As incredible as it may seem, we are canceling church due to really awful, terrible, horrible, no good weather.
Stay home, stay safe. See you next week!
As incredible as it may seem, we are canceling church due to really awful, terrible, horrible, no good weather.
Stay home, stay safe. See you next week!
She turned, “Rabbouni!” (which means beloved teacher).
Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them what he had said to her.
That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them.
The first thing I notice is that the disciples have regrouped. Three nights before, at Jesus’ arrest and trial, they scattered like quail in the face of danger. But by Sunday evening they are back together. No texting or tweets, those who loved Jesus just knew to go back to the last place, go back to the house to question and compare stories and grieve. Jesus created a new family at the foot of the cross in his mother and the beloved disciple, but his love and the disciples’ loyalty seem to be formative here, too, in sharing tears and fears and food even while hiding behind closed doors.
He said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Again Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you. Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you hang onto them, they are retained.”
That’s a heady thing to tell this group hiding in fear for their lives. I bet they were taking mental notes, forming a list of who belonged on the retaining list. Who were their enemies, who garnered the most fear? Who would they most want condemned?
In church talk, this responsibility to retain and release is called the power of the keys and is conferred in ordination. I prefer it in the realm of fishing. It has seemed to me to be the most frightening thing about ordination… During confession and absolution at the beginning of the service the pastor will say something along the lines of, “as a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
I don’t spend any time wondering about retaining sins. I’m not that decisive or certain. I don’t know enough to condemn or judge.
But, by the same token, I wonder about pronouncing a blanket forgiveness over all our sins. What does that mean? I have no idea about all your sins. Is it right for me to release them without questioning you? And I wonder, during the silence for confession, how many of us are actually considering the category.
Is sin a listing of un-repented wrongs you have done?
Is sin failure to follow a moral/ethical code of behavior – Old Testament law stuff?
Is sin failure to live fully out of love for self and neighbor – loving as we have been loved – as commanded by Jesus?
In John’s gospel sin is unbelief, the refusal to see that God is acting in and through the person of Jesus… the refusal to trust that Jesus is the person of God, the incarnate Word.
Some days are more Thomassy than others, for me…Some days the wounds of the world or ourselves would swallow us whole, and believing in the goodness and power of God’s love is difficult. Some days I would dearly love a little solid proof, a little less mystery, less reason to wonder.
Thomas, the twin, the one called Didymus, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. The others told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!” But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Doubting Thomas. The Greek word is not “doubt,” actually, but “unbelieving.” Unbelieving Thomas doesn’t have the same zing, and the words might seem to be synonymous, but, at least for the author of John, they are not.
To believe in Jesus is not to say you believe in the truth of the story. To believe in Jesus is to say, “I abide in you, my Lord and my God, and you abide in me.” It affirms an on-going, whole body, mind and spirit relationship between Jesus and you as the believer.
Jesus’ first resurrection appearance is for Mary in the garden. She runs back to the disciples saying, “I have seen the Lord!” But they don’t say “What?! That’s fantastic! All he said is becoming clear!” Instead, Jesus finds them huddled with the doors locked for fear that they too would be thrown out of the synagogue, that perhaps they, too, would be crucified or stoned.
Jesus appears to them and they rejoice when they see the Lord. The disciples repeat Mary’s exact words to Thomas when he comes, “We have seen the Lord,” but Thomas also requires a personal encounter.
Actually, we all do. That’s how faith happens. When the Samaritan woman left her water jug and ran back to her townspeople telling of her meeting at the well, they go to Jesus and “abide” with him, saying to her, “It is no longer because of what you said, but now we have heard for ourselves.” This isn’t a slight against her. Believing in Jesus is not about believing in someone else’s experience, belief is in having your own encounter with the Word made flesh. It makes sense if incarnation and God’s love of this world are taken seriously. Belief is not aimed at eternity, but begins with fullness of life and grace here, now: An actual experience, an epiphany of God in your own life.
Because the resurrection is not just the resurrection. Jesus said, “I AM the Resurrection and the life.” Belief and life are synonyms in this Gospel, and together form the groundwork for a relationship that sustains and sends out disciples of all times and places and styles.
After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.”…
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side.
No more disbelief. Believe!”
Thomas wanted to touch the wounds; to see and feel, and experience for himself.
But, have you ever wondered why Jesus would still have wounds?
It doesn’t seem to occur to Thomas and the others that the risen Lord should now be made perfect, whole, unblemished. That’s interesting. Unlike his other signs and healings characterized by restoration and wholeness, the resurrected Jesus is not pristine. He still bears the marks of death.
It is this wounded Savior, then, who is the standard for the coming kingdom of God, not those other blessed, healed, perfected ones. Through Thomas we witness the wounds of the body of Christ. Indeed, they are all around us.
Too often, in our real lives, we don’t want to see them, we don’t want to touch them. We don’t want to get that involved, or be that vulnerable. We usually try to ensure that marks of imperfection and pain be kept covered, as if such “not seeing” will help in some way, will preserve one’s dignity or prevent embarrassment at being seen for who we are. Neither do we want to be reminded of our scars and holes and raw edges by seeing them in others.
But if Jesus is raised with wounds, maybe that – and not perfection – is what God prefers to work with; maybe our wounded-ness is where transformation and transcendence can take root – like a seed falling on soft, broken ground.
Jesus’ bodily appearance is full of mystery, but we see in this story the tender compassion of the living word of God. Jesus knows his disciples are afraid for their lives—he grants them peace. He knows they need his continued presence and power—he breathes the Spirit into their flagging hearts. He knows they have lost their sense of purpose—he commissions them to a ministry of witness and reconciliation. He knows they can hardly believe their eyes, that he is their Jesus, the same one who was nailed to the cross—so he shows them his wounds. He knows Thomas is missing—he comes back the next week to make sure the Twin is not left out. He knows the last thing they need to hear is that they failed him miserably and he is disappointed—he utters not a single word of recrimination or judgment, but grants them the kingdom.
It is not surprising then, that in the presence of such immense tenderness, the reading says (in what has to be one of the biggest understatements of the Bible) the disciples rejoiced.
