Passions Sunday; The Trial of Jesus; Luke 23.1-25
Feudal Japan, the early seventeenth century. Portuguese missionaries are successful in bringing the gospel of a loving, crucified God to the Japanese people. The Christian movement catches on fast, almost as if the Holy Spirit created an unquenchable wild fire within the hearts of the Japanese people during the Tokugawa Shogunate Dynasty.
But then! A new ruler comes to power, and he finds the rapid spread of this new religion brought on by a foreign government to be dangerous, and so he outlaws this new religion, the religion of the loving, crucified God. This ruler also raised taxes to fund the construction of a new palace. Peasants, angry that their taxes were raised when they are already poor, and angry that their newfound religion was taken away from them, fight back, in what is called the Shimabara Rebellion. The new ruler defeated the rebellion, and tightened his grip over the nation of Japan, and began a campaign of bitter persecution against those who followed this loving, crucified God.
The Christian movement did not stop, but was forced to become an underground movement, what is called the Kakure Kirishitan movement--the hidden Christians. Risk of persecution was great--Christians would be imprisoned, tortured, and asked to renounce their faith by trampling on or defacing these beautifully carved images of Jesus called fumie. These fumie, often made of wood or bronze, would depict pictures of Jesus or Mary, and by asking a Christian to trample on it would be asking them to perform the ultimate act of apostasy, of turning one’s back on God. If they would not apostatize, the Christians would be faced with torture--either having boiling water poured over them, or hot coals placed on them, burning through their skin, or any other number of horrible things done to them until they either died or apostatized.
Shusaku Endo, a Japanese novelist, wrote a fictional account which takes place during this historical period of a priest named Friar Rodriguez in his acclaimed book, Silence. Rodriguez, a Portuguese missionary, journeys to Japan in the midst of all these rumors of torture and apostasy, to gather information and to help lead the Kakure Kirishitans, the hidden Christians, who were left without leadership after many of the missionaries and priests were captured and tortured. Rodriguez is filled with love for his God, for Jesus, the crucified God, and with love for the Japanese church in its time of affliction and suffering.
After several months, Rodriguez is captured and jailed. Praying to God for release from prison, Rodriguez slowly begins to feel and hear the silence of God--the crucified God that Rodriguez loved dearly is nowhere to be found as he awaits torture or apostasy. “Where are you God? Why don’t you answer my prayers?” The prison cell is silent, and Rodriguez is heartbroken.
An afflicted, broken nation under foreign occupation long prayed to a silent God. This nation, what was called Israel and now, under Roman rule is called Judaea, waited and waited and waited for an answer to their prayers, with silence as their only response. Then, this man begins teaching and preaching and healing throughout Judaea, claiming to be the Messiah, to be God’s answer to God’s people’s prayers. Finally! Here is the one who will lead the people of God out of captivity, the one who will restore the autonomy of this nation under God, the one who will be King. This man, this Jesus, rides triumphant into Jerusalem, people laying cloaks and palm branches before him, singing songs of praise and shouts of Hosanna. This man will save us.
It is weird that only a few days later, this same man, this Jesus, stands on trial.
Jesus stands on trial before Pilate, before Herod, before the religious leaders and the mob, and Jesus stands on trial before us. What is this man guilty of? The mob said that Jesus was perverting the nation, forbidding the proper payment of taxes to the emperor, and claiming to be the Messiah--the anointed one, the chosen one of God most high proclaimed and foretold in the scriptures. Jesus claimed to be the answer to a nation’s bitter, painful, prayer of oppressed people under an oppressive foreign occupation.
Is Jesus guilty?
Well, the Gospel of Luke does not tell us whether or not Jesus was perverting the nation, nor does it tell us if Jesus was forbidding the proper payment of taxes. But, ah, what the Gospel of Luke does tell us from the beginning is that this man is proclaimed as the Messiah. In Luke, Chapter 4, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue and reads a portion of Isaiah, which says: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4.18-19). Jesus closes the scroll, looks over his captive audience, every eye is upon him, and Jesus says “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4.21).
From the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry he has been not just proclaiming that he is the Messiah, but healing, teaching, preaching, casting out demons, and even prophesying against his contemporaries. All these things point to the fact that yes, Jesus is sent from God, that yes, Jesus is the Messiah.
But, as the excitement of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem that we celebrated this morning with palm branches and shouts of hosanna, and songs of praise for our king… when that excitement died down and the crowd waited anxiously to see Jesus finally go the next step, go the distance, be the long awaited Messiah that would rid Jerusalem--the very city of God--from the emperor who claimed lordship for himself, a false idol ruling over the Temple of the True God--the crowd eagerly awaiting Jesus’ next move, his bringing down of the man, the system, the government, and restoring Israel--God’s very chosen people--to full covenantal relationship and autonomy under the God who promised these things and more--the crowd waited… and waited… and waited… and Jesus did not deliver. He did not deliver to their expectations, he did not deliver them out of bondage. Jesus fails to meet the expectations of the Messiah who would lead a people to freedom from oppression. Jesus is guilty of not being who his people hoped he would be. Jesus is guilty of proclaiming to be the Messiah, the chosen one, when all evidence in the minds of the expectant people, waiting in the midst of their silent suffering, when all evidence points to the fact that he is proclaiming to be the Messiah when he in fact is not. Or if he is, he is not the one that the oppressed cried out and prayed through thousands of broken, silent, suffering nights hoped him to be. Jesus, the same one who said that he would let the oppressed go free seems to stand idly by, healing here and there, preaching good news of God’s love, while performing no action against the Roman emperor who is the very vehicle of oppression in the minds and hearts of the people of Judea.
