Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Not Part of the Crowd - Sermon for Holy Tuesday

A Sermon for Tuesday in Holy Week

John 12:20-36

Sometimes it is very appealing to be just part of a crowd.  You can walk around on a crowded street, and no one expects anything from you.  If you just go with the flow then you don’t have to worry about standing out in any way.  There is a kind of freedom in that, a freedom from responsibilities and a freedom from expectations.   But Christians are not called to be just part of a crowd.

Consider the crowds that are found in the gospels.  Crowds regularly came to see Jesus, to hear him teach and to see him heal the sick.   

Last Sunday was Palm Sunday. On that day there was a crowd that welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem with palms and praise.  John’s gospel says:  “The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
   "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"
   "Blessed is the King of Israel!" (John 12: 12-13)

Luke’s gospel tells us that “Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had given this miraculous sign, went out to meet him.”

The crowd of people in Jerusalem had heard incredible things about Jesus, and they welcomed him with open arms.  They wanted to see what wondrous thing Jesus would do next.  This crowd was filled with hope and wonder.

But as we move through Holy Week, soon we will discover a very different image of a crowd in the gospels:  Matthew writes: “While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people.” (Matthew 26:47)   This crowd was sent with a purpose – they were armed and accompanying Judas to arrest Jesus. 

We will then hear about a third crowd at Jesus’ trial.  Jesus was famous, he drew a crowd whenever he came to a town.  You can bet that Jesus’ trial would attract a huge crowd. 
This crowd of people was influenced by the chief priests.  Matthew (27:20) writes “But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.”   I like Mark’s language better.  Mark writes: “But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.”  Persuading sounds like people were having a civil discussion,  stirring implies  inciting strong emotions.  Persuading doesn’t get people to shout “crucify him!”  But stirring up the beginnings of a riot will.   
And so the people shouted "Crucify him!"  
"Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate.
      But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!"
The crowd had turned into an unruly mob, and Pilate wanted to satisfy the crowd, so he released Barabbas and had Jesus executed.

We’ve all heard of riots and mob-mentality.  If a large group of people gathers, and the emotional level rises in a negative direction, it is easy for the whole group of people to get carried away.  People do things in groups that they are less likely to do on their own.  An example that comes to mind is that of the crowd that killed a worker at Wallmart during a Black Friday sale.  If you separated all the people in that crowd I do not think that any one person of them would trample another human being to death.  But together that’s what they did.  Panic, anger, fear, confusion – these are all powerful emotions that can move a crowd quickly from one state of mind to another.

We have a tendency to label people as either good or bad.  Pilate was bad, Judas was bad, chief priests were bad.  Peter and Mary and other disciples were good.  Crowd that greeted Jesus on Palm Sunday good, crowd that jeered at his trial bad.  This is a superficial way of looking at the world.  I’m sure that Pilate, Judas, and the chief priests did many good things during their lives.  And I’m also sure that some people who cheered Jesus on Palm Sunday were jeering at him a few days later.  People are complicated, and we all have choices to make.

One choice that we can make is to not be just part of the crowd.  There is no safety and comfort being lost in a crowd of people, there is only safety and comfort by being found in God.  Peter found this out when he tried to hide in a group of people in the courtyard.  Peter denied his relationship with Jesus out of fear, so that he would fit in.  Later on Peter found the strength to stand apart from the crowd and he proclaimed the gospel of Christ, even to his own death on a cross. 

My prayer for all of us is that we also find the strength to stand apart from crowds, May we find the conviction to stand up for justice and truth when it is unpopular, and the courage to be a voice of reason when others around us are angry or afraid.  Have a blessed Holy Week!