Easter, in these terms, is the breaking-in of a new age to come in which there will be only compassion, peace, restoration and love like this, for all the wounded and broken, for the afraid, believing, skeptical, strong, and faithful – for all. It is ours to practice this living, to become Easter people, rising anew and going out into the world with great joy and good news and our visible wounds.
Christ is risen. Alleluia
…grieving, or in pain, your touch can call us back to life again,
fields of our hearts, that dead and bare have been;
love is come again like wheat arising green.”
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran… and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.
Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.
Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni!” (which means beloved Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
In the beginning was the Word.
“Woman why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?”
In the beginning was the Word.
In the beginning when darkness covered the face of the earth and the world was a formless void…. The word of God brought light into the darkness and life out of emptiness.
In the beginning there was a garden, and on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went there in grief.
John presents us with a narrative that, in its end, circles back to its beginning – that circles back to creation, to incarnation, to the coming of God in Jesus to bring light to our darkest days and life to the emptiest places and love into the void of despair.
We know this story. We watch as Mary discovers Jesus’ tomb – the tomb that should be filled to overflowing with death and burial spices and linen shrouds and grief, the tomb that should be sealed in cold, dark, stone – is open…is empty. We see Peter and the other disciple run to see that what the woman has told them is indeed the case. John tells us that the beloved disciple “saw and believed.” But, he saw nothing – no angels, no body, so what did he believe? Perhaps simply that Mary was correct — that someone had stolen the body of their crucified teacher, that the tomb was empty.
Peter discovers the linen burial wrappings and notices the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head has been rolled up and lies in a place apart, by itself. These are not yet clues to the greatest masterpiece of all mysteries. They are simply the facts. The tomb is empty.
Having felt this void, this kind of darkness and hurt in our own lives, we understand their confusion and anger, their disappointment and doubt. Why is this tomb empty? Who would do this? Why would they do this? Why is this new burden added to our defeat?
Where there is no body, there is no closure; where there is no body there can be none of the comfort that can gained from the certainty of death, when there is an empty grave there is no location for our grief to dwell.
Unenlightened, the two of them go home.
Our focus returns to Mary. Neither Peter nor the other disciple have offered her words of comfort or encouragement. They have not persuaded Mary to return home with them. So she stays.
Weeping, she looks into the cave. She hears an echo from within the tomb and from behind her – from the place of death and endings and shame, and from the garden of new life … “Woman, why are you weeping?”
Really? Well, let me count the ways; let us repeat the litany of grief, guilt, and heartbreak that fills our human frames, that marks our earthly days. Death, betrayal, abandonment, failure, fear… how’s that for a start?
“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?”
“What are you looking for?” were the first words Jesus spoke in this gospel, way back in the beginning, when a few of John the baptist’s disciples followed him. “What do you want?” Jesus asked them, and then invited, “Come and see.”
Jesus asks Mary the same question, “Whom are you looking for?”
Well, what – or whom – are you looking for? You’ve come here for a reason – – presumably for more than breakfast. Whom do you seek? What is it you hope to find here – need to find – and hope it might be found here?
There is work here that needs to be done… you probably didn’t come looking for work.
There is sickness and death and birth and growth and friendship; there is fellowship among the saints; good food is shared here, peace is shared, stories are shared and heard; there are a few noisy children underfoot when we’re lucky; there’s curiosity, and laughter, and prayer, a bit of sarcasm now and then; there is encouragement and nurture, a concern about injustice and the future of the planet; there is music for our souls; there are your various vocations being lived out in important, intentional, and earnest ways; there are memories to hold, traditions to build on, and a future to imagine our way into. These are some of our assets.
Did you come seeking them? If so, you’re welcome to them. Come and stay.
What – or whom – are you looking for?
I can’t promise that you’ll find God here, or that you will be warmed or enlightened by the Holy Spirit, that here you will find the One in whom your soul finds its rest and goal. I can promise you welcome at Christ’s table of grace and bounteous mercy. I can promise you an opportunity to search your conscience, offer confession, and receive release for the burdens you bear. I can promise that whether or not you find God, you are known – fully, truly, and forgiven and loved by this gardener God, this Savior, this Christ among the crocuses. And I can promise you that it is good news of great joy for you.
With a word, Mary realizes her mistake. This is not a gardener, nor a thief. “Rabbouni,” she says – a term of endearment for a much loved teacher. She might as well have called him Good Shepherd, for she turns at the sound of her name. She turns toward Jesus in a moment of recognition that encapsulates all of the joy, all the expectancy, all the incredulity of resurrection.
In the beginning was the Word.
“Woman why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?”
In the beginning was the Word.
In the beginning when darkness covered the face of the earth and the world was a formless void…. The word of God brought light into the darkness and life out of emptiness, and even now, the darkness has not overcome it.
In the beginning there was a garden, out of which God sent Eve and Adam to know death and grief, to work and toil, to live – not in the absence of God, but estranged and apart.
In the beginning there was a garden, and on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went there in grief. We know that garden, that pre-dawn chill of darkness.
But from this Easter garden Mary Magdalene is sent out rejoicing.
This is the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: Life wins. God reigns… rains down mercy, sprinkles down hope, pours out possibilities…where none seem to exist. The Word has spoken through the ages, spoken through the dark night, has broken through the stone wall – the Word has spoken…. a name – your name, my name, and has turned our death into life.
Jesus, who was crucified, who was buried, has been raised. Alleluia!
28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said, “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
31 Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.” After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
The gospel of John narrates Jesus’ death with simplicity, dignity, solemnity. Here there is none of the turmoil or violence of the other gospels – no jeering crowds at the trial before Pilate, Jesus carries his cross bar by himself to Golgotha and without the crowd looking on. There is no conversation with crucified criminals or mocking by soldiers. Jesus does not cry out to God or make a loud cry at the end – in fact, the Synoptic gospel’s quotation from psalm 22 – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is a theological impossibility for Jesus of this gospel. He and God are one from the beginning, united in work and in love. Their unity is strengthened, not broken, at Jesus’ death. The natural world perhaps pauses, waiting – but does not shake or moan or give in to the darkness.
