Warning: This sermon may contain parts which listeners will find upsetting.
We’ve become accustomed to warnings like that during news bulletins lately haven’t we, as horrific scenes from Ukraine have been beamed into our living rooms? Such warnings provide an opportunity for the viewer to choose not to watch, perhaps go and make a cup of tea, or simply switch channels and watch something less challenging. The graphic images can be avoided and the horrific reality of the situation can be ignored if the viewer so chooses.
Whilst you are, of course, free to leave church at any time if you so choose, at this point I invite you to stay and to confront the reality of our Lord’s torture and crucifixion.
The Passion Narrative we have just heard from John’s gospel is often said to be a sermon in itself (so apologies if you were expecting no further words at this point) but we are expected to preach on Good Friday and, there are, I think, a couple of points which are worth making in these particularly challenging times.
But first it would be remiss of me to ignore the exhortation of a theologian friend (and former member of this congregation) to remind people to read John’s references to “the Jews” as references rather to “the Judeans” or the “Jewish leaders” because failing to do so can help reinforce the repugnant anti-semitic beliefs which still stain our society today.
I should also point out that John’s account lacks many details contained in the accounts of the Passion in the other gospels. We heard Luke’s account on Palm Sunday and the next few days present a good opportunity for you to take the time to read and compare the other accounts from Matthew and Mark which contain significant differences. John’s Passion Narrative features some notable additions of his own.
Given John’s account doesn’t dwell on the bloody reality of the crucifixion itself, it’s important I think, to remind ourselves just what flogging and crucifixion entailed. Hence my warning at the beginning. For these descriptions are not for the faint hearted.
Crucifixion was a particularly disgraceful and grievous form of execution. It became widespread under Alexander the Great (366-323 BC) and was commonly used for traitors, defeated armies and rebellious slaves. Later under the Roman Empire only non-citizens, lower class Romans and violent offenders would be crucified. When Judea was occupied by the Romans they made it their supreme form of punishment for criminals. Often imposed on foreigners who were seen as threats to Roman rule it was the most painful form of execution. It was a bloody, cruel and slow way of dying.
Now remove some of the film images from your mind. Indeed, our re-enactment of the carrying of the cross today will itself be a misrepresentation, as the victim would not carry the whole cross. The central vertical part of the cross would normally already be implanted at the place of execution and the condemned would usually carry only the cross beam or cross piece as they were led there (usually naked). Their arms would be attached to the cross beam by nails or ropes or both, which would prohibit breathing and circulation as they hung there, eventually leading to brain and heart failure. Sometimes there would be blocks on the cross allowing a victim to rest some of their weight. To end the tortuous process legs would be broken after which death would quickly follow.
Now if that were not bad enough for you, don’t forget that in Jesus’ case the crucifixion was preceded by flogging. A leather whip with bone or sharp metal woven into the ends might be used and soldiers would beat the victim sometimes until bones or internal organs were visible. Jesus, mocked and flogged, would be walking towards his execution in a truly brutalised and repulsive physical state. The scene would be one of misery and desperation as the condemned on the cross endured an agonising death.
Why have I considered it necessary to include these graphic and rather disturbing descriptions? Because one of the significant differences in John’s Passion Narrative is that here we have a Jesus who is not sought out by Judas with a kiss to identify him for the police and soldiers, but a Jesus who, knowing “all that was to happen to him” and the barbarity that awaits him, nonetheless comes forward voluntarily and identifies himself (asking for his disciples, including Judas his betrayer, to be allowed to leave in the process). In John’s account it is Jesus who initiates the encounter in the garden. Jesus doesn’t run away. He doesn’t seek to avoid or postpone the ugly scenes which are to come. Rather he confronts the situation head on and exercises some control over it, showing love and concern for others as he does so. In depicting Jesus in this way John highlights Jesus’ nobility and virtue. As one writer puts it; “John shows Jesus’ majesty in the face of his adversaries.” John, with his emphasis on Jesus’ kingship, also has Jesus buried in noble fashion, adding into his account the extravagant burial preparations of Nicodemus.
Jesus doesn’t seek to run away from pain and death. He accepts it as an inevitable part, indeed climax, of his life here on earth. In seeking to live as he lived we too must accept that pain, suffering and death cannot be avoided but are integral parts of our human experience, knowing that Jesus has shown us that Death is not the end and there is a way through.
John’s Passion Narrative also differs from the other gospel accounts in featuring a more extensive dialogue between Jesus and Pilate. Pilate, who had a reputation for not co-operating with the Jewish leaders, may seek to lay the blame for Jesus’ death at the door of the Jewish authorities and may publicly announce, more than once, that he can find no case against Jesus (indeed initially he tries to have Jesus released), but his hands are far from clean. For it is Pilate who has Jesus flogged prior to his crucifixion and when reminded how his actions might put him in conflict with the emperor, no doubt afraid of losing his prestigious position and wanting to avoid trouble, he refuses to follow his conscience and fails to do the right thing. It is his earthly concerns and his desire for power which prevail and prevent him from acting justly.
Well over two thousand years later we see the same influences at work amongst our own political elite.
How often are we slaves to our fears or to what others want us to be? Do we ignore the calls of our own consciences out of fear of losing our jobs, positions or friends? How often do we turn a blind eye to some injustice due to a desperate desire to avoid open conflict? How often, when we feel threatened in some way, do we fail to do what we know to be the right thing?
The truth can be so stark sometimes that we avert our eyes and turn away from it. We detach ourselves from reality in the forlorn hope that somehow it will change without any effort on our part. Jesus shows us a different way. He teaches us to be courageous, to speak truth to power, to confront our adversaries and to take the initiative. At the same time He challenges us to love as He loved.
Richard Young (Rector)