A sermon by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor
“When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside. He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” They cried out, “away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”
It is at this point where the darkness completely overwhelms us. We recognise in the events leading up to the crucifixion of Christ, the events which we re-enact in liturgies, in song, and in our own minds eye each year as we tell our stories of faith, we recognise ourselves in the various characters whose lives intersect with Christ’s as he makes his way towards Golgotha. In this story we find our own stories, has the extraordinary events of Christ’s final hours paradoxically and mysteriously retell the breaths the heights and depths of the human condition. The stumbling, faltering account of humanity’s relationship with God.
Ours are the voices that cry ‘hosanna’ on Palm Sunday. We find in those noisy end chaotic crowds thronging the streets our own excitement and glee at discovering this extraordinary story of a man who feeds the hungry, heals the sick, talks to the outcast, takes everyone seriously. We know in ourselves the way that our hearts can rise up in worship, at the promise of the possibility of a bigger world to live in.
We recognise also ourselves in those bleary eyed people in the garden. Could you not watch with me one hour? We recognise the fickleness and the transience of our faith, our seemingly never-ending capacity to be distracted by something else. Our failures to pray, our failure to prioritise the important because the urgent or the easy monopolise our lives.
We recognise ourselves in the fear and confusion of the disciples as Jesus is taken away during the night to be tried. We recognise our inability to make decisions, and our second-guessing of the decisions we do make. We recognise our desire, like one of the disciples, to lash out, to strike out, to inflict pain when we are frightened.
And above all we recognise ourselves amongst the crowd in that conversation with Pontius Pilate. We recognise, too, our shame, that we too easily and too often deny that we belong. It is simply easier for the crowd at that moment, worked up as they are into a frenzy, seemingly committed to a course of action, to make that ultimate of collapses of personal integrity, and to align themselves with the Roman authority structure which they themselves hate, because what it is going to gain them is a victory in the short term. I think of all the exchanges in Scripture, and certainly all of those in the Passion narrative, this is probably the most chilling:
“Shall I crucify your King?”
“We have no king but Caesar.”
A European hymn that we don’t often sing anymore puts it thus:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.
As the Victorian Good Friday hymn puts it, “we may not know, we cannot tell” exactly what was happening on the Good Friday morning which led the crowd to this extraordinary act of mob mentality, but we recognise, don’t we, in this account, that rather seductive of human sins which is to simply follow the crowd. We can only hypothesise as to how many people there on the street home that Jerusalem day had any real comprehension of what they were crying out for. Yes, we know that there were minds at work that day, as they had been working for days and weeks beforehand to bring Jesus’ public ministry to an end, to silence his dissenting voice, to maintain the status quo and bolster up the power both of the Roman occupiers but also of the Jewish religious elite. There was too much in what Christ was saying which challenged the comfortably held assertions about who was in and who was out, about whose voice matters, about what it means to be whole, about what it means to be right with God. There were certainly people there that resented the language of whitewashed sepulchres and blind guides, and who desperately wanted, needed even, this voice to fall silent.
But there were those there are of course as well who had no idea of those details. Those who I suspect were simply caught up in whatever you want to describe it: crowd mentality, group delusion, seduced by the excitement and the thrill of this annual festival day of the amnesty of one Roman prisoner. And the crowd turns, and the voices become nastier and nastier, and suddenly everybody shouting “crucify him!”, And when Roman official himself, Pontius Pilate, tries to calm people down and give them away out by appealing to the strange notion of a Jewish Messiah, the crowd by then is too far gone: “we have no king but Caesar.”
Falling in with the crowd is such a seductive thing. It is such an easy thing. And we see it happen across the world, across Europe, and within our own nation and community. And we will see it happen in the coming months. Overly simplistic soundbite driven communities have and will spring up over Europe, over the refugee crisis, over who should be the next president of the United States of America, as they have and will in the church over sexuality, over who should be allowed to be ordained or married. In every community where opinions are divided the temptation to fall into factions and simply follow the crowd without thinking about what it is that we are doing is present, and dangerous, and can be almost overwhelming. And it is not worthy of us, and it is not worthy of our freedom.
And into this maelstrom, bowed down by the weight of the sins of broken humanity in the shape of a wooden cross staggers Christ. And when you gaze upon the instruments of Christ’s passion, as you will do in a few moments time - some of you will even bear them in the procession - spear, nails, a whip, shroud, and the rest of them, and as we follow the stark wooden cross into the sanctuary in front of the desolate altar, and as we hear the heartbreakingly rending sound of the reproaches, “O my people how have I offended you? Answer me!” , well we can look at the crucifixion as some sort of wrathful action by a furious God so appalled by the mire of sin in which we stumble that he needs to do something about it, and there are theologies that want to say something like that, but to me it looks rather more like the most extraordinary act of love.
What kind of God is it who, faced with this crowd, this angry blundering, unthinking crowd whipped up by jealous and desperate people most interested in maintaining their own social status, is able to entirely defuse it through this extraordinary act of self-giving? The cross is not a symbol of vengeance or anger. The cross is the ultimate symbol of love. The reason the darkness doesn’t win, the reason that you and I and society can say things like “we have no king but Caesar” and yet still be God’s welcome, beloved children is that God isn’t playing the same game as us. The crowd influence things through fear and intimidation: ultimately through power. Christ is entirely uninterested in power and that is why he is our King. As he topples forward into oblivion at 3 o’clock on that Good Friday afternoon, as Pilate’s nerve weakens and the “crowd’s voices prevail” and the people sell-out to the Caesar that they usually hate, love wins.
Love wins because love is not reliant on strength, or on numbers in the crowd, or on intimidating its opponents. Love doesn’t need a majority, and love doesn’t need to look impressive, or dignified, or particularly attractive. Love just needs to be love. And so the crowd’s voices prevail, and the darkness closes over Christ, and for the sake of us, and for our salvation, the 33-year-old story of the Word incarnate reaches its conclusion and the mother of the babe of Bethlehem watches him breathe his last.
And as he breathes his last he is victorious. Defusing the deception that you need to shout the loudest to be heard, defusing the deception that to get on in life you need to be the centre of everything, defusing the deception that power and is our King, and our sins are forgiven, and we can come home, and love wins.