There is poignancy and sadness at this scene, but there is not despair, not abandonment. Jesus is the mystical, incarnate Son of God, the one sent by God into the world to save the world by revealing God’s love. And this is Jesus, the man who dies on a cross, bleeding from his wounds and pierced side, wrapped in linen cloths and laid to rest in a garden tomb. In his death, Jesus completes the life for which he was born and into which he was sent by bearing ultimate witness to the truth: that through him we are given what is most precious – true incorporation (being brought bodily into) the love of God.
The abundance of scriptural references normally annoys me, because it makes the story seem so scripted – which is not how we experience our lives or believe God would be with us. However, their purpose is to confirm that this death is part of God’s plan for salvation from the beginning.
His unbroken legs lead us to the psalter, his pierced side to Zechariah, but they also prove that he is truly dead… “and at once blood and water came out.” The emphasis on the eye witness is to confirm to readers that this actually happened…. and it is physiologically accurate of a chest wound from crucifixion.
But the significance of water and blood is only in part for proof. The context from Zechariah is both mourning and hope. In the midst of death God pours out “ a spirit of compassion and supplication to the house of David, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps for a firstborn.” In citing this passage, John both implicates the “Jews” (John’s name for all in opposition to Jesus) who remain blind to the presence of God, and offer hope, that even in death, when we look on the one who was pierced we see God’s only child, the firstborn of creation, who transforms death in love into life.
Jesus was the source of living water – life flows from Jesus’ death from his wounded side; his blood – linked to the original Passover – is not for forgiveness of sin, but is shed to provide life – as it saved the Israelites from the final plague of death.
Hope is a strange thing to be talking about on Good Friday, but it is true for this gospel and is perhaps why it’s called Good. I’m not sure about that. I’ve been using Advent hymns in Lent because they are appropriate for this gospel’s telling. Here’s another one: “All earth is hopeful, the Savior comes at last, furrows lie open for God’s creative task; this, the labor of people who struggle to see how God’s truth and justice set everybody free.”
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are the characters of this struggle. Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin – the Jewish Supreme Court – and a secret disciple of Jesus. He represents those who fear losing political power and influence within the synagogue and community if they confessed openly their belief in Jesus. At Jesus’ death, however, Joseph is emboldened by the truth he now believes and makes public. He embodies the risk and openly claims discipleship. This was a hugely significant challenge for John’s original audience – and the cost could involve being shunned, stoned, and killed as we know from the apostle Paul’s story and Stephen’s stoning.
The willingness to bury Jesus is seen by John as a confession of faith. Nicodemus first came to Jesus at night and left very much in the dark about Jesus’ identity. He later stood up for Jesus on the basis of fairness in hearing him out in a discussion among the pharisees, but here, Nicodemus abandons neutrality and secrecy and acts out of love and with great reverence.
The prodigious amount of burial spices – 100 pounds – could be again seen as a proof offering – it would be enough to keep Jesus pinned down … but consider its fragrance. 100 pounds of myrtle, of myrrh, of sweet aloes. That fragrance would have filled and overpowered and out-flowed this newly carved cave like the excess of pure nard that Mary poured over his feet, anointing them with her hair. This is an act of utter devotion and all-in love.
Joseph, Nicodemus, and Mary prove themselves to be true disciples as they live out of love. Jesus’ body is handled with care and dignity in it’s preparation. John makes note that it is the Day of Preparation – on one level it is the day before sabbath begins at sundown, on another level, it is the day Jesus is prepared for glory. Linen burial cloth is normally accorded only to those of wealth and high standing, the pristine condition of the garden tomb adds to the dignity and beauty of their treatment of Jesus’ body.
The scent of burial spices, the scent of newly opened earth, fresh clay, the garden setting pull us back to the beginning. “In the beginning, when the world was a formless void…” pull us back to the beginning -“In the beginning was the Word….and the Word was with God, in the beginning and through him all things were made… In him was life…
How are we to live in this love? There is no single or simple answer.
But there is this story of Jesus’ life and death, and the characters who fill it, who, in one form or another live within us. To this story we come back again and again in words of worship and song and faith. Through the story of God’s love for the world – often hostile and apathetic – Jesus’ love comes as a glimmer of what it means to be community, what it means to be beloved, what it means to know God in the midst of life and struggle, pain and death.
“From his fullness we have all received… grace upon grace.”
When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says, “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” And that is what the soldiers did.
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
“After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished…
John is a theological, not historical gospel. In it, Jesus goes willingly to his death, knowing it to be the completion of his hour, the time of his exaltation and glory in the Father. The other gospels don’t make this the claim of crucifixion. They wait for Easter and the resurrection to talk about God’s glory. In them, his death is a painful tragedy, final proof of the unrequited love of God for the world. But for this author, the incarnation is the beginning and crucifixion the completion of Jesus’ mission. He tells his disciples, “What should I say – Father, save me from this hour? No, It is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”
Death by crucifixion is not defeat in John’s gospel, but is terrible, costly, beautiful love – a part of God’s plan of salvation. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…” Those are the opening lines, and it is a summary given in advance of what we are to experience as the gospel unfolds; that’s the interpretive lens of this author. And from chapter 3: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved though him. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light…”
The author of John keeps the whole arch in mind as each episode plays out, using Jesus’ death as the focusing receptacle for making meaning of the coming of God in Jesus.
“Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” Four women to counter the four soldiers. Four women to indicate the kind of servant-led community that Jesus established. Not the powerful, not the noteable, not the expected, not ones who had any station or ability to lord it over another, but four women and an unnamed, beloved disciple who watched and listened, who loved and grieved, who experienced this death personally.
Jesus’ mother bookends his ministry in earthliness, in mothering awareness, holding the incarnation before us. There were thoughts in the early church that Jesus wasn’t really human. That God assumed humanity as a disguise, as a teaching point of contact without really being human or suffering human death (because how could God suffer and die – God was immutable). Mary stands at the cross to have us behold her suffering, human son, and to see it through.
