'From "Hosanna" to "Crucify Him!" - where is God in the mob?' looking at Palm Sunday and reflecting on the recent riots in Bristol

With Karl and Mark Stewart, 28.3.2021. 

Opening Words

May this chalice burn as a symbol of the light that is within us all,

Untouchable by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

A piece of the God-light finding its way home


The recent riots and protests in Bristol seem well timed to coincide with Palm Sunday, at the centre of which story is also a riotous crowd.

In the Palm Sunday story we see a crowd praising and welcoming Jesus with shouts of “Hosanna”. Then only a matter of days later we see another crowd shouting out against Jesus and calling for his crucifixion.

What does the Palm Sunday to Easter story have to tell us about crowd or mob mentality? And how does our understanding of mob mentality inform our perspective on what’s been going on in Bristol?

In this service we are posing the question ‘where is God in the mob?’ and also we’ll be looking ahead to Easter with some thoughts around resurrection and ‘rolling your own stone away’.

HYMN 1, ‘The flame of truth is kindled’, p.158

Candles of Joy and Concern 

Introduction to Readings

The following readings are taken from the Gospel of John, the first describing the events of Palm Sunday, and the second from when Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate.

One thing that stood out for me in these readings, was the repeated use of the phrase ‘The Jews’. In the Middle Ages particularly, and at many other times throughout the history of Christianity, Jewish people were persecuted and anti-semitism was legitimised in no small part because people were taught that the Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.

Thinking about this in the light of the recent riots and protests in Bristol, we must be careful not to label a certain group of people as responsible for wrongdoing, lest we begin to vilify that entire group.

For this reason, we’ve edited the following passages to take out references to ‘the Jews’ and have replaced them with the phrase ‘the crowd’, in order to see how this changes the way in which we hear these well known readings.

1st Reading, from the book of John

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour.

Meanwhile a large crowd found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the crowd were going over to Jesus and believing in him.

The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,


“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Blessed is the king of Israel!”

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:

“Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion;
see, your king is coming,
seated on a donkey’s colt.”

Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him. So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!”

Many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human praise more than praise from God.

But Jesus said to his disciples:

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.

They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God”.

2nd Reading, from the book of John - ‘Jesus before Pilate’

Pilate went out again to the crowd gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him. But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?” They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!”

Once more Pilate came out and said to the crowd gathered there, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”

As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!”

But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.”

The religious leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”

From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the religious leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement. It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.

“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the crowd.

But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.

Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.

HYMN 2: ‘Blessed spirit of my life’ p.11


So we chose to title our service today, 'From "Hosanna" to "Crucify Him!" - where is God in the mob?'

But firstly, would we define the crowds depicted in John’s Gospel and the crowds that have assembled in Bristol over the last week as a ‘mob’?

A generally accepted definition of a mob is ‘a large crowd of people, especially one that is disorderly and intent on causing trouble or violence, e.g. "a mob of protesters"’.

An article in Psychology Today written in the wake of the storming of the Capitol building in Washington DC defines the elements of “Mob Mentality” as including:

  • “Deindividuation
  • Emotional hyper-intensiveness
  • Acceptability of usually unacceptable behaviours
  • Anonymity
  • Corporate diffusion of responsibility”

Were all these elements present in the crowds that welcomed Jesus and then condemned him? Were they present in the Bristol crowd that got into violent exchanges with police over the last week?

Do we allow that mob action can be an effective engine of change?
And if so, what are we to take away from the actions of a mob?
Is there any legitimacy to be given to mob action?
Can we think of examples where mob action has led to a change in the law?

One of the elements of mob mentality cited above is ‘deindividuation’, and I wonder, have there been times when we’ve been swept along by the public mood and lost a sense of our own opinion, perspective, and sense of personal responsibility?

Can a mass reaction ever be an authentic reaction? Or are these reactions only conditioned by fear and hysteria?

