Sunday 13th April 2014, Revd Philip Webb
Some would have you believe that the terrible events of that first Passion Week were just a horrible mistake. Jesus pushed his luck too far, his enemies decided that enough was enough; the political machine went into action and rolled over him in an attempt to crush him and his followers and the threat they represented to the status quo, to the power and privilege enjoyed by the ruling classes.
But then read John’s account of those days, and ask yourself again, “Who’s in charge?” It is not “The Jews” as he describes the power elite in Jerusalem. It isn’t the howling mob that bays for his blood. It isn’t even Pilate. Somehow as we read John’s account of these events, against all the odds it is clearly Jesus, bloodied but unbowed, completely in control of the moment right up to his death on the Cross. His final words? “It is finished!” It is a fascinating Greek word – it doesn’t mean “it is over” but rather “We have scored! We have won! We have reached our destination! We’ve accomplished all we set out to do!”
This is the final whistle as the ball sails over the crossbar to win the greatest championship of all, the winning run hit out of the ground. It is the last word of a dissertation, the final brick in a great building, the last brush stroke on a masterpiece. The work is done. Victory is achieved! But all they saw was a limp, lifeless body hanging on a cross. How could that be?
Well, like the disciples and all the others who saw the events of that terrible day when the Son of God was crucified you will have to wait a few days for the good news of Easter, but today we can still take time to look again at what John tells us about Jesus on trial for his life. In his account there is an almost unearthly calm about the Saviour. I don’t look forward to operations, or to having a tooth out. I get anxious, even if I have been through it before. I worry about tests and examinations. I have no idea how I would feel if I were ever arrested and brought to court for something I hadn’t done. But not Jesus. At every moment he is the one who appears calm and in control. No courtroom dramas, no parliamentary histrionics. It must have been very unsettling to those who thought they were in charge to see him, this solitary figure, bullied and abused, yet standing there so calm and confident in their midst.
Who is he? The King of the Jews, perhaps? That is what Pilate asks. Jesus doesn’t reply directly – but he has already told us who he is. John gives us a clue in the Garden of Gethsemane when the armed militia turned up to seize him. “We want Jesus of Nazareth”, they say. And he replies with the last of the great “I am” sayings, one often overlooked in that canon. He says, unthinkably for a Jew, “I am he”! To our ears that just sounds like good grammar, more polite than “Yeah, that’s me”. But <I am> is the great name of God himself, defined by and to be compared with none but himself. As such no pious Jew ever voiced those words. You might have expected Jesus to say, “You are looking at him” or “he is the one speaking to you now”, but when he says this he is saying “I am one with God, his living Son.” No wonder the crowd took a step back! Throughout this account John tells his readers that the events of that Good Friday are not a scrabbling around in the midst of overwhelming disaster – they are the precise out-workings of God’s plan.
So try to imagine yourself in that judgement hall for a moment where Jesus stood before Pilate. They called it “Gabbatha” or “the pavement”. You can go there still, for there is a site in Jerusalem to this day which is said to be where Jesus and Pilate met. But with this reading I always go back in my mind to an imagined account by W. Forbush that I read many years ago. Listen to this, and picture the scene for yourself .
<<Pilate confronts the Jewish leaders and says to them, “This man you have brought before me charged with misleading the people. But I have examined him and found him innocent of every one of the things of which you accuse him… I shall have him flogged and then release him.”
It was an outrageous decision. Flogging, which was done in those days by leather thongs with iron ends, was so sever a punishment that victims often died beneath the blows.
In another half an hour Jesus was led before them once again. Again Pilate and Jesus stood face to face on the raised portico. Even Pilate was overwhelmed with contrition. The soldiers had thrown an old red cloak over his bleeding shoulders; they had crushed a crown of sharp briars on his forehead, and they had stuck a reed I his hand to make him appear like a mock king. He was pale, trembling, fainting. But in silent courage and dignity he never seemed the true king of mankind that he was more than now.
As Pilate turned to look at him the morning sun broke through a cloud to light the Saviour’s form. It lit his hair and the crude crown of thorns turning it into a coronet of glory starred with the rubies of his blood. It lit his eagle face and deep eyes with a touch of tender beauty. It fell upon the bound hands that had reached out in mercy so often. It stole down to the worn and patient feet, now entering upon their last journey.
