Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Sermon Good Friday 2016

Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
John chapters 18 and 19

As we’ve been noting the liturgy of Holy Week catches us up in the drama, invites us to experience with intensity and depth the events of this week.
The liturgy of this week is structured as a drama, a mystery play, and we are all its actors. I was speaking to Martin our cleaner last night and he said he could tell how busy a week it was from the way things kept changing in church. It is like theatre – a new scene for every act, and this afternoon the sacristy is piled high with the scenery that isn’t being used in today’s part of the story.
The previous parts of this drama began with the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem in Palm Sunday, the crowds acclaiming him as King and Messiah. But the tension mounted and last night we were behind closed doors with the small group of disciples in the intimate scene of the Last Supper. The authorities were hunting for Jesus, and in his last meal he gave them the parting commandment to love one another, enacted in the washing of the feet, and the parting gift of the Eucharist and the priesthood to sustain his church to the end of time. Then we went with him to the Garden of Gethsemane, there to pray awhile, even as his betrayer was at hand.
But today, in this bare and empty church, the reading of the Passion from St John has such dramatic power that little is needed in the way of supporting scenery or props.
John acutely observes the characters of those involved, he tells the story superbly in their interplay, their parrying of words off one another.
There was the crowd, the priests and the temple police, we can treat them as really one character, for they speak with one voice, in the end all shouting out “crucify him”, because that is what everyone else is shouting, and no-one knows who said it first.
For them Jesus is a transgressor, a blasphemer, impure, unclean. He must be got rid of. Their voice is the voice of accusation and casting out, the “spirit of this world” as John’s Gospel calls it, the way that humans have behaved from the beginning.
But the crowd are canny. When they bring him to Pilate, they do not say what Jesus is accused of, and avoid answering Pilate when he asks. “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” Why do they say this? Perhaps they want Pilate to come up with his own charges, and deal with the matter himself. It would be convenient if they can get rid of Jesus while at the same time ensuring that the blame for his death rests clearly with Rome. All fingers of blame will then be pointing, with their own, away from themselves.
Pilate certainly will have heard of Jesus. The tumult of Palm Sunday will not have escaped his notice. To his mind someone entering Jerusalem the way Jesus did must be making a claim to a political power that is a rival and alternative to Rome. Thus his question to Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews”? A question laden with irony, as “King of the Jews” was a title conferred by Rome, and the last one to hold it had been the Herod who died just after Jesus was born. Since then there had been no-one trustworthy and compliant enough to hold that puppet title.
So the threat in Pilate’s question to Jesus is clear: only Rome decides who is the King of the Jews, so watch yourself. But Pilate is a slippery character, and he’s scared. He doesn’t understand what is going on, and he senses he is losing control. He’s on the back foot as he questions Jesus further, and receives answers he cannot comprehend about a Kingdom that is not from this world.
Probably thinking that Jesus is a harmless dreamer, he has him flogged and dressed in the robe and crown of mockery, in the hope that this will satisfy the crowd. But it does not. The crowd, the priests and temple police, are forced to show their hand: “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”
At last Pilate knows the charge they are bringing against Jesus; and he is even more afraid. Who is this man? To a pagan Roman the idea that the gods might have sons was not a strange one – many myths were told of the offspring of gods and mortals, they were usually heroes and mighty warriors, and always portentous individuals, you opposed them at your peril.
But Pilate is scared, and he’s on the back foot. He needs to deal with the crowd; matters of justice and truth do not concern him. So he hands Jesus over to be crucified. But like many weak people he turns his fear into a joke, a bit of puerile mockery in the title he writes on the cross: “This is the King of the Jews”. Mockery, not so much of Jesus, about whom Pilate does not care, but of the crowd: this is the king you deserve. Rome has spoken!
What then unfolds can be interpreted from three perspectives.
Firstly, according to the crowd, the crucifixion of Jesus is what he deserves. His guilt, and their own innocence, seems plain to them. They are completely convinced by the spirit of this world, the voice of accusation and casting out with which they have spoken all along. And remember that John’s gospel tells us this is how all humanity has behaved from the beginning. The death of Jesus, in fact, shows the crowd their own sin, but like the Pharisees in John chapter 9 they are blind to it.
Secondly, according to Pilate, a troublesome situation has been avoided, a riot defused, and at no significant cost to anyone worth talking about. The innocence of the man he has sent to the cross does not concern him. The power structures of the world carry on undisturbed. The Empire can carry on its business. But truth and justice – very basic things about being human – find no place in this view of what is happening.
Thirdly, there is the perspective of the Mother of Jesus and the Disciple, at the foot of the cross. For them, what is taking place there is reshaping everything. New relationships come into being: “Here is your son… here is your Mother”. Jesus breathes out his spirit, but this is the spirit of God, the creator spirit sent forth to renew the face of the earth. The tide of blood and water flowing from the opened side of Jesus speaks under a figure of the tide of sacramental grace, Baptism and the Eucharist that will carry the life of Jesus into the world. From his opened side a new people, a new way of being human, is born: the Church, that will live with his risen life.

With what mastery John weaves together these three perspectives, these three interpretations of what is happening: the crowd, Pilate, the disciples. The body of Jesus is taken away and buried. For now, the crowd and Pilate are secure in the belief that their interpretation has prevailed. Whether or not they are right will be revealed in the next and final act of this greatest of all dramas.

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