Never Underestimate Us

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the Fifth Sunday of Lent (April 7, 2019), we sat and listened to the crowds clamoring for Jesus’ life outside of Pilate’s palace… and we considered what it means for we who might consider ourselves to be “typical people” in 2019.  Our Gospel text was Mark 15:1-20, and we interpreted it light of Paul’s words about “thinking like Jesus” to his friends in Philippi: Philippians 2:5-11

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please use the media player below:

I’m dating myself here, and I’m asking some of you to date yourselves, too.  I wonder if anyone has any idea what the number one selling toy in 1975 was.

For six months in my fifteenth year, the best-selling toy for the Christmas season was… the pet rock.  Somehow, a man named Gary Dahl persuaded 1.5 million people to pay $4 each for some stones he acquired for a penny apiece.  To put that into perspective, $4 in 1975 is equivalent to about $19 now.

H. L. Mencken was an American journalist and writer who is reputed to have said, “No one in the world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the plain people.”

Is he right?  Have you ever underestimated the intelligence, the wisdom, or the goodness of our culture?

As we continue in our conversations about the Gospel of Mark, this morning we’re going to look at some of the plain people that are described in the second gospel.

Our reading for this morning is strikingly parallel to the one we shared last week.  Once again, we find Jesus undergoing a trial.  In this case, however, rather than standing before the religious leaders, he has now been dragged before the chief civil authority for the whole region, Pontius Pilate.  Although the venue and the inquisitors have changed, Jesus continues to be resolute and stoic as he calmly subjects himself to unjust treatment.

Mark chapter 14 describes a religious council that was sure about what they wanted to do with Jesus – but they lacked the power to carry out their designs.  So they hand him over to the Roman Empire and ask Pilate to do their dirty work.

One difference is that Pilate could not care less about the finer points of the Jewish faith, and so rather than asking Jesus if he’s the Messiah, he asks him whether he claims to be some sort of a king.  He wants to know whether the young man from the Galilee is a threat to the peace and stability of the region, and whether he intends to mount any insurrection against Rome.

Jesus’ answers satisfy the Governor, and he acts as if he’s ready to let the Rabbi loose.  This is intolerable to the religious leaders, though, and so they start to throw more accusations.  Still, Pilate appears unfazed.  “Jesus isn’t really bothering anyone,” he says.  “He’s a little misguided perhaps; maybe naïve; but he’s no threat to me or to Rome.”

And that’s when the situation changes drastically by the addition of yet another character into our drama: the crowd.  The ordinary common people of Jerusalem show up, and they demand action – action in the form of Jesus’ death.

Behold the Man (Crucify Him!), Mihály Munkácsy (1896)

So, if you’re keeping score at home, this is where we stand: The religious leaders really, really want Jesus to be executed, but they have no authority to impose the death penalty.  Pilate has that authority, but he’s not really interested in putting an innocent man to death.  But the crowd wants someone to die, and they are convinced that Jesus is as good as anyone else in this regard.  One writer puts it this way:

In this tumultuous scene, rival authorities vie for power. The chief priests, elders, and scribes have religious authority, which they can exercise only by manipulating a Roman governor and an excitable crowd,  Pilate possesses civil authority, but will not act on his own judgment because, like the religious leaders, he fears the crowd. The crowd clamors for blood, but with no clear sense of purpose or direction.[1]

As this trial ends in the same fashion as the one the previous day – with Jesus undergoing yet another undeserved beating and humiliation – I think that Mark’s point is really clear: there are no bystanders at this point in the story.  Somehow, we are all participants in the extermination of this teacher from Nazareth. The commoners in Jerusalem saw no intersection between their lives and that of Jesus – or, if his life did affect theirs, it was to disappoint or anger them to the point where they clamored for his death.

Remember, friends, that the Gospel of Mark was written as a handbook for the Christians who were undergoing trials of their own in Nero’s Rome. All of this had to be, for these first hearers of the Gospel, an encouragement.  In their suffering and persecution, they were in some way more like Jesus.  Although Mark doesn’t spell it out as clearly here as does Paul in Philippians 2, I think his point is similar: the common Christians in Rome can identify with Jesus because he can identify with them.

Crucify Him, Peter Gorban (1923- 1995)

So what about us?  We are, I think it’s safe to say, “commoners” here in Pittsburgh in 2019. What is the impact of all of this on our lives?

On this 5thSunday in Lent, 2019 we need to make sure that disciples of Jesus are absolutely paying attention to what happened on that morning so long ago.  When we scan the faces of the hostile crowd, we need to recognize our own faces, and those of our neighbors.  When we observe the religious leaders’ commitment to destroying the life of someone whose understanding of Gospel was at odds with their own, we need to remember that kind of destructive instinct is not peculiar to our sisters and brothers of 2000 years ago.  We need to confess the fact that even the most ardent of disciples in our day and age will often find it easier to identify with the religious leaders or with the crowds than we do with Jesus.

