This week’s reading takes us further into Jesus’ trial and conviction. We ended last week with a frustrated Pilate, annoyed over Jesus’ non-response to his questions, and wondering “What is truth.
You may recall that He then went to the jewish leaders and offered them an opportunity to release Jesus, given the Passover custom. Instead they called for the release of Barabbas, the bandit.
Listen now for the Word of God from John 19:1-16a
John has been setting up this trial for a while. The scene has shifted several times between the front lawn to the Pilate’s quarters, and finally to the judge’s seat on the Stone Pavement
The key players remain the same:
Jesus, the religious leaders, and Pilate.
And their desires remain the same:
Pilate always needs to keep Jerusalem under control, but especially during the Passover festival. There would be no unrest on his watch, no uprisings, and therefore no over-the-top responses that might draw negative attention from Rome. If that meant appeasing these religious men, one more death on his record wouldn’t bother him.
The chief priests and their police are hoping for essentially the same outcome, a peaceful passover that doesn’t draw the attention of the Empire. Jesus and his crowds and their excitement over this person they saw as a Messiah, that was a problem. They could nip it in the bud, so to speak, and even do so with the help of the Empire. As Caiaphas said, better one man than a whole population…
What about Jesus? What did he desire?
From his prayer in the garden, we know that he didn’t WANT to die. And that he DID desire to do exactly as God willed, to complete his mission here on earth. To bear witness to the truth of who God is, and the love and mercy God offers to all of creation, in particular to humankind.
We know that Jesus came to offer life, forgiveness, reconciliation.
But as John tells us in the very beginning of his gospel (1:10-11) Jesus was in the world,and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
The Light of the World stepped into our darkness -darkness of humanity’s own making! – and we couldn’t recognize or accept the gift.
We humans are intrigued by, often driven by, power
Who has it, how to get it, how to protect it.
We are intrigued by our location relative to the power…
We learn – sometimes through stern words, sometimes through swift action, exactly where we stand and what we are allowed to do with our power and influence.
Or lack thereof
There are a lot of power dynamics at play in this passage.
Where Luke and Matthew recount many of Jesus’ teachings about God’s Kingdom, John does not. This extended trial narrative is really the one time we get a heavy dose of references to Kings and Kingdoms. It starts in one of the earlier scenes, in chapter 18.
Pilate asks Jesus directly, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
And Jesus wants to know… does Pilate see this himself? Or did someone bear witness to him, explaining Jesus’ identity?
Pilate’s response was to make clear that he was primarily interested in what Jesus had done to be handed over as a criminal, as apparently his crime warranted death. Remember Jesus’ answer?
“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
The leaders make clear that they do not want Jesus released, and so Pilate begins the torture that Jesus will endure until his death with flogging, mocking. That’s definitely Pilate, wielding his power.
But when he marches Jesus back outside to the religious leaders, Pilate’s intentions are less clear.
Does he mean to mock the Jewish people by presenting Jesus again as king (having already referred to him as their king when he offered them Barabbas)?
Or does he mean to show that such a pathetic creature as Jesus could not possibly be a threat? Thus reminding the Jewish people how insignificant a threat they appear to Rome?
It’s not clear in John’s telling.
Perhaps something altogether different.
What IS clear is the narrative irony in Pilate’s presentation of Jesus as precisely the sort of king he is.
Like the suffering servant of Isaiah 50 (to which the scourging and slapping here may allude), Jesus is the vulnerable embodiment of God’s love for a dark, broken world. A world in which Pilate and the religious authorities and their soldiers and police become the representatives par excellence of that darkness and brokenness.
Jesus is declared king from the earliest chapters of all the Gospels, though the word used most often is Christ, the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah. That he will be crucified is an utter redefinition of what this means, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” as Paul would write to the Corinthians.
As Jesus told Pilate, his is a kingdom not from here.
Then, when the chief priests tell Pilate that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, he seems to be taken aback. Enough, at least, to go back inside to ask Jesus “Where are you from?”
Jesus doesn’t respond.
He might have said Nazareth… or Judea
He might have recounted his genealogical origins.
But he chose to offer no answer.
Pilate was not amused, after all, no one refuses to speak to the governor.
Can’t you just see it? Pilate, flustered and angry.
Perhaps going red in the face
If he’d had a smart phone, he might have sent out a tweet-storm
Don’t you know who I am? Don’t you know how much power I have??
