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A Lenten Passion Play, Act 6: Trial

Scene 1: Mark 14:55-65

Scene 2: 15:1-15

A night-time trial. Can anything good come of a trial held by cover of darkness? This is obviously not a legitimate court proceeding. This is more of a kangaroo court. The high priests and the whole council have gathered at the home of the high priest during the middle of the night to try Jesus. This would have been highly unusual and most likely illegal. This shows just how desperate they are to bring their plot against Jesus to a swift and definitive conclusion.

That this trial is a complete sham is evidenced not only in it’s unorthodox timing, but in that a guilty verdict is already determined before the trial begins. The council is so set on sentencing Jesus to death that they bring in corrupt witnesses to give false testimony against him. This proves to be a challenge - they can’t even get two liars to say the same thing, and cannot produce a valid charge against Jesus.

If courts and trials are supposed to be about determining truth, this is a complete mockery of justice.

Trials happen not only in courts of law. Jesus is on trial here before the religious leaders. At the same time as that proceeding, Peter is on trial in the courtyard. There are also courts of public opinion. New drugs are tested with clinical trials. We learn by trial and error, sometimes even trial by fire. We give something a trial run. We live in trying times.

If we stop to think about it, we face many trials in the course of our lives. Probably even daily. Sometimes we are the judge. Sometimes we are the accused. Sometimes we are the witnesses.

Let me share a story that Chip shared with me last week about a situation he observed

at the transitional house where men who have completed an addictions treatment program reside.

Chip was visiting there one day when one of the residents told Chip about his encounter with Girl Guides coming to the door to sell cookies. He told the girls that he didn’t have any money at the moment, but if they came back next week he guaranteed that he would buy some then. He said he went out on the porch a while later and found a box of Girl Guide cookies sitting on a table on the porch. He proceeded to tell Chip how pleased he was by the compassion of the Girl Guides exhibited by leaving him a box of cookies even though he wouldn’t be able to pay them until the following week.

Later that day Chip was speaking with another resident of the transition house. This man told Chip about his encounter with the Girl Guides. He said he was walking down the street about a block away from the transition house when he met a group of Girl Guides. He told Chip he purchased a box of cookies from them, but since he didn’t want to carry them with him where he was going, he gave them a little extra money to drop them off on the porch of his house. When he returned to the house a few hours later he found no cookies on the porch. He assumed the Girl Guides had ripped him off, and he had no kind words for their poor behaviour.

Twol trials were going on here in this situation. The first resident assessed the evidence at hand and judged the Girl Guides to be kind, generous and trusting. The second resident assessed the evidence at hand and judged the Girl Guides to be cheating liars. Based on the evidence they had available to them, each of these men made judgements that seemed correct from their vantage point. But neither of them had the benefit of the full picture. Both only saw their piece of the story and lacked some key elements that would have granted them fuller insight to the truth of what had happened.

This is how we all make judgements. We can very easily jump to conclusions and pass judgements on situations or people without realizing how limited our knowledge of the full story really is. We also fail to see how our own agenda or biases affect our ability to see or hear the truth.

Let’s jump back to Jesus’ trial. The religious leaders are definitely not interested in the truth. They have their biases and opinions and they are not interested in changing. They are clearly threatened and offended by Jesus and want him out of the picture. Jesus doesn’t play their game or follow their rules. In a sense, Jesus has been immune to their accusations and judgements all along and that has driven them crazy!

Their kangaroo court trial cannot bring to light sufficient evidence to convict their prisoner, and so in desperation the high priest finally invites Jesus to incriminate himself. At first, when asked about the witnesses’ testimony against him, Jesus remains silent. But when asked directly, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”, Jesus breaks his silence with the words, “I am.”

Throughout the entire gospel of Mark, Jesus had admonished and implored people to keep his “Messianic Secret.” That is, at every miracle and wonder he performed, he instructed everyone not to tell anyone. All the way through he has held back, he has forbidden any mention to be made of his status as God’s Son. But now, here in this crazy trial, Jesus finally breaks his silence.

