A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
March 18, 2018
In last week’s episode, Jesus’ trial with Pontius Pilate begins. The religious leaders are looking for someone to do the dirty work of killing Jesus for them. Pilate is more concerned with keeping the peace during the religious holiday of Passover, than he is interested in the minutiae of Jewish law. He wonders what Jesus did to annoy his own people. He wonders how he can get out of this and not have a riot break out. At the end of last week’s passage, Pilate asks Jesus “what is truth?”. In this passage today, we will get an answer, so to speak.
In addition to asking about Truth, Pilate wanted to know about kingship. He asked if Jesus was the “king of the Jews” Jesus responded with “my kingdom is not from this world…”. Jesus’ words don’t deny he’s a king, and they don’t settle the matter in a clear way.
In today’s story, we don’t hear much about Jesus’ kingdom, but Jesus is presented as the King, a king to be mocked. Soldiers flog Jesus and hit him in the face as they have him wear a “kingly” crown of thorns and purple robe. Pilate offers the Jews their king, trying to be done with the whole matter. The religious leaders will deny Jesus’ authority and kingship.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus often talks in parables that begin with “The kingdom of heaven is like…..”
treasure hidden in a field
a mustard seed
Jesus doesn’t tell those stories in John’s gospel. His words, his stories, don’t describe the kingdom of heaven. His entire life is the story to show us what the king of heaven looks like. Earlier in John’s gospel, Phillip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus replied to Phillip, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (14:8-9)
We are to look at Jesus to see who God is, to see what kind of King God is, to get a glimpse of God’s kingdom.
Which then leads Pilate to ask his next question of Jesus. Where are you from?
The story reports Pilate is “more afraid than ever” as he asks that question. He still doesn’t seem to know what is going on, but perhaps it is starting to dawn on him that he’s in way over his head.
Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate. Perhaps because Jesus is the answer.
Ironically, Pilate had just paraded Jesus in crown and robe, beaten and bruised, in front of the crowds and declared, “behold the man!”, or “Here is the man”. Later, he says, “behold your king!” Pilate unwittingly becomes an instrument to offer Jesus as king, displayed to the world.
Even as Pilate thinks he is mocking Jesus as a weak king without subjects or authority, what he really does is reveal the hollowness of his own power, the lack of authority he truly possesses in the situation, and the utter difference between kingship as contrived by humanity and as embodied by God.
Pilate’s human authority beats an unarmed man to appease a crowd. God’s authority absorbs the violence but will not return violence to the world that God loves.
Pilate’s human authority requires threatening questions, posturing about his power, and diminishing his conversation partners through mockery.
God’s authority doesn’t demean others, it doesn’t beg for validation, it leaves room for others to claim dignity and humanity.
Behold your king!
Where are you from?, Pilate asks.
The answer has already been given. At the beginning of the gospel.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”
Jesus is from the beginning.
Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life”, and truth is an important theme in this gospel. In all of Jesus’ interactions in this story, he reveals what is true about himself. More than that, he causes the truth to be revealed about everyone else too, no matter what they might say. We see the truth of who Pilate is. And the truth of who the religious leaders are.
It’s supposed to be the trial of Jesus, but at the end, it’s the religious leaders who stand condemned. As the chief priests at the end of this story tell Pilate “we have no king but the emperor”, they deny a fundamental tenet of their faith, and mock their own Passover liturgy. Remember, this trial is taking place as Passover preparations are underway, a day where they proudly profess “we have no king but YHWH”. To say they have no king but the emperor is an egregious claim, and it further mocks their attempts to remain ritually clean for the passover.
Last week I shared an Oscar Wilde quote, “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.” There are things we would say are true, but sometimes it’s not something that connects to our lives in a real way. The truth of it doesn’t have legs.
I say I’m opposed to human caused climate change, for example. At the same time, I drive a gas powered car and use air conditioning in my house. What is really true for me? The truth is, I like to be comfortable more than I want to deal with human caused effects on the climate.
