Sunday, August 25, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Behold the (Digital) Man"

John 19:1-5

Then Pilate had Jesus taken and whipped. 2 The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and dressed him in a purple robe. 3 Over and over they went up to him and said, “Greetings, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face. 4 Pilate came out of the palace again and said to the Jewish leaders, “Look! I’m bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no grounds for a charge against him.” 5 When Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here’s the man.”

“The Gospel Gone Viral: If the Bible Had Been Written Online,” Week Five

It sounds silly, really, that this time of year, huge NFL fans will show up to exhibition games and first practices and training camp.  That behavior isn’t limited to us, though—European soccer fans do it, too, but this time, it meant a little bit more.  Here’s how England’s Daily Mail told it:

A terminally ill Feyenoord fan was given the greatest surprise of his life when he turned up to watch his side being put through their paces ahead of the new season.  Fans of the Dutch side traditionally turn up in numbers to watch the club’s first pre-season training session, but this time there was a difference.

Lifelong fan Rooie Marck was told he had terminal cancer and had days to live, and his dying wish was to see Feyenoord again.

His friends brought him to the training session in his bed, but little did he know that the huge crowd would be chanting his name, lighting flares, and unleashing a huge banner of him.  In floods of tears, Rooie met his heroes before being helped to meet the crowd, who were singing, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Now, it is difficult to describe the banner itself, but if you can imagine a swath of material stretching from the very front row all the way up to the upper deck of the stadium, and now imagine that banner with a colossal, uncannily accurate likeness of a man who, though dying, was portrayed as a superhero—cape and all—by friends and strangers alike, you could see how such an image would move a dying man to tears.  They saw him not as the feeble young man wheeled into the grounds on a hospital bed, but as a hero for courageously enduring his illness.  Imagine if you were dying, and your friends saw you not as what you looked like at the moment of death, but what you looked like in your prime.  That’s what happened here.

Three days later, Rooie Marck died.

This is a sermon series designed to take us through to this point: the end of August, and it has been a slightly different series from many of the sermon series we have had here in the past, which often revolve around a theme, a chapter of Scripture, or a book by a contemporary author.  This sermon series isn’t about a substance so much as it is about a style: the style of communication that has taken the world by storm within the past 15-20 years via the internet.  And I adamantly believe that online communication and social media represent a tremendous opportunity for us to offer the Good News of Jesus Christ to a lot of people.  Which is exactly the same way, I think, that the writers of the New Testament viewed their Gospels and Epistles.  With that supposition, we will be spending these five Sundays tackling how we might write the message today, with our modern-day tools, and we began with perhaps the most basic: email and text messaging, before graduating last week to Twitter, and the we turned to a platform that I know is familiar to many of you because I am friends with you on it—Facebook.  Last week, we arrived at blogging, and this week we conclude the series by moving from the realm of words into the realm of images: pictorial blogs like Instagram, and video blogs like Youtube channels.

And I promise you—especially if you feel overwhelmed by all the digital jargon and technical terminology I have been throwing at you the previous four weeks—things like Instagram are very similar to the tools you already use, because, essentially, we are talking about online photo albums here.  Only instead of taking pictures with a traditional camera and taking the negatives to be developed (and yes, I am old enough to remember such a thing, don’t tell me I’m just a whippersnapper!), you take the pictures with a digital camera that works basically the same way—trust me—and then you post those pictures to your online photo albums, the way you would arrange film photographs in a traditional album or scrapbook.

And videos like those on Youtube work pretty much the same way, but instead of traditional cameras and digital cameras, we’re talking camcorders and media players.  You film something with a digital recorder—which you can find on most smartphones, or even digital cameras now—and you upload it to Youtube as though you would pop a videotape into your VCR.

And these two technological advances really have done incredible things for the world, and for the church, because for every person out there like me, who is completely word-oriented and a verbal thinker and who absolutely loathes having his picture taken, there is another person who thinks not verbally but visually, who thrives off of visual stimulation, and who loves being able to see, in the most literal sense, whatever is being spoken of at the moment.

