by Phil Andrews
It’s a shame that the relatively impressive turnout for our Easter Sunday morning services would appear to have triggered an outbreak of worship-fatigue just at the wrong moment, leaving our pews all but deserted by the time the evening had come around.
Those who agree with me that Antony’s sermons typically range from the merely very good to the frankly awesome would probably also have agreed, had only they been there to hear it, that his evening offering on that most important of Christian festival days fell very firmly into the latter category.
Okay, the line between deserved praise and hyperbole can at times be insubstantial. But it was one which got me thinking which, presumably, is a cardinal objective of any religious address.
What went through their minds?
Reflecting upon the scene of the Crucifixion, we were invited to think about specific aspects of the event – even being granted periods of silence in which to do so (which only a hopeless cynic would suggest is a disarmingly smart stratagem for any sermon writer). In particular, we were asked to consider what might have been going through the minds of each of the “players” as the gruesome and grisly process charted its inevitable course.
We know what happened. But who was to blame?
The religious elders, and the mob that they had managed to arouse into denouncing Jesus and calling for His death, were certainly the primary movers in sending Him to the Cross. It was they who brought Him before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judaea and the only man who had the authority to pass the death sentence upon Jesus. But did they know what it was that they were doing? Not according to Jesus who, even at the height of His suffering, called upon God to forgive them precisely on the grounds that they didn’t.
Pilate himself, as we know, was not much concerned with the “superstitions” of what he saw as a fickle and excitable people, other than for their potential to incite disorder and foment rebellion. Indeed he questioned the judgment of the Jewish leaders and seemed to resist their exhortations to have Christ put to death, before ultimately relenting, for a quiet life, and famously washing his hands of the whole business. Some see Pilate as a sympathetic figure, indeed the Coptic and Ethiopian Churches believe that he later converted to Christianity and venerate him both as a saint and a martyr.
The Roman soldiers, of course, were only acting under orders. True, this was to be no defence at Nuremberg many years hence, but these were different times (even Pilate casually ordered that Jesus be flogged despite believing He was innocent) and the life of an innocuous but (to them) deluded Jew was likely to have been thought a reasonable price to pay to buy the silence of a rowdy rabble. Good order, sound governance and discipline were considered by the Empire to be noble values, and by giving the crowd what it wanted they were preserving the peace and security of the province.
Even the role of Jesus’ disciples should not be beyond scrutiny. Having spent the most recent years living with Him at close quarters – eating with him, talking with Him, asking Him questions, listening to Him preaching, witnessing His miracles – they seemed remarkably unaware of the significance of what was happening around them, and of the magnitude of the event which was about to unfold. And yet they had given up their lives, and livelihoods, for Him, and were to go on to perform remarkable deeds.
Simon of Cyrene
Lastly, and perhaps unusually, Antony introduced a player who to some may have been a lesser-known participant – one Simon of Cyrene, the man who carried the Cross. Whilst some texts suggest that bearing the burden of a physically weaker man who was clearly in some distress may have been an act of charity, others lament his apparent willingness to assist with the process of the execution. In truth it is probably irrelevant – it is unlikely that the Romans, who ordered him so to do, would have offered him the option of refusing. Scripture tells us, on the surface of it unnecessarily, that Simon had two sons. Anyone who is a parent will know the sense of duty that one has to one’s children, and it is perhaps unreasonable to expect that he might have been prepared to leave them without a father, which may well have been the outcome of any act of insubordination on his part.
It occurs to me (as it did to Antony) that by looking for somebody to blame we are perhaps missing the point. More important is understanding the motives of each person or group of people concerned.
When we do this, it becomes clearer that apportioning blame is not only a pointless exercise, but also a distraction. Ugly and horrid though it was, the Crucifixion had to happen. Not just to fulfil prophesy, but so that the Resurrection could provide for us all the final and ultimate proof of His divinity. All the characters involved – Jews and Romans, disciples and unbelievers, Pontius Pilate and Simon of Cyrene – were merely players on a beautiful, if macabre stage, like some surreal Shakespearean drama.
The important thing is, for us, that He died for our sins and was raised from the dead. Everything else is historical detail – fascinating for sure, but merely peripheral.