Are you the King of the Jews?

A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Psalm 119:73-80

Jeremiah 31:27-37

Mark 15:1-20

“Are you the King of the Jews?” Pontius Pilate’s question to Jesus opens our conversation tonight as we look at the second trial which Jesus faced. The first, discussed last week, and found in Mark 14: 53-72, focused on the charge of Blasphemy – a specifically religious charge brought against Jesus by the religious authorities – the Scribes and Pharisees, the chief priest and the high priest. This one is different.

Notice first all the ingredients in tonight’s twenty verses at the beginning of Mark 15. It’s all set for a right old stoush. There’s the victim, Jesus; the conspirators, the chief priests; the playground crowd, ready to be entertained as long as it is at the expense of someone else; the bully boys, the soldiers, all too happy to inflict humiliation and the odd thump or two; and the keeper of the peace, Pilate, desperately looking for a way out of it all, a way to save face. Although not an active participant there is also Barabbas.

In many ways I find myself taken back to my own childhood and our school playground when I was about eleven. It was not uncommon for a fight to break out between two boys. On one occasion I found myself at the centre of unwanted attention. What it was all about I don’t remember now. What I do recall is the crowd of boys, pushing, shoving, shouting as Robin and I found ourselves in the middle. “Fight, fight!” was the cry at first; quickly followed by words like hit him, get him, thump him. My blood was up as the crush pushed us this way and that, and I know I lashed out with my fists. A teacher must have arrived as the crowd of baying boys suddenly disappeared. How humiliating for us having to explain to our parents the state of our clothes, the black eye, the blood smears. And we were next door neighbours – usually best friends. What was it all about? How did it happen?

Pronounced guilty of blasphemy the religious authorities nonetheless find themselves impotent to execute the sentence of death desired and required by them. Humiliatingly they must come before the Roman governor and so the charge must change. No longer a religious charge, it is now one of treason. “Are you the King of the Jews?” Do you set yourself up against Caesar? Do you dare to challenge the most powerful man in the world? Jesus has only three words to say, “You say so.” After that, he holds his peace and keeps silence.

Spare a thought for Pilate. Although the Gospel of John portrays Pilate as a weak man beholden to his wife and prepared to literally wash his hands of Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel Pilate genuinely seems to realise this is a put-up job. He has little time for the clearly false charge against Jesus and looks for a way out. He remembers the custom to release a prisoner each year – a sort of new year’s gift to the oppressed people. Perhaps Jesus can be this year’s offering. But Pilate is too late. The agitators have already been hard at work and the crowd will have none of it. Crucify Jesus, give us Barabbas. It’s a nasty thing to be caught up in a mindless crowd so easily swayed by others. Emotion takes over and, as we have seen all too recently in Washington, violence is never far behind mob hysteria. Pilate gives in, releases Barabbas, and, after a formal flogging, throws Jesus to the soldiers to be crucified.

Now it is their turn for a bit of fun at a helpless victim’s expense. The whole cohort is gathered, a purple garment found and fitted, plaited crown of thorns made and thumped on his head. Hitting, spitting, kneeling in mock homage – Jesus’s humiliation knows no limits. And then it is time, and he is led out to be crucified.

Unlike last week when Peter was a secondary player in the trial scene, this time there is no mention of any of the disciples. Jesus is utterly alone.

Blasphemy or Treason – of which is Jesus guilty? One, both, none?!

I suspect it is the latter that is more shocking for us, if only because treason is so much more contemporary. I’ve already alluded to the events in January on Capitol Hill and we are conscious of a number of arrests and trials taking place as a result. Current news bulletins bring us shocking scenes of clashes in Myanmar, Hong Kong, Mozambique, and elsewhere in the world. Such is the brutality meted out by government forces in some places that there are reports of parents in Myanmar scrawling messages in indelible ink on the arms of their children as they go off to the protests. Who knows what will happen? Who will be injured, need help, perhaps even die?

The right to freedom of speech, the right to protest, to have one’s say, is deeply held in Western democratic societies. Yet even in these countries protests all too easily turn violent, people get manipulated, used, hurt. How much more when faced with an oppressive regime only too happy to use the police or military to further their own interests or keep others away from the wealth and comforts gained at the expense of others.

Many years ago, writing in his ground-breaking anti-Apartheid novel, “Cry the Beloved Country” Alan Paton puts words into the mouth of Msimangu, the father of a young black man found guilty of murdering a young white man. “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they (the whites) are turned to loving, they will find that we (the blacks) are turned to hating.” This is not a story about treason, or people in high laces being challenged by others. It is a story about human nature and the pain one person can cause another. It is a story that speaks into the love of God and the pain of God as God’s Son is put on trial by the evil in people’s hearts. It is a story that challenges us to the very core of our being as we struggle to put into practice the great commands of the Bible (love God, love your neighbour) and the new commandment of Maundy Thursday (love one another).

The two trials which Jesus faced – one on a charge of blasphemy, one on a charge of treason – show the depths to which human nature can sink. They show too, in the dignified silence of Jesus before the accusations, the power of the powerless. Perhaps, in the end, that is the real power of the Cross – that after the powers of this world have done their worst the real power of God comes to be seen in the resurrection, on the empty cross. That is our belief. That is our hope. That is our life. That is our song.