A Sermon given in Wesley House on 5th July 2012 following the vote on the Fruitful Field in the Methodist Conference
The Revd Dr Jonathan Hustler, Vice Principal, Wesley House
Luke 23v25: He released the man they asked for, the man put in prison for insurrection and murder, and gave Jesus over to their will.
How on earth did that happen?
A friend of mine is a conjuror. Years ago, when we were both students, we were members of a dining club. At the end of each academic year, the club met to elect new members to replace those who were leaving and did so in the traditional way, with a collection of black and white balls. The candidates were discussed and each member put one of the balls into a bag. On one occasion someone was nominated and discussed and my friend, the conjuror, was entrusted with the task of collecting the voting balls. He emptied the bag onto the table and every ball was black. There was a moment of silence and then someone said, “Well, I voted for him. How on earth did that happen?”
There are occasions when a decision leaves us stunned. We’ve witnessed all that leads up to it and the authority that makes the decision comes to a conclusion entirely opposite to our hopes and expectations. We can’t see how they got there.
It can happen in the Church. In the 1960s there was an extensive discussion in the Roman Catholic Church about human reproduction and it became clear that the majority opinion was that there should be some relaxation of the prohibition of all forms of artificial contraception. Then in 1968 Pope Paul issued the encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which restated the traditional position and left many Catholics were puzzled and feeling that they had not been heard. How on earth did that happen?
It happens in court cases. You may have seen in the press last month the reports of the death of Rodney King. Rodney King was an American who in 1991 was stopped by police for drink-driving. He was dragged from his car by the police, stunned with a taser and savagely beaten. A passer-by filmed the assault, the film was broadcast by the media, and the police officers concerned were arrested, tried, and acquitted. King was black, and the acquittal led to race riots in Los Angeles, as the black population there reacted with uncomprehending anger to the verdict. How on earth did that happen?
And it happened in Jerusalem that day. When I was in my first appointment, the district organized a Bible study on Luke’s passion narrative led by the then Secretary of Conference, Brian Beck. Brian argued that what Luke is telling us is that shortly before these events there had been some sort of riot or revolt in Jerusalem. The uprising had been crushed, and its ringleaders rounded up, tried, and convicted. There were plans for a triple crucifixion that day – of Barabbas the leader of the insurrection and two of his henchmen; but when the crowd went to watch they saw not the notorious insurrectionist on the central cross but the popular preacher from Galilee. How on earth did that happen?
To some extent, we know how it happened. It happened because Herod and Pilate were more interested in their own private politicking than doing the job they were supposed to do or exercising the responsibility that they had been given. It happened because the priests were determined that Jesus should be destroyed and manipulated the process to ensure they got their way. It happened because the crowd was easily led and shouted what they were told to shout, put up their hands, as it were, perhaps without fully understanding what they were doing. And yet, although we can explain it in part, it still leaves us bewildered. It doesn’t make sense. We are staggered by it.
But that moment when it doesn’t make sense leads onto salvation, because it is that moment that sets Jesus on the journey to the cross: the way that leads through crucifixion to resurrection. But it is not an automatic journey. If I can anticipate what some of you may read following the prayer handbook lectionary over the next couple of days, in the rest of the chapter Luke gives us some pointers to what makes this a journey to resurrection. There are key elements that we might note in the account.
The first is that Jesus does not bear the shocking injustice alone. The next thing that Luke tells us is that Simon of Cyrene is enlisted to carry the cross. It is enormously important in moments when we struggle to comprehend what has just happened that there are those who are prepared to stand with us, to help us to carry what has to be borne.
The second element that Luke includes is forgiveness. It is Luke, and only Luke, who tells us that as Jesus was nailed to the cross he prayed for his executioners to be forgiven. Such forgiveness is not easy – far from it. But it is essential that we forgive if we are to move from angry incomprehension into a new future.
And thirdly, Luke’s narrative brings us to an expression of faith. We are told that the last words of Jesus on the cross are ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ In the darkness and in pain all we can do is to put our trust in God, and be sure that somehow, God will look after us.
Luke’s passion narrative ends with the words of the centurion at the foot of the cross and they are significant: ‘Surely, this man was innocent.’ The verdict was unjust; the decision was plain wrong. But it still opened the way, the very hard way, which with friendship and forgiveness and faith can lead to new life.