Saturday, March 15, 2008

Last Year's Sermon for Palm Sunday

Note: While working on a sermon for this year I read over last's year's again and thought perhaps I should make it available. Much of it is founded on Dorothy L. Sayer's notes to her radio plays The Man Born to be King, but I can no longer identify exact quotations.
Homily for the Sunday of the Passion, Year C
Preached at Saint Matthias’, Bellwoods,
Sunday 1 April 2007

It's strange when you think about it. Every day all over the world thousands of people recite the name of a fairly undistinguished man who lived many centuries ago. It is very likely most of them never give much thought to this fact. We aren’t sure where he was born – though it was probably in Italy – or when – but I’d guess he was middle-aged by the time he stumbled into world history. We don’t know his first name, though his family name was Pilatus of the clan called Pontius, and we know him as Pontius Pilate. (There is a tradition that his first name was Gaius.) We know nothing of his early career, but in about AD 26 the Emperor Tiberius named him to the responsible but not very prestigious post of Prefect of Judaea; he was the fifth Prefect since the Romans had given up on home rule in that part of the empire. They usually kept the job for about three years, but Pilate held it for ten: Tiberius often left men in office. We know that he was married. In his term several incidents occurred which were recorded by contemporary historians, but one stands out.
Once, on the occasion of a feast, the Jerusalem authorities handed over to Pilate for punishment a man they said had threatened the Temple sanctuary and pretended to be king. When Pilate examined the man he concluded that he was inconsequential and that the Jewish leaders were acting for their own reasons. Herod Antipas of Galilee became involved in the case, but sent the fellow back to Pilate. Pilate announced that he was not going to execute him. Yet when he saw that a riot was breaking out in Jerusalem because of the announcement, he backed down and acceded to the demands of the religious leaders. The man was executed. Later Pilate was recalled to Rome on entirely different grounds and nothing more is known of him, although legends have grown about him.
Thousands of times every day this rather undistinguished Roman official is named all over the world; his name has even been set to music by some of the world’s finest composers, and all because his name is in the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds.
Well, of course you know that. But have you ever wondered why we don’t say that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried and just stop there, but insist on saying that it all happened under Pontius Pilate? If you’re ever going to wonder it, now is as good a time as any, when we have just heard the Passion of Christ according to St Luke. Now as I said last Sunday, in Holy Week we should perhaps preach less and let the story speak for itself. But we must be prepared to listen carefully and hear this story, and part of that preparation is to be aware of what kind of story we are listening to. The Gospel was first proclaimed in a world of myth and legend, where it would have been very easy for the story of Jesus to be presented as another myth. The same temptation is real today. But – despite what you may hear - the gospels do not read like myths, and we do not do well to hear them as myths. From the first, the Church has insisted that it is not a myth, but something that actually happened.
This is why Pilate is named in the Creed: not so that we can blame him for Christ’s suffering – for surely then we would name Judas and Caiaphas too – but simply because his name fixes within a few years the date of the crucifixion. This is not just a curious fact: it is of great importance. There have been plenty of founders of religions who have dates: Mohammed, for example lived from about AD 570 to 632, but he never claimed to be God, and his followers would reject the very idea. Again, the religious literature of the world is full of incarnate deities and gods who came to earth in mortal guise; but they are all in the ever-never of myths and heroes, once-upon-a-time. Christ is unique among gods and men: He is the only dying and reviving God who has a date in history and among the founders and prophets only he is personally God.
In the epistle this morning St Paul wrote that Christ humbled himself to death on the cross and therefore God has highly exalted him above all names. But if we say that without saying when and where it happened it is really nothing but empty air. In human life things do not happen unless they happen somewhere, sometime, and to someone. It does little good to keep insisting that you love someone if your actions never show it. It is no different for God: St John says, In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
All the rest – our faith and message, our community and our theology – is based on what happened in Jerusalem all those years ago. Although Sunday by Sunday and day by day all through the year we learn from preaching and experience what it means to hold that faith and belong to that community, this week we can come face to face with the history of the Passion of Christ. We do this in the celebration of the mystery as it unfolds in the Upper Room, on the way of the Cross, and in the Tomb cut from the Rock. Come and enter into it in the confidence that what we remember and celebrate are events that happened when God came into our lives in the days of Pontius Pilate.
Note: The Prefects of Judea were: Coponius (6-8), M. Ambivius (9-12), Annius Rufus (12-15); Valerius Gratus (15-26); Pontius Pilate (26-36); 37 (Marullus); Herennius Capito (37-41); from 41-44 Judea passed into the rule of Herod Agrippa I, after whose death it was under the Procurator of Palestine. (All dates CE)


Dominik Halas said...

A lovely sermon Bill! Something I've thought about myself, but not put into word so well.

It's also nice that this is now the second excellent Palm Sunday sermon I've had this week.

William Craig said...

Thank you, Dominik. When I know how this year's Goof Friday sermon goes over, I may well post that - it is slightly off-beat.