Jesus Stood

Many of us go with the flow and make sure we don’t stand out from the crowd. At least on most topics. There is a human urge to fit in, accompanied by a fear of separation from the mainstream and finding ourselves isolated. Of course there are also people who love to disagree with the herd: the contrarians. Hopefully, somewhere between these polarities, there are people who disagree when they see its necessity; not for the sake of disagreement alone.

One of the most memorable sermons I recall was preached at the University Church in Oxford, sometime around 1984. The preacher was Trevor Huddleston, and his text was about as short as you can get: ‘Jesus stood’. It comes from Mark 10:46 when Jesus and his disciples are on their way out of Jericho and blind Bartimaeus keeps calling out to him. Bartimaeus was not falling in with the crowd. People were telling him to shut up and behave, but he wouldn’t stop. Despite the swell of the crowd and the momentum to leave the city, Jesus stood. It conjures the imagine of the tide breaking upon a rock.

Huddleston spoke about the anti-apartheid movement and the challenge of speaking out in a society where the weight of social expectation was to keep quiet and behave. To collude with systems of oppression designed to privilege the few. Like Jesus leaving Jericho, we need to courage to hear the voices from the edge of the crowd: to stop, to listen and to act.

There is a lot of appeal in going with the crowd and not making a stand. In one of my favourite quotes from Murder in the Cathedral a tempter reminds Thomas of the venal rewards of compliance, saying: ‘the easy man lives to eat the best dinners’. Join the club; keep quiet; do what’s expected and never, never, rock the boat. Such behaviour can bring handsome prizes.

In the Passion Gospel we find Jesus ‘stood before Pilate’ (Matthew 27:11). This time he isn’t there because of a voice heard on the margins. His posture is an enforced sign of respect. By contrast, as we go on to hear a few verses later, power sits to pass judgement. All the robes and symbols of authority, and troops at command, are with Pilate. Jesus is alone. Yet, if there is no choice of posture, there is a choice to be silent. In the face of the choreography of power Jesus fails to conform to the etiquette of the room. He does not plead for his life. He does not give a rambling defence or seek to implicate others. Silence. In the few verses in which this is described it is possible to feel the authority of Pilate ebbing away.

In 2000 I visited Alison Wilding’s remarkable ‘Passion Project’ exhibited at the Dean Clough Gallery in Halifax. One of the larger pieces in the collection comes under the heading ‘Disposition’. It consists of a huge concrete disc towering over a black mat, which appears to grow wavy stalks (it can be seen here). Abstract art demands work from the viewer, even when set in an exhibition with an overall theme. What is going on here? There is a world of difference between the objects – in almost every sense. They appear only to be connected by a tension that lies between them. In a temporal sense Pilate should be the stone – ready to crush whatever pathetic resistance grows out of the Judean darkness. Spiritually, the disc hints at perfection and eternity. It is balanced and complete, requiring nothing from the sprawling stems that stretch upwards. This is a standoff and the stone will not be moved.

“At the heart of this episode of the Passion is both conflict and stand-off. There is a perplexing estrangement between both objects; the scale of one bears no relationship to the other, but the space separating them is tense and compelling. In the dynamic of the sculpture one part is continually brought into focus and deflected by the other”

Alison Wilding, ‘Contract’, exhibition catalogue, October 2000

Those who make this kind of stand seldom come off unscathed. Jesus knows this and he holds no particular hope of release or escape. The machinery of power will take its course and suffering lies ahead. It is beyond the imagination of this anxious and self-interested power that somehow, by battering and breaking this solitary young rabbi, an alternative power will be released into the world. A power that will enable anyone, no matter how poor or peripheral, to receive a dignity that cannot be removed. To become a child of the living God.

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