s022ag99 Somerton Park Good Friday 2/4/99

""If you are the Son of God, come down from the Cross" In the same way the chief priests .. the scribes and elders were mocking him ..." Matthew 27:40,41

I began to prepare this sermon at the beginning of Lent, and of course at the beginning of Lent we have echoing in our minds the words of God at Jesus' Baptism and Transfiguration: "You are my Son ..." and we recall in the temptation of Jesus by the devil in the wilderness: "If you are the Son of God - turn these stones into loaves of bread ... thrown yourself down ..." We are meant to see the parallel that, at the end, it is not the devil but the religious authorities, lay and ordained, who bid Jesus disbelieve what God had said and prove it to them.

Shortly before I started the preparation of this sermon I received in the piles of mail a brochure for a simple explanation of Christianity, and in cartoon form, it started with the proposition that Jesus was crucified because he claimed to be the Son of God, which the authorities considered blasphemous. I suspect that this is a very commonly held view of the motivation behind the series of events that led to Jesus crucifixion. But I have begun to think that we need to be careful, for I have no doubt that the religious authorities might well have rationalised that this was why they had Jesus crucified. However it might as easily been a convenient excuse. The real reason they crucified Jesus may well be quite different.

The Church has often been in the habit of jumping to conclusions about how the Bible should be interpreted. So when Cain, desperately trying to wriggle out of responsibility for killing his brother Abel in cold blood, questions God "Am I my brother's keeper?" - the Church has often jumped in: "Of course we are!". I point out that God (rather more wisely) doesn't in fact answer this question - but gets back to the real point. Of course we are "our brother's keeper" in the sense that we don't harm our brother - we are responsible for our own actions towards our brother or sister. However we are not "our brother's keeper" in the sense of being responsible for our brother or sister's actions towards themselves or others. They may choose to do something to themselves or to others, and it is their responsibility not ours. How many people have fallen (or been pushed) into the trap of forever feeling responsible for the ills of the world, when in all probability others have much more responsibility and duck it. How many people have done this in the name of religion or Christianity?

Getting back to the claim that Jesus was the Son of God - the reason we assume Jesus was crucified becomes the basic first premise, from which everything else follows. But we end up commending everyone who believes Jesus is the Son of God (despite what they do or don't do in life) and condemning everyone who doesn't (despite what they do or don't do in life.) At the end of the logical process we find the standard of judgment is essentially IDENTICAL to the reason we put forward for the religious authorities crucifying Jesus.

However I want to suggest that this "simple explanation" of blasphemy actually does not really square with the biblical evidence. I for one do not see Jesus as pictured in the gospel accounts waving a big banner proclaiming himself the Son of God, the Messiah or whatever, and inviting one and all to join in following him - treating those who do believe as special and condemning those who don't believe to purgatory and death.

As we read through the account of the raising of Lazarus on Passion Sunday - I noted the couple of times it was stated that Jesus particularly loved Lazarus. Jesus was bidden to come with the message: "Lord, he whom you love is ill." (John 11:3). And we are told when he wept the Jews concluded how much Jesus loved Lazarus. And I thought when the words about staying away for a further two days - was Jesus amongst people he didn't love? Surely not! The point is that Jesus loved and loves everyone.

Consistently throughout the gospel accounts I read of Jesus commanding silence about his healings, about the vision on the high mountain and in fact running away from the crowds who wanted to make him King after the feeding of the multitude. He shoos his disciples away at the crucial hour of his arrest - they were only getting in the way.

Logically, if Jesus was the Son of God, why would he seek to hide this fact from others? Indeed could Jesus in some senses be responsible for his own death - when he failed to "live up to" the power he possessed - when he failed to recruit more than twelve plus a few women (he still had his mother in his entourage - of what use would she be?) Shouldn't Jesus have accepted the help his disciples might have proffered? Perhaps Jesus should have done St Paul's trick and played off the Pharisees against the Sadducees (Acts 23.6). The reality of the matter is that Jesus could have easily avoided the Cross by feigning delusion at the last minute, or in fact doing what the religious authorities said and come down from the Cross.

Is it not significant that if Jesus' primary aim was to get humanity to believe he was the Son of God, he would indeed have done as the authorities suggested? That he did not - means we are left with the uncomfortable conclusion that this was not Jesus primary motivation at all. If this was not Jesus' primary motivation then we are not following Jesus very accurately if we spend our ministries trying to convince others to believe that Jesus was the Son of God.

Of course the orthodox text books talk about "the messianic secret" as Jesus growing discernment of his own messiah-ship - and of not wishing to be misunderstood by his disciples. Are we so sure of our own understanding of the messiah-ship of Jesus to ignore the command to silence? Are we so much "better" than those who knew him intimately?

Another option is that Jesus had a growing realisation of his own Messiah-ship. However when I read the gospel accounts, I see little evidence of self doubt in Jesus. It is not that I think the Jesus who stands behind the gospel accounts did not suffer times of self questioning and doubt - otherwise the words of God to him at his baptism and transfiguration were only addressed to those about him - not to Jesus at all. To me this would make the incidences elaborate stage productions - not real - a Cecil B de Mille epic. But the writers, describing the Jesus they knew and loved and sought to follow, betray no hint of any self doubt.

Jesus is confident of his purpose and mission - even from the age of twelve he was "in my Father's house" (Lk 2.49)

So we can confidently assume that the command to silence cannot be attributed to any self doubt on the part of Jesus.

There is logically another possibility - that from the religious authorities point of view - they could have assumed that Jesus was proclaiming himself the "Son of God" every where else but was denying it in front of them. In this view they assumed that Jesus hadn't yet been successful enough in gathering sufficient followers to mount a concerted attack on the religious and political establishment - so he demurs from an open proclamation of who he is - biding his time until he can marshal his forces. The authorities choose to "nip it in the bud" before it got out of hand. Perhaps the very provocative act of clearing out the traders blocking entrance to the Temple didn't have it's desired effect - didn't rally enough support. But as I read the story, the "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem was when Jesus had maximum following (Matthew 21.1-11) - but by the time he gets to the Temple the crowd seems to have vanished and Jesus alone clears away the barriers (Matthew 21:12-13) allowing "the blind and the lame" to come to be cured (21.14). This theory might be explicable to the authorities, but it still really doesn't square with the general command to silence which Jesus so frequently enjoined from the beginning. Nowhere in the gospel accounts do I read of Jesus ever saying: "Don't tell the authorities ..." If Jesus was not proclaiming who he really was, but just biding his time, we read that he did little to extricate himself from the situation in order to bring about his "true purpose" - the overthrow of the religious / political establishment and to set himself up as the leader of the new Israel.

I want to suggest that far from believing that Jesus was someone they could dismiss easily, the evidence suggests that the religious authorities had begun to fear that in fact they couldn't dismiss Jesus easily. If Jesus was delusional or a con artist eventually that would have become plain for all to see. While he might have indeed been eliminated, no one would have been bothered to mark his passing with any regret. They were neither silly nor fools. But Jesus was clearly not delusional and he spoke far too few words to be taken for a con man. The evidence for their fear is, of course, that they wanted the Roman authorities to do the deed.

Here was this man Jesus - not really claiming to be anyone special - who had a rag tag set of followers. Why would the authorities kill him? Indeed, Mark tells us that "some (amongst the gathering of the high priest, the chief priests, the elders and the scribes - Mark 14.52) began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him ..." (Mk 14.65) One commentator suggests it is a bit like charging the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury with such actions!

So if we can assume that Jesus wasn't claiming to be anyone special or demanding others proclaim him so why were the authorities so very angry? They were angry because Jesus, whoever he was, had taken something away from them - and the thing that Jesus had taken away from them was their sense of moral, ethical and religious superiority. He did this when he accepted the offerings of the people he travelled everywhere to meet.

And indeed of course it was not the first time that Jesus had provoked such a reaction. Luke tells us that Jesus' friends and neighbours, the people who he had grown up with, those he had worshipped with every sabbath, those who knew his father was Joseph and his family, expelled them from their town and wanted to throw him off the brow of the hill to kill him. Why this extreme reaction? Because, we are told, he stated plainly two truths from the Scripture - that "Elijah was sent to none" (of the widows in Israel, but) "to a widow of Zarephath in Sidon" and that Elisha cleansed, not one of the many lepers in Israel at the time, but only "Naaman the Syrian" (Luke 4.26,27). They attempted to kill Jesus because they perceived that Jesus was saying God loved the alien - and that he was coming to bring a truly egalitarian society.

I want to suggest that the charge of blasphemy is an excuse for the religious authorities to hide from the fact that Jesus took away their power - their desire to cling to their exclusivity.

The question then needs to be asked if we don't see that to not recognise that Jesus didn't claim to be Son of God, and the charge of blasphemy was to avoid an uncomfortable truth; our proclaiming of Jesus as the Son of God may similarly be to help us avoid the uncomfortable truth that we too are not meant to have power and authority over others - moral, ethical or religious power over others.

The crucifixion is as uncomfortable to us as it was to the religious authorities of Jesus' time. Perhaps it is not too far fetched to suggest that we "crucify" Jesus every time we demand belief from others rather than accepting them for who they are. If we believe that: "All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being." (John 1:3) we also need to hear the word: "He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him." (John 1:11). Being "God's" was no guarantee then, nor is it a guarantee now, of recognising the divine in others.

If Jesus didn't claim to be anyone special, do we "follow" Jesus by proclaiming that Christians are special or that Christianity is special and that everyone must become like us? Perhaps we here in Church might need to hear that word of forgiveness by Jesus - as much as anyone out (there?) in the world - "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do". (Luke 23.34)

 

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