Peter he began to curse, and he swore an oath, ‘I do not know this man you are talking about.’ (Mark 14.71)
When he was a baby Wise men from the east came asking, `Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?`.
It was the same story when he was a little older: His anxious mother said, `Son, we have been searching everywhere for you`. `Did you not know that I must be in my Father`s house`, he replied.
And then one day the disciples tracked him down and interrupted his morning prayers with the words, `Everyone is searching for you`.
And Jesus turned the tables on two young men- until recently, followers of John the Baptist and asked them `What are you looking for?` They wanted to know where he was staying- how they could keep company with him.
And here Jesus says, ”Who are you looking for?” and they answer “Jesus of Nazereth”. He says “I am he” and they fall to the ground dumbfounded.
I have often heard people say they are `searching for God`. The reality, I believe that we have a God who is very much in search of us. It is we who have gone `walkabout`. I have also, often found that this declaration of intent is a way of doing nothing about it. If you ask what they have done to take forward their search the answer is very little- and their earnest protestations that they are a `seeker` seem somewhat threadbare.
The scriptures are, of course peppered with incidents like those I have already mentioned where people are reported as being `in search` of Christ. For the wise men we envisage a long and arduous journey- one that led to adoration and self giving. For His parents it was provoked by anxiety and a misunderstanding- of course he would be there- in the place of prayer. For the disciples it was about a desire to get him to fulfil the expectations of the crowd and build up the movement.
But something particular is going on when it`s Christ himself who asks the question. `What are you looking for?`. `Who are you looking for?`
Of course, they found him in the garden. That picture keeps on returning- the place of Adam`s betrayal- now the place of Judas` betrayal. The place where he insisted they take HIM – and let the others go free….. He would be buried in a garden tomb- the place where the women would come just a couple of days later. So much to conjure with. But their reaction speaks volumes: “they stepped back and fell to the ground”.
Others who had recognised him- like the old Simeon, Praised God and gave thanks that he could die in peace. The demons in the synagogue retorted “We know who you are… the Holy one of God” and feared that he would destroy them. But these fell to the ground.
The point is, they hadn`t recognised him. But the revelation brought something home- Something to make one go (literally) weak at the knees.
I`m suggesting that we perhaps think too little of what it means to say, “The Lord is here”. Not just, in this place set apart for worship- but to be IN His presence. This clearly made some considerable difference not just to those who came to arrest Jesus but to the disciples as well.
Some years later St. Peter wrote, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty (2 Peter 1.16).
I suppose one could say that to declare, as they did, that we are in search of Jesus of Nazereth must come with something of a health warning.
Today WE are `eyewitnesses of his majesty`. At the time- the vast majority of the people will have believed they were witnessing just another example of Roman brutality- and the end to one of so many dreams of revolution. For they all ended like this- death and despair. And the Gospel writers are honest about this.
But as the incidents unfold they give us windows onto something more. All of those who participate in this drama catch glimpses of his otherwise hidden majesty. And are challenged about how far they have come to know the battered and bleeding man before them and how fare they will let this revelation shape their lives.
So this this majesty is received I various ways – with perplexity, disappointment, contempt and scorn, as a threat to their own position, with wistfulness or as something to turn from in shame. So, for example, Luke tells us: “And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts” (Luke 23.48).
Of course, there are as St. John said, notable examples of those who did `receive him`. Most famously, the Centurion grasps the true identity of this bleeding, crucified man. So does one of the thieves hanging beside him. But these soldiers and police quite literally `stumble` upon the truth.
What stands out, however, is that such a great fuss is made about the identity about coming to know who this Jesus is.
So it is here that I would invite us to begin. Who are you looking for? If the answer is Jesus of Nazereth…..
Let us- (if only metaphorically) come to our knees in awe and wonder at his majesty.
It all became too much for Peter didn`t it? I always feel there`s something so slightly pitiful about this scene- as if this BIG fishermen should find himself intimidated by the Servants in this way. We think: `Not so big now are we Peter? Man of straw not of rock….`
But I have found myself wanting to take Peter at his words. Sure enough there was denial in what Peter did. Of course he let down his friend. He was just scared. `No I don`t know him!` he protested. But in another sense Peter was just telling the (very bitter) truth wasn`t he?
St Mark put it like this: “Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, ‘Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.’ But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, ‘I do not know this man you are talking about.’ (Mark 14.70-71)
That`s the point isn`t it? He REALLY didn`t know this man.