She was the first to believe in Jesus, back at the wedding in Cana, leaning in to say to him, “They have no more wine,” and to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” This scene at the cross is a refraction of the first of Jesus’ signs. There at Cana he turned water into the finest wine. The steward noted this, that the inferior was served first, the really good stuff appearing last. At the wedding, wine served as a return to Eden, a sign of unreasonable abundance, celebration of life and the creative union of man and woman in one. Through it, God’s glory shone.
On the cross, Jesus says, “I thirst.” Sour wine is lifted for him to drink. He takes the inferior wine, saying, “It is finished.” And we are left to wonder at the finest of wines he will receive in paradise in union with God, a foretaste of which we participate in as his blood shed for us.
There is another union though, and it’s interesting. “Seeing his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”
Jesus has created a new family from the first person who believed and the last to be mentioned, but not named. We know from the other gospels and writings of Paul that Jesus had brothers. As the first born, he would be the one expected to provide for his widowed mother. This responsibility would fall to the next oldest brother upon his death. So John is telling us this on purpose – to indicate something unusual they experienced in life after the resurrection.
A new family had formed. Back to the prologue: “…to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or the will of man, but of God.” No longer was it through obligation of the law that the needs of widows and orphans and sojourners were met. Jesus suffers so that we can belong to each other. Jesus gives himself away to us so that we might give ourselves to each other. Jesus unites all people as he gathers us to himself. In the language of this Gospel, Jesus makes us all someone’s mother and someone’s son. Outsiders are welcomed in, outcasts are seen, cared for, included, widows become mothers, individuals become a community. “No more a stranger, nor a guest, but like a child at home,” my favorite hymn says. That is the new community of Christ – one that transforms and binds together in the contradiction of abiding love and servanthood.
“When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
The unique intent of this gospel shows itself again here. In John, there is no conversation with the others crucified on each side, there is no earthquake or thunder or darkening sky in this gospel, the temple curtain is not torn in half. That would be a return to chaos. Here Jesus maintains his dignity and his initiative, his control of this final hour.
Jesus’ hour has come and God’s work though him is accomplished. It is a moment of confidence, an expression of Jesus’ love for his own and his love for God. He bowed his head and gave up his spirit; an active agent to the very end, the crucifixion did not take it away from him, but he offered it up. When we feel most vulnerable, most broken, most hopeless, the promise of the incarnation is that Jesus – dying a death like ours, also reveals the abundant life of union with God that transcends death.
“Greater love has no one than this,” Jesus told his disciples – “that he will lay down his life for a friend.” Jesus lays down his life for all – friends and enemies alike.
The story does not trivialize the part of the opposition, the Jews as they or as we are called. It’s not that they were corrupt or ignorant or greedy. They probably were those things, but that’s not their role here. They are part of a world that is cut off from the truth. They do not hear Jesus’ voice. They do not see the glory of God in flesh and blood, or wine and water. They are not moved by the Spirit’s nudging. When we are at our most broken, wounded, confused, lost – we, too are separated, are on a self-imposed exile from belief that Jesus can or will do anything about it. If there is to be any hope for such people and for such a world, it will not be because we can try harder, or believe better, or testify to our experience of Christ with more conviction. Hope for the world survives these 2000 years, and will last, because God will always find a way to break through what seems to human minds and hearts to be an ending, a death, a completion.
The incarnation ended with Jesus’ last breath, but the impulse of incarnation – of God entering human life, abiding with us through sin and sorrow and celebration and uncertainty does not die on the cross. It comes to birth through the new family of Christ, “born not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or the will of man, but of God. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” Tonight we leave in darkness. But this 4th gospel would not have us leave in despair.
John 12:12-19 the triumphal entry
12 The great crowd that had come to the Passover festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!’ Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!’
His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.
So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!’
“So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.'” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”
Does that seem too abrupt? It does. What about the parade? What are we supposed to do with our palms of victory at a crucifixion? Let them fall to the ground to be trampled on and forgotten? Hide them away out of shame and embarrassment?
Week after week, we’ve heard about Jesus’ arrest in the garden, the betrayal by his disciples, his trial before Pilate, the Jewish opposition demanding his death, but still, now that we’ve arrived at this crux, it seems there should be more narrative, more words to postpone it. The other gospels all have descriptive stories at this point to help us prepare. John doesn’t describe the scene, only the facts.
“They took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, in Hebrew, Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.”
The reminder that the palms you hold in your hand today become the ashes smudging your foreheads eleven months from now on Ash Wednesday is an appropriate tonal modulation. For those of you who feel the crucifixion is a bit premature on Palm Sunday, I’ll warn you that Jesus stays on the cross all week. We’ll hear his last words, hear his last breath on Thursday, we’ll see him taken down and buried on Friday, and leave that service in silence, in the dusky gloaming of twilight.
Jesus’ death was abrupt. In this gospel’s telling, it’s also secretive – the events of the last 5 weeks – about 5 hours of narrative time – were all held in the cover of darkness – pushed along by the Sanhedrin to get it done before the Passover Feast. They wanted to be able to eat their sacrificial lamb, ritually slaughtered at the temple. They needed to stay pure, stay apart from death. They had to get this legal affair over with, and they didn’t want the crowds involved.
So, this is it. Jesus goes from Pilate’s headquarters to Golgotha and the cross, accompanied only by soldiers, four women and one unnamed disciple. Pilate orders the inscription to be written in the languages of the empire. He does what the Jews were unwilling to do. Pilate proclaims Jesus as a king for all the world to see. But what kind of king is this? What of our hopes? What has become of the promise that Jesus is the light of the world that the darkness cannot overcome? He seems overcome.
Our Lenten writers have done a good job of weaving together life and death. We long for light, and long to hide parts of ourselves from the light; we can be blinded, burned by the light. We also learn important truthes in and about the dark. We might prefer luxurious growth, but vines need to be cut way back if they are to produce fruit. We like the idea of a shepherd, the protection of a gate, but freedom, independence, our individual entitlements – greener grass – is dang alluring. Leave us alone and we’ll come home (eventually) dragging our tails behind us. We insist on that freedom, even when it’s not good for us…even when it is deadly.