And perhaps most strikingly to me, I am tempted to see my own reflection in the face of Pilate.  I recently discovered a letter that was written in the voice of Pontius Pilate to a colleague in Rome.  Listen:

The Most Noble Tertius Quartus, Rome

Your Excellency: You may have heard of the disturbance in Jerusalem last spring over the trial and execution of one Christus. It was quite a nuisance. But then, everything in this miserable province is a nuisance.  But it pass off all right, and we will never hear of Christus again.

My skirts are clear.  I rather liked the man.  He was what these Jews call a prophet, from upcountry, unsophisticated, of course. But compared to the rabble yelling their heads off, and the priests pushing their flimsy charges with no evidence at all that would hold in a Roman court, he was dignified and attractive.  I told them plainly and courageously that I found no fault in him.  But they kept yelling, ‘Crucify him!’ so I washed my hands of the whole affair.

My reasons were sound.  To have let this Christus go free would have meant a riot and disorder and, no doubt, complaints to Rome.  And you know that could be a lot of trouble.  A procurator must keep order above all things.

Besides, it was none of my business, really.  The man had committed no crime, but after all it was not my affair to mix into the squabbles of these fanatical Jews. It was their business, not mine.

And then it just happened to be a lucky chance to get solid backing from two groups usually opposed to me – the priests and the populace. I couldn’t let that slip.  It will mean a lot to my prestige and career here, and I hope in Rome too.

So if you hear any different reports, dismiss them.

With high esteem,
Pontius Pilate[2]

I found that little bit of creative writing to be spot on, because it illustrates that at the end of the day, Pilate chose to do less than his best, and less than what was right, because it was too much trouble, it was none of his business, and it might wind up costing too much time, energy, or money.

One of the reasons that I find that arresting is the fact that every day, common folks like you and I make a thousand different decisions.  We walk and talk and live and breathe and buy and sell and, if we’re not careful, Pilate’s Jerusalem or Mark’s Rome could seem like places that are far removed from us.

But this morning, my beloved, I would urge you not to make the mistake of underestimating in your life the power of the temptations that faced Pilate.  We are called to follow Christ.  We have said that we would follow him.  We are here, we think, following together.  And yet, how often do some or all of us shrink back from fully embracing the Kingdom of God because, well, because it might be more trouble, or fuss, or cost than we think we have to spare right now?

I will add my voice to Paul’s in encouraging you (and me) to “put on the mind of Christ” each day.  To recognize that there are times when we will move forward in resistance to the powers that surround us.

I saw this when I was walking with one of you and there was a grown man yelling at a child. Not in discipline, but rather berating and belittling the child.  The little boy was whimpering and crying under the onslaught of the cursing, but the man was drunk, or high, or crazed with anger.  And one of you stopped and said, “Hey, man – is that how you want to be talking to your boy?  Is that how you want him to remember you?  I don’t know what happened here, but I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t need to hear that kind of cursing from you.  Maybe you could find a more appropriate way to vent.” It was a risk to have said that.  I might have cost something.  But I think that Jesus would have said something, and one of you did.

I saw this kind of discipleship when one of you heard about an opportunity to make a financial gift in support of a ministry that was changing lives.  You were planning to retire, but you figured that if you worked another six months, that would allow you to do something important in a community that needed it.

I saw courage and purpose like this when one of you challenged your pastor on an important social issue. You thought that maybe I was coasting, that maybe I was taking the easy way, and you wanted to be sure that I was being attentive to the voice of Jesus, and so you came in and sat with me and asked me some hard questions.

And I saw what the mind of Christ looks like when one of the young people in the congregation talked about befriending a classmate who was being mistreated because of that student’s wardrobe and apparent lifestyle. I don’t know whether our young friend agreed with all of the decisions of her classmate… but I do know that she reached out in love and extended a welcome that the other student had not found elsewhere.

In those, and so many other ways, I see what it looks like to put on the mind of Christ.  When I read the story of the day that Jesus stood in front of Pilate and was condemned by the crowd, I need to remember that somehow it made sense on that day for common people in Jerusalem to choose a man of hate and violence over a man of love and peace.  When they did that on that day, they ensured that he would literally die for them.

That’s what the crowd did on that day.  We can’t undo it, but we can learn from it.  Mark Twain is credited with saying “while history may not necessarily repeat itself, it often rhymes.”  Today, we have the privilege and the responsibility to honor Christ’s authority in our lives by looking for ways in which we might choose to live wisely and well – for him, and for our neighbors, whom he loves.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1 ]Interpretation Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, Lamar Williamson, Jr. (Louisville : John Knox Press, 1983) p. 273.

[2]The Christian Century, March 14, 1951, p. 329; quoted in The Gospel According to Mark and its Meaning for Todayby Ernest Trice Thompson (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1968) pp. 230-231.