What Do You Believe?
Saint Matthew 27:11-54
What do you believe? That’s the question for today. At the beginning of our service, we listened to the Palm Sunday account and we heard about the people who welcomed Jesus as He entered into Jerusalem. Many of the people that day had been in nearby Bethany when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. They had witnessed first hand the almighty power of God over death itself when Jesus commanded the dead man to arise and come forth from the grave. And so, they answer, “What do you believe?” with shouts of “Hosanna,” with palm branches waving, and with hearts filled with the certain conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
As we entered the Sanctuary this morning with our own palms waving, the question, “What do you believe,” came before all of us demanding an answer. In a short while, we will listen as Judith makes confession of her faith—as she affirms her baptismal vows. And, in the questions posed and the answers given, we will all have the opportunity to revisit the vows that we made at the font and the vows that we spoke again in Confirmation. “What do you believe,” therefore, is the question for today.
The Passion account that we listened to a while ago from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew is filled with all sorts of people answering the question for today. However, we must consider carefully their answers, for even though what they confess with their mouths is the absolute truth, it’s not what they really believe.
Take Pontius Pilate, for instance. When Jesus is sent to him for trial by the chief priests and elders of the people, Pilate declares the truth about Jesus right away. He says to our Lord, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus’ reply is, “You have said so.” In other words, Jesus affirms to Pilate that he has indeed spoken the truth. He is the King of the Jews—the King of all creation. Pilate has spoken it, but does he believe it?
Pilate’s wife would later that morning tell him that Jesus is a “righteous man,” because of a troubling dream that she had about Jesus. But Pilate doesn’t need to hear this from his wife. From the start, from the first moment he lays eyes on Jesus, he knows in his heart that this is not only the King of the Jews before him, but also an innocent man. Pilate, therefore, tries to clear Jesus of the charges by getting Him to speak in His own defence. “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” he says to Jesus. But our Lord makes no reply, “not even to a single charge.” Of course, this is what Isaiah had foretold would happen, when he prophesied, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth.” Pilate is amazed by our Lord’s silence, not knowing what to make of it. And so he comes up with a different idea of getting this innocent Man set free.
It was the custom during the Feast of the Passover for a prisoner to be released. Normally, the crowds would have their choice of any prisoner, but here in this situation Pilate decides to stack the deck. He gives them only two names from which to choose, Jesus and Barabbas.
Now an interesting little side bar to this comes from a variant reading of the Greek text in which Barabbas is called “Jesus Barabbas.” If this variant is correct, and many Bible scholars think it is, then the choice that Pilate gives the crowd is between two men named Jesus: Jesus Barabbas and “Jesus who is called the Christ.” But wait, there’s more, for Barabbas means “son of the father,” which is how we refer to Jesus.
The one father’s son, however, is not like the other when it comes to everything besides the name. The one is a criminal of the worst sort—a thief and murderer—the kind of man that no one in their right mind would want to see released into society. The other, who is called the Christ, is a Man of peace—a Man of God—a Man Who has spent the past three years healing the sick, driving out demons, reforming the lives of social outcasts—working always for the common good. It only stands to reason, Pilate figures, that given the choice, the people will surely want the good Jesus released and not the bad Jesus.
But Pilate hasn’t figured on the hatred that’s held toward our Lord Jesus by the Jewish religious leaders. They want Him convicted and put to death. And so they “persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus.” “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” the crowd cries out. “Why?” Pilate asks, “What evil has he done?” “But they shouted all the more, ‘Let him be crucified!’”
So that, dear friends, is Pilate’s confession of faith. With his mouth he speaks the truth, that Jesus is the King of the Jews and an innocent Man. But with his actions in turning Jesus over to be crucified, he speaks otherwise, showing us that he really doesn’t believe what he says.
Next in the Passion account before us, we encounter the Roman soldiers who, like Pilate, speak the truth about Jesus. “Hail, King of the Jews!” they say. But then they proceed to spit on Him and strike Him on the head. They mock Him again and again. And they do this after they had already flogged Jesus and pierced His head with the crown of thorns. Their words are the truth, but they don’t believe them—not a word.
