely to guard the door of the chief priest’s palace at night, this woman knows her place. Her “power,” if it could even be called such, lies in her ability to ask the right questions, not to make demands.
This woman asks only questions because, I suspect, she has no doubt that she is disposable. She knows the painful limits of her freedom as well as the hard contours of the gate she watches most days and nights. And, while it is tempting to view her as such, she is no bored parking lot attendant working the night shift, chewing bubble gum while thumbing through Cosmo and carelessly waving through passersby from her booth.
This woman lives a far more confined, sub-human existence than you and I can even begin to imagine.
Any of you even vaguely familiar with British comedy will at least recognize the name Monty Python. Years ago Monty Python did a popular television act called the “Dead Parrot Sketch.” It’s an exchange between a pet shop owner and a customer who has just bought a dead parrot and now wants to return it. The pet shop owner refuses to let the annoyed customer return the bird, and makes up all kinds of silly excuses for why the parrot is so obviously catatonic, with the result that the increasingly exasperated customer exclaims in a fit, “This is not a parrot! This is an ex-parrot!”
And, it turns out that the ancient Romans had their own version of this same comedy. Several years ago scholars discovered a joke book dating back to around the fourth century and rehearsing a remarkably similar version of the Monty Python sketch- only in this case, and to the shock of our modern ears, the two men are not arguing over the purchase of a now-dead parrot but rather, the purchase of a now-dead slave.
The ancient Roman rendering supposedly goes like this: a man buys a slave who dies shortly afterwards; when the man complains to the seller, the seller protests that the slave wasn’t dead when he owned him.
“This is not a slave! This is an ex-slave!,” would be the Monty Python rendition. (Dark humor for a dark day on the church calendar, I guess.)
But the point is that as a female and a slave, this woman or girl as she is referenced in various translations, has no rights the way we today might think about human rights. She has no life other than what is granted her by her master, the chief priest; and maybe, in this sense, this woman really is not that different from a caged bird. If she once ever knew how to sing, and that is doubtful, now she has little if no voice. If she once ever knew the freedom and adventure of spreading her wings and taking flight, and that is unlikely, now her wings have been painfully clipped.
And, like any good gatekeeper doing her job as if her life depended on it, this woman has become an avid observer of her surroundings. She surveys life outside the bars of her cage with a kind of quiet, watchful curiosity. The goings on of the great, big world out there matter only insofar as they might impinge on the livelihood of this woman’s master, the chief priest; as her master’s second set of eyes and ears, this woman sees and hears almost everything that goes by the gate she has been charged to keep watch over.
Which is why I am making an educated guess that this woman is well aware that it was just days ago that a strange man named “Jesus,” now standing handcuffed in the courtyard of her master’s house, came riding into town on a donkey to the cheers of a great crowd, waving palm branches. Maybe she had even heard then the chants of “Hosanna” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord- the King of Israel!” Maybe she had wondered then at all the commotion and the possible meaning of it.
And, if you’ll imagine with me just a bit further, it may only seem like yesterday that this woman had seen Jesus for the very first time. That day had been so clear that it took only a little squinting across the valley to the Temple facing her master’s house to make out a very unusual sight: a whole swarm of those greedy money changers- the ones her mother had warned her about who, if you give them one denarius will demand ten- now red-faced and in a hurry to leave, streaming down the front steps of the temple in full daylight, their moneybags still open and clutched anxiously at their sides, coins spilling out…and behind them, Jesus, cussing angrily, demanding that they take their money-grubbing enterprise somewhere else.
That was when she first noticed it: this man Jesus’ freedom. Freedom of a kind she had not seen before, not even in her master, Caiphas. Freedom that won’t blink an eye in the face of those things that would cage the best of us. Money and wealth; security and a penchant for the status quo; our best-kept social mores and familial institutions. Race. Class. Gender. Socioeconomic status. A disability.
That was when she caught the first irresistible, wafting aromas of a freedom that can make the mute sing and the lame walk and the dead come to life. Freedom of the kind the great, civil rights leader Martin Luther King once spoke of in his famous, “I Have A Dream” speech. Such freedom, when let rung “from every tenement and every hamlet, from every state and every city,” will “speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’”
That kind of freedom. Electric freedom. Contagious, irrepressible freedom that can break the bars on any cage.
And we all have lived in them- cages I mean- whether or not we know it. We in twenty-first century America may now thankfully have more legally recognized rights than a caged parrot or an ancient Roman slave girl, but at the end of the day, I suspect we, all of us in this room, have at one time or another, maybe even today, been caged by something. Guilt. Fear. Doubt. Illness. Addiction. Suffering. An impossible set of circumstances. We can be ingenious at enslaving ourselves, or letting others do it for us.
What is your cage?
What’s keeping you from being free?
What’s keeping you from following Jesus all the way to the cross?
The woman had heard, during the days since she first saw Jesus chase those moneychangers out of the Temple, about how this same Jesus talked to even women like her. That he let them sit at his feet and learn from him. That he even touched and healed a number of them. There are too many stories in fact to count, but she had heard some of the stories, relayed in hushed excited chatter in the servant quarters.
And, like a fresh wind blowing through town, this Jesus was on the loose, and He was setting captives free. This Jesus couldn’t be bound.
Or so this woman had thought. So she had even secretly believed. Like the flutter of something new and beautiful being born inside of her.
Until the day she finds Jesus here in her master’s courtyard, having been led here of his own accord, his hands bound. If there weren’t still something so other-worldly free about this Jesus, in the authority by which He now answers the questions of His interrogators, in the calm resilience with which He seems to ignore the taunts and jeers thrown at him, in the purposeful resolve of one on a mission known only to Himself, this woman would almost doubt what she has come to believe all along. That not even death itself can bind this man.
Which is why this woman also cannot really believe that the man outside her gate, looking terrified, out of breath and trembling from more than the cold, really is one of Jesus’ disciples.
“You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” she asks the man standing at the gate.
The question is a leading one. “No,” is the expected answer, commentators say, and we know the answer the woman gets.
Why does she expect “no” for an answer, I wonder? Maybe because she intuits an important truth about this strange man Jesus and all those who stand in relation to Him: that nobody following Jesus need ever fear anything in this life that would seek to define or imprison them and make them less than human.
Frederick Buechner has said the same thing more poetically: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
Why does the woman at the gate not believe Peter to be a disciple of Jesus? Because anyone who knows Jesus is right in front of them and they right behind Jesus is free. Truly free…and lives like it. Free from anything that would keep them stuck shivering in the dark, be it a gate that leads right into the courtyard of the most high priest, his interrogators and his henchmen, or a door into today’s halls of privilege and power. Be it a medical diagnosis or a broken marriage. Be it some great moral failure or an aspirated life’s dream.
I suspect that the unnamed woman intuits this truth. She sees the man we know as Peter before her, and he looks scared, like his last shred of faith has been taken from him. He looks like a caged bird, too.
Maybe a bit like you and I this very moment. Or yesterday. Or the day before.
We so often read this passage as a commentary on Peter’s faltering faith at the trial and execution of his Lord. We so often make Peter’s three-fold denial of Christ the focus here. But I wonder whether we might also read this same story as an implicit confession of faith on the part of an enslaved woman who in Jesus has glimpsed true freedom and apprehends at least intuitively what such freedom looks like in those who follow Him.
“You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?”
It’s a question from one caged bird to another, and Jesus goes to the cross today to turn our “no” answers into “yeses.”
Jesus goes to the cross to tell us once and for all that we really are free, that we’ve been free all along, and now we can live like it.
And so I ask you today: “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?”
[And all God's people say, "Yes."]