We want to think that life and death are two separate things, but our Lenten writers have shown us that they are not. Life and death are manifestations of the same thing: mortality. The incarnation of God in human form necessarily requires a death: God’s death.
Jesus was crucified near the city; and the inscription of his crime was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. The chief priests tried to get it changed, but Pilate was done with them. The inscription the last twist of mockery. “What I have written I have written, The king of the Jews.” Irony? or Truth?
Just six days earlier, Jesus had been in Bethany and called Lazarus out of the tomb. That seems a long time ago now. But the crowd who witnessed Lazarus stumbling out of death into daylight kept talking about it. They came to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover and heard that Jesus was coming. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, like a hero, like a victorious king, and they shouted a verse from psalm 118, “Hosanna! (which means, save us) Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, riding into the city in true kingship form as prophesied by Zechariah long ago.
“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” “This is our scripture,” the disciples would say. “Look, Jesus on a donkey…it’s a sign… of royalty and peace, of God’s favor – our victory has begun.” Horses and chariots are used for warfare, but the donkey was the assurance of stability, of righteousness and rule. Jesus rode it into Jerusalem holding the reins of peace.
Even the Pharisees felt it – they said to one another, “We can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”
Five days later, the world has turned and this king is hung on a cross to die.
What kind of victory are we talking about? Death is not a victory we can recognize, holding these palms in our hands, or at least not one that satisfies our struggle with mortality.
As Jesus passed by, rocking side to side on his donkey, his feet scuffing along in the dust on either side of the little beast, did the palm waving stop and the crowd go silent – suddenly disappointed by this sight? Or did they whoop and wave all the more furiously in an attempt to convince themselves that he was their kind of king?
And what kind of King is it that you expect Jesus to be? What powers or protections do you expect faith in him to provide? What insulation from the pain and heartbreak of the world?
I attended a funeral yesterday for a 31 year old young man who died from anorexia nervosa. Evan played the organ here – beautifully, expressively – for a couple summers while he was still in high school. He was the son of friends, himself a friend, of our family. An excellent musician, an excellent creative writer, a kind and intelligent and funny and compassionate person. He was working on a PhD when he died… a victim of a disease of extreme perfectionism and control. The phone call that Evan’s heart had stopped was inevitable. Pastor Mark and Naomi have been waiting for it, dreading it, hoping against it for years. She said, “We weren’t surprised, you know, but still we hoped. Everyone always hopes for a miracle,” and she gave that small, apologetic, sad smile we have when we know our hearts are asking beyond reason.
That’s the kind of king we want Jesus to be – this divine and human verb of a God, this Being who is One with the Father. We want one who helps us deal with the living part of our mortality: one who heals our loved ones and ourselves. One who feeds the hungry real food, blesses the poor with real benefits, inspires governance with real wisdom and compassion, one who saves us from ourselves.
Jesus had talked, a bit too mysteriously, about this hour, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who lose their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. it is for this that I have come to my hour.”
In the gospel of John, Jesus enters willingly into this hour. He goes willingly into death – it is for this reason that he has come and he seems to know it. It is to glorify God. But to our eyes and hearts it looks a lot like defeat.
The fallen seed reveals the upside down nature, the profound mystery of Jesus’ divine mortality. We think of life as preceding death; it seems obvious. But Jesus looks at the natural world and says that it is in fact the other way around: Death comes before life, as the seed is buried in order to grow. The source of our life is Jesus’ death.
It is a hidden victory; it’s glory in disguise. That is the triumph of Jesus’ death – that life comes from it, that we require death in order to fully live. John extends that pattern in our lives to discipleship. It is a pattern the disciples finally understand at the end of the story.
Those who make their own self the focus of love actually lose themselves. If you never move beyond loving yourself, you will live in isolation, lacking what relationship, what true communion with others and with God can offer. To make the ‘self’ the ultimate focus of your love, means that you can’t really be yourself, because it is in loving others that you are drawn out. This death of self absorption draws us into the world and the messy, real lives of people, and into beauty. Jesus’ death and resurrection patterns this strange growth in which you find yourself by losing yourself. We come into a place where living and dying become
all one, because we are in God.
That is the kind of king that rode a donkey into the city. Not one that charges in with horse and chariot, not one that challenges the force of Rome; but the kind of king that challenges the assumptions of self. One that rules in the heart, and whose power is revealed in acts of service and justice and hospitality and compassion. And who glorifies God in the disguise of daily life and faithful love and even in death.
Hosanna! Save us, good Lord, from ourselves…and Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen
Thank you to Christy, James, Claire, Mike, Chris, Harry, Jay, Henrik, Erica, Barb, and Liz for your thoughtful and personal and vivid reflections on Jesus’ “I AM” imagery. Your theological insights into the little-things-made-significant about your world and daily lives are stunning.
Thank you to Chris, Harry, Jay and The Choir for music of remorse, dignity, longing, seeking, sorrow, and love.
Thank you to the wonderful soup cooks, open-faced sandwich makers, bar and cookie bakers and providers of our Holy Thursday seder-esque meal – you filled our hunger and satisfied our desire to belong.
Thank you to Tasha, Macy, Levi, Ella, Anya, Kris, Deb, and Jen for setting, serving and washing dishes for our meals.
The scent of burial spices, the scent of newly opened earth, fresh clay, the garden setting pull us back to the beginning. “In the beginning, when the world was a formless void…” pull us back to the beginning -“In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was with God, in the beginning, and through him all things were made… In him was life…
How are we to live in this love that springs from death, that lingers, beckoning us into the world? There is no single or simple answer.
But there is this story of Jesus’ life and death, and the characters who fill it, who, in one form or another all live within us. To this story we come back again and again in words of worship and song and faith. Through the story of God’s love for the world – often hostile and apathetic – Jesus’ love comes as a glimmer of what it means to be community, what it means to be beloved, what it means to know God in the midst of life and struggle, pain and death. “From his fullness we have all received… grace upon grace.”
