Monday of Holy Week - Choral Evensong

  • Preacher

    The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove

  • Readings

    John 18.12-14, 19-24

Crucified by Religion, Holy Week Address by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove

Religion should be a force for good in human life. It should ennoble us, give us stature and dignity, inspire and equip us to become the men and women God made us to be in his own image and likeness in the world. It should make us just and compassionate and kind. Above all it should be a liberating power in life and in society, for the truth should make us free. This is why we come to places like this cathedral, where through worship and prayer we glimpse how we could become better versions of ourselves, more whole. 

But what if religion goes bad, becomes instead a force that diminishes us, oppresses us, narrows our perspective, makes us domineering, judgmental or cruel? What if religion becomes a persecuting force that instead of imparting freedom starts denying it to its adherents or still more to those who follow different paths? What if it crucifies those who do not conform to its principles? All this can happen when religion turns in on itself, starts insisting on its own literal truth, becomes a rigid system that diverts it from being a means to a greater good into serving its distorted end? I’ve been reading a book called Dark Religion: Fundamentalism from the Perspective of Jungian Psychology*. No-one needs to be persuaded that dark religion is real enough in our world today.

In my mind has been a famous poem of William Blake from his Songs of Innocence and Experience: 

I went to the Garden of Love, 
And saw what I never had seen: 
A chapel was built in the midst, 
Where I used to play on the green. 

And the gates of this chapel were shut, 
And “Thou shalt not” writ over the door; 
So I turned to the Garden of Love, 
That so many sweet flowers bore. 

And I saw it was filled with graves, 
And tomb-stones where flowers should be: 
And priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds, 
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

This Holy Week I’m exploring the different “worlds” in which Jesus is crucified. Yesterday we reflected on the city that Jesus arrives at on Palm Sunday. Tonight’s passage places us in the garden where Jesus has just been arrested, and straight away takes us into the first trial he must face, his interrogation by the religious authorities represented by Annas, and Caiaphas his son-in-law who was high priest at that time. 

Jesus is inside being asked, says John, “about his disciples and about his teaching”. At precisely the same moment, Peter is outside, one of the disciples the high-priest wants to know about, outside warming himself by the fire and denying that he knows anything about Jesus. Inside the religious organisation levels accusations against the Son of God; outside, personal faith fails comprehensively. It is not a good night for religion. 

We have come across Caiaphas earlier in St John’s Gospel. After the raising of Lazarus, he and the pharisees are concerned about Jesus’ growing influence: “if we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” You can hear the anxiety. This man must be guarded against, otherwise Israel’s sacred institutions are at risk. And Caiaphas, the spokesman of organised religion, is clear about the order of priorities. The shrine comes first, then the people. And he makes the kind of judgment institutional leaders often make when stability is put at risk. There must be a sacrificial victim. “Better for one man to die than for the whole nation to be destroyed.” It is Jesus’ death-sentence. And it is organised religion that signs it. 

We need to understand what “religion” is up to here. By themselves, the religious authorities had no power to put Jesus to death. Nor would the Romans be interested in the theological niceties of his claim to be the Son of God. Caiaphas had to demonstrate that Jesus was a threat to good civil order, that he subverted the authority of the Emperor himself. When it comes to public affairs in Judaea under the procuratorship of Pontius Pilate, this is how we need to read the passion narrative. Jesus dies as the political victim, a prisoner of conscience you might say. And if the priests and pharisees could lay responsibility squarely on Pilate and the empire he represents, so much the better. Religion must not have blood on its hands. 

I’m saying that before Jesus becomes the victim of politics, he is the victim of religion. All the gospels paint a picture of religious controversy surrounding Jesus from the very outset, arguments and debates that erupt into outright hostility. There is an ominous hint early on, when he has thrown the money-changers out of the temple. He is asked by what authority he does this. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” he replies, a highly enigmatic response calculated to baffle his audience. From then on, he is a watched man. And he himself is careful not to entrust himself to anyone, says John, for his hour has not yet come. And although in St John, Jesus frequents the temple more than in any other gospel, there is a wariness after this episode that Jesus knows people will not forget. He loves the native faith of his upbringing, practises it with a devotion unmatched in any other adherent, we can be sure. He is a loyal son of Abraham. And yet he is increasingly at odds with it, or rather, with what it has become. I think we can say that to Jesus in all four gospels, the temple represents both the best and the worst of organised religion. It symbolises the potential for divine transcendence but also the hardening of humans’ best instincts for kindness, charity and justice. When religion goes sclerotic, things can only end badly.

