Sunday, 15 March 2015

Barabbas vs. Jesus

Barabbas vs. Jesus

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 15/3/15 11.00

Mark 15:6-15  Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked.  7 Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection.  8 So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom.  9 Then he answered them, "Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?"  10 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over.  11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead.  12 Pilate spoke to them again, "Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?"  13 They shouted back, "Crucify him!"  14 Pilate asked them, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Crucify him!"  15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified..

You can listen to this sermon here

When Rowan Williams stepped down as Archbishop of Canterbury in 2012,
          he said that his successor would need to minister
          “with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other”[1]

Something which Justin Welby appears to have taken to heart,
          if his recent interventions in matters political are anything to go by.

Of course, when Rowan Williams said this,
          he knew that he was quoting Karl Barth,
          probably the greatest theologian of the twentieth century,
who famously said that preachers should
          take a Bible and take a newspaper, and read both,
                   and should then interpret the newspaper from the Bible.[2]

But what is rather less well known
          is that Karl Barth was himself quoting a preacher from an earlier generation.

Namely, Revd William Brock,
          the founder minister of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
who said, in the middle of the nineteenth century, that
          “the Bible and The Times newspaper are the best materials for the preacher”[3]

And if you were to ask me for a thread that has run through
          the preaching ministry of Bloomsbury over the last 166 years,
it has been a continued fearlessness
          to address the issues of the day from the pulpit,
always seeking to bring the light of Christ to bear
          on the darkness of the world to which we are called.

And so, on the one hand, we read headlines dominated
          by stories of religiously motivated violence,
          and fears of terrorists, insurrectionists, and extremists.
And in the other hand, we read the biblical story
          of a dangerous insurgent and a politically radical preacher.

Some things, it seems, never change…

In our story from Mark’s passion narrative,
          we find the ever-potent combination
          of political, economic and religious ideologies;
and as is so often the case,
          they lead to mob violence,
          and the death of the innocent.

Some things, it seems, never change.

Let’s take a few minutes now
          to look at the circumstances of this passage,
          as we try to get to grips with what is going on in it.

At a surface level, we have the trial of two political revolutionaries.
          There is Jesus, up on charges of usurping the Roman state
                   by claiming to be the rightful King of the Jews
                   and none other than the son of God.
          And there is Barabbas, whose name itself means “Son of the Father”
                   up on a charge of political insurrection and group murder.

Two revolutionaries, both claiming to be sons of God,
          both accused of claiming political and religious power for themselves.
Both set in opposition to the Roman and Jewish authorities.

The Jewish people are looking to their religious leaders
          for guidance as to what to do,
and the Jewish authorities have in turn turned to Rome,
          in the form of the local procurator Pilate,
          to resolve the issue of these troublesome revolutionaries.

Pilate, in turn, throws it all back at the door of the ordinary people again,
          presenting them with a choice:

Will it be Jesus or Barabbas who gets off?
          Which son of the Father will die, and which will live?
          Which political revolutionary will survive to fight another day?
                             Who will they choose?
                                      Jesus or Barabbas?

This choice between Jesus and Barabbas
          dramatises a wider choice facing the people of Jerusalem…

They each represent fundamentally different kinds of revolutionary practice:
          one might call them: violence versus non-violence.

And the question before the crowds,
          is which path will they choose?

Will they choose Barabbas, the way of the violent revolutionary?
          Or will they choose Jesus, the “dissident of meekness”
                   (as Martyn Joseph calls him)?

Of course, as we all know, because Mark tells us, the crowd choose violence.
          The murderer goes free,
          and the innocent one goes to his death.

Some things, it seems, never change.

Pilate is as mystified by this choice as anyone
          – he thinks he’s been brought in to see justice done,
          but instead he finds himself being asked to legitimate the illegitimate.

And as politicians the world over have discovered,
          sometimes what the people cry for is not the right thing at all.

So the people cry “crucify” at an innocent man,
          and Pilate searches for a reason to justify granting them their wish.