This is the moment that the meaning of this trial becomes clear, where we see what truth it is that this trial establishes. Here in this makeshift courtroom, in the middle of the night, stripped and bound, hours from a humiliating death, Jesus is definitely outside the systems of power that are in control. It is here in his moment of complete weakness and vulnerability that Jesus proclaims his identity using words from scripture: “I am.” These words would have resonated with all listening, merging Jesus’ identity with the God of Israel, who when asked his name said, “I am who I am.”

The truth that Jesus proclaims in this trial is the truth of his identity. It is a truth that could not have been heard or accepted earlier in his ministry. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his book “Christ on Trial” writes, “God’s ‘I am’ can only be heard for what it really is when it has no trace of human power left to it; when it appears as something utterly different from human authority, even human liberty; when it is spoken by a captive under sentence of death.”

In other words, the Jesus of Mark’s gospel was aware that if he had proclaimed his Messianic identity during his ministry, or allowed others to do so, he would have been misunderstood. All of our human aspirations, hopes, assumptions, and biases would have been projected onto Jesus. We would have assumed and projected human forms of power and authority into Jesus’ actions and words. We would have been blind to the truth that God upends of human ways of power.

But now, in the trial, there is little danger that we will mistake what he means, or that we will describe him with words that reflect our own aspirations. Up until now it still could have been possible to misunderstand him as a great man, a miracle worker, someone who was here to successfully compete with the other power players in the world.

But not now. Jesus is not going to play their game. Jesus, in his most vulnerable state, is the very self of God standing before the court. God does not compete against other powers by following the world’s way of business. God simply stands in resistance against insanity and violence, offering assurance that violence and evil cannot occupy the whole world. There is another way. This is just the beginning of the story, but we’ll leave that for Easter Sunday.

For now, we simply need to know that God upends human assumptions about how things work. God’s reign will have nothing to do with the world’s power or even the language of power. God’s transcendent love meets us and surprises us and stand with us when we are free enough to move away from the need to justify and judge.

God is with us always in the trials we face in life. God stands with us in our humanity, weakness, fears and failures. God upends our assumptions and our judgements, inviting us to see with open eyes that sometimes we are wrong. I believe God invites us into a process - to not rush straight to conclusions and verdicts. But, boy, is that challenging!

Imagine partisan politics or church factions not jumping to conclusions and writing off everything the other side says without ever really listening. We are living in such fractured and polarized times. We prejudge people and situations all the time. Imagine what could happen in the church or in the world if we approached each other in vulnerability and we willing to recognize that perhaps the truth lies somewhere beyond our our own understandings.

We are like the two men in the transition house who only saw part of the picture. Neither of them was aware of the full story. Faith requires our misperceptions and untruths to be laid bare, trusting that God will open our understanding to see beyond what is immediately apparent to us on the surface.

Just as we judge others, we, too, also stand in judgement. We are tested and tried and judged. To read this trial story, though, is an invitation to know that we are released from judgement into the light of truth. What is revealed in Jesus’ trial is his true identity. God’s character is also revealed in Jesus’ weakness and vulnerability. God comes to us in our humanity.

When Jesus proclaimed the words “I am,” he proclaimed his identity as Messiah, Son of God, One With God. When Yahweh proclaimed “I am who I am,” part of what that means is “I am present.” God is saying “I will be there for you.” God is with us in our trials and challenges. Jesus is intimately present to everything - to all Creation - and especially to us.

I  don’t know if I can fully comprehend the depth of meaning and truth this trial reveals. But I do think that this trial challenges us to reconsider our assumptions and biases. It encourages us to simply sit with the paradox that Jesus’ divinity and God’s greatness is revealed when Jesus is most powerless. And it offers the assurance that God is always present with us, but that we are perhaps most able to see God’s presence in times of vulnerability.I

As Stephanie plays through a verse of our hymn of response, I invite you to reflect on a vulnerable time or trial in your life that changed you, and how. Did you sense God’s presence with you?