Sermon - 13th April 2014
The Passion of Jesus Christ
Scripture - Matthew 26 and 27
Revd Andy Braunston
The long Passion reading we’ve just heard tells the story that we mark in Holy Week and has been commented on already, very effectively, in the words of Samuel Crossman’s great hymn My Song is Love Unknown – this makes the task of the preacher on Palm Sunday rather more difficult than usual! Palm Sunday is also interesting in that we turn from the joy and rejoicing at the start of the service – just as on that first Palm Sunday – to the jeering crowds baying for Jesus’ blood which anticipates Good Friday. In many ways Palm Sunday is a microcosm of Holy Week itself. There is much emotion in our reading and reflection today – and in our coming week – and there is a theme running through both our readings which we should explore – who acts with God’s authority?
Who Acts with God’s Authority?
As we read, or listen, to the readings today we see that a number of people seek to act in the name of God – the chief priest and leaders of the people, the people themselves who seem to know what God wants, Pilate even has authority and Jesus (in St John’s Gospel) tells him that his authority comes from God – a fact which rather stumps Pilate. The only person in the story who truly can speak for God is silent most of the time. In our own age many seek to speak for God – church leaders, commentators, at times even politicians – Mr Cameron made a surprising statement this week that his Big Society Agenda comes from Jesus’ own ministry. So what do we learn from those seeking to speak for God?
The Chief Priests and Leaders of the People
We don't know much about the chief priests and leaders of the people. We know that they had a difficult task in trying to steer the people in a time of occupation by a foreign, and hostile, power. After the return from Exile the priests took on a central part in the leadership of the Jewish people. The Temple was rebuilt, the Old Testament, more or less, as we know it now took its shape and the priestly caste and Temple authorities saw their task as preserving the Jewish faith and identity and transmitting it to a generation of people who had been brought up in Exile. Just as, in the UK, after the Second World War society became more conservative, so after the return from Exile the Jewish people were led in a more conservative way as they tried to reassert their own cultural and religious identity.
After the Roman invasion the Jewish people had little hope of an independent political life – though that is what they hoped for in their longing for the Messiah – and the leaders of the people, and the Temple authorities had to create a sort of buffer between the Romans and the people. The Romans wanted good order and taxes, the people wanted to live as free people. The leaders had to try and steer a path between these two desires; not an easy task.
Jesus threatened them on almost every level.
In his preaching he lambasted the dominant religious grouping the Pharisees – he called them hypocrites and whitewashed tombs. He critiqued the way they used the Jewish Law to get in the way of what God required, he broke bits of the Law that he felt unimportant and we see from the Gospel stories that they were out to get him all the time.
He was very popular with the crowds with his teaching based on every day life, his disregard of the holy people and his connection with the poor and ordinary people of his day. His healing miracles meant that his teaching authority was heightened and the Pharisees couldn't compete.
And then Jesus really upset the Temple authorities when he over threw the money changers tables and attacked the authorities for turning the Temple into a den of thieves. He was lucky, on that occasion, to get away without being arrested but clearly, this man was dangerous.
So the chief priests and leaders of the people had to get rid of Jesus. He threatened them but he didn't just threaten their own power, they were worried that the Romans would get wind of Jesus, his message and his popularity. The Romans were always worried that some figure would come along and lead a revolt – the Jews were always threatening to revolt and, if they did, the chief priests and leaders of the people would be held to account for it. They were the leaders of the people, they represented the people to God and God to the people. They were in control, they spoke for God, and God required the people to be safe, to prosper, to wait for better times. So Jesus had to go. It was what God wanted – they were sure.
The People Themselves
The people seem to be all over the place not only in today's long passage but in the Gospel itself. Jesus had spent three years in public ministry, had healed the sick, proclaimed the Good News to the poor, had taught people of God's imminence and of the coming Kingdom. The crowds flocked to him and seemed to love him. They were yearning for the long-promised Messiah who would set them free from Roman oppression, make them proud to be Jewish again and would rule justly unlike the Romans or Herod their puppet.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem fulfilling Old Testament prophecy, and in stark contrast to Pilate's troops coming in the other side of the City, he raised expectations to fever pitch – here was their long-promised Messiah. Maybe things would change now. Maybe the Romans could be kicked out. The people acclaimed Jesus as their king (and probably sealed his fate in the eyes of the chief priests and leaders of the people) and they cried out with their joy, acclaimed him as their king and, more, acclaimed him as being sent by God. The people just knew Jesus was from God. They were sure. So they celebrated and proclaimed him as their king.