When the soldiers finish with their sport, they take Jesus to Golgotha—the place of the skull—the place of execution. There they crucify Him. Shortly before Jesus entered Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, the mother of James and John had asked for her two boys to be at the right hand and left hand of Jesus when He came into His kingdom. Here on the cross, Jesus enters into His kingdom. Here on the cross Jesus shows the world the substance of His reign as the world’s King. Jesus reigns through sacrifice and suffering and dying. These marks of the cross are His kingly mantle. And who do we see on His right and on His left? Not the two disciples, but rather, two thieves, crucified there with Jesus for their crimes.
Also at the cross are those who have come to witness the execution. They hurl vile insults at Jesus, mocking Him in His time of great agony and shame. But listen to their insults: “You who could destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” They speak the truth! Even though they mean it as mockery, they speak the truth, for the temple that Jesus would destroy and rebuild in three days is Himself. Truly, He will die and then be raised up again on the third day. And it is precisely because He is the Son of God that He will not save Himself and come down off the cross. He is there to fulfil His mission to save the world by dying for the sins of the world. The mockers speak the truth, but do they believe it? No, not at all.
So, what about you, dear friends? We’ve seen how people can speak all the right words with their mouths, confess the truth about Jesus, and yet, not believe a word of it. So, what about you? What do you believe? Every one of you who has been baptized, vowed at the font that you believe in God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and that you renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways. Do you still?
Every one of you who has been confirmed in the Lutheran confession of our Christian faith, has answered, “I do, by the grace of God,” to each question put before you when you were confirmed. As Judith answers these questions this morning, ask yourself if your answer remains the same. Do you still intend by the grace of God, “to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully? Do you still intend by the grace of God, “to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, even to death? Do you still intend by the grace of God, “to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?”
For some of you, the answer may be, “No.” I pray this isn’t the case. I pray that all of you are still able to confess, “I do, by the grace of God.” This doesn’t mean, however, that you always have been faithful or always will be faithful in the things that you do. It doesn’t mean that your actions and words always line up with the faithful intention of your heart. None of you are free from sin. And so, you are like the man who cried out to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” “I do, by the grace of God.”
You believe in “God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” even though sometimes you worship other gods by placing work, money, recreation, pleasure—you name it—before God your heavenly Father. You believe in “Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,” even though you sometimes live as though you and Jesus are complete strangers and that the cross is foolishness. You believe in “the Holy Spirit,” who works through His Gospel gifts to enlighten and sanctify and keep you in the true faith, even though you sometimes “despise preaching and His Word” and don’t always “gladly hear and learn it,” with the true Body and Blood of our Lord also receiving the same measure of disregard. You believe, but you need help with your unbelief.
Judith, thinking back to prehistoric times, to the day when I was confirmed, I remember feeling like nothing could ever move me to depart from this faith we’ve been given. I was resolute, without any unbelief or doubt to cause me concern. That, I’m sure, is how you are feeling today. But, as you continue forward from this day of your confirmation, there will arise times, when the evil foe, working through your sins, will seek to overwhelm you and you, too, will find yourself crying out to the Lord Jesus, like the rest of us, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
And this is good that you call out to Jesus. He is exactly the one to whom you should cry out to for help. Don’t look for strength within yourself, for there is none there. That’s where the problem is, after all. Look to Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of [your] faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God,” meaning, not that He is distant and far removed from you and unable to help, but just the opposite. All power and honour and majesty and glory is His, and it is all for you—to help you in your unbelief—to deliver to you the forgiveness of your sins.
I hope and pray the rest of you know that this truth is not intended just for Judith. It’s for all of you. It’s only through the ongoing forgiveness of sins that you receive in Christ’s Word and Sacraments that faith both to confess with the lips and believe in the heart is kept alive in you.
When our Lord Jesus died, the centurion who had crucified Him declared, “Truly this was the Son of God!” We don’t know if he believed this truth that he spoke, or if he was like the others that day. What matters, though, is that you believe it, for how you answer today’s question, “What do you believe?” matters for all eternity. In the name of Christ, our Lord. Amen.