s017g02 Lockleys Palm Sunday 24/3/2002

"Are you the King of the Jews" - Matthew 27.11

It is significant that Pilate asked this question, really the parallel question to the one which the religious authorities asked: "tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God" - Matthew 26.64. On both occasions it is also significant that Jesus gave essentially noncommittal answers. To the religious authorities Jesus answers "You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power " and to Pilate: "You say so".

Of course we all believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the King of Israel, but we ought to be cautious in any assessment that Jesus was killed because he claimed these special titles. The reality is that consistently Jesus distanced himself from such claims. To have claimed either secular or religious authority was an invitation to either the religious or secular authorities to kill him with impunity. It would have made their decision just so easy, it would have given them just the excuse they needed.

After Cain killed Abel, God meets Cain and asks him "Where is your brother?" The classic reply comes back: "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4:9). Of course Cain knew where Abel was and he was trying to wriggle out of responsibility for the murder he had just committed. We should see the evasion for what it is. Why should we believe the justifications of those who had Jesus killed?

Now the reality is that Jesus spent his entire ministry avoiding special titles. He kept commanding silence to those people who had "twigged" to who they thought he was.

And Jesus didn't equivocate in order to avoid the Cross. He was quite sure in his own mind that that was going to be the logical outcome of the events. The question then becomes why did he equivocate?

Now it is not, in my opinion, a case of excessive modesty on Jesus' part. The real difficulty was that such titles blind people to the real reason the religious authorities acted against Jesus. For if Jesus had claimed a special status before God and as a consequence the authorities acted against Jesus, they may well have been right to do so.

It is always interesting to follow the leads that a "chain reference" Bible gives. The religious authorities seem to equate claiming to be someone special as blasphemy, whereas, in my definition, blasphemy is simply cursing God. Blasphemy, cursing God, is not something that Jesus, as far as we know, ever did. Even on the Cross he didn't do that.

The provisions under which the religious authorities acted were more likely to be those of Deuteronomy 13 and 17.2-7, where those who tried to turn people from the worship of God were to be stoned. Interestingly, as I looked up the various references, I found out that parents could bring a rebellious child to the elders, claim that he was a "glutton and a drunkard" and get him stoned also. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). This seems a useful thing for parents to remember though I find it interesting that female children are not mentioned &endash; they were obviously never rebellious or never caught. They probably just got their brothers into trouble! Again it is interesting that immediately following the passage about rebellious children is the law that a person, if they were hung rather than stoned, must not be left overnight &endash; a passage which finds it's significance at Jesus' death. And the authorities did accuse Jesus of being a glutton and a drunkard.

I got to this stage of my sermon, then I happened to attend a service where a very eloquent priest was preaching. His subject was a defence of the true Catholic faith, fixed and unalterable, once for all, passed down from scripture to the saints, and diametrically opposed to some modern "deviations" from it. As I reflected on these words, I thought that this particular mixture of "scriptural" and "high-church" doctrine was probably what I was supposed to turn out like, as I went through College. The ethos of the College was high church and biblically based - though, of course, a "monoculture" exists nowhere, least of all in a theological college! It was good to have this remarkable sermon to consider. It really made me realise how far I have travelled as a person - and perhaps also why it has taken me the considerable number of years it has to be confident enough to articulate my own faith. I suppose some may look at me and say I have failed to support the "right faith" - the traditions in which I was brought up. People may lament that I don't speak up for this tradition, particularly as "persuasively" as this preacher was able to do.

But this theology, and of course this particular tradition is no different in this respect from any other, refused to allow me to explore my own faith. I am meant to conform to faith - not explore my faith. I am reminded of the book: "Mister God, this is Anna" and her horror of the sign "Don't walk on the grass".

Of course we are meant to take notice of what scripture and the traditions of the Church say, but much more important is to explore what we as individuals believe. For God touches my life as well as yours. It does not make me any better a person, for the important thing is to realise that this touching is universal, and we are bidden to respect the perceptions of others, not compete with them.

And as I thought about this, I suddenly realised that it is no wonder that people have to be persuaded to believe what is essentially external; when, of course, if we allow ourselves and others to explore our own faith, praise and worship will never be silenced.

If Jesus was turning people away from the worship of God and towards concern for the other - then this accusation is quite true. If the religious authorities thought that this is what Jesus was doing then, in one sense, they were completely justified in their accusation and actions. So focussing on who Jesus was actually doesn't tell us the real reason why Jesus was killed and how therefore we are to follow in his footsteps.

But of course any accusation that Jesus was trying to turn people from the worship of God is quite unjustified. The reality of Palm Sunday is that we celebrate Jesus opening of the gates to worship, for all and sundry to enter, the blind and the lame, the poor and the outcast, all to whom the religious institution of the day actually denied free access.

Today, the last Sunday in our Lenten journey, and the last of the trilogy of gospel accounts - each of which enraged the authorities: the healing of the man born blind, the raising of Lazarus. Today the opening up of worship to all people was the final straw. They were not going to share the privileges of worship with the riffraff. Far from being the cleansing of the Temple, today's actions in fact opened access to each and every person.

So the trilogy for us means being open to God's works being revealed in others as well as ourselves, us breathing life into all of humanity by this acceptance, and allowing others full and free access to the worship of God along with us.

As I listened to the eloquent preacher, I realised he is welcome to his views, but I wouldn't want to go back to preaching such an "orthodoxy". I rejoice that I have been loosed from those bonds, and I would want the same loosing for all people. I rejoice that the faith I express is mine and others are welcome to their own faith and expression.

The preacher condemns himself to an eternal and thankless task of trying to get everyone else to think and believe as he does - which, if the world hasn't taught us anything, it has surely shown us that this is entirely futile. And if something is essentially futile, it is simply beyond my comprehension that God would have us spend a lifetime chasing such a unattainable goal. The preacher is welcome to that task, but I have no desire to emulate it.

I should say in deference to my old theological college, the Warden of the day said that he was once asked to join a "Society for the Defence of the Catholic Faith". He declined, saying that if the Catholic Faith needed defending it wasn't worth believing. And I would say the same of God. If God needed defending, believing God is worth nothing and such a "god" isn't worth worshipping.

I conclude by saying that my reading of the gospel story is that Jesus was turning people away from the worship of God, towards the "worth-ship" of others. Our worship of God, however beautiful, orthodox or whatever, it might be - if it is at the expense of someone else, it is always deficient.


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