Notes from a sermon preached on Good Friday 2009 (10.04.09)
For many the sound of the William Tell Overture will conjure up memories of radio and TV westerns with a masked man with American Indian companion confronting conflicts and problems, with the famous question, ‘Who was that masked man?’
Whilst the Lone Ranger may now be a figure of the past, others queue up to take his place. Superheroes with their secret identities are all the rage on the big screen right now, with Spiderman, Superman, the Hulk, X-Men and Watchmen generating big bucks at the box office. Again the question is asked by those who come across them, ‘Who is that masked man?’
There is another such figure who has hit the screens again in recent years whose identity prompts the same question – who is that man? Films such as the Da Vinci Code and The Passion by Mel Gibson have thrust him back into public consciousness, if he ever went away. Last year at this time, the BBC made their own adaptation of the passion story, the last week of Jesus’ life.
There are many haunting portrayals of Jesus’ final week before his was crucified, not the least those of the Gospels themselves. Whenever I read them I am left asking that same question, who was that man? In many ways, that’s what the rest of the New Testament is about, trying to answer this riddle that the Gospels present. Who was he? What did he stand for? Why did he die? What did his death achieve?
Today’s passage in many ways focuses no this mystery as Jesus is jostled from one kangaroo court to another.
The Council of Elders
It starts with the chief priests and the teachers of the law, the council of elders. They are the ones who have detained Jesus with the help of the Temple guard. Jesus is thrown before them at first light, and they demand of him, ‘If you are the Christ, tell us.” In other words, who are you? Are you just a man? Or are you God’s chosen one, the one sent in his power and authority that has been long awaited?
This figure of the Christ is one that emerges gradually in the Old Testament. Hint by hint, the suggestion of someone coming in God’s power and authority develops, one who will restore Israel to her former glory, a king like David, a prophet like Moses. One who will set her people free! And yet this Messiah remains in the shadows, unclear, disguised. They do not know what he will look like and when he will come. At the time of Jesus, many thought that in those days of occupation by the Romans, the time for the coming of God’s Saviour was nigh…
Was Jesus that man? The religious leaders pose the question that was on many lips, and it hangs there in the air for us today. Was Jesus the Christ, God’s appointed one?
Of course, they had already made up their mind. It was not Jesus. This question was just to give them, the excuse they were looking for to dismiss him, to remove him. If he said no, then it was all over. If he said yes, that was blasphemy.
Are you the Christ?… They did not expect the answer they got, ‘I’m not going to tell you, as you wouldn’t believe me even if I was!’ They certainly didn’t expect what he suggested next…
Off to Pilate. Again the question rears its head. Who is this man? Here’s a trouble maker who preaches rebellion against the state… There’s a contemporary ring to that isn’t there. Pilate, here’s someone preaching race hate, campaigning against taxation, radicalising the people. He claims to be the king! So goes their suggestion – not what they really think though is it. Pilate is a sharper politician than they thought though. He wants to find out for himself. Perhaps he sees through their motives…
‘Who are you?’
Perhaps he sees in Jesus a deluded preacher. Perhaps he sees him as a challenger to the religious leaders, but no more. He certainly doesn’t see him as a threat. ‘I find no basis of a charge against him!’ But the Council won’t back down. They press their allegations, and to Herod he goes…
Herod’s heard of Jesus. He’s heard of the walking on water, the feeding of the five thousand. Maybe even rumours of Lazaras. News like that spreads. Jesus is the hot property on the entertainment circuit, the darling of the Tabloids and Glossies. Eat your heart out David Blaine they announce. This man is the real deal, a true magician!
You know what they say about meeting your idols? Herod was disappointed. Jesus was nothing like the figure he’d been told about. The hype failed to live up to the reality. No tricks on show here. No illusions. No response to his demands or questions. ‘Who are you?’ When no answer comes, no display of power, Herod concludes he’s a joke. He’s got one illusion of his own, and egged on by the jeering troops and priests, he drapes a royal robe upon Jesus’ shoulders – look, the masked man has become a king indeed!
Back With Pilate
But Pilate’s not into jokes right now. Perhaps being woken first thing has put him in a bad mood! He just wants shot of the Jews and their accusations. I see nothing wrong with this man. I’ll humour you by having him flogged, but that’s it, then he’s out of here. But the gathered crowd aren’t so keen…
The BBC’s Passion last year suggested that the crowd were in fact a rent-a-mob gathered together by the Jewish leaders. Although the Gospels don’t say as much, it makes sense. Not everyone is against Christ – there’s a crowd that follows him to his crucifixion, mourning his loss – but here not a voice cries out in his support. How else would they know about Jesus being presented to Pilate?
Remember Peter the night before warming himself beside a fire, whilst denying three times that he knew Jesus? What follows is a strange contrast. The crowd keep calling for Barabbas to be released instead of Jesus. Three times Pilate appeals to them, saying that Jesus is innocent. The crowd cannot be appeased though, and Pilate finally relents. Jesus, the innocent one, is locked up awaiting execution, whilst Barabbas, the guilty on, goes free. Isn’t it strange that unlike Peter, the Jew, Pilate, the Roman Gentile resists the temptation to deny Jesus. And yet, despite this, in the end both Jew and Gentile abandon Jesus to his death… What is Luke trying to say here? In the innocent Jesus taking the guilty Barabbas’ place? And in Jesus being denied by Peter, and yet defended by Pilate? But how about when Pilate finally gives in, and surrenders Jesus to his fate?
The Jewish Leaders are guilty. Pilate is guilty. Herod is guilty. The crowd are guilty. Both Jews and Gentiles are guilty. Even the disciples are guilty – Peter as well as Judas. Jesus, the innocent man, is killed because no one stopped it from happening. Jesus is killed because no one was prepared to find out who he really was…
But Who Is He Really?
The danger of thinking about Jesus is that we decide who he is. As with the characters in this story, we look for what we want to see, what our labels suggest, and what our prejudices want – or don’t want. Rather than us trying to decide who he is, perhaps we should let him talk for himself.
• What does it say about Jesus that we find him hanging between two Criminals rather than in the court seated alongside Herod, or presiding over the ceremonies alongside the priests?
• What does it say that as the voyeurs watch him, the rulers sneer at him, the soldiers mock him, and one of the criminals throws insults at him, what does it say about him when Jesus says nothing, does nothing?
• Why does Luke point out the humiliation of Jesus losing even his clothes which are gambled for by the guards below?
• What does the irony of the sign ‘King of the Jews’ above a man hung on a tree, cursed by God, reveal about him?
• How about when he dies? The sky goes dark, the earth shakes and the curtain separating the people and God in the Temple tears in two – what does this mean?
To the women following him, he tells them to mourn for what is about to happen to them rather than what is happening to him. About those executing him, he asks his Father to forgive them as they don’t know what he is doing. To the criminal who asks to be remembered by Jesus in his kingdom, he says he will be there with him in paradise. And as he dies, he cries out, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’
Jesus identity is marked by power, but not power as the religious leaders and political top-cats know it. It is marked by the power of extreme forgiveness, forgiveness offered to friends and enemies. It is marked by surrendering the chance to save your self in order to save others, including those who’ve betrayed you or let you down. It is marked by the wealth of relationship, the Son offering relationship that lasts beyond even the grave, security in the Father.
The apparent end of this King is marked by irony. The King of the Jews is so different from the kings of his day – and indeed ours – that he is rejected; not recognised by his religion or by his country. But this is not to say that all reject him. A Centurion – a Roman occupier – announces him as a righteous man, and the women, so often rejected by their time, are those mourning him before and after his crucifixion.
All that is left is a question. Who is that masked man?