Yet, just a few days later it was as if God had changed His mind. The crowds that acclaimed him were now easily turned by their leaders to bay for his blood. No longer was he king, but now a trouble-maker, a false prophet, a danger to them. Now it was expedient to kill him, maybe this is what God wanted. We shouldn't be too surprised, we can see how easily public opinion can change over a whole range of things. In our own age the media can raise people up yet bring them down with a headline. The media don't really do God – they just act in a God-like way.
And then we have the Romans who, I think, the Gospel writers try hard to present in as good a way as possible – difficult when you remember that Jesus was tried, tortured and killed under Roman law. Yet Pilate's wife warns Pilate off, Pilate seems reluctant – or perhaps he's just weak – to execute Jesus (offering instead just to have him whipped!) and washes his hands of him, and the Centurion professes faith in Jesus. None of these claim to speak for God – yet Pilate is reminded that his authority comes from God, Pilate's wife may have interpreted her dream as having a divine source and the Centurion recognises Jesus as the Son of God.
The Romans come off well as the Gospel writers wanted to spread the Gospel in the Roman world. Easier to blame the Jewish leaders than to blame the Romans. Yet the arrogance of Empire couldn't cope with a troublesome prophet like Jesus and despite dreams, faith and weak leadership Jesus' fate was sealed. It was expedient that Jesus should be killed, the crowd appeased by the release of Barrabas and relationships with the local leaders improved. A good solution all round.
And in the midst of this drama stands Jesus who says very little. He shows his contempt for the chief priests and refuses to answer their questions until, eventually, making claims of divinity for himself. He says even less to Pilate in St Matthew's account – just the “you say so” defiant answer. Jesus doesn't seem to recognise the authority that he faces. Maybe he saw them as having lost all legitimacy, maybe he saw them as betraying their own God-given purpose just as he raged loudly against the money changers maybe now his rage was silent contempt for these folk who had no idea of what God wanted yet dared to exercise God-given authority. And so he silently goes to his death.
So we have lots of people having God-given authority and all but one of them misusing it. The leaders of the people use their God-given authority to condemn God, the crowds use their authority to release a brigand and condemn their newly acclaimed king, Pilate chooses to appease those who speak in the name of God and not to have the courage of his own conscience, and, Jesus, the one who could have used his power and authority to overturn all this chooses not to use his authority as he knew the plan required him to submit, for a time, to the forces of darkness.
All this makes me wonder how we use the different types of authority and power we have. Each of us has some power, each of us has some authority – though we may not recognise it.
As some of you may know my own congregation has a particular ministry with asylum seekers. We've found that we've got quite a bit of power – if those of us who are British citizens write letters of support and give evidence in Asylum Tribunals our friends tend to get asylum. They are believed if nice middle class British people give evidence on their behalf – shocking really but it's a way of exercising power.
- We have power over how we spend our money – what we buy, what we give away, how we use our money to effect change.
- We have power in how we vote – more power in marginal constituencies than in safe seats to be fair – but a degree of power nevertheless. We have power when we lobby MPs and councillors, lots of power when we do it together.
- If we're members of the Church we have the power and authority, together, to discern the mind of Christ over the particular issues that we discuss in Church Meeting.
- If we're managers we have power and authority over others. As a pastor I have the odd position of both having some authority based on my role and of being ordained to be a servant – and ministers tend to struggle to be one or other or to fuse both roles.
In each of our lives we have power and authority to greater, or lesser, degrees – just like the chief priests, leaders of the people, the crowd, the Romans and Jesus all had power and authority. The issue for us is to discern about how best to use that power and authority.
- Will we use our power and authority for good or will we watch from the sidelines?
- Will we use our power and authority to speak out against injustice – even if that means going against the trend – and risk being seen as odd?
- Will we use our power and authority to help advance the coming Kingdom or will we hope someone else does?
Which of the characters we've considered this morning will we most emulate – the Machiavellian leaders, the duplicitous crowds, the weak Governor, or the quietly defiant Jesus?
Will you pray with me?
Loving Lord Jesus,
help us to follow you this week,
and every week.
Help us to recognise the authority that we have,
and the authority that we're under.
Help us to use our authority and power for good,
help us to use our influence to create justice,
help us to use our lives for your Kingdom,
even if it costs us,
even if it makes others ridicule us
even if it leads us to the cross.