After all, it doesn’t do
          for a politician to make himself unpopular with his people!

So he asks them “Why, what evil has he done?”
          What law has he broken?
                   What has this Jesus done
                             to deserve the execution you are asking for?

And in posing this question,
          Pilate is raising the same issue
          sparked by Jesus at the beginning of the Gospel
                   when he had his initial confrontation with the Pharisees
                   over the healing on the Sabbath
                             of the man with a withered hand (3:4).

This was really the incident that had started all the trouble,
          the event that had set the course to a conflict in a Roman courtyard.

Jesus had asked the Pharisees,
          who were complaining that he had broken the law
                   by healing on the Sabbath,
          “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath,
                   to save life or to kill?”

And in raising the question in this way,
          Jesus had struck right at the heart of the Jewish legal system
– by his choosing to heal on the Sabbath, and in the synagogue,
          Jesus had broken the laws of the Pharisees,
but he had done it in such a way as to show their laws
          for the unjust and oppressive regime that they were.

He had pitted his own mission, of compassion and justice for the poor,
          against the dominant social order,
and in so doing
          had called the entire ideological edifice of the Jewish law to account.

So, back to Pilate’s question from today’s reading:
          “What evil has he done?”

The answer is clear:
          The evil Jesus had done, was that he had taken a stand
                    against institutionalised power.
And as those who have engaged in non-violent resistance
          against institutionalised evil ever since have discovered
          – this is crime enough to deserve torture and death.

Some things, it seems, never change.

The response of the authorities to Jesus’ challenge had been predictable
          – they contrived to destroy him.

Straight after the confrontation in the Synagogue on the Sabbath,
          we are told
                   “The Pharisees went out
                   and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him,
                   how to destroy him” (3:6).

And it is this plot which forms the backdrop to the entire gospel,
          finally nearing its violent conclusion
          in the passage we’re looking at today
                   – with the Pharisees at last succeeding in their aim
                   of getting Jesus to trial before the governing authorities.

But here, curiously, it seems that Jesus isn’t the only one on trial.
          The way Mark tells the story,
                   it looks as if the Jewish system of religious authority
                   is itself on trial.

Pilate, you see, realises that there is no legal basis to crucify Jesus.
          He realises that what he has on his hands
                   is no cut-and-dried legal case,
                   where evidence can be weighted
                             and the guilty party established.

Pilate, it seems, can find no legal basis to crucify Jesus;
          and so he asks, ironically, “tell me, what evil has he done?”

And this question, put to the Jewish authorities as much as to the crowd,
          has the effect of making it clear that they are to be held accountable
          for their request for an execution.

One key difference between the initial confrontation
          that Jesus had with the Pharisees in the Synagogue
                   on the Sabbath near the beginning of the gospel,
and the confrontation we are looking at here, near its ending,
          is whilst that the earlier one took place in Jewish space
                   – with the synagogue representing the Jewish law,
                   and Jesus challenging that authority on its own terms;
          the confrontation before Pilate takes place in Roman space
                    – in the courtyard known as the praetorium (15:16).

As the gospel has progressed, the balance of power has shifted,
          and those who were offended by Jesus’ actions
                   in the Jewish synagogue
          are now being asked to account for their reaction
                   in the Roman courtyard.

Religious conflict has taken political shape.

And the sense comes through this
          that it is not just Jesus on trial here…
          rather, that the whole religious system is under judgement.

The authority structure against which Jesus took a stand
                   at the beginning of the gospel,
          suddenly finds itself faced with the full ramifications of its evil.

The religious leaders’ desire for power
          leads to them bringing an innocent man for execution.
Corrupt power cannot cope with those
          who would seek to show that corruption for what it really is.

Some things, it seems, never change.

In a scene reminiscent of the Roman gladiatorial combat,
          the crowd are appealed to by the Roman Pilate,
          and they are asked to give the thumbs-up or the thumbs-down
                   to the two condemned men.

Barabbas, of course, gets the thumbs up.
          A big cheer for the path of violence, please!