We continue today where the reading left off last week. This is part two of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. Jesus has been taken to the praetorium for questioning. Pilate and Jesus are inside, the Jewish opposition – called The Jews by this gospel – are outside. It isn’t a crowd clamoring for Jesus death in the gospel of John – it’s only this group of chief priests and pharisees. Jesus has been handed over because he is a criminal, they say. Jesus has broken Jewish law, claiming to be king. Pilate thinks it is an internal affair that the Jews should take care of. They counter that it is against Roman law for them to put someone to death, (except by stoning, which they didn’t seem able to accomplish), so Pilate must do it for them. He has that power.
So Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him up in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face.
Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”
When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”
Now when Pilate heard this, he became very much afraid. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “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.”
From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha.
Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”
Then Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.
The current issue of The Christian Century opens with this essay from Peter W. Marty:
“I have a new sadness these days. It’s focused on the legislators who cannot bring themselves to vote for even the most modest gun legislation. I’ve moved from anger to sadness, deciding that many of them are simply trapped. They’re beholden to powers they’re not even fully aware of. What started for many of them as a respectful decision to cherish one understanding of Second Amendment rights has morphed into a colossal idolatry of lethal weapons, including rapid-fire assault rifles.
Many of these decision makers are people of faith who are stuck bowing at an altar they never intended to reverence, at least not with ultimate allegiance. I’m positive they don’t like what assault rifles do when in the hands of neighborhood killers. There’s no way these senators and representatives rationally believe that it should be harder to obtain a passport or buy [Sudafed] than it is to purchase an AR-15 magazine-fed rifle. But when you are in the thrall of the National Rifle Association and gun rights absolutists, what are your choices?
In the case of my own senator, Joni Ernst, to whom the NRA has contributed more than $3.1 million, you tweet gratitude for the first responders. If you’re Marco Rubio, senator in the home state of the Parkland, Florida, school massacre, and you’ve received in excess of $3.3 million from the NRA, you offer thoughts and prayers. You definitely can’t call for meaningful measures of gun legislation.
We’re in golden calf country here, elevating a loyalty to the gun over a fidelity to God’s desire for abundant life. More than a hunting or safety device, the gun has become an object of reverence. We bow in devotion at its altar. “Sacred stuff resides in that wooden stock and blued steel,” onetime NRA president Charlton Heston said. And when a gun becomes an idol, it demands loyalty even if it regularly disappoints. Like other ‘small g’ gods that offer false consolation, a gun’s guarantee of ultimate safety and security is a myth.
The Lord said to Moses, “they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it . . . [and] the Lord sent a plague upon the people, because they made the calf.”
We’re living our own modern plague: 15,592 gun-related deaths last year alone. And it’s a plague of our own making.”
Pilate is the Roman governor: the most powerful man in the region, accountable only to Caesar. He is in charge of the military, the judicial system, the finances…and the peace.
Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin want Jesus dead. Having failed in their repeated attempts to stone him, they need Pilate to do their dirty work.
At the start of the trial, Pilate believes the charge against Jesus is political – that Jesus claims to be the King of the Jews. Pilate asks the pertinent questions – Are you a king? What have you done? Jesus said, “If my kingdom were from this world my followers would be fighting to keep me from the Jews, but as it is, my kingdom is not from here. I came to testify to the truth.”
This does not appear threatening, nor does it seem a matter for Roman law to adjudicate. Pilate scornfully ends the first interview tossing, “What is truth?” over his shoulder on the way out to meet with the Jews. He tells them, in effect,“This is stupid, I find nothing to warrant your accusations.” Political insurrection was a death-worthy charge – that’s why Barabbas is being held – until Pilate has to release him. But Pilate correctly sees this charge against Jesus as a matter of political expediency for the Jews. He doesn’t intend to play along. He mocks both the Jews and Jesus in parodying Jewish aspirations for a king. He has Jesus flogged and slapped up, dresses him in a royal robe with a barbed crown and presents him – ta da!! “Behold The Man!”
The Jews and chief priests counter by revealing their actual charge. “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”
“….and Pilate suddenly became exceedingly afraid.”
It’s hard to imagine someone like Pilate afraid. He’s a brute. He’s not Jewish, so he’s not afraid of God. Maybe it is the onus placed on him to do the bidding of the Jews in order to keep the peace – and at the cost of killing an innocent man. Maybe it’s more self-centered: Pilate is savvy enough to see his political future is in jeopardy.
He intends to release Jesus but the Jews will have nothing of it. He tries again to get Jesus to explain himself. Pilate reminds him of the power he has over Jesus’ life and death, to which Jesus replies that this power is irrelevant. Pilate is part of something he can’t understand, and in that sense is less guilty than the priests and pharisees who had all possible advantages in recognizing the Word made flesh. Pilate has been given a role to play, like Judas, and his exercise of power is an instrument in the service of God fulfilling Jesus’ hour.
Pilate must have had a queazy feeling about this. It says, “from then on he tried to release him…”
…but in his next encounter with the opposition, charges are flung at his own door: “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor.” If he continues to defend this “King of the Jews,” his own position and livelihood – if not his life – are at risk. He would be seen to be accommodating the kingship claims of a Jew alongside the emperor; he would be responsible for the violence if soldiers are needed to come in and put down a Jewish rebellion.
Is integrity worth giving up a position of authority and prestige? His reasoning is the same as that of Caiphus, the High Priest, when the Jewish leadership first got serious about killing Jesus, “You do not understand that it is better for one man to die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” Isn’t the peace of the city, the successful celebration of Passover, Pilate’s own career worth the sacrifice of an innocent man?
Pilate earlier had ordered the Jews to behold Jesus, a beaten man in mock royalty. Now he orders them to behold him as their king and to condemn him themselves … and they do. In declaring their ultimate loyalty to Caesar and not God, they, like Pilate, remain in their sin. In this gospel, sin is defined simply as the refusal to see in Jesus the fulness of grace and God.
The Pharisees and chief priests were trying to do the right thing for the sake of their people, their traditions, their religion. They try to follow due process – the letter of the law. Jesus does claim to have the will of God working through him – and that is blasphemy according to the Torah. The problem is that what Jesus says seems to be true.
