Jesus Imprisoned

Sunday 17th March 2019
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Holy Communion
Luke 13.31-35

At this point in Luke's Gospel, Jesus is well on his way to Jerusalem when he is, on the face of it, offered a warning by his erstwhile opponents, the Pharisees, of the machinations of King Herod. But Jesus will not be diverted from his journey: for one thing, the Pharisees might, given their past record, be playing a trick; but, much more important, Jesus says, he is destined for Jerusalem, an event Luke anticipates when Jesus says that the Pharisees will not see him until they say: "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord", the chant on what we call Palm Sunday when Jesus enters Jerusalem. Curious, though, that the "you" who will provide this greeting are the Pharisees.

Jesus is single-minded; he knows that he is going to Jerusalem to die and that on the Third Day his mission will be consummated. This is not unnatural as, for the Jews, there really is only one city, the city of David, the city of the Temple and, as Jesus wryly remarks, the city that has killed prophets, the last of which will be himself. So often God has renewed his Covenant with his wayward people, so often he has offered his love and protection but he has been ignored; so the Holy City of Jerusalem, the centre of worship, has also been the city of unfaithful monarchs and, ultimately, the city of ruin wrought by Babylon; but, then, later it has been the city of revival, polluted by invaders and restored by the Maccabees; but now it is a reduced place under the power of Rome, and its puppet King Herod.

There are few such cities as Jerusalem, with so much intertwined religious and political history; the only two which come to mind are Rome and Byzantium, although Moscow might wish to file a claim. And what all three show us is the fatal entanglement of organised religion and political power which so easily lead away from concentration on God. When the Chosen people, weak and wavering, sometimes faithful and more often not, had lived under the Judges, they looked around them and decided that they wanted a King, a request which God reluctantly granted, warning through his Prophet Samuel that it would come to no good; and it didn't. Saul was fickle and short-sighted; even david was an adulterer and a murderer; Solomon was wise until his bloated harem made him foolish and unfaithful; and, after Solomon's kingdom split in two, the Kings of Israel and Judah were a pretty bad lot with the honourable exceptions.

A similar pattern was to follow the adoption of Christianity by the Byzantine Emperors who compromised early Christianity; and the Popes did no better.

Time and time again, the Christian establishment has allied itself with the rich and powerful, resisting the occasional rebukes from such figures as Saint Francis of Assisi. And, in a different context, we are witnessing the same problem being suffered by the world of Islam where, too often, religion and politics are hopelessly entwined. It seems that idealist theocracies are doomed to end up as corrupt civil powers exploiting religion for their own ends.

The way that this dilemma is frequently expressed in England is to ask whether the Church of England should be "disestablished" so that it is no longer the state religion, headed by the monarch. But this is, ultimately, the wrong question because it is not the Queen in Parliament or the Queen as Head of the Church and Defender of the Faith that is stopping us fulfilling our mission; if we are formally disestablished but go on the way we are, nothing will have been gained.

It seems to me that our entanglement with civic power has led to three deep flaws:

But, above all, politics has forced us to take sides to marginalise Jesus as a person who was born to save whom we say he will save; and to marginalise his message as we cherry pick our way through his difficult but very clear moral pronouncements. In the words of the feminist theologian, Dorothee Soelle, we are in grave danger of imprisoning Jesus inside the Church.