And! What is worse? When asked if he is the Messiah, Jesus says, perhaps in a biting, sarcastic tone, “You say that I am.” That is, as if to say, you were the ones who built up these hopes and dreams of who I would be, you are the ones who said I would free you from Roman occupation. You say that I am these things.”
Herod, hoping for a miracle, gets silence from Jesus. Pilate, hoping Jesus would defend his innocence, gets silence. The mob, mocking and jeering, filled with disappointment and anger and frustration and evil, get silence.
We, along with the mob, stand with fingers pointed at Jesus, eyes narrowed, saying crucify, crucify, crucify. Because we, along with the crowd, continually have our hopes dashed by this man.
When the poor go hungry, the sick die, the lonely remain alone, children halfway around the world dieing from AIDS and children next door going hungry. When people are abused, battered, broken--when oppressive regimes create genocide and unjust wars are fought throughout the world--where is this man who claims to be the Messiah?
Friar Rodriguez was feeling the same thing when he sat in his prison cell that dark night before he would be asked to either be tortured or renounce the God who had thus far only showed him silence to his suffering. All night long he prays, but no answer.
The morning arrives--“the first rays of the dawn appear” (171). Endo tells us of how Friar Rodriguez is taken outside, and before him is placed the fumie, the image of Jesus, a face that he has loved but now has grown to hate--the face for which he has suffered so much already, and is now asked by his oppressors to trample upon that face or be tortured. With a heavy heart, Friar Rodriguez lifts his foot, poised, ready to trample upon that face… when the silence is broken… Yes, Endo writes that Friar Rodriguez stands poised, and looks at “that fumie, a burning image… On it was a copper plate on which a Japanese craftsman had engraved [Jesus’] face. Yet the face was different from that on which the priest had gazed so often…. It was not a Christ whose face was filled with majesty and glory; neither was it a face made beautiful by the endurance of pain; nor was it a face filled with the strength of a will that has repelled temptation. The face of the man who then lay at his feet was sunken and utterly exhausted…. It was this concave face that had looked at the priest in sorrow. And then the Christ in bronze [the face of Jesus from the fumie] speaks…: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by [humankind] that I was born into this world. It was to share [humankind’s] pain that I carried my cross.
“The priest placed his foot on the fumie [and trampled]” (171-176).
Jesus’ voice from that image pierced through the silence that clouds Shusaku Endo’s novel. That voice of Jesus, speaking to Friar Rodriguez, telling him to trample. Yes, it was “In sorrow [that Jesus] had gazed up at [Friar Rodriguez] as the eyes spoke appealingly: ‘Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here‘” (176).
You see, Jesus speaks to us in the hopeless silence our hearts feel from time to time. Jesus’ silence to the crowd, to Pilate and Herod, Jesus’ silence was a self-accusing silence, a silence to the questions burning in everyone’s hearts, a silence that would seem to all the world to be finalized on the cross, but a silence that Jesus would break once and for all on the third day. Because Jesus did come to rid us of oppression, but not the oppression of Rome but the oppression of sin.
Jesus does speak to us in silence, and speaks to us in our suffering from his own suffering on the cross. You see, Jesus is not the Messiah we ask for, nor is he the Messiah we deserve, but he is the Messiah that dies for us and our sins.
Holy week is about that silence, living in it--the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday when the disciples waited in fear, all their hopes shattered. When we feel the heavy emptiness, the roaring silence fill us up, with no apparent answer. The silence that grows in the space between every spoken word, the silence at the end of a prayer before the amen is finally heard. This week, I invite you to live in that silence, to wrestle with it. To let it fill you up and empty you out, the grace that hurts almost as much as it heals.
Yes, let us feel that silence the disciples felt that crucifixion Friday, and that Saturday before the resurrection dawn lit up the sky and their hearts. But even here, like the fumie to Friar Rodriguez, even in the midst of the silence Holy Week brings, Jesus speaks to us--we look forward to Maundy Thursday, when we are reminded that God’s presence is among us every time we break bread and share the cup of wine. We are reminded of God’s presence with us and among us in our suffering when God died for us on Good Friday. And on Easter Sunday, we celebrate with the whole church and all of creation, even the rocks and trees and mountains, we celebrate the day when the silence is broken once and for all with Christ’s definitive “AMEN!”
But, for now, my brothers and sisters, as we enter this week, let us remain in the apparent silence of Jesus, the silent response to us as we shout along with the mob, even today, the sin filling our hearts, as we shout “Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!” as we put the King of all the Cosmos on trial for not being the King we expect. Yes, and when in our suffering and in our sin and in our pain, we put Jesus on trial, we raise our foot to trample, to crucify, foot held high, poised, looking down at that face, the silence is broken for us, too, as that face looks back at us, the eyes of Jesus, full of love and understanding, proving his suffering along with us in our suffering, and begging us to “Trample. Trample. Trample.”