I wonder if we would know. I wonder. If it meant an unwelcome extreme makeover of our lives and security – would we, would you, acknowledge or deny Jesus? Would you turn from the idolatry of your safety and comfort?
Jesus presented them with a practical, moral, and theological struggle. Not understanding his intent, the opposition’s fear is that everyone would come to believe in him, claim Jesus as King, and the Romans would put down the rebellion, destroying their holy place and their nation, their temple, homes and livelihood, their culture. As it turned out that fear was well grounded. That is what happened 40 after Jesus died. The destruction of Jerusalem led to the alienation of early Christians from their Jewish communities and motivated this gospel to be written. It’s complicated.
Pilate had the power to follow his conscience, to listen to the word of Life and Truth, and to release Jesus. He had the power, but not the political will. In the face of his fears and the lifestyle of the rich and famous, he handed Jesus over for crucifixion.
The headings in our Bibles label this section something like, “Jesus is condemned,” but it’s much more true that we are condemned by the events of this long night.
John’s purpose in presenting the trial in such detail is to allow these questions to hang in the air; to allow us to consider our willingness to follow the crucified Christ into the world.
Our lives are just as complicated today, our motives just as conflicted. Our choices reveal our values, and implicate us and our integrity in the trade offs and sell outs we make. Our economic structure is complicit in international injustice, systemic racism, in environmental degradation, and – really – can we avoid it? We have to try. I just don’t know if, as a society, it’s possible to live in ways that don’t participate in economic connections that grind the poor into the dust and poison and warm the earth. Individuals certainly try. I believe everything we do is a choice. And these choices absolutely matter. But the scale, the scope, isn’t in our favor. We can’t control or predict the contingencies of our actions and inactions. It’s those contingencies that will convict us.
Wendell Berry writes this chilling poem called, Questionnaire
How much poison are you willing to eat for the success of the free market and global trade? Please name your preferred poisons.
For the sake of goodness, how much evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks with the names of your favorite evils and acts of hatred.
What sacrifices are you prepared to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines, and works of art you would most willingly destroy.
In the name of patriotism and the flag, how much of our beloved land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces the mountains, rivers, towns, farms you could most readily do without.
State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes, the energy sources, the kinds of security; for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom you would be willing to kill.
How do we grow less comfortable with our complicity? What might that awareness compel you to change or to do? Are you prepared to accept those consequences?
The gospel trial is a delicate dance – a glimpse into the way the world works, the world as we know it, the world in which we, too, participate. It allows us to observe – one step removed from ourselves – the character of people following their deepest convictions… and see what happens when those convictions collide.
The trial is important because it shows us, also, the character of the world into which Jesus came for love, and the Pilates and chief priests, the blind beggars, Samaritan women raising water from their wells, Pharisees like Nicodemus, disciples, crowds – conflicted and complicit all – the ones Jesus came to serve, and love, and for whom he will hand his life over. This vision prepares us for the final scene of the story, for the choice God will make in an unrequited relationship with just such a world.
“American Idol” by Peter W. Marty in The Christian Century. March 14, 2018, pg 3. “Questionnaire” by Wendell Berry from Leavings. © Counterpoint, 2010.
Our scripture reading today continues from last week. Jesus was betrayed, arrested by a detachment of Roman soldiers, some Pharisees, and temple police, and taken to the high priest for questioning.
That part of the story ended with Peter’s third denial of Jesus spoken just as a rooster crows.
It is dark daybreak – the same word used only one other time, when Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb – the almost dawn, that darkest moment when earth seems to stall and linger in the night.
What Jesus told his disciples would happen has happened. From the chief priest’s residence, Jesus is taken to the praetorium, the Roman governor’s palace.
Pilate doesn’t normally live in Jerusalem. His home is Caesarea Maritima, a city on the Mediterranean coast with a theater and stadium that are still impressive 2000 years later.
Caesarea was the seat of the Roman prefect and the administrative capital for Roman presence in the region. Pilate is in Jerusalem only to be seen. Jews come on pilgrimage from all over the region for the Festival of Passover. They crowd into the city and temple. It’s a high holy day and Rome is right to be wary of the fervent, emotional, nationalistic spirit of the crowd. Passover is the commemoration of God leading this people in a rebellion, overthrowing oppressive rule with signs of shock and awe. Their prayers, wailing from Temple towers, are for deliverance and freedom. Pilate is prudent to maintain a visible presence as the figurehead of Rome’s power and authority in the region. He is there to arrest and make a spectacle of people like Barabbas, a violent insurrectionist.
Pilate is woken up before dawn on the day of preparation – the busiest day in the markets and temple booths, a hectic day of oversight and scuffles, bartering, prayers, noise. I bet Pilate thought this affair with Jesus was a minor tiff among the rabbly Jews. It was beneath him, a distraction to be easily put down before breakfast.
They took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. The Jews themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.”
The Jews replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “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.”
Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!”
Now Barabbas was a bandit.
Robert Redford and Paul Newman once starred in the movie called, The Sting. The setting is Chicago, 1936, Prohibition. The story wraps around a very complicated plot of trickery orchestrated to con a mob boss out of a lot of money by letting him think he has the upper hand in a game of double deception. We, as the audience, are carried along, knowing most of the inside maneuvering. The last scene, however, seems to take all the fun out of the movie, because we see the good guys and their cool, cunning plan betrayed from the inside. The door closes with our would-be-heros lying dead, the bad guys being bustled out before the cops arrive.
It looks like they get away with it again (as the powerful always do whether it’s in our day or 1st century Palestine) – death, underhanded dealings, deception, insider politics. Things don’t really change. The innocent die and the forces of darkness – wealth, power, violence – always manage to hold the last card.
The door closes on the dead…..and 5, 7, 10 seconds pass as we look on this scene with disbelief and a distinct feeling of our own betrayal. We expect the credits to role. People start gathering their coats and soggy popcorn. Then, on the screen, one of them twitches; and they laugh and rise to their feet. All the dead are living as the trick is turned. The double deception was itself a trick, $500,000 is in their pockets, and the con has delivered its sting.
