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A Welcoming Church

The season of Lent brings sin into focus; it puts us in mind of our complicity in sin; and we repent of that sin. Then at the end of Lent, we hear the most important and timely story in history, the Crucifixion story. Today, we have Mark’s account; on Good Friday, we have John’s. The Passion story brings us to the depths of human corruption and cruelty and sin.

Every year during Holy Week, a remarkable thing happens. On Palm Sunday, it is all joyful. We have Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem: Ride on, ride on, in majesty! John’s gospel says a “great crowd took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, Hosannah! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the king of Israel!”

Mark says, “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches. Those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

And today we sing, All glory, laud and honor! That is Palm Sunday. Just five days later, on Good Friday, the crowd is shouting “Crucify him; crucify him!” On Sunday, it’s, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” By Friday, it’s, “Crucify him; give us Barabbas!”

What in the world happened during those five days between the shouts of joy and of rage? Christians might experience a spiritual whiplash during Holy Week, even before the return to joy between Good Friday and Easter.

Something pretty major happened during those five days. What happened? Another way of saying it is, why was Jesus killed? One answer is, well, he claimed to be the Son of God. And fair enough; at his trial before the Sanhedrin, blasphemy was the accusation brought against Jesus.

But that answer might not be completely satisfying. After all, the same crowd had just recently been shouting, “Blessed! Hosannah!” So, there must be more to the story. And then there is another problem.

If someone were to arrive in Salisbury today claiming to be the Son of God, we might be put off, or shrug and walk away, or call EMS. But we would probably not kill him. Before we could kill him, we would have to be, as the gospel puts it, “stirred up” to do it. Someone would have to incite us, get us well and truly riled, and bring out the worst in us.

So something happened. One thing that happened was the cleansing of the temple, which is recorded in all four gospels. In Matthew and Luke, it follows immediately after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem; in Mark it is the next day. John places it much earlier, after the wedding at Cana, but also at the time of Passover, which was our Gospel reading on March 3.

Dede and I visited the site in Jerusalem in 2019. The temple grounds are big. In Jesus’ time, there was the structure itself, called Herod’s Temple, which was surrounded by an outer courtyard. That courtyard is where the traders and money-changers operated.

The traders were there to sell ritually clean animals — pigeons and doves, sheep and cattle — which could not be brought long distances, to the worshippers traveling to Jerusalem to make their sacrifices. And the money changers, for a fee, exchanged foreign coins for the standard Hebrew shekels that were required by the traders, and to pay temple dues.

All this commercial activity was certainly a convenience and a service to those out-of-town worshippers needing to make their sacrifices and pay their temple dues. But it might also be seen as a shakedown, a protection racket, a way to soak the poor which, like other rackets, was perfectly legal.

In John’s account, Jesus saw all this buying and selling, and made a whip of cords and “drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.”

The temple revenues were controlled by the Sadducees, who were the moneyed class. The commercial activities of the temple were their big profit maker, and Passover was their Super Bowl. So when Jesus drove out just some of this activity, and poured out the coins and turned over the tables, he was disrupting, if only by a little, the big income stream of the year.

The Sadducees complained to the Sanhedrin, the council of chief priests and elders who were a body of the richest Sadducees. When you hear “chief priests and elders”, think NFL owners. At the top of this food chain of privilege was Caiaphas, who oversaw the plot to kill Jesus.

Jews could not crucify anyone; only Romans could perform crucifixions. So the Sanhedrin delivered Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor. But Pilate could find no crime in Jesus. “I find no basis for an accusation against this man. I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him.” (Luke 23:4,14)

But the chief priests and elders “stirred up the crowd” (Mark 15:11) and “persuaded the crowds to have Jesus killed.” Pilate asked them, “What should I do with Jesus?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Pilate: “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!”(Matt 27:20-23)

Our Lord was crucified for confronting the existing order; for threatening the vested interests; for calling out corruption; for being a disruptor and radical.

So, who killed Jesus? And before that spat on him, struck him, pierced him, flogged him, mocked him, stripped him – who did all that? “The Jews” did not kill Our Lord; nor did Pilate nor the Roman soldiers; nor the Pharisees, who so often challenged Jesus – although certainly, they were all involved. For me, there are two answers.

First, authority killed Jesus. The gospels are clear: the chief priests and elders, the Sanhedrin and Caiaphas, were the instigators in the Passion story. After the cleansing of the temple, according to Mark, they “sought a way to destroy him; for they feared him”.

The chief priests and elders challenged Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus knew authority
was just another word for power, and the authorities knew that he knew.

The second answer might be, we are all capable of great weakness and cruelty, so we are all guilty. That is the takeaway from all the details about Judas and Pilate and the soldiers, all the myriad players, and the disciples who fled. The point is, we are all capable of deceiving ourselves; of showing cowardice in the face of force; and of doing unspeakable evil.

We are capable of the same deranged mob violence, which is what makes the Passion story believable and terrifying. We are complicit when we let people in authority get us “stirred up”. Beneath the veneer of our civility lurks a terrible rage waiting to be incited, maybe against people who never did us any harm, sounding a lot like the crowd shouting, “Crucify him!”.

We are all unjust. We are all accused. That is the point of the Crucifixion. From his cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He included all those standing by and watching. He included all of us. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

God be praised. Love your neighbor. Amen.