Sunday 17th April 2011
Palm Sunday - Those on the margins point us to Jesus
Scripture - St Matthew's Passion
Rev Andy Braunston
We hear again the story of Jesus’ passion and we are taken up into the drama of the story. The crowds which acclaimed Jesus as Lord soon turn on him and call for his death. The long-promised king is killed by his own people, friends betray him, almost all desert him.
It’s a story we know well as it’s at the centre of our faith. Often, however, we ignore those on the margins of the story, the people that Matthew placed in his narrative for various purposes, because we’re concentrating on the main players. So today we’re going to focus on various characters who are on the edge of the story but who each, in their own ways, point us towards Jesus.
The Betrayers: Judas and Peter
First let’s look at the two who betrayed Jesus – Judas and Peter. Peter denied knowing Jesus yet became a, some would say the, prominent, leader in the earliest church. Catholics see this role of leadership as meaning he was the first pope – or head bishop – of the church but these are terms that Peter wouldn’t have recognised. He clearly had a place of leadership amongst the earliest Church. Judas was the treasurer for the disciples, he seemed to have been a Zealot – one who was impatient for revolution against the rule of Rome. Yet his despair after his betrayal of Jesus to the religious authorities lead to his suicide so he leaves the story.
Both were disciples of Jesus, both were his intimate friends, both were present at the Last Supper, both betrayed him. But after the Last Supper the similarities cease. Judas despairs, but Peter’s fall is not irreversible and he is forgiven by Jesus.
At the moment when faith was most severely tested and the cost of discipleship was highest, both Judas and Peter fail. They remind us that at the cross there is but a thin line between faithfulness and treachery.
In our own lives we can be tempted to cross that line too. We trust that repentance is always possible – Judas would have been forgiven if he hadn’t despaired and if he had repented and turned back to God. Both deeply regret their betrayals but they handled their regret in different ways.
How do we handle the regrets in our lives? Do we let guilt and bitterness destroy us, or do refuse to despair and turn to God?
The Corrupted: Pilate and Caiaphas
Lord Acton famously said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the Passion narrative we see how corrosive power was to two players on the stage – Caiaphas and Pilate. Caiaphas uses his power to insist on Jesus’ execution after a trumped up charge before an illegal trial. Caiaphas uses his power to bump up the charges of blasphemy and puts pressure on Pilate to sentence Jesus to death – something Caiaphas had no power to order. Pilate’s primary task was to keep the peace. Pilate tries to defuse the situation but ultimately acts out of fear of the crowd rather than a desire to do justice.
Since Pilate’s day we have seen politician after politician follow the crowd rather than do justice. We have seen people put to death and oppressed in the Middle East and North Africa in recent weeks because they dare call for justice and reform. History is littered by people who are killed for expediency – yet God continues to work in the background; bringing justice where there is none on earth.
We may be tempted to use such power as we have unwisely but we need to remember that we will ultimately face a higher judgement than any court of law or public opinion and will have to give an account of ourselves before the one who has all power yet who is not corrupted.
Accidental Actors – Barrabas and Simon of Cyrene
Neither Simon or Barrabas were willing actors in this tragedy, both are known to history through being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Barrabas comes off rather well out of it all – he is pardoned despite committing crimes against the political order. Simon, a visitor from North Africa, was made to help carry the Cross. We know little about either of them, nor what happened to them after that first Good Friday – they disappear back into the mists of history. We don’t know how their involvement in the Passion affected them. Both were affected by Jesus – either as a reprieved criminal or innocent bystander.
They reacted in different ways to Jesus – how do we react when freed from our chains? How do we react when forced to do something unpleasant? How do we react when Jesus passes by and his shadow falls on us?
As the drama moves to Calvary we focus on the two people crucified with Jesus. We know nothing about them, not even their names. All we know is they were bandits who had been found guilty of some serious crime. One is bitter and taunts Jesus, the other finds faith in him. Matthew doesn’t record the encounter with the repentant bandit, but St Luke does. In Matthew the portrait of Calvary is very bleak – Jesus is put to death with two bandits who mock him with their last gasps of breath. At the end of his life Jesus faces public shame. We of course know what happens next but if we place ourselves with the observers at the Cross all will seem hopeless and despondent.
When we are in the midst of pain and abandonment we don’t know how our own story of life will continue. We don’t know what happens next. Peter had the wit to wait, Judas despaired and so never saw Easter and the power of resurrection. Sometimes when we are low the only thing we can do is to pray for strength to wait for the dawn.
The Witnesses – The Women and the Centurion
What for me is most striking in the debates about women priests is the rather odd argument that Jesus chose none of his disciples from amongst the women. I’m not sure this is true as women are always listed as being part of Jesus’ group. The male disciples ran away but at the cross the women stood there to the end. Women were the first witnesses of the resurrection so my guess is that Jesus’ community included women and men and they were all used in various leadership functions.
At the cross the women stood sharing Jesus’ darkness and despair. Jesus is not wholly bereft of friends in his agony. But there is also some light in the darkness with the Centurion who recognises Jesus’ divinity in the moment of his death. Having seen Jesus' body give out after a torturous and shameful execution, the centurion recognizes who Jesus truly was: God's son. Though not a witness of Jesus' healing miracles, his impassioned mountaintop sermon, or the dazzling transfiguration, the centurion bears witness to the latest in a litany of crucifixions he has seen and yet sees and declares that Jesus was no mere criminal.
In the darkest moments of life we can sometimes see God at work. In those darkest moments there is often nothing we can do other than to be there, just as the women were at the cross. Helpless yet helping.
At the Edge
In different ways all the people we’ve considered today are at the edge of the story. Jesus is always at the centre, but the other people come into focus in Matthew’s presentation of the Passion and then fade away. All of them make us reflect on Jesus. Those who betrayed him and the different choices they then made – to despair or hope – make us reflect on how we react to our own sin and failure. Those who used power, or who were afraid to use their power make us reflect on how we use the power and influence we have. Those accidental actors, who were dragged in from the sidelines, make us wonder how we’d react when we’re unwittingly dragged in to other people’s lives and crises. Those who were condemned reacted in different ways to Jesus in the midst of their darkest hour and make us ponder how we respond to him in the depths of our despair. The final witnesses to his death make us reflect on how we can help when there is nothing to be done. All these figures, almost incidental to Matthew’s presentation of the Passion, lead us to reflect on how we react and respond to Jesus in the everyday lives we live. These are themes we can reflect on as we journey through this Holy Week together.