Good Friday 2017 – Talk 1

No. 1 – Jesus is arrested

Jesus is arrested. How can this in any way be compatible with God’s purpose of, as Isaiah puts it, loosing the bonds of injustice and the thongs of the yoke?

Zuberan’s image of the bound lamb was displayed in the National Gallery’s millennium exhibition ‘Seeing salvation’. Shocking in its stark simplicity – bound and passively awaiting slaughter – this image evoked strong reactions from the public. I remember hearing a young Sikh lad, deeply moved, clearly, despite the signage, struggling to understand how this could possibly connect with an all-powerful God, as he understood God to be.

We’re anaesthetised: the Lamb metaphor is so strong that it fails to shock. Zuberan’s lamb is so real, so frail and so vulnerable that he brings us right back. To consider afresh what is going on. What is Jesus’ passivity all about?

Jesus lived under a system of oppression, patriarchal and deeply skewed in favour of those with influence or power. Jews living under Roman rule, with an uneasy accommodation between the two systems. With the added complication on the Jewish side, of both secular and religious authorities. Inbuilt, a disregard for the vulnerable and marginalised, despite all the fine words in Hebrew scripture. Lives were cheap. Brutality rife. The Jewish leaders had lost their way. Not that they saw it so. But, to preserve their influence and, to be fair, their ability to protect the Jewish way of life under Roman occupation, they made compromises. And probably, despite a propensity for examining Scripture, didn’t dare think deeply about what God was really saying to them. Were they colluding with Rome to protect their flock, or were they, rather, serving their own self-interest and preservation?

There are parallels in history. And today. People living under foreign rule or corrupt leadership, or both. People whose choices are hemmed in by the political mores of the day. Lives expendable, collateral damage in wars not of their choice or making. Leadership purporting to champion their cause but, in reality, serving their own ends.

Jesus refuses to collude. Faced with violence he responds with dialogue. He tells them to let the his companions go. And even when Peter chops off the ear of a slave, whose name, interestingly, is recorded, Jesus rebukes him. Here violence collides with non-violence and so powerfully that, as the text says, ‘they (the soldiers and police) fell to the ground.’

Today violence is so often met with violence, from street level right through to governments and global powers. Gang crime – an eye for an eye –  to legalised exterminations and even chemical weapons. Even at the level of verbal violence it is brutal and shocking.

Where, in our 21st century world, do we collude with systems?  Seeking compromise and, supposedly, the best possible outcome? Syria is complex – no simple ‘good guy- bad guy’ situation. But laden with history and vested interests. How can we – should we – read and react to the situation there, in order to fulfil God’s purpose? What should we be saying to our Government? How to change the situation – move the goal posts? And, for Syria, read many other current global situations. What’s to be done, for example, about the politics of supporting the Saudi regime, in the face of their questionable activities in Yemen, for example?

This is about breaking the cycle. In Gethsemane Jesus reacts unexpectedly and counter-intuitively, responding to violence with non-violence. Passive but not passive – challenging the system while accepting it. In a very real way, challenging the status quo. His passivity was an affront to those who came to arrest him. They were wrong-footed. We may feel powerless in the face of apparently intractable global problems, and even ignorant and unaware, in terms of the underlying layers of politics and history. Made even more volatile by the limited understanding even of those in power. What’s to be done by little you and me?

So many of these questions are unanswerable. Jesus had no magic bullet to alleviate the suffering of his people. Indeed, he went to his death silently, neither condemning nor affirming what was going on. Yet his very passivity is, in itself, a challenge to those who, from whatever direction or creed, believe in a simplistic solution. Through Jesus God says, ‘Is this not the fast I choose?’ To live in the present, in the uncertainty and contradictions, not to know the way forward and to be powerless in the presence of gratuitous suffering. Yet to continue to shout that this is not acceptable, that God himself has a different agenda which, with our fallible human help, can and will become reality,

The Cross is our ultimate reminder. Because out of this apparent hope-crushing defeat – what emerged? Unstoppable energy drawing unashamedly on the example of Christ, ultimately embedding Christianity in every corner of our world.

Back to the Lamb. Whose passive acceptance of death challenged both Jewish and Roman norms, changing the lives of those present in a way that words and actions, however well-intentioned, could never achieve. How can we live our lives in ways which both witness to Christ’s deepest purpose and are transformative? How may we become Christlike living words of God?

Alison M Adams