Tuesday of Holy Week - Choral Evensong

  • Preacher

    The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove

  • Readings

    John 18.33-40

Crucified by the Politics, Holy Week Address by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove

Last night, while I was speaking to you in this Cathedral, another Cathedral was on fire. It was shocking to come out of evensong to be confronted by images of Nôtre Dame engulfed by a catastrophic blaze.

That great church is, to millions of people (and not only francophiles like me), the mystic heart of France. It’s the emblem of a nation’s soul. It’s been movingnti watch how this disaster has been felt so deeply by people of many faiths and no faith at all, as well as by Christians across the world. That it should happen in Holy Week heightens the sense that something very terrible happened last evening to this ancient place of pilgrimage and prayer.

Today we try to express the solidarity we feel as fellow Christians especially as those who love these great cathedrals like the one we are sitting in now. We reach out to the people of France in their grief - a sorrow we share as fellow Europeans and her nearest neighbours and friends on this continent.

In the past hours, everyone has been clear that Nôtre Dame will rise again. Of course it must, of course it will, as certainly as we shall celebrate the resurrection this coming Easter morning. Meanwhile, we pray for the people of France as together we continue on our journey through these days of Holy Week, towards the resurrection that beckons to us from the other side of the cross.


The story of the crucifixion is deeply political. We can’t get away from the way politics and religion are intertwined in the passion narrative. Yesterday we looked at the world of religion before which Jesus was crucified. We saw how “dark” religion could resort to coercion and violence to achieve its ends, in this case, Jesus’ death. Tonight I want to look at the way St John shines a light on the politics of the passion story, shows us that when Jesus Christ stands before Pontius Pilate, it’s nothing less than two kingdoms, two world orders, two civilisations that are encountering each other.
We are inside the Praetorium, the seat of Roman authority in the province. The religious authorities have handed Jesus over to Pilate, to the only jurisdiction competent to try him and condemn him to death. As I said yesterday, religion, theology, the idea that Jesus might have committed blasphemy by claiming to be God’s Son was of no concern to Romans. What didconcern them was any movement that would undermine the authority of Rome, for instance by denying to the emperor the absolute loyalty that was due to him on the part of all who were his subjects. Hapless Pilate was the local guarantor of Roman order. It was a shrewd move on the part of the temple authorities to construe Jesus’ offence not as religious in character but political.

What kind of man was Pontius Pilate? I know no better words to sum up his character than these, from a sermon by the Victorian preacher F. W. Robertson. “Pilate had been a public man.  He knew life: had mixed much with the world's business and the world's politics: had come across a multiplicity of opinions, and gained a smattering of them all.  He knew how many philosophies and religions pretended to an exclusive possession of Truth: and how the pretensions of each were overthrown by the other.  And his incredulity was but a specimen of the scepticism fashionable in his day.  The polished scepticism of a polished, educated Roman, a sagacious man of the world, too much behind the scenes of public life to trust professions of goodness or disinterestedness, or to believe in enthusiasm and a sublime life.  And his merciful language, and his desire to save Jesus, was precisely the liberalism current in our day as in his - an utter disbelief in the truths of a world unseen, but at the same time an easy, careless toleration, a half-benevolent, half-indolent unwillingness to molest poor dreamers who chose to believe in such superstitions.” 

What is at stake in the Praetorium is power, and how it is wielded. As St John presents it, this dialogue between Jesus and Pilate is the archetypal clash of civilisations. Pilate is the spokesman of one kind of civilisation, the city that is, many would say, the crown of human achievement. Who does not admire Roman civilisation with its hierarchies of authority, its love of order, its legal system, its arts and letters, its politics? Whether you walk the Roman Forum or the camps and townships of the Roman Wall where I live, you cannot but celebrate “the glory that was Rome” and like St Benedict and St Bede, reflect on the benefits it brought as it shaped European civilisation down the centuries. 

Yet all this belongs to a kingdom of this world, a civilisation that for all its splendour was destined to crumble into dust. Civilisations, like human beings, are mortal. World empires have their day, and then, maybe wasting away over centuries or perhaps quite suddenly through some dog-leg in history no-one could foresee, they dissolve leaving behind them only artefacts and tombstones and texts to remember them by. And although Pilate’s imperial Rome had four centuries left to run, and the best emperors like Trajan and Hadrian and Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius were yet to come, this kingdom would fall one day, all “pride of man and earthly glory”. 

Contrast the kingdom Jesus speaks for as he faces his accuser in the Praetorium. His replies to the agitated Pilate are amongst the noblest words ever uttered. “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Fighting, not only with physical weapons as Peter has already tried to do at Jesus’s arrest in the garden, but the armoury of rhetoric and resistance we resort to when we are threatened. This king only has one weapon, as he goes on to tell Pilate. “You say that I am a king. For this was I born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” This is the language, not of the coercive power that Pilate knows about, but the different kind of power that belongs to this kingdom Jesus is speaking of. It is the power of truth. 

Politics is often as uninterested in truth as Pilate was when he tossed the question into the air, “What is truth?” and left without waiting for the answer. But truth is everything in life, not simply truth-telling but truth-living, truth that means integrity, authenticity, trustworthiness. When the prologue to the Fourth Gospel says of the incarnate Word that “we beheld his glory, as of the only-begotten of the Father”, he is affirmed to be “full of grace and truth”. Or as he himself has said only hours before when he was with his disciples in the upper room, “I am the way, the truth and life” or as we might translate it, “the way that is the living Truth”. What confronts Pilate in the Praetorium, if only he could see it, is living Truth embodied before his very eyes, living Truth that has walked this earth and befriended humanity, living Truth that unveils the mystery of God, the mind and heart of Divinity. 