After all that time spent with him. After all they had been through together- (and Peter had been one of Jesus` inner circle as well)- for Peter the penny didn`t drop.
Was it over familiarity? Did he project onto Jesus too many of his own assumptions, hopes and dreams? Was he lacking in imagination or too caught up with the apparent `success` of it all, to really take in anything of how it was destined to end?
We don`t know the answer to these questions but I believe it`s a fair assumption that there is this double meaning in Peter`s denial of Christ.
Over the years in pondering the Passion story I have become used to having one particular line or phrase stand out and stay with me for the whole of this season. And this, `I do not know this man you are talking about` has recently been for me like one of those tunes you hear on the radio and it lingers……
And I have begun to question how much I really know this man WE are talking about. I found myself thinking how terrifyingly `glib` some religious language can be; especially to hear someone ask “Do you know Jesus Christ?”.
In one sense we know what they mean; and they mean well, because this is fundamental to the faith. But kindly we need to remember that really knowing someone is often a more complex matter than we realise- as Peter found to his cost.
It`s there in the tragedy of many a funeral visit I have made where the family can tell me so little about the deceased you wonder if their presence was really ever noticed.
It`s the stuff of marital comedy:
“I didn`t know you were interested in such and such…”
“Well, you never asked dear……”
And that`s it isn`t it? It`s the tragedy of relationships and conversations are the dialogue of the deaf. They are devoid of curiosity, questions, imagination- a sense that there is a mystery before me. And so much Christian chatter down the years has regrettably flattened this sense of mystery. For example, We have come up with all manner of theories to describe what`s going on there on that cross. Is this a victory over evil? Is it an act of redemption or reconciliation? A sacrifice for sin? A healing of wounds? A picture of forgiveness or of love? Probably all this and more. But often this is to confine things so easily to the `head` rather than the heart.
You see if we find ourselves here- like Peter- saying deep within us “I don`t know this man of whom you speak”, I think we`re in a good place. I would even suggest that we can set aside whatever else we think we know and just look at that cross.
Certainly St. Paul seemed to think that this was all that was needed: Exasperated with the Corinthians he said: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery* of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified”.
And if, as we look, we find ourselves asking “Who ARE you?”
and “What `in heaven`s name` are you doing there?” I think we`re we are greatly blessed.
When he had washed the disciples` feet Jesus told them: “You do not understand now what I am doing- but later you will understand” (John 13.7). We warm to his compassion on our weakness- his confidence that eventually the penny will drop.
And again St. Paul famously said: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly but then we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13.12).
In other words, it`s not a crime to admit to our shortcomings. The point is that Christ knows- and more importantly `he knows US`.
The tragedy of so many relationships is that undercurrent which leads one to assume that there is nothing more to learn or discover in another. One way forward is to ask a question- and then to listen. We may be surprised.
Here before the cross again, I believe it`s good to admit that we hardly know him- still less what he is doing. This is in the best sense of the word a mystery. But we might like to say with the again, misguided Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration “Lord, it good that we are here”.
And so gaze, and wonder- and ask: “Lord, what are you doing?”
More importantly Lord, “What are you doing FOR ME?
The one who has gone down in history- not to say `infamy` for having thought he knew Jesus, is Judas Iscariot. He is variously depicted as petulant, a thief, confused, repentant – and one who ended up killing himself.
Some are of the view that he was something of a zealot- a hot-head who believed in Jesus all right- but assumed that Jesus would use traditional, military means to bring in His Kingdom. Some have thought to see this in his name Iscariot- the word `scicarii`- meaning `knife bearer`.
The point however, is that Judas didn`t know Jesus. And I believe it`s summed up beautifully in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah where we read:
“My thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55.8-9)
And this is surely one of the hardest of things to grasp is it not?
We can all have sympathy with Judas. He is clearly a highly practical and yes, zealous individual. He must have had many praiseworthy qualities for Jesus to have chosen him as one of the twelve. But he didn`t grasp the deeper wisdom Jesus was following. His agenda would have seemed especially nonsensical if (perhaps like Judas) you`re simply fed up with an occupying army which callously crucifies thousands of your fellow citizens with impunity.