Or, we say we believe in small government, until there’s a natural disaster and we need governmental assistance, which reveals our real truth, which is maybe, that we want government to take care of us, but not everyone else.
Or, we say we believe in First Amendment rights to free speech and protests. Until the people who are peacefully protesting hold views that are different than ours. I confess I feel very differently about people with signs outside a Planned Parenthood clinic than I do about someone taking a knee during the national anthem.
We have a lot of unexamined “truths” in our lives.
We all live with a fair amount of hypocrisy. There is a human tendency to reinforce our biases. And we live in a culture that encourages us to not examine our inconsistencies, and that rewards people who flaunt them and who help us pretend they don’t exist.
The power of this scene in John’s gospel is that Jesus reveals all those places where our unexamined truths don’t match what we really believe.
For Pilate, he says he has lots of power. The way Jesus engages him in conversation reveals Pilate’s insecurity and his desire for approval. For the religious leaders, they claim to serve God, but they reveal they have no king but Caesar.
Behold your king!
Jesus embodied truth deeply and thoroughly in his very life, standing as a mirror to reveal our inconsistencies back to us. Not to shame us, but to reveal the limitations of relying on human kingdoms and human kingship.
Jesus’ death on the cross will be the ultimate act of that revelation, showing us our violence cannot bring peace.
Mike McHargue has a podcast I enjoy listening to, and he wrote:
When we behold our king, as he’s on the way to the cross, we behold our own reliance on violence and our need for another way.
As many of you know, high school students across the country walked out of class on Monday to mark the one month anniversary of the school shooting in Florida. In some schools, it was 17 minutes, one minute for each person who died in Florida. In some schools, only one student walked out. In other communities, like Boise, it was a 2 hour rally at the statehouse with hundreds and hundreds of students. Some schools blocked the doors to the schools to keep kids from leaving. Some schools encouraged and allowed it. Students in some places received an absence, some received detention.
In Arkansas, students faced a choice of punishment. The Green Brier school district “authorizes the use of corporal punishment to be administered in accordance with this policy by the Superintendent or his/her designated staff members who are required to have a state-issued license as a condition of their employment.”
This policy is a recent one. It was approved in 2005, and again in 2012. The Green Brier students chose to face corporal punishment.
One of the students, senior, Wylie Greer, wrote:
“After the 17 minutes had passed, we re-entered the building and went to our classes. Over the next two hours, all three of us were called individually to talk with the dean-of-students. He offered us two choices of punishment, both of which had to be approved by our parents. We would either suffer two ‘swats’ from a paddle or two days of in-school suspension. All three of us chose the paddling, with the support of our parents. I received my punishment during 6th period. The dean-of-students carried it out while the assistant principal witnessed. The punishment was not dealt with malice or cruelty, in fact, I have the utmost respect for all the adults involved. They were merely doing their job as the school board and school policy dictated. The ‘swats’ were not painful or injuring. It was nothing more than a temporary sting on my thighs. The dean-of-students did stress however that not all punishments like this ended this way.
I believe that corporal punishment has no place in schools, even if it wasn’t painful to me. The idea that violence should be used against someone who was protesting violence as a means to discipline them is appalling. I hope that this is changed, in Greenbrier, and across the country.”
Coincidentally, Wylie’s mother is an episcopal lay minister. The fact that Wylie chose to take on violence to reveal the inadequacy of using violence to punish non-violent protest against gun violence, suggests that maybe he’s heard about Jesus.
I’m grateful for youth like Wylie, and the youth before them, who are and have been revealing our inaction to the public health crisis of gun violence in non-violent ways. How will we respond, as a country, as we see people taking on violence, threats, and intimidation to reveal our violence back to us? We pray every week to a God of peace as we live in a culture of violence.
As we move toward Holy Week, which begins next week with Palm Sunday, I invite us to live examined lives. I invite us to be aware of the times the media, or our nation’s leaders discourage us from that examination. As we watch Jesus journey to the cross, may it help us see Jesus more clearly, so we may know ourselves more deeply.