Between Reformation and Remembrance!
Genesis 37: 17b-33 and Matthew 26: 1-5; 14-16
This service, and indeed this short reflection is rooted in one which I led on 3 November 2013, in the evening. That was an evening service, and being first Sunday of the month, a Communion Service too, this has been significantly different in the structure, but not so in the essential message I want to share with you, one which I hope fits – very appropriately indeed – in between the Reformation Service we celebrated last Sunday morning and the Remembrance Sunday Service we will share next Sunday.
Back in 2013, I set myself something of a challenge, that is to try and say something positive and useful about Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night, within the context of a service. The essential story, which we heared only in very brief outline today, isn’t particularly nice, and by modern sensitivities, no-one comes out of it particularly well. If any of you have been watching the BBC series, I’m told that whilst the historical ‘facts’ are open to interpretation, not so the blood and guts – if anything, they’ve played down the violence and the sheer horror which went hand in hand with religious persecution and so-called law and order.
The gunpowder though is only be one of three stories of treachery and betrayal – the other two Biblical – and I want to start by reminding ourselves that one of the reasons we think of these as ‘plots’ or ‘schemes’ and one of the reasons we don’t like peoples’ behaviour, is because the stories were written so that we would remember a particular point of view. This was certainly true of the gunpowder plot, since the whole of the Bonfire Night ‘remember, remember’ was written immediately as an anti-catholic history. There’s no getting away from that, and in part, I do want us to be reminded that not all of our traditions are necessarily Christian behaviour by our modern understanding. Likewise, the stories of Joseph and Judas were written so that we would remember a particular point of view.
We need to remember as well that plotters and schemers have their motives; sometimes we know what they are or at least we can have a very good guess at what someone is up to! Other times, we can be left wondering what was someone trying to achieve. Frequently, the ‘plot’ or the plan makes perfect sense to the person concerned with plotting – even sense theologically sometimes. All we can do today is consider whether this sort of behaviour is consistent with what Jesus would have done.
Let’s go back to the Old Testament then, where the story of the show-off Joseph, the coat of many colours, jealous brothers, and a plot to kill Joseph is well known to us. It’s a story which is now known as much by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical as by Sunday school and church teaching. The story of Joseph in its entirety is a truly fascinating tale, of family feuding, intrigue, international relations, and much much more. The main character, Joseph, goes from favourite son to slave, to favourite servant, to prisoner, and finally to advisor to the king. It is, perhaps, the orginal soap opera, or perhaps the basis for TV programmes of political intrigue like ‘The West Wing’. Today, we focus on the plot to do away with the big-headed little brother but when looking at it for a contribution to a service about plotting and scheming, I was drawn not to Joseph or to the plot itself, but to the figure of Reuben, the brother who dared to have second thoughts. I don’t think I’d noticed him ever before; yes, I knew that Joseph had been sold to Ishmaelites on their way to Egypt, and that this was a bit of a ‘lucky break’ for Joseph, as it turned out. But it’s Reuben’s intervention which was a key, and then Judah says ‘hang on – isn’t killing our own brother a bit much?’. And the point is that whereas the brothers’ dislike of Joseph seems entirely understandable, to actually go ahead and murder your own brother is indefensible.
You may, if you wish, want to think of the whole thing somehow being ‘God’s Plan’ – personally, I don’t like that, because I don’t believe in a God who sets out to create suffering, to hurt people, in order to make a point somewhere later down the line. For me, the point of this episode in a much longer story is that whilst there is anger towards Joseph, a measure of sense triumphs over the planned evil. The brothers do not commit fratricide, they do not stoop to the low level of Cain mudering Abel. More important still: at the end of the story Joseph holds none of this against his brothers; sure, he plays games with them, calling them spies, and planting treasure in their sacks, but he has already forgiven them. In the face of love, good always triumphs over evil.
Can we say the same thing of the Gunpowder plot, I wonder? Possibly not, but there are things which we can say, and there are some parallels to be drawn.
By the way, If you’re wondering why someone who was hung for his crime became a figure on top of a bonfire, well that’s because the King ordered celebration of the thwarted plot. Indeed, when parliment met two months later, it passed an act of parliament, requiring churches to commemorate the 5th november each year. That Act was repealed in 1859, by the way…but (if these things matter to you) I think it was only in 2005 that the prohibition on a heir to the throne marrying a Catholic was repealed.
