Stand, Listen, Witness. Every Holy Week in the traditional Anglican Prayer Books, we experience the longest Scripture lessons of the year. With these several long Gospel lessons over the next few days, nothing changes in terms of our posture during these readings. As with the Gospel reading in all Communion services, we still stand. No special rubric directs us in this part of the Prayer Book to let the people sit down for the Gospels during Holy Week.
Standing to Witness
Why do we stand to hear the Gospel? We stand to bear witness of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ as it is read publicly in worship. We stand with each other as fellow witnesses. In the early Church, the manuscripts of the New Testament were dear possessions that were guarded closely by the ministers of the Church. When waves of persecution hit, they often went after the ministers since they possessed the local copies of the New Testament. They then sought to seize these manuscripts to burn. Conversely, the reading of the Word of God in worship was crucial. The Word read in worship was indeed precious as it is to this day.
Hearing to Witness
In our standing during the Gospel, we listen to the Word of God. We bear witness by hearing. In other words, the text of the Gospels conveys to us the eyewitness accounts of God’s people of His mighty works. It is not only important to read these words in our daily devotions. It is also very significant that these words be read aloud for all to hear in worship. When conducted publicly, we all hear the same thing at the same time. Worship enables us to hear God’s Word together.
We bear witness while standing and hearing in order to prepare our hearts and bodies to present the Gospel to the ends of the earth. In the Palm Sunday Gospel from Matthew 27, we heard the full account of our Lord’s Passion, Suffering, Trial, and Death on the Cross. Through hearing these words again, we bear witness with our bodies through standing and through hearing with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ of these earth-changing events. They still hold weight today, carried with us to all places we go when we leave this house of worship.
Witness of Judas
In our Gospel today, we read of several instances of the act of witness, all contributing to what God recorded for us to benefit from to this day. As we take these 54 verses in today, we first encounter someone “seeing” something in verse 3, “Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’” We first come across the innocence of Jesus by the witness and statement of the person that betrayed Him. For us in contemplating the mighty works of Jesus to save us this Week, the witnessing starts from a source most would despise and dismiss. Jesus is the Savior of all sorts and conditions of men. In the end, we are all sinners in desperate need of Jesus Christ. We all witness the mighty works of God, regardless of our status.
Witness of Pilate
The next part of this Gospel account speaks of the hearing Jesus had before the governor. He was asked questions and gave answers with witnesses present. Yet, when verse 12 turned to the chief priests and elders accusing him, “he gave no answer.” Pilate in verse 13 said, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” Jesus gave no answer to “not even a single charge.” We read of this reaction from Pilate, “so that the governor was greatly amazed.” The chief priests and elders were leveling false accusations and testimony against Jesus. In the Old Testament Law, two or three witnesses were required to establish a matter. These false witnesses did not accomplish this in any manner. This further cemented what Judas stated earlier, that Jesus was innocent. Pilate was amazed that Jesus did not reply.
A couple of years ago I remember having a conversation with our late Bishop Grote about some bloggers that were spreading gossip online about the ACNA and the REC. Many wanted to reply to these false accusations. Bishop’s counsel to them was simple yet profound. He said, “Just ignore them.” It is difficult to remain silent in the face of false accusations. Yet, often, it is what is needed for our long-term benefit. Jesus was before Pilate not to win verbal arguments to be released. He was there to stand trial and to be falsely convicted to die in our place as the innocent for the guilty to save us. All we can do in these circumstances is to remain faithful to God through humility and obedience to His Word.
Witness of a Dream
In the middle of the next group of witnesses to the suffering and trial of Jesus as we will cover next with the Crowd, we read of the witness of Pilate’s wife on behalf of Jesus. She said the following to him in verse 19, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.” For the man responsible for the judicial proceedings, he saw in the evidence presented from Christ’s nation that he was innocent and he was presented with a personal appeal from his wife about Christ. Everything pointed him to ignore the false accusers of Jesus. Even a dream was used to point out that Jesus was being sent to die as an innocent.
Witness of a Crowd
In verses 15-26, we encounter the false witness and ultimate decision of the crowd against Jesus. In the end, no proof from every angle of Christ’s innocence mattered. Instead, Pilate bowed to the pressure of popular opinion and politics. In the end, Pilate participated in what our sin nature often causes us all to do, to let sin rule our hearts to make sinful decisions, over what is right. The language here of Pilate having a tradition of letting the people pick a person to pardon speaks of how injustice reigns and rules over humanity. When Pilate asked this question, the religious leadership drove the crowd into a bloodthirsty riot to demand the murder of Jesus.