When it comes to authenticity and truth, Unitarians have often championed the idea of truth being relative, as discreet to each individual, thus refuting the idea of corporate truth, or a shared set of beliefs, as held by many of the Christian traditions to which we have perhaps belonged in the past.

Indeed, our Unitarian approach to truth is reflected in the enigmatic exchange between Jesus and Pilate in the reading we heard, when Jesus says to Pilate,“the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth,” and Pilate retorts with, “What is truth?”

This exchange resonates with the Unitarian almost mystical idea of truth, by which our religious freedom allows us to seek after a truth which is more authentic than we would hold a corporate or shared truth to possibly be.

Many of us might even understand this search for unfettered truth as the search for God, or even have an idea of God as truth, however elusive and relative that truth might be.

Therefore the idea of a crowd, much less a mob, baring witness to authentic truth might seem to be something of an anathema to us. We might assume a corporately held truth to be superficial at best, and at worst that truths espoused by crowds are dangerous, knowing as we do the potential for crowds to be fickle and afraid, as demonstrated in the Easter Story, and at innumerable moments in human history.

So with this in mind, where does the truth lie in mob mentality? And if God is truth, where is God in the mob?

When we are in a group we inevitably have to surrender the nuances of our own personal belief systems and points of view, in order to fit in with the group, and this can be a good thing. The Unitarian Universalist church cites the ‘interdependent web of all existence’ in its ‘Seven Principles’; and C.J Jung’s popularised theories around the collective unconscious in his writings. Both these ideas point to not only the necessity of human belonging but also to the undeniable actuality of our belonging to each other, to our history and to our environment.

At the same time the Unitarian Universalist ‘Seven Principles’ also includes point 4, “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. So here we are being asked to hold in tension two seemingly opposed tenets; belonging and freedom, and I wonder is there is a necessary trade off between staying true to our own understanding and belonging to the collective?

Once part of the collective we may find that its position on key issues differs from our own. The nature of groups is to want to intensify the value of belonging to it, and thus its members can get caught in a cycle of escalating criteria for belonging, with less and less room for difference of opinion or nuance.

For example, it might start out that a group which was founded on the basis of disagreeing with several government policies, can end up escalating its value criteria to the point where the group rejects all government policy regardless of what it concerns, and where the group actively seeks to bring down the government and harm its members.

We see this play out in our politics time and again - tribalism forcing us to take a stance or a position more extreme than that which we would otherwise feel aligned to. Be it Leave or Remain, Republican or Democrat, ‘Team Harry and Meghan’ or ‘Team Royal Family’. Mob Mentality can remove the nuance from discourse and urges us to deny the relatively of truth by offering us the promise of belonging.

In the first reading we heard, Jesus says to his disciples:

“If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world”.

It would seem here that Jesus is rejecting the notion of belonging, in the ordinary, sociological sense, something along the lines of the quote often attributed to Groucho Marx: “I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member". Certainly by this statement it doesn’t sounds like Jesus had any intention of starting spiritual splinter-group, much less a state-sponsored religion.

In the tussle between truth and belonging, Jesus seems to come down on the side of of ‘truth’, while perhaps pointing towards a different kind of belonging, which doesn’t have any of the hall-marks of exclusivity, duality and separateness, which have defined belonging as we’ve known it on earth.

On multiple occasions we see the characters in this story turn their backs on truth, in favour of belonging. We see this in the person of Judas the betrayer, in Peter the denier. Also in the disciples who fall asleep and neglect to keep watch and pray with Jesus.

So where does God appear in the Easter story? In the person of Simon of Cyrene, put upon to carry Jesus’s cross?

In the person who ran to Jesus with a sponge filled with wine vinegar and offered it to him on the cross to drink?

The Easter Story is notable for its very absence of God’s intervention, the very absence of truth. The truth of Jesus’s followers, their love for him and belief in him is tested and found wanting.

Yet what we also see threaded through the Easter story is the figure, the archetype of the Jesus character, in strange, unearthly submission to and acceptance of his fate, pledging his allegiance to a truth beyond the dualistic truth of Roman imperial law or cultural religious doctrines.

