A number of years ago, I had the privilege of acting in an Easter production of the life of Christ entitled Love According to John. This musical featured a cast of hundreds of varying ages, experience, and acting, musical, and dancing skill. During the year I was a cast member, I played the lame man (which is probably appropriate, considering my sense of humor.)
One of my most vivid memories of being in this production was the sequence during which we portrayed the trial of Jesus. My character was a part of the mob – and it was (by design) absolute chaos.
We were disorganized and unruly. unsure of exactly why we were there. At the head of the mob were the Pharisees, religious leaders whose motives were questionable at best, but whose hatred of Christ was clear. They procured false witnesses to back up their case, and encouraged us to demand the release of Barrabas, who was more like the sort of Messiah that Israel had been hoping for. [Most Israelites in the first century were expecting the Messiah to be a military leader in the spirit of King David. John 18:40 identifies Barrabas as a revolutionary – possibly a member of the Zealots, a group of rebels who sought to bring about Israel’s liberation by force.] The crowd seemed to revel in the chaos – and our chilling cries of “CRUCIFY HIM” had a lot more oomph than the congregational parts from Holy Week. I know some of the actors (particularly the Pharisees and Roman soldiers) had to pray before and after these scenes to shake off the venom they kept directing in Christ’s direction.
Pontius Pilate was left to sort it all out. Based on what is said and written of him in the Gospels, it’s no wonder we often have great sympathy for Pilate, even as other historical records refer to him as a harsh (and at times brutal) leader. Whether he was as sympathetic as the Gospels imply or as brutal as others have recorded isn’t the point: in either case, he is more concerned with maintaining power than he is with serving justice and the truth
In the center of it all was Christ – attacked, vilified, rejected, and eventually condemned to die.
This year as we read through the passion on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, I was left thinking to myself that things haven’t changed all that much. What was true for Christ was true for the early Church and is also true for us today. St. Paul wrote in the first century that “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:8-10).
We live in a world where our political leaders, like Pilate, seem to be more concerned with maintaining power than with doing what’s right. We live in a world where many of us, like the Pharisees, understand and present God according to our own ambitions, rather than letting Him change us. G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” While this is still true in part – there are no shortage of Christians who abandon the faith, never having truly embraced it or given it a chance. There are also significant movements within Christianity which seek to neuter the truth, by presenting a Gospel of prosperity (follow Christ and everything is awesome) or simply as one path among many. We live in a world where social media has provided a new vehicle for the “mob” – where any individual with the right combination of wit and influence can use half truths to influence the views of others.
Once again, in the center of it all is Christ – often in the form of His mystical body (the Church) – still attacked, vilified, rejected, and condemned to die. It would be easy to say that nothing’s changed, to embrace despair, and lament our place in the world… seated plainly in the cross-hairs of today’s “mob.” In doing so, we forget that Jesus told us to expect it to be this way: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 18:18). But His warning was not simply words of gloom, they came with a promise:
“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.” -Matthew 5:11-12
The events of Holy Week save us from the power of sin and death – and one cannot overstate how important that is. There is no thing -nothing at all- that the mob can threaten us with that has the power to deny us our promised heavenly reward. And Jesus’ willingness to accept all that the mob, its leaders, and Pontius Pilate had to throw at Him shows us that God will spare nothing – not even the life of His Son – to get us to that promise.
When Joshua inherited the leadership of Israel from Moses he was (understandably) a little nervous. He had seen the Israelites show great faith in God and in Moses after witnessing the incredible way in which they were liberated from Egypt. But he’d also seen just how quickly the people could turn on God and Moses, and become mob-like when things weren’t going their way. God’s words to Joshua at this moment are a good reminder to us as we might feel similarly overwhelmed by the mob: “Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). Jesus has shown us that these words, like all of God’s promises, can absolutely be trusted.