All along, Jesus in His mission to free humanity from the clutches of sin would do so through submitting to the pinnacle of unjust deaths. This goes with what our Old Testament lesson spoke of today in terms of His mission. Isaiah 42:4 states, “He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.” Pilate confirmed and sealed the execution of Jesus as an innocent, thereby fulfilling the Law for all eternity for our salvation. Verse 24 contains Pilate’s action and words, “he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” The crowd replied, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Here, we see oaths sealing the outcome of Christ’s trial, sending Him to die. In this, Jesus went forth to die for not only those that supported Him, but even of those that participated in killing Him. We in our sin nature cannot see how much we need the blood of Christ to wash us completely of our sins. We would like to think we can make good and godly decisions on our own through votes and so forth. Yet, when we ignore the Word of God, even what we take as sacred as Americans to vote becomes the tool of sin. Jesus saves us with perfect justice and love, forever-defeating injustice, sin, and death.
The Soldiers Witness in Making Him Suffer
Verses 27-31 speak of the soldiers witness in making Jesus suffer before He was escorted to the Cross. Why is this important in the overall picture and witness of redemption? We often tend to get queasy at the sight of blood and suffering, especially when we think it excessive. Sure, it is fine to be careful in not glorifying violence to worship it as portions of humanity worship. Yet, at the same time, as we see in the Law and the Prophets, the sacrifice of the innocent and unblemished is critical to atone for sin, to make things right again for a time.
With Jesus, He was fulfilling the entire Law for us for all time. This fulfillment included what we read in these verses, of suffering before a battalion of Roman soldiers. These acts of sadism against our Lord were part of what Roman soldiers did to those that were put into their hands to execute with Crucifixion. Scholars have surmised that such was conducted to make their horrible duties tolerable for them to get through. We can read of similar accounts with the soldiers of tyrannical governments throughout history as they followed orders to commit atrocities against the weak and innocent. This is what Jesus endured for our sakes.
The Witnesses at the Cross
In verses 36-50, we encountered five different groups of witnesses to the death of Jesus for our salvation. First, in verse 36, we read of the soldiers keeping watch over Him. Second, in verse 39, those that passed by the spot of the crucifixion. Third, in verse 41, those that falsely arrested and accused Him. Fourth, in verse 44, the robbers crucified with Him. Fifth, in verse 47, the bystanders.
All of these contributed with all the rest before this moment at the Cross-to witnessing the events of Christ’s full work of redemption for humanity. They were all from flawed human beings. Yet, in it all, Jesus died for even those that took part in His death that converted later.
Those at odds with God in line with Satan to thwart the loving mission of Christ to save humanity were in their final hours here to stop God’s love. The hateful injustice of the State made sure He would die at the Cross. They even stated the charges of the State against Him, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” They were seeking to defeat the King of Kings, the One that came on a lowly donkey with a procession into Jerusalem. The hatred of the people passing by the way in leveling taunts at Him shared in the commitment of hate to stop Jesus from His loving redemption of humanity form their sins. The hatred of the chief priests, scribes, and elders sought to stop God’s love by tempting Him to save Himself and thus defeat His mission to save humanity. The robbers that reviled him as they died next to Him sought to stop His mission by echoing the words of the religious leadership to try to get Him to save Himself. The bystanders showed hatred in thinking giving Him a little sour wine would beckon Elijah to come down to save Him and stop Him from His loving mission. All this was leveled at Jesus in the satanic last-ditch effort to prevent God from saving His people. They all failed.
The Witness of Many and the Centurion
Lastly, we come across in verses 51-54 the witness of the Centurion and those with Him as they kept watch over Jesus. They saw the earthquake and what took place. They heard Jesus say all He said from the Cross-as well as yielding up His spirit. And, for the first time in this passage, we come across humility. As we read at the end of verse 54, “they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!” The promise of Genesis 3:15 came true in this moment, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The final work of a long line of works of redemption that had slowly grown in intensity since the promise of Genesis 3:15 came to fruition. The sins of humanity were atoned for completely for eternity. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords completed His mission of defeating Satan in His attempt to enslave humanity in sin and death.
As we stand for the Gospel reading every week, and especially today with the long reading of Matthew’s Crucifixion account, we stand in utter awe at Jesus dying for us, undeserving. Jesus, our King dying for His people. As we heard these most bitter and awe inspiring accounts of history where Jesus died in our place, we hear as those witnesses did so long ago that it is indeed finished, that our sins are paid for in full for all eternity. As we witness anew through the solemn rereading and retelling of Matthew’s Gospel account of the ancient curse of sin and death being lifted by the Passion, Suffering, and Death of Christ; let us truly bear witness this Holy Week through our lives and words to all we encounter, where ever we may be to His glory and His glory alone. Amen.