Two weeks from today we’ll celebrate Easter. We will don this sanctuary with lilies, take out crisp, fresh springy clothes for our families, and ready our ‘Alleluias’ again. And this is all for good reason, for if pressed we Christians can undeniably point to Easter as the symbol of our faith. It is the foremost day where we proclaim: “Love wins!” “Death is conquered” and “Fear Not!”
But in the life-changing hope of Easter we Christians, especially those of us who have journeyed through many a Lenten season, also have a significant challenge; that is to resist hearing the story with the end in mind. Because before the third day the power of fear was real. It was really real. It was palpable. Intense. Paralyzing. For Jesus. For his disciples. And for those who persecuted them. So, let us not miss the story within the story, which is at the heart of our reading for today. Let us sit in the horror of wrongful conviction and senseless death.
We’re given three scenes in today’s reading, and to my mind they’re all about Pilate, and in that sense, they’re all about you and me.
Scene One: After twice indicating that he finds no case against Jesus, Pilate has him flogged, beaten, and allows Jesus to be publically humiliated. Jesus is “dressed up” as a King with a painful crown not unlike the laurel wreaths worn by Roman emperors and a purple garb reserved for imperial persons. He is slapped, repeatedly. He is scorned by Romans and Jews alike. And after this Pilate says for the third time, “Look, I find no case against him.” It’s as if Pilate allows the mockery of Jesus to demonstrate how unthreatening he is. Or, perhaps Pilate hopes the flogging and taunting will suffice. But it doesn’t. The religious leaders and the temple police demand more.
Exasperated that he is still dealing with these unrelenting Jews (After all, Pilate’s been up all morning dealing with this and it’s now 12noon, just hours before thousands of pilgrims will enter Jerusalem to observe the Passover. As the Prefector of the area, he’s no doubt got bigger fish to fry, like securing the city and preparing for the crowds). So Pilate responds, “Take him yourselves and crucify him.”
And note how the Jewish leaders leverage power over and against Pilate for the first of two times in this story. Verse 7: “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”
The law the Jewish leaders are referencing is likely Lev. 24:16, which calls for putting one to death for blaspheming God. For to them, claiming sonship inferred one was claiming divinity, and putting oneself above God, even though Jesus never does so explicitly. What Jesus does do is call out their own self-righteousness and lack of faith. In John 5 Jesus says to these very teachers,
“You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I do not accept glory from human beings. But I know that you do not have the love of God in you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name (i.e. say that of Emperor) you will accept him. How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do no seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God?”
The trouble isn’t what Jesus is claiming about himself. No, the trouble relates to what Jesus requires the religious leaders consider about themselves. Lest we too easily criminalize the Pharisees, let us pause to consider how we too avoid this hard work, and instead point to anyone and everyone else as the source of our problems.
For the Jewish status quo in the first century Jesus is the problem, and it is here that the power of fear begins to overtake Pilate. What will the Jewish leadership do? So, begin…
Scene Two: Pilate attempts to get the power of his fear under wraps by once again interrogating Jesus. They enter into his private headquarters, offline, and of all things to ask Pilate says, “Where are you from?” At first it seems like a bizarre question. I would think a “What’s wrong with you man?!” would have been more appropriate. But at a second glance Pilate’s question makes perfect sense, for in his previous private encounter with Jesus (which we read last week) Pilate learned that Jesus’ Kingdom “is not from this world.” And perhaps that’s why Jesus remains silent, giving no response to Pilate’s question. Surely there’s power in his silence, as there is in our own when we claim it. Jesus isn’t primarily concerned about origins; but he is interested in the question of power – the question of who is in control.
Jesus’ silence makes Pilate nervous. You can just sense the urgent tension in this dialogue. “What? No answer?! You’re about to die and you’re privately seated before the one who can change your fate and you have NOTHING to say?! Don’t you know that I have power?!”
Ah, but the one who needs to claim such power, ironically, is most often the one without it. And that’s still true for us today isn’t it? Why? Because power is given, not taken. And true power seeks to be dispersed to others, not aggrandized in one’s self. Ironically, it’s the political prisoner, Jesus, who has all the power here. He alone has the power to lay down his life because the power to do so has been given him by the Father, for your sake and for mine. True power overrides false power in the form of fear because it’s freely given and leveraged on behalf of others.
And Jesus puts Pilate’s fear at ease a bit in verse 11, commenting on how those who handed Jesus over to Pilate are guilty of a greater sin than he. This would have been reassuring to Pilate, who no doubt had recent history of Jewish revolt in the back of his mind as well as the words of his own wife, who in Matthew’s gospel tells her husband about a disturbing prophetic dream and warns Pilate to “have nothing to do with that innocent man.”
But oh how quickly such assurance wanes. Because in…
Scene Three: Pilate attempts to release Jesus once again, only to be threatened by his own constituents, those he is to govern over. “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.”
Enter the false power of fear. And wow does it make Pilate move. It makes him jump, dance! For the text tells us “When Pilate heard these words,” he brought Jesus out to be condemned, inferring from the grammar that Pilate reacted immediately.
Why? Why would the guy with all the wordly power cave to a bunch of seemingily politically powerless Jews? I’ll tell you in one simple word, a word that if we’re honest motivates us all far more than it ought to — fear. You see in Hellenistic times, one became a “friend of the emperor” or “friend of Caesar” by keeping the peace of Rome well. That was Pilate’s job, to keep things in order for the sake of the republic. Surely having word of Jewish revolt and chaos in Jerusalem spreading to Emperor Tiberius would not bode well for Pilate. Furthermore, extra biblical material from the early centuries suggests that this particular emperor, Tiberius, was a superstitious, hyper-sensitive, reclusive leader who quickly exterminated any and all who threatened his reign. So, for Pilate to exonerate one claiming to be King (Jesus) was tantamount to undermining the Emperor, which could in effect cost Pilate both his job and his head.
The result? Pilate gives way to fear, and gives Jesus over. To use the words from our corporate confession, he sins against God by what he leaves undone and by what he fails to do.
You and I read aloud the words of the crowd this morning, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” and “We have no king by the emperor!” And rightly so, for we so often are the self-righteous religious ones who sell out to preserve our own freedoms, our own autonomy, our own sense of being “right.” But as we look to the Cross and try to reflect on the real fear it represented, I want us to also occupy the role of Pilate in this play.
- When have you used the excuse of “Let someone else deal with this,” “I’m too tired” or “Well, I tried” to evade taking responsibility for doing the right thing?
- When have you known the truth, but remained quiet about it because speaking up would cost you too much? Perhaps you’ve refused to confess your own errors? Or maybe you’ve been complicit in covering up someone else’s, thereby keeping them from the light?
- When have you put way too much stock into a job, a relationship, or a status of some kind? Have you let it compromise your ability to encounter Jesus? Because not even the perfect job, mate or success will empower you like Christ.
It’s easy to look at Pilate and notice how he makes excuses, remains quiet when he shouldn’t be, and ultimately kills Christ to save himself, but it’s harder to see those very same tendencies and realities in ourselves. And yet this is our Lenten task. We know the end of the story, church. And we will tell it and celebrate it in good time. But for now, let us remember the fear Christ encountered, the fear Pilate experienced, and let us recognize our own. And from that honest place may we earnestly ask God to give us the power to overcome fear.