Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
29 March 2015, Palm Sunday (Year A, Narrative Lectionary (alt))
Gospel Readings: Matthew 21:1-11
Judged in our place
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
The writer meets an American lady- a fan of detective fiction- while they are staying at a hotel in the English Lake District. She tells him she purchased a Penguin book called The Tragedy of Macbeth, thinking it was a detective story, and was disappointed to find it was a Shakespeare play. With nothing else to read in her hotel room, she read it that night.
To the writer’s surprise, she tells him, ‘I don’t think for a moment that Macbeth… killed the King… I don’t think the Macbeth woman was mixed up in it, either. You suspect them the most, of course, but those are the ones that are never guilty, or shouldn’t be anyway… It would spoil everything if you could figure out right away who did it. Shakespeare was too smart for that’. The writer asks her, ‘Who do you suspect?’ “‘Macduff’, she said promptly… ‘Oh, Macduff did it, all right… ‘Hercule Poirot would have got him easily'”.
I once found in a religious book shop, a book which, said the cover blurb, was designed for those who knew little or nothing about Christianity. I glanced at the contents page, at the titles of the chapters which dealt with different aspects of Christian belief. One of the chapter titles was: ‘Why did Jesus die?’ It occurred to me that in a book designed for people who knew hardly anything about Christianity, that was a rather strange question. ‘Why did Jesus die?’ sounds like something out of a whodunnit mystery.
Imagine you had never sung the sort of hymns we sing at this time of the year, or looked at the Bible, or heard a sermon (and of course, there are many people in our society who really are in that situation). What would you think that question meant: ‘Why would Jesus die?’ And what kind of answer might you expect?
I was curious, and before I put the book back on the shelf I leafed through to that chapter. There was no whodunnit, but instead the writer presented to the reader was what might be best described as a theological theory. I wonder if the curious people he was writing for might have been as confused as Thurber’s lady reading Macbeth. Looking for a murder motive, we are instead offered a theological theory.
You might well think it’s a a straightforward historical and factual question: ‘Why did Jesus die?’ Our unknowledgeable reader might wonder what it was about Jesus’ death that caused people to ask why he’d died- as Hercule Poirot would ask all sorts of questions about a murder victim, who loved him, who hated him. Who had the motive and the opportunity to kill Jesus?
We can quickly discover the how of Jesus’ death. He was executed, as we have just heard. If you are nailed to a cross and left under the Mediterranean sun, you will probably die before too long. But why was he executed? What was the motive?
I love a nice theological theory, but often I often feel I could do without theological theorising when it comes to Holy Week. Today we heard much of the story of the Passion. The story of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem is a story I love to hear at this time of year, and very often I find that I do not need much theorising about it. Just hearing the story is enough for me- it’s such a dramatic tale. I often feel those who do not come along to service in Maundy Thursday or Good Friday miss some of the most dramatic, emotional and frankly upsetting stories in the Bible. If you don’t hear the Passion Story- the story of how Jesus was betrayed, tried and executed- you will simply never understand the rest of the story of Jesus. Everything else in the Gospels leads up to the crucifixion. Easter is in comprehensible without the crucifixion. Nothing makes sense without the cross. So make sure you come along on Thursday and Friday this week!
For a start, the passion story has a public and a personal aspect to it. I never understand those who say that politics has got nothing to do with Christianity. It must have, because at the centre of the Christian faith is a man who is the victim of a political execution. He’s brought to Pontius Pilate as a threat to public order. Pilate is a politician. He represented the Roman Emperor, Tiberius, and Rome was the most powerful nation in the world. But Pilate can’t understand Jesus. And the judgement he made would hardly stand up to an appeal court. Faced with having to execute a man who might not really be guilty of any great crime, Pilate appeals to the mob. He releases Barabbas, and hands Jesus over to be executed, not on any noble legal basis, but because it’s the politically expedient thing to do: ‘When Pilate saw that it was no use to go on, but that a riot might break out, he took some water, washed his hands in front of the crowd, and said, “I am not responsible for the death of this man! This is your doing!”‘.
