Good Friday sermon 2009 Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace

10 April 2009 at 11:00 am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

In our day, the death of anyone young or old prompts the question, Why? If they died in extreme old age or after a long illness, there can sometimes be a sense of rightness, almost of relief. Death can come as a friend. But when people these days die young it feels different, tragic, unusual. Why did they die so young? Surely there must have been some mistake. People feel angry as part of their sense of bereavement as well as bewildered. Who’s to blame? Was it the doctors’ fault? Was it ours? This I imagine to be quite a contrast with the experience of our predecessors, who were so much more familiar with death than we are generally ourselves.

A life unfulfilled seems particularly tragic. Many years ago I was called to a home where a three-year old, briefly unobserved by his doting mother, had fallen from a first-floor balcony to his death. I was at a loss as to how I could console the grieving parents and what good news I could possibly offer them at the funeral. As I prayed and worried about it, I had a vision of this innocent child become fully mature and taking the love of his parents with him into the presence of almighty God.

In purely human terms, the death of our Lord Jesus Christ did not come as a friend to a weary old man but as a tragic development in the life of someone full of hope and promise. So we might be prompted to ask of the death of Jesus the same question as with other tragic or early deaths. Why did it happen? As Christians we will seek a theological answer – why does God allow this to happen? What is its religious meaning? I addressed that question in this sermon two years ago. Or we could approach the question from Jesus’ point of view – why does he head resolutely for danger in Jerusalem? Why put himself in the firing line? The answer would be theological rather than psychological. Perhaps one day I shall address that issue. Instead on this occasion I believe it could be fruitful spiritually to think about the motivations of Jesus’ companions and his enemies.

The question is this: how could someone, who at one time easily attracted 5,000 people to listen to him and who later entered his capital city to a hero’s welcome, end up deserted by all but a very small handful of his closest friends and condemned by the religious and secular authorities to an agonising death? Or put another way: how could someone who preached love end up so misunderstood, even hated?

The catalogue of those who get it wrong is quite long. Peter, no sooner than he has confessed Jesus to be the Christ, condemns him for talking about forthcoming suffering. Nor can he take the suffering when it comes, not for Jesus or for himself. First, he attacks the soldiers who come to arrest Jesus. Then, although he finds it hard to leave him, he ends up fulfilling Jesus’ prophecy by denying he ever knew him. He goes out and weeps bitterly, before he too deserts Jesus and flees. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, have gone already, the pair who, on the road to Jerusalem, according to Mark just after they have heard Jesus talking about going to suffer in Jerusalem, ask to sit, one at Jesus’ right hand and one at his left, in his glory. How could they get it so wrong? Jesus says to them it is not his to grant but ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.’ Can they understand? It seems not.

And what of Judas Iscariot? There is no knowing what his name means. Some suppose it just to say where he comes from, a man of Kerioth, in Hebrew ‘ish kerioth’, ‘Iscariot’. Others see some connection with the Latin word for dagger, ‘sicarius’. That could mean he once belonged to a band of terrorists. Perhaps Judas longs for the revolution, as many do under Roman imperial rule; longs for the day when Israel will be free for the first time in centuries. Perhaps he joins Jesus as the best possible leader of an insurgency, thinking that Jesus plans to lead a band of freedom fighters. Perhaps, perhaps he even thinks he can force Jesus’ hand by betraying him, making him take arms against the hated Roman rather than be seized himself.

All of these in some way or another, Peter, James and John, Judas, think of Jesus’ purpose as about earthly power and glory. So do the people of Jerusalem and those who have come up for the great Passover feast. The unmistakable sign of the triumphal entry is that of the Messiah who, they expect, will destroy the Roman yoke and usher in a new period of self-governance for the oppressed people of Israel. Those who have cheered are immediately confused: not only is there no taking of arms but Jesus enters the temple to overturn and destroy all that is necessary for animal sacrifice, which they see as the very purpose of the temple. If most of those who have cheered miss the message, certainly it is not lost on the temple authorities, on the high priest, the scribes and Pharisees. They feel his attack on the very roots of their religious practice. They see well enough and go into battle, seeking to trip him up and discredit him with the bewildered crowd. The Roman authorities no doubt want a quiet life, as far as they can with the whole city overcrowded, seething with rumour, bubbling with strife. The governor fears for his reputation, his power.

So, in human terms, it is quite clear what to blame for the desertion of Jesus and for his lonely death: the human lust for power, whether prospective or actual, the overwhelming human ego, the rampant self. Some want power; others fear the loss of power. None of them can understand. None of them can see beyond themselves.

Jesus says in answer to Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.” [John 18: 36] Jesus undermines the lust for power. He takes no action, exercises no power, is utterly passive, allows himself to suffer. Powerless he destroys power. The spiritual power of hanging on a cross, what the world judges weak, shows up the weakness of the world’s lust for power.

And what of us, this Good Friday? Can we put to death our own wish to exercise power, in the home, in the community, amongst family, friends, colleagues, in commerce or industry or charity or public service? Can we see that the world’s way of self-promotion, of self-glorification leads only to dust and destruction? is itself a way of death? How tragic it is that so many people follow this way of death without asking Why? The Christian faith is: that our real happiness, the only real way to love and life itself is to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Christ. “He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.” [John 12: 25]

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