Which is why this passage from John’s accounting of the Passion narrative is so striking.  At this point in the story, Jesus has been “tried” (if perfunctorily) by Annas, the high priest Caiaphas, and the Sanhedrin, and they have bound Him over to Pontius Pilate because only the Roman prefect can issue a death sentence.

But bear in mind that this is the Passover festival as well, and the Pharisees are fastidious for upholding their laws regarding ritual purity.  As such, they cannot actually be present in the Roman viceroy’s residence whilst he questions Jesus.  They bring Jesus to Pilate, but after that, they must sit outside the palace gates and wait…which, with Jerusalem being a packed public city and all, is quite a visible gesture.  And so the trial of Jesus, much like prominent trials today, takes on a massively political dimension, one that Pilate is keen to emerge victorious from.

And so Pilate has Jesus beaten.  He has Jesus mocked, slapped, and crowned with thorns.  And THEN he has the cheek to step back outside to the Jewish leaders and say, “I find no grounds to charge him with?”  Well, yes, but that isn’t really the point from Pilate’s perspective.  The point  for him comes in verse five, where Pilate declares to the assembled Pharisees, in Greek, “Idou ho anthropos,” in Latin, “Ecce homo,” and in English, “Behold the man!”

It is one of the most famous images in all of Christianity, with artists as talented and renowned as Caravaggio painting portraits of the scene, of Pilate proffering a beaten Jesus and screaming out, “Behold the man!”  And it was done in Scripture because…do you remember what charge was, in fact, brought against Jesus?  That He was the King of the Jews.  And Pilate is saying to the Pharisees, “Look…I am so powerful that I can do this to your “king,” with impunity.”  And he is right, in a sense—the Pharisees cannot do a damn thing about it (even if they wanted to).

But it is that image, along with the image of Pilate symbolically washing his hands of Christ’s blood, that consigns him to the dustbin of the loathed in history.  Pilate won the battle but lost the war: he used imagery and theatricality to score a short-term PR victory over the Pharisees whom owed him their positions, but in the long term, Pilate would be rightly villainized, for, as it is written in the Apostle’s Creed, Christ “suffered” under Pontius Pilate.  Not under Caiaphas, the high priest, mind you, or Annas, or Herod, or any other of His political enemies.  Under Pilate.

That is the true power of imagery.  That is the true power of the visual sphere.  We can take an image, witness it, have it register in our minds, and be inspired by it or be repulsed by it.  And just like with words, we can be touched by fiction and non-fiction alike when it comes to images and art and video.  The banner of a young man dying of cancer, depicted instead as a caped hero, need not be nonfictional for its commentary to deliver a simple, powerful truth: we are, in many senses, what we see ourselves to be.

If you see yourself as a hero, you can act heroically.  If you see yourself as worthless, you might give up on yourself.  And if you see yourself as a Christian, you can work to act Christ-like.

And this isn’t me trying to get all New Age-y on you, either.  I’m a pastor, not a life coach.  But this is me saying that what you might see in the mirror is not what everyone else sees, that your image is not the same as other peoples’ images of you.

Because that is the underlying lesson behind this part of John’s Passion narrative: that even as Pilate and the Pharisees engage in this very public tug-of-war in which Jesus is the rope, who they see Jesus as is quite plain in Pilate’s “Behold the man!” exclamation: they see him only as a man, and a dangerous man at that.

But we know better.  Because the images and portraits of Jesus do not stop with the “Behold the man” scene.  They continue, with the march out to Calvary, the Crucifixion, the final words, being sealed in the tomb, and finally, with the tomb being discovered empty on the third day.

The images that others have made of Jesus Christ throughout the centuries are part of what move us in our own faith, because they depict the story that we have already been redeemed by: that there was a man to behold, but not just any man: a man who was more divine than any other who has come before or since, one whose divinity threatened everything about the established order of things that had led to the hurt and oppression of the vast majority of Israel’s people.

And so God decided to do something about it.  He sent His Son.

And how we tell that story—in word and in image alike—still matters a great deal.  Precisely because it can, and does, still move us to new heights.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 25, 2013

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