And the first victim is … Jesus.
          The path of peace receives the thumbs-down.
          The crowd choose violence

This is the same crowd, of course,
          who earlier in the gospel
                   were described as being “like sheep without a shepherd”
          and on whom Jesus had compassion as he taught them (6:34).

This is the same crowd who benefited
          from the miraculous multiplication of loaves (8:6),
who were spellbound by Jesus teaching (11:18)
          and who listened to him with delight (12:37).

Yet here they are, baying for his blood.

They are, it seems, still ‘sheep without a shepherd’
          following the lead of those who would lead them astray.

And so the crowd cry ‘crucify’ at Jesus,
          and are manipulated into rejecting the Messiah
          and maintaining the status quo.

The masses succumb to the manipulations of the ruling authorities,
          while the one who has challenged that imbalance of power
                   is sent to his death.

And so the system of domination continues.
          The revolution of peace is suppressed,
                   and the prince of peace is handed over to be killed.

The people in the end choose violence over peace.

Some things, it seems, never change

The crowd which had so recently backed Jesus
          in his attack on the religious authorities,
becomes in turn the tool of those same authorities.

Their call for Jesus’ blood
          echoes both the howls of the demons
                   that Jesus has confronted earlier in his ministry
                             (1:24; 3:11; 5:5,7; 9:26),
          and also the cries of those oppressed
                   by powers and ideologies (9:24; 10:47f; 11:9).

The cry of the crowd is both demonic and despairing.
          On the one hand they are ‘possessed’ by evil,
          and on the other hand they are the pawns
                   of those evil people in authority.

Pilate in the end gives the crowd their satisfaction
          by releasing the lesser revolutionary,
and handing the true dissident over for a beating.

And this, then, is the end of Jesus’ trial.
          He is simply handed over for crucifixion
                   on the say-so of a blood-hungry crowd
                   manipulated by those who would seek to oppress them.

The powers and the people
          have considered the subversive claims of Jesus,
          and condemned him to death.

They have chosen the path of violence
          and rejected the path of peace.

And so the judgement is pronounced.

And so it is today.

When power, religion and political ideology combine,
          and when inequalities are created
                   which seek to keep some in privilege
                   and some in powerlessness,
          mob violence is only ever just around the corner.

When people without a shepherd are manipulated and used,
          they all too easily choose Barabbas over Jesus.

The human tendency to scapegoat the innocent individual
          and to choose violence over peace
remains as strong today as ever it has been.

And the tragic message of this passage remains the same also.

Which is that when people choose violence over non-violence,
          they always in the end pass judgement on themselves.
When Barabbas is chosen over Jesus
          humanity itself dies, and evil is victorious.
Jesus goes to the cross once again,
          and all are implicated.

And so we hear the headlines:

Three teenage girls from east London travel to Syria to fight with Islamic State

Pakistan resumes executions for all capital offences.[4]

Myanmar riot police beat student protesters with batons.[5]

Deadly bomb attacks hit Egypt's Sinai peninsula.[6]

Nigeria's Boko Haram pledges allegiance to Islamic State.[7]

Political parties debate the replacement of Trident[8]

And I could go on, and on…

Some things it seems, never change.


When the mob cry ‘violence’, and the innocent go to their deaths,
          they follow Jesus to the grave.

And herein lies the mystery of the cross,
          which becomes, for us,
                   not the victory of violence,
                   but its end.

Who is on trial? Who is condemned?

In the final analysis, the path of nonviolence is vindicated,
          and righteous one is justified.

Those who would embrace violence
          always find, in the end, that they have embraced the cross.

And the one nailed to the tree,
          is the one in whom the healing of the nations is to be found.

And so we who would embrace the cross,
          must embrace it as the end of violence.

The cross points us to the conviction
          that conflict is not the solution to injustice and inequality.

The cross points us to another way,
          in our relationships, in our devotions, and in our politics.

The way of the cross is the way of Christ,
          and it lies before each of us.

Some things it seems do change,
          and what is changed, it turns out, is everything.


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