The Crowd’s Four Lines

Sermon for Sunday, April 2, 2023 || Palm/Passion Sunday A || Matthew 26:36 – 27:56

At the end of today’s service, we will present the Passion Gospel, the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death. We will read it like a play, with myself and others taking on the various parts. One of the parts is the crowd, and that’s where you come in. If you follow along in your program, you will notice about two-thirds of the way through the reading that you, the members of the congregation, are playing the part of the crowd. You have four lines, and I’d like to spend a few minutes during this short sermon to talk through those four lines in order to prepare you to say them.

The first line is the name “Barabbas.” This is the prisoner whom Pontius Pilate released instead of Jesus. It was Pilate’s custom at the festival of Passover to release a prisoner, anyone the people clamored for. We might be tempted to think that releasing a single prisoner  is an act of mercy on Pilate’s part, but what it really is is a show of Rome’s dominance. Pilate shows his power by throwing scraps to the people under his control and then watching as they fight over those scraps. If he wanted to, Pilate could release all the prisoners, but by giving the people a limited choice, he pits them against each other. 

The chief priests and elders take these scraps from Pilate and persuade the crowd to ask for Barabbas. As you prepare to say Barabbas’s name, I invite you to think about the danger of this herd mentality. The crowd takes up the chant, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because the people around them are also saying Barabbas’s name. The desire to conform is strong because society swiftly punishes non-conformity. But when something is truly wrong, we must, with God’s help, speak up and speak out, no matter the consequences. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel famously said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

The next line the crowd – that’s you – will say is, “Let him be crucified.” You will say this twice in quick succession. I know many people feel uncomfortable voicing this part. Saying, “Let him be crucified,” feels like the worst kind of betrayal. Speaking aloud those words always causes a deep sorrow to well up in me, and I bet many of you feel it, too.

Even so, I hope you will still say these words when it comes to your turn. I know they are hard to voice, painful to say aloud, but they are also necessary. Saying those words today – “Let him be crucified” – allows us to give voice to a year’s worth of our own sin, our own willful separations from God, both small and great. In those four words, we identify with the jealous leaders who brought Jesus to the Roman officials. We confess our complicity in this sad desire to separate ourselves from the source of grace and healing. We say those words today. We live with them rattling around in the hollowness inside us this week. As they reverberate within, their echo is like a mirror held up to our willful separation. We see ourselves for the lonely, despairing people our choices often make of us. For a week, we live with those words on our lips. Then, a week from today, we replace them with fresh words of praise, with shouts of triumph, and with good news about God’s eternal embrace heralded by Christ’s resurrection.

That good news actually begins in a hidden way in the last line you will say today: “His blood be on us and on our children.” This the crowd says after Pilate literally washes his hands of the situation. These words are ironic in that they speak a truth the crowd doesn’t realize at the time. From the earliest days of Christianity, followers of Jesus identified Jesus with the Passover lamb from the story of the Exodus. The Israelites painted their doorways with the blood of the lamb so the final plague of Egypt would not affect their households. The Passover lamb became a symbol of the mercy and grace of God. Jesus’ blood, shed on the cross, brings that same mercy and grace, as Jesus goes to the utmost lengths to defeat the powers of death and sin.

These are the four lines that you as the crowd will say during the reading of the Passion Gospel. As you read them, remember that, no matter how much we separate ourselves from God, God is never separate from us. Even though we call for someone else’s release, even though we call for his crucifixion, even though we call for his blood, Jesus keeps calling us back into relationship with him as he spreads his arms of love out on the hard wood of the cross.

Photo by Thanti Riess on Unsplash.

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