There is something deeply paradoxical about saying that religion crucified Jesus, that he was a victim of a dysfunctional way of believing. The paradox is magnified by the realisation that in history, some of the worst crimes against humanity have been perpetrated in his very name. Think of the Crusades and the slaughter of millions of Moslems. Think of the Albigensians, the Inquisition, the Wars of Religion in Europe, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France, all persecuting believers who wanted to follow Christ in their own way. Think of the German national churches that were complicit in the Nazi holocaust. You think this is all a matter of history in far-off places? Ask many women to tell you how they have experienced the church. Ask people of colour. Ask your LGBT friends. Ask the victims of clergy who have abused children. Some of these people will say that they too have been crucified. Ask yourselves whether dark religion is really a thing of the past, even among Christians. 

Please don’t think that I’m hostile to organised religion. Far from it. You can’t be a dean for twenty years without believing in the potential of institutions like cathedrals to do very great good. When institutions function well, when their leaders behave justly, when their members are treated fairly, when they exhibit justice and compassion in the public square, then their power to change the world is great indeed. If God loves humanity, then he must love human institutions too, for we cannot organise ourselves as societies and communities without them. 

And as I read the Hebrew Bible, I’m struck by how much it invests in the temple as an institution. When Solomon dedicated the temple he had built, he uttered a prayer that was as comprehensive as the world itself, beseeching the Almighty to make it a focus for God’s love, blessing, forgiveness and reconciliation. And when it was rebuilt after the exile, the new temple was to be called “a house of prayer for all peoples”. The temple was to be nothing less than a sacrament of Yahweh’s holiness, his sacred presence in the midst of the people he had chosen as his own. Which is why the prophets were scandalised when it failed to live up to that noble vision, why Jesus protests so vehemently at the way the authorities had poured the poison of injustice and corruption into its soul. 

How can a diseased institution be healed? How can organised religion in its many global manifestations be redeemed from the long shadow it casts? The answer, I think, lies precisely in the cross that it is capable of wielding so destructively. If we weaponise the cross, then its potential to cause damage to the human race is limitless. When the cross becomes a force with which to oppress others (the literal meaning of the word crusader), it reverts to its original function in the Roman state as an ugly instrument of cruelty. 

But St John’s image of the crucifixion is the direct antithesis of this. It is true, as we shall see on Good Friday, that in the Fourth Gospel, the cross is the great work Jesus has come into the world to complete. It is true that the cross is the throne where he reigns gloriously as king. It is true that the cross expresses God’s ultimate victory over all that would resist his reign of truth. All this is encapsulated in the last word Jesus speaks from the cross in St John: not a whisper of resignation but a cry of triumph. Tetelestai! “It is accomplished!” 

But all this has to be understood in the way John intends it. For him, the spirit of the cross lies in the act Jesus has performed for his disciples in the upper room the night before his death. In taking the towel, stooping down and washing their feet, Jesus takes the form of a slave, as St Paul puts it in one of his letters. “He emptied himself” says that famous passage, made the supreme sacrifice as we say of those who have laid down their lives for their friends. In that act of self-giving, kenosis, you have the most profound meaning that the cross carries. That is to say, it is the embodiment of love: the love that has nothing to give but itself, is empty-handed but for its infinite embrace of us all, the love that is capable of being endlessly refused and rejected and hurt, yet for all that is patient and kind, will wait an eternity if that is how long it takes to win the creation back to its Creator and reconcile all things to the God who out of love gave it its capacity to exist and be free. 

In Holy Week the cross faces us with all our flaws and failures and ambivalences. We know that it is the power of God for salvation, that if we walk in its way it will give us the strength to face our life-task and learn to live out of this love that is so precarious and vulnerable. And if institutional religion once crucified Jesus and still does, then it too needs to turn itself back to the cross and consider what it means to live in its kindly light. I believe that it is vastly more important that we cultivate being a cross-shaped church than a mission-shaped church. For a church that turns its back on triumphalism, knows its own vulnerabilities, glimpses how the love and forgiveness of the cross are the most transformative power the world has ever seen, and lives out these realities with the conviction that nothing could matter more - such a church will in its very nature be shaped as a sacrament of divine love. Such a church that lives and breathes the events of Holy Week will be the best invitation there could be for the human family to discover how “love is that liquor sweet and most divine / which my God feels as blood, and I as wine” as George Herbert puts it. 

Religion crucified the Lord of Glory. But his cross has borne its griefs and carried its sorrows. It can heal the church, renew it and set it free to become an agent of self-giving love in the world. That needs to be part of our praying through Holy Week as we bring to the cross our world, our church and our own deepest selves.