Welcome + Worship + Witness
idolatry of numbers

The Rector: The Idolatry of Numbers

Sunday 10 April 2022
Palm Sunday
Sung Eucharist
Revd Nicholas Mercer

One of the first tasks I am required to do at the beginning of the New Year is to complete what is termed “Statistics for Mission”
This form is required by the Church of England which records the number of worshippers who have attended services in the past year
I don’t imagine that there are many clergy who do not care about such figures – hoping that the last year was “better” than the one before
Whatever that might mean
One of the occupational hazards of being a parish priest is that one is endlessly asked if the congregation has grown since you arrived
But, whether we admit it or not, we all see figures as a measure of our success or otherwise
Similarly, in the commercial world we are addicted to growth year on and year out
Has the share price grown?
As if there was no end
Growth can be seductive
But, as we can see from the damage we have caused to the planet, growth can ultimately lead to our own destruction

One thing I can say for certain about Jesus is that he had no problem growing his congregation
When I came to research the point, I found no less than thirty four references to large crowds in the New Testament
We hear at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry that he was already brining in the numbers
It says at the beginning of Matthews Gospel
“Large crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Judea and from beyond the Jordan” (Mtt 4: 25)
Two weeks ago we heard that Jesus had no less than five thousand mouths to feed
And today we hear of great crowds in Jerusalem
There is no doubt that Jesus would have produced very impressive statistics for mission
The toast of the Diocese and beyond
However, despite the vast numbers of people who flock to hear Jesus
On closer inspection, it is clear that he is not so much counting the crowd but picking out individuals
The most striking example is in Luke’s Gospel (8: 45) where Jesus picks out the person who touched the hem of his robe
When Jesus asks his disciples they first dismiss him saying
“Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.”
But Jesus said, “Someone touched me”
Again, in Marks Gospel we hear that when Jesus was leaving Jericho he noticed, not the crowd, but the blind beggar Bartimaeus
Similarly, in Matthew’s Gospel, it was a leper who stood out for Jesus above all others
When Jesus is confronted by large numbers of people, he is always alert to other things,
Not least the individual who may have been excluded

But as well as identifying with individual Jesus also seeks to distance himself from the crowd at the same time
St Luke (5:16) states that, as the crowds gathered to hear Jesus, “so he withdrew to deserted places to pray”
In Matthew’s Gospel we learn that Jesus tried to escape by clambering into a boat (Matthew 13: 1-3)
And then again by climbing up a mountain

Jesus’ approach to large numbers is ambivalent to say the least
He is not looking at raw numbers but seeking our individuals
He is not priding himself on his popularity
But seeking solace instead and /with every justification/ given the events that were to unfold

This morning is Palm Sunday
Once again we begin Holy Week by remembering Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem
And hear how Jesus is confronted by large numbers of people
The reading from Matthew’s Gospel this morning tells us that “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road and, others cut branches from the trees” (21: 7)
He had drawn large crowds once again and, possibly, the largest number that had ever assembled to see and hear him
He was truly at the height of his fame
However, these figures were to be terribly misleading
Because by the end of the week, although the crowds were still there, this time they were calling for him to be crucified
And then, within a very short space of time, there was just a small handful of his followers left
Followed by an even smaller group who kept watch as he died a slow agonising death on the cross
And then arranged his burial
Ask yourself this, was Jesus better off with the crowds or just a handful of his loyal supporters?
Put another way, where is the Gospel to be truly found?

Such is the paradox of Holy Week
Just when Jesus seems to be at the height of his fame – and would be returning the greatest ever statistics for mission
This is when he is worse off
The exponential growth in his followers was to lead to his destruction
There is an idolatry in numbers
But, as the pandemic peculiarly taught me, so often it is in the small intimate gathering that the heart of the Gospel is to be found
• The small intimate wedding which, in one case, was reduced to just five people
• Or the small family funeral where it was just the immediate family at the graveside rather than a Church full to bursting
One of the revelations of Holy Week is that this fixation with numbers is exposed for the imposter that it is

And so the countdown begins, today, on Palm Sunday
Today we celebrate huge crowds today cheering on Jesus as he arrives in Jerusalem – and mimic their number
But by Maundy Thursday the crowd will be reduced to just twelve
By Good Friday it’s down to just three crosses on a hill
And then just one body in a tomb
Finally, it is only in the empty tomb that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is truly proclaimed