And I wonder if, in that white hot rage, Pilate got quiet.
And reminded his prisoner in a dangerously quiet hiss
Look, King from Nowhere I don’t care who’s son you are.
I have the power to release you… whether those weak and fearful Jews outside want me to or not.
I have the power to crucify you.
I have power to decide if you live or die.
How strange it must have been for him when this ordinary man,
who was, indeed, the son of God,
the earthly embodiment of the God who is, who was and ever will be
How strange it must have been for Pilate when the man standing in front of him in a crown of thorns made clear where the power truly resided.
You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.
Jesus’ is kingdom not from here.
And his is a power not of this earth.
And this trial? It is SO not about Jesus and his crimes.
John has been setting this up – setting us up – from the very beginning.
Pilate thinks he is judge and jury, and even physically places himself on the judge’s seat. But in John’s gospel, judgment is what individuals bring upon themselves as they respond to Jesus as a revelation of God.
Commentator Karoline Lewis says it this way…
“God does not judge or condemn, and neither does Jesus. Rather, judgment is the result of a lack of recognition of who Jesus is.” Judgment, then, is connected closely to the themes of witness and testimony in John’s telling of Jesus’ story. The trial narrative puts witness and judgement front and center “in this critical moment for Jesus, the disciples, the Jewish leaders, Pilate and all who witness the last event of the incarnation. Everyone is on trial and in jeopardy of (NOT) recognizing who Jesus is.”
When Jesus states that the one who handed him over is guilty of the greater sin, we might jump quickly to the idea that he means Judas. Or perhaps Caiaphas, or the temple police…
But Jesus isn’t talking about the actions being taken, so much as what is going on in the heart.
The word sin here is calling attention to what is truly at risk.
What truly matters for Jesus’ trial: Jesus is not the one on trial.
It is those who sit in the audience.
Those who sit on the witness stands
Those who read and hear this gospel account and hear its truth.
Do they… do WE… hear and believe?
How do we respond?
When Pilate says, Here is your King how do we respond?
I can’t help but think back to the days when the people of Israel first asked God for a King. When they had determined that the prophets and judges just weren’t enough.
As if God as King were not enough…
Now, here is their King.
And the leaders of the Temple choose the Emperor.
As if God as King is still not enough
They handed God in the person of Jesus over to Pilate
And did you notice that in that moment, they were standing outside.
Literally, outside in the courtyard, because John wants us to see that they have not entered through the door.
They are far away from the presence of the very God who has come to save them
God has not abandoned them,
But they do not hear the Shepherd’s voice and follow
They are blind and not willing to see the one is the very door through which they need to walk.
And that is the very definition of the sin Jesus came to resolve.
His is the ministry of reconciliation, the end the separation between God and the world that God loves to much
He came to reconnect our hearts to God’s so that we might know more fully, more completely the power of the love that has been implanted deeply within us from the beginning.
The power to love deeply and fiercely is the power that can change the world.
Power like that requires vigilance…
Young Peter Parker learns very quickly as he explores his new identity as Spiderman that with great power comes great responsibility
Oh, we humans get all twisted up, to be sure.
See, if we have the power to love, we also have the power to withhold that love
To turn it into personal power,
To Manipulate others .
We have the power to set people free…
or to crucify them
We can easily see that twisted power in Pilate. But we don’t have to look that far away In time or in geography for examples.
We still have the power to free others… or to crucify them
We have the power to bully – physically or emotionally;
We withhold information or affection
We threaten to leave relationships
or stop sharing much-needed resources
We are more than capable of robbing others of their self-esteem, self-worth and integrity;
We have the power to crucify/kill people’s hopes, plans and dreams.
But we also have the power to protect and serve;
to heal; to build others up,
to strengthen their self-esteem;
to feed others’ hopes and dreams.
We have the power to heal one another’s wounds
To bind up one another’s broken hearts
God has given you that power.
God has entrusted all of us with that power.
The question is, how will we use it?
Will we bow to the pressures of the world or give in to the desires of self?
Or, might we pool our God-given power to bring life and hope and joy to the world around us?
Will we use our power to effect good in the lives of others?
Will we use our influence, wealth, voices and strength to only better our own position in life,
or will we—like Jesus—use our power to offer new and abundant life to others?
Because that right there? That is the powerful sort of love that can most surely change the world.