Monday, 1 April 2013

Good Friday, Easter Sunday

On Good Friday I gave a short meditation on two passages - the story of Jesus before Pilate as told in John 18 and 19, and for a bit of background the story of David's plan to build a temple from 1 Chronicles 17.

David certainly had plenty of faults, but he is often protrayed as the archetypal King of the Jews, the man who first established them as a secure, powerful nation.  1 Chronicles 17 recounts how, after fighting various wars and establishing his kingdom securely, David had the notion to build a temple to Yahweh.  Even his household prophet Nathan thought it was a good idea.  Yahweh disagreed, and sent David a message.  The essence of it was that he didn't need a house, and if any house-building was to be done he, Yahweh, would do it.  He would establish Israel in their home, and build a house (that is, a dynasty) for David. 

David was put firmly in his place.  He may have had a household prophet, but he didn't have a household God.  He served Yahweh, not the other way around.  His kingdom, and the safety of his people, were a gift from a loving God, not an obligation.

About a thousand years later there was another man who liked to think of himself as the King of the Jews, Herod the Great.  He built not one, but two temples.  In Jerusalem he built a beautiful temple for the God of Israel, in which the priests worshipped and sacrificed daily.  Just over 100 kilometres away on the coast he built a whole city which he called Caesarea after Julius Caesar, and it included a temple to the recently deified Caesar in which the Roman officials worshipped and sacrificed. 

We need to understand, then, that what was happening in Jesus' trial involved not simply a conflict between two groups of people, but two gods and two ways of being.  It seems fairly clear that in the relationship between the temple of Yahweh and the temple of Caesar, Caesar had the upper hand.  The Jewish priests could administer the day to day affairs of the Holy City, but they had to do so with a Roman garrison overlooking the Temple, and any important decisions - like putting someone to death - had to be referred to Pilate.  He seemed to enjoy rubbing it in, too.

Pilate said, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law".

"But we have no right to execute anyone," the Jews objected.

You think Pilate didn't know that?  At the conclusion of the trial the Jewish leaders make the relationship clear: "We have no king but Caesar!".

What was Jesus' position in all this?  He seemed even more powerless than the the Jewish leaders.  Pilate questioned him: "Are you the King of the Jews?"  Jesus' reply seems to be ambiguous.  The NIV translates it as "you are right in saying I am a king", while the NRSV has the non-committal "you say that I am a king."  Either way it is clear that if he admitted to kingship at all, it was not the kind of kingdom Pilate or the Jewish leaders had in mind.

"My kingdom is not of this world.  If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews.  But now my kingdom is from another place."

Pilate clearly thought that such a kingdom was absurd.  To demonstrate this to the Jewish leaders, he had Jesus flogged and crowned with a crown of thorns and then presented him to them, bloodied and battered.  "Here is the man", he said.  He seems to have thought this was enough, but the Jews would accept nothing short of execution, so in the end he complied.  He didn't really care much either way but he couldn't resist having a dig, writing simply "the King of the Jews" as Jesus' crime.  He was letting them know, although they didn't want to hear it, that this was the only King of the Jews there would ever be. 

The Kingdom of Caesar seemed to have triumphed again, but did it really?  The priests and Jewish leaders wanted to take on the Romans at their own game.  They longed for their own kingdom, and a generation later attempted to set one up, fighting and ultimately losing a brutal war with the Romans.

Jesus understood the futility of this idea.  Only the most foolhardy would challenge the might of Rome, but even if they won what would they gain?  Jewish soldiers would replace Romans, a Jewish emperor would sit on the throne.  Stalin would replace the Tsar, and be replaced in his turn by Putin.  The business of empire would go on undisturbed.

Jesus wanted a different kingdom.  In his kingdom, the hungry would be fed, the lame would walk and the blind would see, the outcast would take centre stage, the nations would be united in service to the God of Love not subjugated by the God of War.  His kingdom would not come with a rush of soldiers and chariots, it would grow like yeast in dough, like wheat in a field, like mustard bushes self-sowing spontaneously from the tiniest seeds.

As Jesus stood beside Pilate in his crown of thorns, with blood trickling down his face, it must have seemed a forlorn hope.  As he hung on the cross crying out the words of Psalm 22 - "my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" - it must have seemed like a foolish dream.  All through the Sabbath that followed, as they sat in their borrowed lodgings and wondered what to do with the rest of their lives, Jesus' disciples must have thought they had made a horrible mistake. 

And then came Easter Sunday....

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