Christ on Trial

How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement

by Rowan Williams

Archbishop of Canterbury

Archbishop Rowan Williams

Christ Church (Parish) Church

Westmorland Street at Charlotte, Fredericton

Facilitator: Canon Jim Irvine


Mark: Voices at Midnight

1- A

Still more marked, though, is the sense of bewildering absurdity in [the trial]. The sentence is settled in advance; the problem is finding evidence. As Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – ‘“Let the jury consider their verdict,” the King said, for about the twentieth time that day. “No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first – verdict afterwards.”’ Mark’s trial scenes are more like those in Alice than any more conventional legal process. Or, to pick up a more serious echo, they are like Kafka’s terrible and prophetic fantasies in The Trial. The process does not make sense – perhaps it is not meant to. Kafka’s hero, Joseph K., is arrested without knowing what the charge is; he is unable to discover what he is accused of, despite increasingly desperate efforts; he infringes unknown procedural rules; his protests turn against him; at last, pathetically and apparently arbitrarily, he is knifed in a disused quarry. The real terror of this story is the growing certainty that no sense can be made of what is happening. As Kafka himself said, it is as if we know we are guilty, but not what we are guilty of. We are going to die, but we are denied the satisfaction of knowing why. … When you are caught up in such a world, power appears to be purely and simply unaccountable, in both senses of the word. It is answerable to no one, and you cannot give a rational account of how it works. Page 3f

1- B

Throughout the Gospel, Jesus holds back from revealing who he is because, it seems, he cannot believe that there are words that will tell the truth about him in the mouths of others. What will be said of him is bound to be untrue – that he is master of all circumstances; that he can heal where he wills; that he is the expected triumphant deliverer, the Anointed. ... There is a kind of truth which, when it is said, becomes untrue.’  Page 6

1- C

Stripped and bound before the court, he has no stake in how the world organizes itself. He is definitively outside the system of the world’s power and the language of power. He is going to die, because that is what the world has decided. It is at this moment and this moment only that he speaks plainly about who he is. He names himself with the name of the God of Israel, ‘I am’, and tells the court that they will see the Human One seated at God’s right hand, coming in judgement. Humanity does not live in this world of insane authorities, but with God. … Mark is inviting us to think again about what we mean by transcendence. Normally, when we use such words, we think of God’s surpassing greatness, but how can we avoid that becoming simply a massive projection of what we mean by greatness?  Page 7

1- D

Jesus breaks his silence at this moment in the trial because only now can what he says be heard. There is little or no danger that we shall now mistake what he means, that we shall confidently describe him in words that reflect our own aspirations. He is who he is, and we can do nothing but let our imagination and our language be reshaped by him – if, that is, we have ears to hear, if we are not already determined to abide by the standards of the insane world that has brought him to trial. Nothing is left to him now: from this point on in the passion story, the only words he speaks are in the despairing cry from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you deserted me?’ (15:34). … In this sense, Mark’s trial narrative passes sentence on our understanding of power and significance. Page 8f

1- E

God is not and cannot be what guarantees suc­cess or provides a convincing explanation of the strange behaviour of those who refuse the world’s ways. That would be to let God become again a competitor in the world’s busi­ness, whose power can ‘trump’ all other claims at the end of the day. Page 12

1- F

To speak of God as being seen most clearly in situations where the service of God offers no possible success, where even the hope of eternal life is so abstract that it might be a proposition in higher mathematics, is often to invite protest. This cannot be gospel, surely? It does not sound like good news. But the challenge remains, to re‑imagine what it is for God to speak to us as God – not as a version of whatever makes us feel secure and appears more attractive than other familiar kinds of security. For if our talk about God is a religious version of talk about human safety, the paradox is that it will fail to say anything at all about salvation. It will not have anything to do with what is decisively and absolutely not the way of this world. Page 15

1- G

[B]y underlining Jesus’ reluctance to be pigeonholed as healer, exorcist and miracleman, by underlining the ‘messianic secret’, [Mark] says, in effect: if Jesus truly makes all the difference, beware of reducing this difference to a series of spectacular improvements in the human condition. Whatever he makes possible must be more than this. Page 16

1- H

We learn to read Mark’s Gospel best when, as a community of people reading in faith, we are aware of lives and narratives that repeatedly re‑present this aspect of the Gospel; when we are able to reflect on stories and styles of life in the community that show something of the ‘obstinate uselessness’ of witness to God’s truth. Page 17

1- I

Paraphrasing St Paul, we might say that ‘liberal’ Christians look for a clear and purified future and ‘traditionalists’ look towards a more faithful and less compromised past. Yet the gospel remains the gospel of the crucified, asking of us an attention to the reality that is before us and within us here and now, a reality that will be scandalous and painful. Pascal’s stark assertion that ‘Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world’ is much in the spirit of Mark; and it is not an observation about the deplorable state of unbelievers, but an exhortation to believers to keep awake – awake to their own inability to stay in the almost unbearable present moment where Jesus is – rather than look for an unreal future or past to run to.   Page 19f.


Mark's account of the Trial

Master and Margarita - Bulgakov

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There is a Time for Truth


Matthew: Wisdom in Exile

Matthew's account of the Trial

Life of Pi - Yann Martel

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Luke: Knocking on the Window

Luke's account of the Trial

The Outsider - Albert Camus

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John: Home and Away

John's account of the Trial

The Trial - Franz Kafka

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Our Witness: Believers on Trial

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Koelz - Thou Shalt Not Kill

Ashes to Easter

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