As with the story of Jospeh, you could argue that the Gunpowder Plot was foiled by a combination of circumstance and by the fact that one of the conspiritors, someone in on the plan, realised that evil could not triumph. Whoever it was wrote the ‘Monteagle’ letter sits in the place of Reuben in the Joseph story, a measure of sense triumphing over evil. It is important to remember that for all the persecution which Catholics in England were experiencing, there were those amongst that faith – including the senior Jesuit, Henry Garnet– who thoroughly objected to the attempt on James’ life and armed uprising. Indeed, many important and loyal Catholics did retain high office during James’ reign.
Of course, terrorist activity as an expression of religious conviction and fanaticism is hardly something which has remained in the past. It has always been a problem, but we seem acutely aware of modern incarnations, with another vehicle attack this week, this time in New York. But when you think of it, it’s not just terrorist activity which has been problematic, there are plenty of examples of official warfare, state-sponsored aggression in the name of a religious conviction.
We are called to reject all that in the name of the Prince of Peace; and in all honesty, I much prefer fireworks which celebrate than which commemorate, if that’s an acceptable difference. I’ve had this argument with a good friend from university days, who takes part in the annual Bonfire Night celebration in Lewes, East Sussex – where there continues to be an uncomfortable anti-catholic undercurrent. And so I will draw a paralell with the story of Joseph: It’s time to remember and celebrate not the triumph of protestantism over catholicism – but the triumph of good over evil; the triumph of common sense over fanaticism.
Finally, let’s turn to the Jesus story, and the part which Judas played in the events which led to Jesus’s death. Again, mindful that they had an agenda, the Gospel writers’ presentation of the plot against Jesus make it reasonably clear that it isn’t really Judas who was out to get Jesus, but the religious leaders of his day; Judas betrays Jesus, of course, he agreed to be part of the plan. In Matthew’s Gospel, Judas asks ‘how much money’ – Luke just has him accepting a sum; and anyway there is every indication in the story that Jesus knew what he was up to. But the plotters, the architects of the scheme, are the scribes and the pharisees.
Historically, we would do well to note that a good proportion of theological antisemitism springs from this. For whilst it was never formally part of Christian Dogma, the Church in all its forms has, from time to time, preached and taught that the Jews shared collective responsibility for Jesus’ death. Ray spoke just last week of Martin Luther’s antisemitism; in the mid 1960s, Pope Paul VI issued a repudiation of the believe in the collective responsibility of the Jews for the cruxifiction.
What about Judas? Well, we don’t really know what motive Judas had for his involvement – people have speculated that he was trying to ‘move things along’, that by forcing a confrontation between Jesus and the authorities, the kingdom would come all the more quickly. By contrast, we know pretty well that for the Jewish clerics, the issue was very much one of authority. Jesus was openly challenging the official interpretation of law, the very thing by which theocratic power was held in an otherwise occupied territory. Jesus had to die.
Unlike the first two stories, the plotters this time seemed to have got away with it; whatever plan Judas had seems to have backfired and with help from the occupying Roman forces, the religious leaders got their way.
And so we remember Judas as ‘the one who betrayed Jesus’; and boy did he get bad press. And because of his own death, we have no recorded reconciliation between Jesus and Judas – no conversations recorded as with Peter and Thomas. We have no basis for a Judas verse of ‘Jesus never ever ever gives up’. But I’d like to think that sometime, somewhere, Judas has sung one.
For we know too that the story doesn’t end that way; we know that, ultimately, the death of Jesus was a triumph of love over hatred. It was, if you like, God saying to us as humanity ‘go ahead, plot and scheme all you like, I’m going to love you all the same’. And as important, the resurrection is the triumph of life over death, God saying that good will ultimately triumph over evil.
This is something worth celebrating; this is something worth commemorating. We meet each Sunday because that was the day on which he rose from the dead. We’re going to finish this service with an Easter Hymn, because it may be November, but we are still Easter people. This is something worthy of a fireworks display, of wide-eyed wonder, and gasps of ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’. We might not have fireworks, or a bonfire, but we’ve got a candle, a flame which you may wish to use as a focus for our prayers and our thinking about other people.
For now, we remember and we celebrate that Jesus came for us to have life; and the way in which we go about it is not by deceipt, by planning and plotting but by doing the exact opposite; love your neighbours and indeed your enemies.
May we have the grace to do so.