Beware of crowds.
Crowds are dangerous and fickle. Crowds don’t use logic and reasoned explanations. Crowds are easily manipulated.
Even crowds with virtuous intent can suddenly turn, the collective energy turning to violence. We saw that in Egypt, where parts of the crowd of peaceful protesters turned into a group that attacked Lara Logan, a western journalist.
We’ve seen how easily crowds can be manipulated. Three years ago our national crowds were yelling for the heads of bankers. Suddenly this year, with a few nudges here and there, the same crowds were yelling for the heads of teachers and public employees. All we need is someone to point to an enemy and our collective imagination will paint the rest of the picture. We love a scape goat.
There is a reason police are called out any time a large crowd gathers—something about being in a crowd makes us anonymous, makes us feel like we lose our identity, that we have become a part of something larger. That something larger can be a thing of beauty—as we all gather to hear a piece of music together or witness a new beginning like an inauguration. But that something larger can also be our collective discontent, which can fester and overflow leading us to say and do things we would never do on our own. Suddenly we’re helping the Nazis round up Jews or murdering thousands of Tutsis in Rwanda or Muslims in Bosnia. Suddenly, we have become a vehicle for death.
In the end, Jesus’ death can be attributed to a fickle crowd. The crowd greets him at the entry to Jerusalem, cheering their hosannas, but by the time Jesus is in Pilate’s grasp, the cheers have turned to muttering. In the Gospel of Matthew’s version of the passion, which we heard last Sunday, the chief priests and elders start whispering into the collective ear of the crowd, encouraging it to free Barabbas. The crowd has stopped thinking independently. The crowd asks Pilate no questions. The crowd just simmers and churns and shouts “Barabbas!” not thinking through the consequences of its action.
Tragically, even Jesus’ disciples are not immune. One by one eleven of the Apostles slink away. Peter outright denies Jesus, terrified of being outed. Terrified of someone identifying him as other, as separate from the crowd.
Not everyone slinks away, though. A few of Jesus followers somehow manage to stick by Jesus, despite the fear, despite the enormous cultural and political pressure to betray him. Conveniently, in the Gospel of John’s version of events, John appears to stick around, as well as Jesus’ mother, and Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdelene. For these women, their love for Jesus overrides all things. They do not fear the authorites, they do not fear the crowd, they are able to remember love in the midst of all the fear.
Strangely, the other two figures who are able to distinguish themselves from the crowd are actually part of the establishment. Neither Joseph of Arimathea nor Nicodemus were public followers of Jesus. Joseph, a wealthy man, considered himself a disciple, but was a secret one because he was afraid of the authorities, afraid of the crowd. Nicodemus was a Pharisee who was intrigued by Jesus, but only would visit Jesus under the cover of night.
For these two figures, the death of Jesus becomes a crystallizing moment. Suddenly they are able to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Somehow Jesus’ death helps them to put everything in perspective. Whether they act out of guilt, out of a newfound faith, out of a sense of responsibility, they step forward and claim Jesus’ body. They were not able to publically claim Jesus’ teaching or believe in his divinity during Jesus’ lifetime, but now they are ready. Now they are able to take a stand. Now, when the violence has been done, when the threat to them is still very real, they are able to faithfully care for Jesus.
Joseph claims Jesus’ body. Nicodemus brings myrrh and aloe and together they anoint Christ’s body and prepare him for burial.
These men who would not be publically associated with Jesus, now care for his body in the most physical, personal and tender way. They have gone from being part of the larger crowd to identifying specifically as followers of Jesus. They are differentiating themselves. Aligning themselves with Jesus. Pouring thousands of their own dollars worth of myrrh and aloe over his body. Giving him the burial Jesus’ own apostles could not.
They are claiming this crucified Christ as their own. The apostles all come back, of course, but not until the resurrection. For them, this crucified Christ was too much to bear.
Where do we stand? Do we stand with the Pharisees, who cannot tolerate Jesus as he claims his own divinity? Do we stand with the crowd who mocks and betrays Jesus? Do we stand with the disciples, who run from Jesus’ death, living into fear instead of into faith?
Or do we stand with the Marys, with Joseph and Nicodemus who are willing to stay with Christ, even through his humiliating death. Who are willing to stand up after the madness of the crowd and quietly align themselves with this broken Jesus. Who are willing to be publicly known as followers of this mortal God.
Standing with the resurrected Jesus is easy. Standing amidst hope and joy and a promise of a new life does not challenge us. But that resurrection comes at a cost. The resurrection could not have happened without the senseless, brutal death of Jesus at the hands of a fickle, unruly crowd. Good Friday invites us to remember. Good Friday invites us to stand with Joseph and Nicodemus as they reject the crowd and choose Jesus.
Good Friday calls us to account for our choices, whether they are made deliberately and privately or in the heat of a moment as a crowd carries us away. Will be stand up for what is right and true? Will we stand up for love when everyone around us is calling for death and destruction? Grace will come, but not yet. Today we are left with just ourselves. What do we see within?