Why did Jesus die? In the first instance, because the religious and political establishment found it expedient that he die. He was a threat to their power. His teachings challenged the religious power of the religious parties such as the Pharisees. His silence in the face of Pilate’s questioning seemed to bring even Rome’s power into question. Jesus dies for political reasons. Let one man die for the sake of the nation, said the high priest. Let the mob have him if it will save me a riot, says the Roman governor. If the passion story is not about politics, I don’t know what it is about.
During that last week in Jerusalem, the Roman rulers and the local religious establishment, and a volatile crowd, are grinding together in a clash of political power. Stresses have built up during that year’s fraught Passover festival- something has to give. At the centre of this very public, political story, there is a man, an individual, who is finally going to be crushed by these political manoeuvrings. And yet he does not flinch. The anger of the religious leaders, the power of Rome, the fickleness of the crowds- none of these things make Jesus change his mind. Jesus has chosen the way of telling the truth, of doing the right thing, of following where his conscience takes him no matter the consequences. But because he has chosen that, he will be crushed.
And so this is also a personal story- the story of a man who lived the truth, no matter what. Even if there had never been a resurrection, we could have admired the courage of Jesus in all of this. The story of Holy Week is, for me, intensely personal because I always find it seems to ask me: what about you? Could I keep faith with the truth, in the face of the sorts of powers which conspired against Jesus? I know that I am all too easily swayed by public opinion- I might admire Jesus, but I can understand Pilate. If I found myself if conflict with the church because of a matter of conscience, would I continue to keep telling the truth, as Jesus did? It would be hard!
Jesus, Pilate, the crowd- all of the people confront me from this story, and make me ask- what about it? It is an intensely unsettling story because it is so personal. It is a powerful story, because when we read it, we realise that one of the reasons Jesus dies is because he stuck to the truth. The death of Jesus is the price of his integrity. And his story challenges me- what price my integrity?
Why did he die? Because his personal integrity refused to buckle to political pressure. And yet, in the end, his integrity would prove to be a match for those political pressures. As Jesus was dying on the cross, the Emperor Tiberius reigned in Rome. He was ruler of the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. His decisions could affect the lives of millions. But if he read in a report from his man in Palestine, Pontius Pilate about the execution of yet another Jewish rebel, he would probably have dismissed it as another example of these strange Jewish people of Palestine trying to make trouble, and never have thought about it again. Yet the death of this Jewish rabble-rouser was an event whose significance Tiberius could never imagine. The tectonic plates had shifted. The cross of Christ would be remembered for ever after. But who now remembers much about the Emperor Tiberius?
We are about to go into an election campaign. Once again, politicians of different ideologies will promise us that everything will be great if we will only vote them in. None of us are fooled by that, of course. They can only talk about politics and economics. None of their policies or ideologies can deal with sin.
There is a power about the story of Jesus which makes him more important than any politics, ideology. Today at St Stephen’s we baptised a child, and we said that it represented the forgiveness of sins. We speak of sin because all of us, in those moments when we are most honest with ourselves, recognise that we are all moral failures. We may not have the power of a Pontius Pilate, nor might we be quite as hypocritical as the Pharisees, but we do know that we might well be swayed by the crowd, and that we often use what power we do have to hurt others.
Thinking too much about our sense of failure could crush us, so instead we try to ignore it. So we develop what the theologian Rheinhold Niebuhr called ‘the complacent conscience of modern [people]’ . He wrote, ‘Under the perpetual smile of modernity there is a grimace of disillusion and cynicism’- harsh words, written a long time ago, but which seem to me to still sum up where we are (Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, quoted in DM Baillie, God was in Christ, p161, 163).
Without God, disillusion and cynicism caused by our moral failure is all we have. For only God can forgive us our failures. In Christ we see God at work, in the midst of our cynical world. In Christ we see someone who, for once, is willing to stand up for honesty and integrity- even although the powers that be destroy him for doing so. Betrayed by his friends, killed by his enemies, facing a mob who’d rather release a guilty man, a victim of circumstance- and yet we cannot but admire his integrity. The innocent man put on trial, found guilty, and put to death. Yet although he is sentenced to death, he will, in the end, be vindicated. Love will triumph, good will be victorious, and sins can be forgiven. And that, in the end, is the solution to this particular whodunnit- or rather, why was it done? It was all done for us.
Ascription of Praise
Now to God who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo