Thursday 9 April 2009

The trial of Jesus: a Maundy Thursday sermon

A sermon by Douglas Harink

Text: John 18-19

In the real world, in the big scheme of scheme of things, what did Jesus achieve, really? Think about it.

If we scan over Jesus’ life and deeds from the time of his baptism to the day of his crucifixion what real change in history did he bring about. The people he healed from diseases sooner or later became ill or old, and died. Even Lazarus whom he raised from the dead was at some later time dead and buried again, and his decaying body began to stink again. Those crowds to whom Jesus gave bread and fish to eat – what good was it to them? They became hungry again the very next day. The huxters and profiteers which he drove out of the temple one day – they just returned the next day to continue exploiting the poor. Where is the new economic order? Those who were rulers in Jerusalem and those who were rulers in Rome were not shaken from their seats of power. The systems they put in place and promoted and protected remained unchanged, despite his criticism of them. Where is the new world order of justice and peace for all?

There was in fact a moment when Jesus could have made a “real” difference, a brief moment when history was on his side, or he was on the side of history, and maybe everything might have been different. One day he rode into the royal city of Jerusalem, the city of the great king, and was royally hailed and hosannahed by the crowds as the one who would change everything, at least for the Jews who suffered under the Romans, but maybe for the whole world too. The power to overthrow the oppressor was at that moment his. The power to deliver his people from bondage was at that moment his. The power to bring about a just social and economic order was at that moment his. History was his for the making. He needed only to take control of its reins, to steer it to the glorious goal for which his people yearned – for which he himself yearned.

But he didn’t. Not even close! No sooner was Jesus crowned the Coming Great Messiah by a massive democratic upsurge, than he began to do everything he should not have done if he truly was the Coming One. He seems to have set himself up for the violent opposition; he seems to have just handed himself over to the powers; he seems to have simply given up control to those who really should not have it at all – because look, after all, at the destructive and oppressive mess they have made of it.

And so, Jesus is arrested, and put on trial – and who knows the end that all of that will come to? Well… we do, don’t we. And so, in the real world, in the big scheme of things, in terms of bringing about health and welfare and justice and peace for all, Jesus’ mediocre messianic mission comes a miserable end. What, really, did he achieve anyway?

But wait a minute! Why does Jesus step forward without hesitation when the police and soldiers come to ask for him and arrest him, and boldly declare, “I am he”? Why do the armed men fall to the ground, and not he? And why does he stand without fear before the high priest and hide nothing of what he has been up to from him? Why does he not flinch when one of the officers of the peace strikes him hard on the face? And the crown of thorns and the purple robe and the wooden sceptre that the soldiers dress Jesus up in – why is that he in fact looks strangely and truly royal in them? And why is it so obvious that the joke is really on the mocking soldiers, and not on him?

And why does Jesus face the governing authority as an equal, or more than an equal, and put the governor’s questions right back to him? Why does Jesus claim to possess an authority and sovereignty and government in himself which the real-world governor seems to know nothing about – an authority which is not established and maintained by swords and guns and tanks and bombs? After all, doesn’t this governor, this Pilate, represent the only power and sovereignty that matters in the real world of economics and politics and law, the supreme power to control history and its outcomes, the power to decide who gets bread and who doesn’t, the power to bind and free, the power to determine who lives and who dies. Pilate himself declares to Jesus, “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?”

Why is it that Jesus utters no demand for justice, no plea that his cause be heard, no call for witnesses to testify on his behalf? And why does he so not look or act like a victim? Who is this man – in reality? Everything is not as it seems.

Wait a minute! What if nothing is as it seems?

What if health is not finally about a balanced diet and lots of exercise, one bowel movement per day, and a regular visit to the doctor? What if it looks like sickness?

And what if life is not finally about getting a few more pain-free years added to my short time, whether through a good drug plan, or a medical miracle, or even a temporary resurrection by Jesus himself? What if it looks like death?