And Pilate, as he looked, started back in superstitious terror …. He pointed to him in silence; then said, in brief eloquence, “Behold! The Man!”
The real greatness of Jesus was clear. Not eloquence, not deeds of power, not courage – great as they are and greatly as Jesus possessed them. The greatness of Jesus was love. No-one ever loved like this man.>>
So who is in charge? Clearly not Pilate, the Roman Governor! Three times he tries to release Jesus and three times he fails in the face of Jewish bluster and political blackmail.
The Jewish authorities? No, not them either. They have no authority over Jesus. They can’t sentence him to death as they want because the Romans wouldn’t allow it. That’s why they bring Jesus to Pilate on trumped up charges of treason and given the option choose instead to have mercy shown to Barabbas who really was a murderous terrorist. They are prey to their own fanaticism and are betrayed by it. When Pilate asks ironically “Shall I crucify your King?” they respond by saying, “We have no King but Caesar”, thereby betraying the very God whom they profess to serve. Months before, faced with their rejection of him, Jesus had told these very people who proudly claimed to be God’s children that God was not their Father after all, because they had rejected him: here they prove that accusation to be true with their own words.
Perhaps then it was the mob who had the authority – they certainly swayed Pilate with their repeated cries of crucify him! Crucify him! And nothing is more dangerous in any country than when power falls to the hands of a hysterical baying mob. We have seen that often enough. But Jesus has already said to Pilate, as to any others, (John 19, 11) he and they could have apparent power over Jesus only if Jesus himself wills it. No, although he stands in the midst of this bloody scene as the victim, Jesus is the one in charge in this account of these terrible events. Just look at the way the story of the crucifixion itself unfolds. John, who has not been a great one for quoting proof texts so far now gives Scriptural parallel after parallel to show that all that happened on Calvary was in accordance with Scripture and the will of God. This is no accidental tragedy – it is God working out the salvation of mankind step by step.
So there is Jesus at the centre turning a Cross into a throne. From that elevated position like a dying monarch dividing his Kingdom between his sons, he finds time and strength to provide for his widowed mother, commissioning his best friend among all the disciples to take her into his house and care for her. And then in this Gospel there is no cry of apparent abandonment, no “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” Just another fulfilment of Scripture as Jesus says, “I am thirsty” and drinks the sour wine he is given. Another link in the chain of fulfilled prophecy is complete, and with that Jesus says, “It is finished!” and he “gives up his Spirit.” He has completed the task that his Father had given him. He has won!
So who was in charge throughout that terrible period? John has no doubt – it was Jesus.
Do you ever have any doubts? Most of us do, from time to time, when the storms of life threaten to overwhelm us. Oh, it seems easy enough to believe when the sun is shining and the grass is green and someone is dishing out free loaves and fishes or limitless quantities of the best wine we have ever tasted. But when chaos threatens to take our very lives; that’s a different matter. Can we still believe that Jesus in charge then? I hope so. Mark, John’s fellow evangelist, tells of a storm that nearly destroyed the boat the disciples were sailing in one night on the Sea of Galilee. In the midst of the storm Jesus “got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. You’d think that the disciple would have been more than pleased to see that Jesus was in charge! But they weren’t. They were downright scared! So Jesus said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” But they were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” He is always in charge, but sometimes that is a little scary too, letting someone else have control over our lives, and trusting them. Yet Jesus told his disciples later on in Holy Week – as he tells us – “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me. I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you. He who loves me will be loved by my Father and I too will love him and show myself to him.” And so it proved to be. Time after time, come Easter morning, the risen Jesus came back and showed himself to those who love him – and even to those who doubted him like Thomas.
Like I said, the prospect of an operation or an exam is not too much fun, but it is often the unknown we fear most. Things are changing – how will I cope? The answer according to Matthew is simple. We will cope, and we will live, and we will triumph in the power and the spirit of the One who said with his final words on earth – “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” If we will only trust ourselves to His love and let Him take charge of our lives.
You will, won’t you?