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

Mark's account of the Trial

Master and Margarita - Bulgakov

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There is a Time for Truth


Matthew: Wisdom in Exile

2 - A

Matthew is concerned to show that the Spirit of God is fully active in Jesus in the ways the prophets promised (see also 13:28, on the Spirit at work in the casting out of demons). There is something there to be recognized, something that makes sense because of what is already known.   Page 25

2 - B

Matthew, as scholars like to remind us, is a theologian of God’s Wisdom – wisdom in the sense defined by those passages in the Old Testament and the Apocrypha, in Proverbs and job, Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon that celebrate creation as a reflection of and a sharing in the joyful order and coherence of the mind of God. Page 29

2 - C

Due to the full presence of divine Sophia (Wisdom) in Jesus, ‘membership within a patriarchal family is dramatically replaced by mem­bership within the family of disciples gathered around Wisdom ... and the metaphors used for this discipleship are inclusive – brother and sister and mother (12:46‑50)’. Refusal of Wisdom is a refusal of this inclusive vision; refusal of Wisdom is going to be, ultimately, an act of violence against what seems incongru­ous and discontinuous – even though it is in truth the hidden logic, the hidden unity, of the world.   Page 29

2 - D

Much more could be said of Matthew’s strategy as a whole in the Gospel, but these are the salient points. It is a narrative of hidden harmonies displayed, of disparities overcome by pointing to some extraordinary and unexpected analogy between the words and events of sacred history and the events of Jesus' life. It is therefore an appeal to the reader to learn how to look, how to ‘scan’ the ambiguous world so as to read what it is truly saying. It is centred upon the belief that the identity of Jesus is what finally gives coherence to the history of God’s dealings with his people – i.e. that he is Wisdom. It also prepares us :gradually for a rejection of that Wisdom, which will show itself as a climactic moment of exclusion, an exclusion which will also be a self‑destruction.  Page 30

2 - E

This trial turns out to involve putting to the proof an entire system of religious language, at least as it is spoken by these people in this situation. What do words like ‘God’ and ‘anointed’ mean in the mouth of the High Priest, presiding at such a tribunal? If he knew what he was saying, would he not either fall silent at once or realize the answer to his question? Jesus’ question is this: ‘Do you know yourself, your history? Do you really inhabit the words and the forms you use so fluently?’ The High Priest speaks for a history in which Wisdom is inscribed, the human story that is Wisdom’s story. Turn back to the Wisdom of Solomon in Jewish Scripture, and you can see how the biblical record is reworked as the record of what Wisdom has done to and through human agents.  Page 31

2 - F

As we read this [admission of guilt] against the background of the trial scene … we may see [it] felt not as an assault against certain guilty ‘others’ but as a question to religious power and religious fluency, a question to all who are insiders, all who are familiar with speaking about God and God’s Wisdom. If Matthew meant the cry of the crowd as a simple acceptance of guilt by the whole Jewish nation, then his own trial story might suggest that he has not seen what Jesus’ verdict really is. In terms of the reading of the answer to Caiaphas proposed above, the only possible sense that can be given to the words, ‘His blood be on us’, is that it is an implicit admission by the managers of religious power that their exclusion of Jesus is a refusal of their own life and wholeness. In the liturgical reading of the passion as it is now practised in churches, the crowd’s part is normally taken by the whole congregation together – certainly an acknowledgement of what the Holy Week liturgy often reinforces, i.e. that the only example that matters in the worship of an unfaithful and rebellious people is us, the present worshipping body. It might not be a bad idea, however, for this to be spoken by the clergy, in acknowledgement of the particular role Matthew gives to those who act as guardians of the history and integrity of the people.  Page 33

2 - G

Those who are under condemnation in Matthew’s narrative are ultimately those who have the story of God’s Wisdom written in their common life, but who cannot read this story because they do not know themselves. By a roundabout route, Matthew returns us to Mark: what we think we are sure of, the language we speak so familiarly, is at odds with the truth. If we were to encounter directly what we talk about so freely, we should be terrified, angry and murderous.  Page 33f.

2 - H

What if I became incapable of telling truth from falsehood? What if the maintenance of my religious identity became a weapon against God? Page 35

2 - I

Matthew’s narrative does not allow the believer – in particular the articulate and educated believer, the teacher, the expert – any fixed answer to the question of how I might know that I am still with Jesus rather than with Caiaphas. As soon as there seems to be an answer to such a question, it becomes part of just that system of religious words and religious fluency that helps to make possible the exclusion of Jesus. In the presence of Jesus at his trial, faith unavoidably takes on something of a catch‑22 dimension. What matters is to hold still before the question.  Page 36

2 - J

There is no escape, however, from the summons to be in the presence of Christ on trial. It is as if he said to each believer, ‘Stand where I can see you’ and my faithfulness to him is going to be bound up with the whole diverse process of keeping myself ‘in question’. This is not a matter of obsessional self‑scrutiny, the search for an impossible transparency to my ‘real’ motives or desires. It is only a sober and consistent recognition that I have no final and satisfying account to give of myself, and must wait in Christ’s presence to learn who I am. I must wait without the expectation of a tidy personality profile ever being provided, but in the hope that Christ’s knowing of me will give me whatever wholeness I am capable of receiving Page 36

2 - K

Dietrich Bonhoeffer … wrote for his godson from prison in May 1944…

Reconciliation and redemption, regeneration and the Holy Spirit, love of our enemies, cross and resurrection, life in Christ and Christian discipleship all these things are so difficult and so remote that we hardly venture any more to speak of them. In the traditional words and acts we suspect that there may be something quite new and revolutionary, though we cannot as yet grasp or express it. That is our own fault. Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self‑preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world.

It is not that the words are mistaken, or that they are – in the glib modern sense ‑ irrelevant, so that we need clearer and simpler ideas. Far from it. The problem lies in the speakers. There is not enough depth in us for the words to emerge as credible; they have become external to us, tokens we use while forgetting what profound and frightening differences in the human world they actually refer to. If the point of traditional doctrinal forms is to hold us still, it is also, we could say, to create a depth in us, a space for radical change in how we think of ourselves and how we act. Page 37

2 - L

Wisdom speaks through the weakness of a human life: only by accepting my own weakness, and surrendering various comforting falsehoods that might let me think myself strong and safe, can I attune my life to that of God. The goal is not to create the spurious weakness of deliberate self‑denigration, nor is it a policy of avoiding conflict by pretending to a sense of one’s own worthlessness. Augustine is not talking about worth here, but about the inescapable contradictions and vulnerability of actual human life. What deceives us about these things is what keeps us from truth, the living truth that is in Christ’s human birth and life and death. Page 45

2 - M

Standing with the victim means adopting a questioning stance towards such claims. In addition, as we try to move to where Jesus stands at his trial, we are challenged to listen to what we ourselves are saying. We use the language of God’s unconditional love, of God’s action submitting itself to be worked out in the history of weak and sinful people, of God’s Wisdom made flesh in the pain and failure of Jesus’ death. ‘The words are your own,’ says Jesus. If you mean them, where do you stand?   Page 46


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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