Jesus even says on the cross “Forgive them, father, for they know not know what they do”. It still seems wildly counter-cultural that he doesn’t curse or condemn the mob; but rather prays for them, along the lines of his ‘turn the other cheek’, ‘love your enemies’ teachings.

So are we to understand here that the God-response, the truth-response, is actually to surrender to the baying mob? Or could it be that Jesus’ surrender in fact an act of resistance, of defiance? That Jesus is in possession of a truth beyond the scenes that are playing out here in the Easter story? That in his deepest heart he knows that come Sunday, he’ll be risen – in whatever mystical or literal sense we choose to understand that.

We can perhaps understand the proclamation ‘Jesus is risen’ in the sense that Maya Angelou’s poem, ‘Still I rise’ puts it:

“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.”

The sense of ‘rising’ or ‘being risen’ points to an idea of having a dignity in your soul, which is untouchable by the hands of the mob; of there being a part of you that is not subject to, as Shakepeare’s Hamlet puts it, ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, or as Rudyard Kipling put it in his poem ‘If’,

“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue”.

“If you can walk with crowds and keep your virtue”. Is this where God is in the mob? The character of Jesus didn’t turn his back on the mob; he knew the value of the mob, with its capacity to amplify his message, then turn on a dime to bring about his downfall. Jesus is using the power of the mob in full knowledge of its fickleness, in order to fulfil the prophecy, that is in order to make the wider point that the love or the hate of the mob don’t matter; that the love of the world is fickle and transient, but that the love of God is constant.

So what are we to glean from this story, which might help us reflect on what has been going on in Bristol over the past week?

Would Jesus be standing with the rioters or the riot police? Or would he just walk away?

Would he be pointing out the nuance in the situation? That some protestors were there to further their cause, others just there to cause trouble? Some were responding to deeply held convictions, others just jumping on the band wagon. And even that whilst some police were measured and understanding in their response, others may have been too quick to reach for their batons and push with their riot shields?

It’s often said that the truth of any situation is actually determined by who gets to tell the story. I’ve been reading a great variance in the telling of this story between the national publications and some local Bristol publications and social media posts.

Would Jesus be happy with the story that was told about him? He certainly got famous from it, but at what cost? Just to have his message corrupted by the same old power mechanisms which weaponise truth in order to manufacture dualistic belonging?

What would Jesus pray for in the face of riots in Bristol, given his own experience of riotous crowds?

For forgiveness for the protestors and the police whose actions did not befit the dignity of God’s children?

For God’s wisdom to guide the thoughts, words and actions of protestors and police, community organisers and public officials alike.

For all those involved and us bystanders too, to examine the truth of our hearts, and make courageous, truth-based decisions, carried by the energy of God’s love.

For God to help us to see the humanity in our enemies, and the nuance in every argument?
For God to fill our hearts with the bravery and our minds with the tenacity to speak up and act up when we see cruelty and iniquity in the world?

For God’s grace to fall upon this situation, and for miraculous change and healing to emerge out of chaos and suffering?

So may it be,


HYMN 3: ‘We are a gentle angry people’, p.182


Here we are travelling through Lent. We are on a journey through the daily living of faith; we are walking paths and feeling the stones under foot. As we encounter each of these days; all forty of them, and all the nights, there is an ever knowing, ever loving, all seeing and all completing God.

We don’t really know what that is nor do we know what it does, but we know we believe, which is all well and good, but we also know we have to question. We have to question the days and nights of Lent, we have to question the difference between believing and knowing, must we question our own understanding. Are we to assume that just because we believe we know? Is there any more to discern just beyond feeling we’re sure?

I can say I very rarely and wholly know for sure that something is firmly true in any faith. As a human being I’m going to question, I’m going to watch and wait, I’m going to just let life show itself. Do I believe?

