Good Friday – 1. Caiaphas and Pilate: Fear of Change
Canon Treasurer - Revd Canon Leanne Roberts
This Holy Week, we have been journeying together towards the cross
We have heard, again, the story of Jesus’ last days: his meal with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus and his disciples; his prediction of his death to the crowds that followed him; his washing of his disciples’ feet to demonstrate his great commandment to love; Judas’ subsequent betrayal, sealed with a kiss.
And now, Jesus is arrested and tried and sentenced to be crucified. We know this story well – we know what’s coming, the agony, the humiliation, the eventual triumph over death.
But in Holy Week, we are not just following a well-known story. We revisit this narrative, time after time, because it is vital (as is our immersion in it); because it speaks a profound truth about ourselves, our inner life, our communal life, our own passion journey from life to death to fullness of life. This is not only something that happened to someone we love and revere. This is inherently about us – every single one of us, whether we are aware of it or not
This week, we’ve been considering how to look those fears in the face that stop us living as resurrected people, living in the Kingdom of God here and now. So today, as we consider Jesus’ encounter with the religious and political authorities of his day, I would like to reflect on fear of change.
This wandering teacher, with his small band of disciples, appeared to be a catastrophic threat, and it is worth wondering why. He had no army. He preached about love and life. He treated those he encountered with compassion and respect, however beyond the pale they were according to society.
But he also spoke truth. In fact, he embodied truth: the way, the truth, the life. He held up a mirror to those who were determined to stick to the status quo, to keep power where they felt it belonged, to consider human life as collateral damage in their wranglings.
‘This is not what God intended’, Jesus imparts in all his teaching and living. ‘This is not the Kingdom of God’.
Perhaps the authorities, those led by Caiaphas and Pilate in their different spheres, sensed that the people, burdened by religious law and political subjugation, were ripe for change. That this new message might take hold, and strip them of their power and – perhaps more frighteningly – their certainties: the certainty that authority, and law, and brute force would inevitably win the day. ‘Twas ever thus.
So when confronted by another way, a greater authority, the most profound truth that speaks to the heart of what it is to be human, whoever you are, whatever your place in the pecking order, the only option, it seemed, was to turn away or to destroy. Get rid of the terrifying, disturbing, understanding they perceived in this man Jesus through acquiescence, cunning, attack.
Some glimpsed truth in his crown of thorns. But it was less risky and more exciting to get swept along with the carefully constructed public hysteria. Less disturbing and more self-soothing to stick with the plan, keep things more or less how they’d always been.
We do not have to wrack our brains to come up with similar situations today. Pilate’s question, ‘What is truth?’, is as pertinent now as ever. We are tired of being lied to, tired of discrimination and inequality, tired of political necessity trumping human need and potential. And yet the problems and tragedies and injustices we see each day – on the news, and in our own lives – persist, and show no sign of abating.
Jesus’ teaching is as subversive and compelling now as it was when he entered Jerusalem for the last time. So why isn’t it transforming the world – why aren’t we transforming the world – as such a message might demand? Iris Murdoch, in her play Above the Gods, puts this into the mouth of Plato:
‘Religion isn’t just a feeling, it isn’t just a hypothesis, it’s not like something we happen not to know, and God who might perhaps be there isn’t a God; it’s got to be necessary, it’s got to be certain, it’s got to be proved by the whole of life, it’s got to be the magnetic centre of everything.’
‘It’s got to be the magnetic centre of everything.’ The Church must surely hold this as the body of Christ on earth. We are Jesus’ hands, feet, eyes, mouth. We are called to inhabit the Kingdom of God by using every shred of love we can muster to ensure that every person is also invited into the Kingdom.
And yet we are part of a Church which, while glorious, good, compassionate in parts, is also that institution which can be the very power that tells some of us that, if we are faithful, if we are worthy, if we are disciples we must also be constrained, limited, and sometimes even less than human.
While Jesus calls us to be fully alive, truthful to ourselves and how we were created, we must also face the tragic realization that the body which seeks to represent him, to preach liberation and truth and fullness of life can give a very different message to those who are both within, and without.
Our experience can be that we are too female, not female enough, too black, too gay, too uneducated, too educated, too opinionated, too ‘different’ to be allowed to be fully ourselves, fully alive within this Kingdom about which we preach.
Because change is frightening. Change brings about the upside-down world Jesus preaches, where the powerful are brought down, the rich sent away empty, the poor inherit the Kingdom of God; a world in which ambition, envy, status and pride have no place. A world that demands we should be alert at every moment to the refreshing, challenging, persistent calling of the Holy Spirit, and respond accordingly.
That would be some change, indeed.
A poem, Breathing Under Water, by Sr Carol Bialock:
I built my house by the sea. Not on the sands, mind you;
not on the shifting sand. And I built it of rock.
A strong house
by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance,
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always, the fence of sand our barrier,
always, the sand between.
And then one day,
-and I still don’t know how it happened -
the sea came.
Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning. That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbors,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.
When the Spirit of God comes calling, we can flee, we can drown, we can let our faith die; or we can learn to breathe a different way. This is both personal and communal.
We cannot sit on the sidelines – or on Twitter, or at dinner parties with our friends – grumbling about how our world is a mess and our politicians are rotten and Putin is a psychopath and our children are hungry and our Church is stuck fast in a mess of battles and self-righteousness, without being willing to glance in the mirror Jesus, in his crown of thorns, holds up to each of us; without allowing ourselves to be aware of the searing, uncompromising call of the Spirit of God.
On this day of all days, let us contemplate, with as much honesty as we can muster, the ways in which we fight against the change that is required for us to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God right now.
Let us consider how we might redeploy our passion and energy from keeping us as if safe in our half-lived lives towards the radical generosity and hospitality and inclusion that are the hallmarks of the Kingdom and the wind of the Holy Spirit.
As Jesus gazes at us from his cross in compassion, nothing less is demanded of us.