And what if truth is not finally about facts and claims and arguments and justifications and trumping and winning? What if it looks like silence?

And what if justice is not finally about making sure everyone gets an equal share of the goods, even though there’s barely enough to go around, and no-one comes out ahead? What if it looks like giving away everything I have?

And what if making history is not the ability to bring about the great and glorious kingdom of justice, liberty and peace for all, even if it requires that, through my power, one, or a few, or even very many have to sacrifice themselves or be sacrificed to get to that goal, which we all desire? What if making history looks like stripping to the waist, kneeling down, and scraping sod and mud and blood from someone’s feet?

And what if power is not the right to determine who eats and who doesn’t, who stays in prison and who goes free, who is executed and who gets to live? What if power looks like mercy all the way down?

Wait a minute! What if nothing is as it seems? The so-called “real world” is starting to spin. Am I crazy? Is there something I don’t know? Is the Real World anything but what I thought it was?

What if nothing is as it seems? What if Jesus is not on trial at all? What if those crying out “Crucify him!” are the ones on trial? What if those who are hitting him, and flogging him, and mocking him, and driving in the nails are the ones on trial? What if the high priest of the Jews is on trial? What if the Roman governor is on trial? What if I am on trial? What if you are on trial?

Wait a minute! What if … What if the Real is that bloody, suffocating body of human flesh now hanging there, nailed to a cross? What if the Real is that water and that blood spilling out there from his wounded side, being soaked up by the ground?



Steve Martin said...

The 'real' truth of it is that they didn't want Him then...and we don't want Him now.

He really knew that.

And yet dies a real death on a real cross, that we might really be forgiven.

bruce hamill said...

Fantastic sermon Doug. Thanks.

kim fabricius said...

Just the disturbing, potent good news I needed to hear as I set off to preside at an ecumenical Good Friday eucharist. Thanks, Doug.

Anonymous said...

What if in Truth and Reality there is no HIS-story and none of this is really happening. Or never happened.

Or put in another way that it is a collective trance or dream state which varies from culture to culture.

Or from the great Bard: His-story is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury and signifying nothing at all.

What the Hindus refer to as Maya.

Merrily, merrily life is but a dream.

Weekend Fisher said...

Douglas - Thank you.

Take care & God bless

Brad East said...

Thank you for the sermon, and, having recently been deeply impacted by Paul Among the Postliberals, thank you for your work as a whole, too.

Like Kim said above, this is exactly what we need to hear.

Anonymous said...

History is the dream of reason and theology. As long as man believes in this dream and seeks to acquire an historical identity, he remains unconscious of the fact that he is a bridge between the cosmic realms of heaven and earth. Within the dream man's hopes will always focus on a future utopia ( even the second coming of Christ) that tragically is progressively manifested as a kakatopia, a psychotechnological intensification of hell on earth. His only escape from this fatal circle is to wake up from the dream and realize a cosmic, mythic, and fundamentally timeless identity.

The moment the church decided to become a worldly power it inevitably became a key player in this ever intensifying deadly drama. All of the horrors perpetrated by the agents of the church are terrible proof of this. Right up to now in April 2009.

Joyce: "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."

His Finnegans Wake was an attempt so to do, but it did not work. Could not. You cant think yourself out of the trap or nightmare.

Nevertheless the book was effectively a wake re the then ruins of Western culture which had reached its dreadful end-game scenario in the two World Wars.

It has been downhill ever since. And no amount of theology, or sermons, is going to make the slightest bit of difference.

roger flyer said...

This finds me in the crowd trying to read his scratches in the dirt...

Anonymous said...

You have a eucharist on Good Friday?

kim fabricius said...

Yeah, Patrick. Here in south Wales, with the local Methodists and Baptists, we proclaim the Lord's death, until he comes.

Ted Michael Morgan said...

And the people say, "Amen."

Thank you.

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