It`s easy to see what Judas did as a plea to `get real`- as a little nudge in the direction of practical politics And sure enough many believe this is what Judas was doing. Many think he was trying to put Jesus and the Jewish leaders together- They were the ones who were the acknowledged leaders- but Jesus had the people`s hearts. Surely this combination would be enough to precipitate a successful rebellion?
But firstly, Judas, it seems to me was politically naïve. And he acknowledges this by the way he returns the blood money he had received. But secondly (and I don`t think he was alone) he was also religiously out of his depth. What do we mean by this?
Well there is a fascinating passage at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles: The eleven disciples meet the risen Lord and ask him: ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’(Acts 1.6-8)
This is a classic example of the disciples completely missing the point- and another indication of how little they knew him.
Their focus is on the Kingdom and Israel`s place in it all. But we still hear echoes of this narrowly nationalistic agenda. And so Jesus has to point them to the ends of the earth! You couldn’t get a bigger contrast. But this is what Jesus was about form the very beginning and the penny hadn`t dropped. We hear in John`s Gospel: Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6.51).
I have spent a lot of my ministry trying to encourage people to appreciate and take note of the call to a deeper walk with God. To know him as Father- To invite them to as Jesus says- “Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6.6)
This deeply personal aspect of faith is of huge importance and we neglect this at our peril.
But on the other hand we must not forget that we have to share him. We have also to appreciate that His agenda, His ministry, His sacrifice is for ALL- even, and perhaps especially those who are different from us.
We have to `Share him` in the sense that the Christian faith knows nothing of `individualism`: he calls us into His body, the Church. And whilst, as St Augustine put it, `He loves us as if we were the only ones TO love”, what he is doing on the cross is for the redemption of ALL Things. In other words, what`s going on here is about more than what some people call our `personal salvation`.
So I am suggesting that this is one of the things Judas didn’t know about Christ. He had a bigger agenda, (if you will) bigger fish to fry. He told them: And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’ (John 12.32).
Judas thought he was drawing Jesus into a bigger vision. In reality it was the other way around. Judas` vision of Christ was nowhere near big enough. Judas didn`t know him at all.. A thought to ponder when we look at that person whom we tend to find just a little dull. Are we seeing them on a big enough canvas- the canvas of God`s love ad purposes for them?
But “My thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord”.
And this is the kind of God we have to learn to live with. Or better still, to wait upon and adore……..
In a recent interview, the mayor of London, Boris Johnson was referred to as a `nasty piece of work`. I wouldn`t care to speculate on the truth of this. I would only suggest that if we are talking about public officials with a dubious reputation, Boris Johnson couldn`t hold a candle to Pontius Pilate.
The historian Philo wrote a letter to the emperor Caligula which included a graphic description of Pilate. He wrote of quote “the briberies, the insults, the robberies, the outrages, the wanton injuries, the executions without trial constantly repeated, the ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty` that marked his time in office. In fact Pilate was eventually dismissed because of the ill-judged scale and barbarity of his treatment of the local population.
So Pilate is all together what we might call an `A-list` nasty piece of work. Which leaves us reflecting a little on why Pilate- to some extent -seems to come out of the story not entirely tarnished. For it`s be observed that those who wrote the Gospels do tend to shift the blame for Jesus` death onto the Jewish leaders somewhat- despite the hand-washing scene- we heard a few moments ago- which is more a demonstration of his own moral cowardice than anything else.
Some speculate that the infant Church didn`t want to appear too negative about the empire and therefore watered down it`s description of Pilate. This is not to elevate Philo`s view over that of the Gospel writers it just illustrates that we have something of a mixed picture.
The thing which has dawned on me in recent years however, is that whilst I have always- I think- realised that crucifixion was an awful business. It`s only in recent times that I have appreciated the extreme brutality to which Jesus was subjected. A brutality which was over and above what many endured.
I think it began when I saw Mel Gibson`s move `The Passion`. The incredible (and somewhat disturbing) thing about the passion scene in that move really is the sheer brutality of it all. It`s very extremity would have rendered the Jesus in the movie unconscious and incapable of going anywhere- let alone carry a cross-beam.
But then we realise that in the Gospel accounts Jesus dies really very quickly. Very quickly indeed compared to many who were crucified and who lived on for days of agony. And also it seems the soldiers did indeed take a certain `sport` out this particular crucifixion. So I wonder, is some of the `Pilate` as recorded by Philo beginning to come through?