Pilate has no understanding of any of this, though I dare say he was perhaps haunted, if not by old tales of gods who disguised themselves as human beings, or if not, then by his own uneasy conscience. It’s true that Pilate half-believes that Jesus is innocent, sees through the protestations of the crowd, knows what his duty is. It’s also true that Pilate did not plan any of this, did not personally wish Jesus harm. Which only makes him all the more guilty, I think, of the terrible betrayal he commits in handing him over to be crucified. A better man than he, less compromised by his office, less inclined to please the mob, less afraid of the circumstances he finds himself caught up in would have acted differently. He would have acted not out of expediency but principle, not out of fear but justice, out of care and respect, even, for a fellow human being. 

“It is expedient that one man should die for the people so that the whole nation may not perish.” Those words taint the memory of Pilate as much they do of Caiaphas who uttered them. Between them, Caiaphas and Pilate, the emblems of religion and politics are the vice that hold Jesus tightly in their grip until he is nailed to the cross. It’s as true to say that politics crucified him as much as religion did. But it’s differently true. From early on in the gospels, faith leaders have had the consistent intention of having Jesus put to death because he is too great a risk to keep alive, this man whose words and works have threatened to bring the architecture of organised religion crashing down. 

With Pilate and the political system he represents, it’s more a case of events and how they conspire to bring about Jesus’ death. If you had heard Pilate’s account of what took place it might have gone something like this. Passover is always a volatile time. With myriads of pilgrims surging through the narrow streets of the city and emotions running high, you can never predict what is going to happen next. It took just a few hours for the mood of the crowd to turn ugly, egged on by religious leaders who were baying for blood. Events happened at a speed that took people by surprise. Politics calls for swift decisions at times like these, and because the stability of the body politic is at stake, it’s not principle but expediency that rules. What has to give in order for things to quieten down? A life has to give: that’s the answer, given up, laid down, offered on behalf of the people. And all in the interests of solving today’s problem as efficiently as possible.

Sometimes innocence is up against the politics of wickedness. I recently read the war photographer Don McCullin’s autobiography. You can see his shattering images at an exhibition at Tate Britain that is on at the moment. They make for difficult viewing, and the book for difficult reading. You are exposed to so much pain, so much needless suffering, so much that human beings have wilfully inflicted on one another in places like Viet Nam, Biafra, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Iraq. These are among the contemporary places of crucifixion. McCullin speaks of photography as “bearing witness” to human atrocity, seeking in his own way to uncover the truth of things. He writes about how he can never “un-see” sights that will haunt him for the rest of his days. Which is why he has taken to photographing Somerset landscapes to calm his troubled soul and find peace in his old age. 

More often, I think, innocence is up against the politics of muddle and confusion. A crisis happens. Leaders have to respond. With what insight, what capacity to think beyond the short term, resist the temptation of expediency and consider the larger narratives of history, that is the question every wise leader ponders. Failure to do this results in crucifixions beyond number. The fact that they are the result of negligence rather than ill-will does not make them less terrible to those who suffer them, or less culpable on the part of those who bear responsibility and hold the lives of others in their hands. The politics of our time are branded with this casual irresponsibility about consequences. Take Brexit. Take the proliferation of food banks and the rising tide of homelessness on our streets. Take the threats to the planet posed by the climate emergency and the alarming collapse of the world’s biodiversity. Muddle, confusion and negligence are written all over these crises and our lack of collective will to address them. 

The word crisis literally means “judgment”. It’s a word often on the lips of Jesus in St John, meaning not so much last judgment as the choice we must all make between standing for truth or for falsehood, light or shadow, wisdom or folly. “I came into this world for judgment” he says, “so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind”. And this is precisely what we see when we watch Jesus being interrogated by Pilate – or is it the other way around? - this clash of civilisations, this collision of two cities, this eternal drama of falsehood and truth. Pilate does not know it, but this crisis of the crucifixion is God’s judgment on him and on the politics of negligence he stands for. It is God’s judgment for all time on our great refusals when it comes to taking decisive action for the good of our neighbour and the future of our race and our planet. “I said you are gods” says the Psalm about failed human leaders, quoted by Jesus earlier in this gospel. “I said you are gods; nevertheless you shall die like mortals.” That day has come. It is here, at Golgotha. “Now is the judgment of the world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.”

I said yesterday that the cross is God’s judgment on the kind of religion that oppresses and destroys people. Today we see how it is also a judgment on the politics of wickedness and the politics of negligence. But judgment does not stand alone in God’s dealings with the human race. In the Praetorium, the judgment-hall, Jesus tells Pilate that he is bearing witness to a kingdom “not of this world”, that he has come into the world “to testify to the truth”. We are back to the grace and truth we behold in the Incarnation as we gaze upon the face of the Son of God. Back to tenderness and self-giving love. They too are a judgment upon us insofar as we refuse to contemplate a life based on those values. Could there be a politics based on grace and truth, on tenderness and self-giving love? 

That’s the question the cross puts to us in Holy Week. The future of the planet, the future of the human race depends upon it.