Vicar's Sermon - Monday of Holy Week

From the stations of the cross: Jesus betrayed by Judas; Jesus condemned by the Sanhedrin.

When Judas came, he went up to him at once and said ‘Rabbi’ and kissed him.

‘You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?’

Two phrases from the last two of the stations used this evening that I would like to link with the word ‘pretence’.

In the book (and the film) The Name of the Rose a Benedictine Monastery in Northern Italy plays host to a series of unexplained deaths – suicides it is thought. It is the 14th century and it looks, throughout, pretty bleak,... cold.... all in all the monastery (set on the top of a hill) looks a pretty grim place to live. Snow lies on the ground, the sky is grey.  One particular scene from the film came to mind as I thought of Judas, bringing the guards to arrest Jesus, and his carefully choreographed signal to show which of the Galilean strangers was the one to drag off for trial.  Part way through the film Bernardo Gui (a character who has made his name as the scourge of heretics across Italy and who is not averse to using torture and burning to rid the faithful of the infection of heresy) arrives with his entourage at the gate of the monastery. The abbot (Abbo of Fossanova) attends to greet him. Water is offered to wash the travellers’ hands and then the two men kiss – a European style kiss of greeting (either side) as they embrace. The whole thing is stylised and fraught with tension and danger as this man of violence enters the walls of the monastery. The kiss is out of place, it jars. It is meant to carry affection, love, openness and generosity. Instead, it masks suspicion and fear, ill intent – it is a pretence.

Later in the evening we are told that ‘the chief priests and the whole council’ have gathered to seek testimony against Jesus. The Jewish historian and theologian Geza Vermes has severe questions about this gathering  what exactly is it? The council was large – had it been convened before guards were dispatched to Gethsemane? What is taking place in this meeting?  In some ways it looks like a trial – there are witnesses (who disagree). There seems to be a charge (blasphemy) – but Jewish tradition demanded that someone accused of this capital offence be given the opportunity to recant their mistake...none is given here, no effort is made to bring Jesus ‘back into the fold’.  It looks like a trail...but is not. It becomes a lynching. The other week a woman in Afghanistan was thrown from the top of a building because someone falsely accused her of burning the Koran – a mob gathered and her voice was silenced: we are in the same territory here.  A veneer of judicial procedure but, in essence, a lynch mob that is seeking blood. A pretence of respectability...but no more than a pretence.

Yesterday (Palm Sunday) in a short address at the 8am and 9am services I suggested that one of the things that Jesus was doing in planning his entry into Jerusalem was ‘seeking for a response’. A response from the crowds but also a response from those in whose care rested the spiritual health of the nation: he was successful - the triumphal entry and the subsequent cleansing of the temple stirred up a hornets’ nest of opposition.  But before we too readily place ourselves on the side of the angels how real are our own responses to Jesus?

A liturgical church encourages us to ‘go through the motions’ to ‘perform the actions’ that shape our faith, to ‘say the words’ that they might penetrate heart and mind to such an extent that the word of God moulds us and directs us.  Sometimes however those words and actions seem to be at some distance from where we truly are in our hearts and souls – Judas has company in saying one thing but meaning another.

And the rush to judgement seen in the council that night?  It takes courage to hear those who challenge the status quo...who challenge us? ‘Wisdom’ takes time and is in short supply in modern society – where, in the council that night was the voice that said ‘stop, think, pray before you act?’ – could we have spoken up for Christ, could we have raised our voices on his behalf or would our silence been taken as approval for what follows?

‘Rabbi’ said Judas, and he kissed him

‘What is your decision? ‘ said the High Priest. All of them condemned him as deserving death.