You see, like all of these characters we`re looking at today, what`s put before them is whether they recognise Jesus. Whether they know him. This is what Pilate is recorded as wrestling with. And it`s this- and here we have another clue- it`s this he taunts the Jewish leaders about.
I`m referring to the curious matter of that inscription placed on the cross. We`re told: `It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ (and) Many of the Jews read this inscription….. written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.” ’ (and) Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’
You see I have the feeling that if you asked Pilate- do know Jesus? He would say, “I really don`t care”- but I know the Jews do.
I get the sense that for Pilate, knowing who Jesus is was all bound up with the much more important issue of just keeping a lid on things. Jesus was no real threat in the sense that he had him under arrest. All that mattered was public order…. ….That Pilate stayed in control.
You see, I think Pilate probably regarded Jesus with contempt. I can`t think of any reason other than expediency or ensuring that he could maintain his own authority, for him taking any interest in him whatsoever. Yes, I know this is harsh but this is quite consistent with a man who is complicit in judicial murder.
And what stands out, I emphasise, is simply his own authority. My sense is that Pilate could never have imagined who it was standing before him. But he would never have acknowledged the truth of it anyway. He was master in this domain. All that supposed wrestling with `kingship` resembled a sick joke which Pilate would surely have not taken seriously. Pilate could not see beyond his own power- and in the end that was all that mattered.
But in this way Pilate shows us how `knowing Christ` is never just an academic or theoretical thing. If he is who he claims to be then everything changes. When, in Matthew`s Gospel the rise Christ says to the disciples “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me” this is a objective not a subjective statement. It`s truth, not opinion. It`s a reality which by rights should have reversed their positions- Pilate should have been stood before Jesus.
I am all for a questioning and exploring faith. But I the end- what makes the difference- the tipping pint for what we call `conversion` is so often this very realisation. That it is not any longer we who have Christ before us- to make him explain or justify himself. It is we who are stood before him. To recognise his otherwise hidden majesty. The one on whom is conferred `All authority in heaven and on earth`.
So it`s so much easier to pretend we don`t know, we don`t care, we`re not sure we know Jesus. To say that we do has consequences. Consequences for what we so boastfully call our autonomy.
The Religious Authorities
I get the sense that there was a certain amount of glee in the Chiefs Priest that day. We finally got him!
He`d been a disruptive influence, a thorn in their side for too long. They`d had their kangaroo court and now they`d got him. And it seemed the people were back on side, As they passed by these noisy crowds dutifully derided the man they`d cheered as he rode into the city only a few days before.
And now `the chief priests along with the scribes` are mocking him, insulting him. Perhaps there`s an element of revenge here. I mean Jesus didn`t mince his words did he?
He said: ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.
‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?
But I think what`s difficult to get my mind around is realising that it was religious people who were the prime movers in Jesus` death. Yes, they got the Romans to do it but like the bitterness we saw in a recent high profile marriage breakdown – where both parties went to jail – it`s hard to understand where such depth of venom or the desire for revenge could possibly come from.
I mean, these were fine upstanding people. They were pillars of the community. As I`m always saying the average Pharisee was the kind of good-living lad you`d be more than happy for your daughter to go out with.
But there it was, as the Sanhedrin gathered they wanted to know who he was. The high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ Jesus said, ‘I am; and “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power”, and “coming with the clouds of heaven.” ’
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?’ All of them condemned him as deserving death. Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’ The guards also took him over and beat him.
It was blasphemy. That was the point. That`s what did it. The claim to be God. And they thought that by doing him away- by killing him they were protecting the honour of God.
Everything that they knew and believed and stood for was totally offended by what Jesus said that day. This was impossible, outrageous. In their eyes no punishment was too severe.
What was equally impossible for them to take was that everything they knew and believed and stood for might possibly be wrong.
The problem for these people was that they had already mapped out, pre-determined the action and purposes of God. They could not imagine a situation in which he would deviate from their understanding of the Scriptures and their expectations of him.
They had become guardians, custodians of these things. It was as if God were to some extent `in their pocket`.
So, they knew Jesus all right. But they knew him as a charlatan, an imposter. Someone who could not possibly be who he claimed to be; and who could not possibly get a fair hearing because they had already predetermined the terms of the discussion. There was no capacity for surprise in their understanding of God.