John, our 4th gospel writer, presents the passion narrative as a sting – where those in power and authority – Pilate, the Jewish religious elite – think they are right and righteous. They ask Jesus scornful questions with implied answers, but, in fact, answer their own questions in ways that implicate them. They sentence Jesus to death as an innocent man for trumped up charges against the state and disobedience to God’s law.
As we know, and will hear in the coming weeks, the powers of darkness shout “Crucify,” and Jesus is lifted up on a cross. The final scene closes with death and bitter disappointment. Mary visits his tomb in the darkest hour before dawn. But God always holds the last card and the end is never the end. Oh death, where is your victory?, we sing on Easter. O death, where thy sting?
Although on the surface they are the ones in charge of this scene, it is Pilate and the Jews who are really on trial. John deals, and the tension mounts with each new hand.
Several weeks ago we read the passage about the man born blind. Jesus gave him sight, but did so on the Sabbath which became fodder for the Pharisees and other oppositional Jewish leaders, whom our author John lumps together and calls, “The Jews.” At the end of that story, some Pharisees overhear Jesus and the formerly blind man talking and ask, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?”
Although I said at the time that I give these guys a sympathetic reading because I’m afraid I might be one of them, Greek grammar does not. There is a structure in Greek that implies a negative response. “No, of course not, don’t be ridiculous!”
We have the same kind of thing in English but ours is implied by context, not grammar. “You don’t want that last piece of cake, do you?” You’re supposed to say, “No, not at all, help yourself, by all means. I’m fine, don’t really like chocolate… that much!”
“Surely we are not blind, are we?” Means, it would be ridiculous for you to say we are blind.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks.
Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
Pilate replies, “I am not a Jew, am I?”
Well, clearly Pilate is not a Jew, of course not, don’t be silly. He is Rome and all the armies of the Empire. He is Caesar’s man. But, he is Caesar’s man who submits to Jewish law and caves in to the Jew’s demands. He can find nothing blameworthy about Jesus under Roman law, tries repeatedly to free him, but can’t bring himself to face the Jews down and turn him loose. “I am not a Jew, am I?” begins as a dismissive question, but sticks in our minds as a reflective one.
Well, yes, ironically, you are, because in this gospel, the Jews is not an ethnic distinction. Jesus is Jewish. It stands for those who have heard the word of God and refuse to receive it. The real trial is not about whether or not Jesus will be found guilty of rebellion, but whether or not Pilate and the Jewish authorities will be judged guilty by their own word.
The crowd clammers for Barabbas. They demand the release of a convicted revolutionary, a known criminal, an enemy of the state – and Pilate, who has gotten himself tangled up, but still has all the power, goes along with it. It’s as confusing, as conundrummy, as Judas leaving the flock of the beloved. Pilate has hefty authority. He is backed by at least two cohorts of soldiers. He clearly could say, “No, this is how it’s going to be.” But he doesn’t. He goes back and forth, outside and inside from the Jews to Jesus in whom he can find no fault. The other gospels give more detail about Barabbas’ crimes – violent insurrection seems to cover it. John simply calls him a bandit.
The only other time this word is used in the gospel takes us back to Wednesday’s mid-week service topic. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The one who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Pilate releases the bandit.
“What have you done?” he asks of Jesus.
“Are you a king?”
“What is truth?”
All this before breakfast.
The truth is that Jesus is talking about God’s kingdom or reign; God’s way with things in the world – incarnate, inspired, unseen yet powerful, and that Jesus’ authority is not derived from the world. His power is engaged with the world but doesn’t originate there.
Pilate’s certainly does. It originates in Rome and extends to the Judean province by means of military, political and economic power – all of which is Pilate’s to control. He has the legal right to take away life or to grant clemency, to show mercy, or put down early morning revolts. Except the day before Passover is not the time to get into it. Increasingly, he stands powerless. He is a man, an individual like Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman, the Centurion, or Martha, or the man who receives sight. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” Jesus says.
Pilate is given the same opportunities to receive Jesus’ word, to allow himself to be drawn into God’s light and revelation in Jesus…standing before him, talking to him. And the same opportunity to turn away. It is the day of preparation, the day they slaughter the passover sacrificial lambs. Emotions run high in the sight of all that blood.
“What is the truth?” he wonders.
Pilate’s truth is brutal, as was he known to be. New Caesars come to power by murder or intrigue – they stay in power by overcoming adversaries, conquering others to expand their borders, exploiting conquered people and enslaving the poor. Power is used as a tool of truth. This is the way Pilate’s world operates.
He asks Jesus if he is a king with the expected answer – of course not, how ridiculous. But Jesus says, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. If my kingdom were of this world,” he says, “my followers would be engaged in violent resistance.” But he is not that sort of king, and Peter’s sword is sheathed.
Pilate asked him the wrong question. Truth in this gospel is not a what, but a who. One is in truth when in relationship to Jesus. One is in truth following and serving and submitting to God’s way with life.
Pilate can’t find blame with Jesus. He knows that, but can’t bring himself to act on it. Truth doesn’t prevail in Pilate’s world because the cost is too high. It is expendable for the sake of his career and reputation and life in the present realm.
“The Jews” don’t know the truth even though they are following proper religious protocol, because love and mercy are not effective ways to overcome an oppressor… and besides it discredits them and removes them from the locus of control.
I would say we consider ourselves grateful to live at a time and place where we don’t need to make these decisions. And still, we do. The world has not changed that much. Power and comfort, reputations, convenience, pride, injustice, tribalism, prejudice – our egos and will for prosperity still tango with inner convictions of what is right, of truth, of living in loving relationship with God in Jesus. We favor what better serves us. We can know what is right and still not do what is right, because it takes radical trust, means radical change. And we don’t want to be that radical. It’s scary and unsettling and dangerous. That’s not a card we want to find in the blind. The truth is that the power of the world is in our favor, and we have grown comfortable with complicity.
So Pilate’s truth still has the upper hand – even today, but wait for it, watch for it, that power is a deception – and in Jesus, deception has lost the trick. Death has lost it’s sting. And the invitation from Jesus to come and follow, to be a sheep to the shepherd, a bud on the branch of the vine of the Father… all of that – the invitation stands open.