How do we respond to death, and the prospect of death? A first way is the way of denial. This the way of Pilate, the way of Herod, the way of the mob. Rather than facing up to death, and their own responsibility for it, they pass the buck, white-wash, and scapegoat.
Pilate’s behaviour in Luke’s Gospel story is a classic case of buck-passing and white-washing. He does not face up to the issues of life and death before him, but simply passes them on to others. It is a typical expression of bad leadership, then and now. For firstly he tries to get Herod to do his dirty work. Then, because Herod is made of the same spineless stuff as himself, Pilate whips up the mob and casts responsibility for Jesus’ death upon them. Yet we know, don’t we, that is purely political manoeuvring? The reality is, that he, like Herod, is just a self-interested thug. It is the kind of case of CYA – cover your arse – that we find among all institutions, and their leaders, at their worst. Maybe that is why the two thugs become friends – for, like Putin and Assad, the leaders of Russia and Syria today, there is often a recognition of mutual interest, at the cost of the innocent.
Such denial of death, and death-dealing, is not however confined to leaders. There are reasons why thuggish leaders can claim and retain power, and they are not simply force of arms. Like the rise of Donald Trump in the USA, they also feed on the irrational fears and misdirected angers of ordinary people, ordinary people just like us. For we are all involved, in some way, in punishing or scapegoating others, in order to deny our own fears of change and death. We too are part of Christ’s crucifixion.
A classic means is by scapegoating, by projecting our fears, our angers, our own violence on to someone else. So like the religious leaders and the mob who scapegoated Jesus, we have a tendency to blame someone else for our problems. They deserve punishment we may feel, and nothing will go right until they are removed. Whom we pick upon will vary. It might be a leader, or an institution, or a very vulnerable group like refugees, or maybe women, or men, or LGBT people, or Muslims, or Christians, or atheists, or, frequently, Jews? It doesn’t really matter. If we are set on denying our own complicity with violence and evil, we also kill our own compassion. All of these are ways in which we can deny the death we also bear. So where do we see such buck-passing, such white-washing, such scapegoating, in our world today? Who are our Pilates, our Herods, our chief priests? And in what ways are we a part of this? How are we the mob baying for blood, for punishment, seeking to deny death?
(reading of Luke chapter 23.vv 26-43)
How do we respond to death, and the prospect of death? A second way is the way of forgiveness. This is the way of Jesus, and the way of the repentant criminal on the cross. For forgiveness is something which we need to do now before it is too late. Death can focus the mind and heart in that respect.
One important contrast in this second part of our Gospel story today is therefore with the women who were weeping and wailing so profusely for Jesus. Jesus rebukes them, albeit with compassion. For like some of the grief which we express about terrible tragedies or acts of terror, it is a misplaced grief. Such emotion is also an expression of other personal fears and pain and shame, which have not been dealt with. The women would not do their own ‘soul-work’: much like us much of the time. For do we not also sometimes weep and wail, too much, for other things, to distract us from our pain and shame and conflicts? Are we willing to do our ‘soul-work’?
Jesus, and the penitent criminal show us the way. ‘Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’, says Jesus. Can we say that? What is there in our lives we need to forgive others for, when others do not know what they are doing? ‘Jesus, remember me’, says the penitent criminal, which is a simple prayer for us at any time, as is Jesus’ reply - ‘Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’ – blessed assurance in the face of what ever we face, even death itself.
God in Jesus forgives, always remember that! Remember too that it is easier to know such divine forgiveness when we learn to accept and forgive ourselves – as the penitent thief did but not the other. For the one was open to forgiveness as he learned to forgive. The other was closed to forgiveness, for he still sought self-justification and denial of his true self and others. Maybe, for many of us, it is only in the face of death, or in the destruction of what we hold most dear, that we finally come to trust in what really matters. Yet even at the last, like the unrepentant thief, some of us sadly still cannot not bring ourselves to trust in the love of God – which is all such a shame, when forgiveness leads straight to Paradise, wherever we are or have been.
Take a look at Graham Warren’s sculpture in the warriors chapel, with the hands seeking reconciliation: solidarity together, hope in the very midst of death and violence. Don’t let death, or the fear of death, stop us accepting and forgiving one another. What ‘soul-work’ do we need to do this Holy Week? What do we need to stop denying about our ourselves and our lives? What do we need to start forgiving, and trusting anew?
(reading of Luke chapter 23.vv 44-56)
How do we respond to death, and the prospect of death?
A third way is the way of waiting. This the way of the women who stayed with Jesus, the way of the centurion, and the way of Joseph of Arimathea. For we cannot defeat death. We can try to bear it, and, vitally, we can use it to find forgiveness and the acceptance of true reality Yet we cannot overcome it. Only God breaks the power of death. What we can do is to wait for resurrection, recognising that God is here among us, even in death.
So what will we do this Holy Week? Will we hide away, or will we keep watch? Will we simply rail at the pains of death, or will we recognise God in the midst of it all? Note well, this is nothing to do with being a Christian, as such: it was a centurion, a foreigner, a sinner by definition, a person of other faith, who saw the deepest truth of God even in the eye of death. Will we simply despair when death strikes, or will we prepare – do what we can – like Joseph of Arimathea, in the hope of resurrection? In the midst of death or the prospect of death, little rituals, this week’s great liturgies, even the most fervent of prayers, will not take away death’s sting. Yet they can help to keep us alive, to keep us still and to keep us open to new life.
And maybe, as other signs of this, our art exhibition this week, or our song, our music, our dance, and our company together, can do the same: each of them allowing us wait on God to find fresh meaning and new life in the face of death. For let us not go into denial. Instead, let us forgive, and wait on God, so that we may find life in the midst of death, this Holy Week and always. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.