Jesus said to Philip- `Have I been with you all this time and still you do not know me? He who has seen me has seen the Father……”
We will not know Jesus until we know him as one who is quite literally a `revelation`. As Paul said: `In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell`. But this requires that we set aside all those multitude of images we have been fed about what this `God` might be like. This is where the Scribes and Pharisees- the experts in God struggled so much. It`s what happens when you lose yuour imagination or your capacity for surprise.
The Grieving Disciples
The scripture verses which tell of the aftermath of the crucifixion are, in a sense deeply moving and they are among my favourites. I say this because we are given all sorts of biographical detail about the people who had followed Jesus and how they had supported his ministry.
We hear the names –many of them women, it`s important to note- of early saints- people who were held in high regard by our forebears for their devotion and no little bravery in those days following Christ`s death.
We hear in particular of Joseph of Arimathea and of Nicodemus- two, as it were `secret` disciples of Jesus. Who emerged into the daylight to lend some dignity to the disposal of Christ`s body.
These people are those who had known Christ and followed him and been attentive to his teaching and many of them had shown no little financial commitment to him. But the point of these passages is to emphasise that it was all over.
Now, the sense of knowing Jesus in these passages is that it`s all in the past tense. Whatever they have known, understood or shared with him it was all gone. Jesus was placed among those whom they would remember fondly. As someone they `used` to know.
This of course, is not their fault. They are doing what they can. They are picking up the pieces of his shattered life and doing something `decent` with it. But it`s all summed up for me in the words of the Centurion: “when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’
These are words well remembered by the Christian community- hence they`re in the Gospel accounts- and maybe we are less conscious of how startling they perhaps were at the time. But even so it`s in the past. `This man WAS God`s son`, is what he says. I recognise him- but of course he`s dead isn`t he?
Again, the circumstances make this quite understandable. There`s a lot of grief around. Little sense of hope- many good reasons to be fearful.
And my point is that sometimes this is where faith, where `knowing Jesus` stays.
For ourselves as well, this may be understandable. As individuals and as a church community we experience ever-increasing change and the demise of much we thought would endure.
And for good or ill we use so many things as a means of security. For instance because we have a faith we deep roots going back so many years our `heritage` comes to mean a great deal to us. The downside of this heritage is that our God also becomes rather `old` as well. Subconsciously ones gets the sense that he`s regarded as at the very least retired, or incapable, himself living off former glories- if not expired all together: in short, the God of the past tense.
Of course the Scriptures contain many a plea for God to act now as he did in the past.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.
At least here is a sense of anticipation. A sense that God was not dead and buried.
But I say again- reasons for heads hanging down after the crucifixion were perhaps well justified- but as Christ dies on the cross- as he is laid in the tomb- is that what our faith resembles? We shall hear in a while the Christ on the Emmaus road felt they should have had at least one eye on the future.
Our reflection today began with the words of Peter. He began to curse, and he swore an oath, ‘I do not know this man you are talking about.’ (Mark 14.70-71) and I suggested that this really was the truth.
He really didn`t know Jesus at all. Despite the years being part of his most intimate circle. But I suggested that if we find ourselves saying the same thing. If we find ourselves before the cross asking “Who are you?” and “What in heaven`s name are you doing here?” we are in good company.
We then turned to Judas, who also thought that he knew Jesus. But in his case he attempted to fit Jesus into a rather narrow agenda. One which suited his view of the world but which failed to take account of Christ`s universal significance.
There is I believe, a deeply personal aspect to the faith but we fall into error when we fail to realise that we have to share him. We have also to appreciate that His agenda, His ministry, His sacrifice is for ALL.
For Pontius Pilate, when it came to knowing Jesus I suggested that he probably didn`t care who Jesus was as long as Pilate remained in control of the situation. And Pilate taunted the religious leaders with the inscription on the cross and evaded the issue himself. This is the default setting of many today- the thought that we can be neutral in the face of Christ`s identity. If he is who he claims to be then, as I suggested the roles are changed. Pilate is up before Christ- and so are we.
The religious leaders were simply unable to grasp or cope with Jesus. They were clearly bent on revenge. But they knew him as an impostor and charlatan. And this was the only conclusion they could reach because they could not conceive of God acting in a way outside the parameters they had set for him.
And those faithful companions of Jesus were well acquainted with him in one sense- but all they had were memories. They knew him as someone from the past rather than the present or the future. In one sense they had good reason to feel this way but they had been told to expect something more……
Thanks be to God