As we journey through Lent, the Bible, as well as several other sources, will tell us of the story of Jesus, it will tell us of the crowds cheering as it will tell us of the crowd, standing and watching. We are told of the crowd was so happy to see Jesus one minute, all shouting in exultation “Hosanna, hosanna, and hosanna in the highest”. When we look at the word ‘hosanna’ the crowd on mass is saying ‘save’. They’re saying “save us, pray for us, Lord please”.

And yet as the people sing songs of praise at the entering of Jesus in one mass voice, I question whether or not one single voice was heard.

Here are some questions to ponder.

Do you hear the one single voice calling? Is it clear is where it leading? What are you hearing in the call? What has Lent told you? What will the vision of resurrection bring? Are you going to resurrect something?

As we hear of all these accounts and testimonies the crowd who are only too jubilant at the sight of Jesus are then next shouting to crucify him. What is the cause for this? As we look at our society today it’s all and only too common, to hear and see on the news people at once happy, and then all of a sudden objecting to a change. Before you know it, there’s shouting, violence, disruption, damage and cost, which will give rise to further causes. However it is, I hope that in the centre of it somewhere, there is God

Next week as we leave the journey of Lent we look at Easter. We come from the many paths of Lent and meet together as a new Easter people. I share with you one fond memory I have of Easter in the Christian Church being the song sung as the Gloria, an extract which is: “Glory to God in the highest and peace to people on earth, Lord God Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world, we praise and thank you for your glory”.

This was the song sung at the return of Jesus, celebrating resurrection. As well we hear of the rolling the stone away from the tomb. What then will be the resurrection for you this Easter? Will it be for you a promise to honour, a project you have put aside for too long, maybe something that is ready for your attention?

As you journey to what it is, may it be so that you walk that path, feel every stone under foot. For although the field you may cut through has brambles, may you be able to see the lilies among the thorns. When you meet this spirit who you don’t know, but feel you believe in within your soul, may it be the one who will sing as you sing your song of hosanna in the highest. And roll your stone away from whatever that cave is so that your single voice may be heard. May your voice be heard.

And with this I share with you the whole size of God, let’s make it a God that we all can know and love with the many names there are. May we share that love and pass it about. This is God.

G. Grace o. of. D. Divinity.

Wake and walk well. May it be so.



Introduction to breathing prayer.

One way to look at prayer as as burst of concentrated thought and heart energy, being shot out into the universe. But it is often hard to find the concentrated intention to make this idea of prayer seem real.

Let us use our breath, the regulation of our breathing, to imbue our prayer with intention, to bring our full awareness to it, and to send it mindfully on its way:

Optional responsory:

All: Let our breath be our witness
Let our breath be our prayer

Breathe a breath for those in countries without the right to protest
Breathe in and hold your concern
And breathe out your prayer
May we work together towards a world where this right is afforded to all.

All: Let our breath be our witness
Let our breath be our prayer

Breathe a breath for all beings suffering at this moment
Breathe in and hold your concern
And breathe out your prayer
May we do all we can to alleviate the suffering of all beings.

All: Let our breath be our witness
Let our breath be our prayer

Breathe a breath for all beings helping and caring for others
Breathe in and hold your gratitude
And breathe out your prayer
May we open our eyes to need and help where we can.

All: Let our breath be our witness

Let our breath be our prayer

Breathe a breath for all whose work and service support our lives
Breathe in and hold your gratitude
And breathe out your prayer
May we each work and serve as we are able.

All: Let our breath be our witness
Let our breath be our prayer

Breathe a breath for all beings dying at this time
Breathe in and hold them,
And breathe out your prayer
May we be held and comforted at the hour of our death.

All: Let our breath be our witness
Let our breath be our prayer

Breathe a breath for love, relationship and community
Breathe in and give thanks,
And breathe out your prayer

All: Let our breath be our witness
Let our breath be our prayer


Time of silence followed by music

HYMN 4: Karl’s Hymn ‘Call us out of the darkness’ 


God, guide our thoughts, our words and our deeds this day
Grant us the wisdom to discern what is your will
And the courage to act as your hands and your voice in the world.