Monthly Archives: April 2011
Notwithstanding the question I raised the other day about when the Last Supper happened, we celebrated a Christianised Passover at Knaphill tonight. We used this order of service, where one of the things I value is that it takes seriously the wide experience of human suffering. In particular, it does not gloat over the suffering of the Egyptians at the time of the original Passover, and uses that as a stimulus to pray for all who suffer. It also made links towards the end with where Christians see elements of fulfilment in the Passover themes.
We added in some hymns and songs – ‘The God of Abraham Praise’, ‘Thank You For Saving Me’, ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘And Can It Be’.
I’m grateful for a great team of people who made it work – those who planned, those who cooked (our lamb meal was Shepherd’s Pie – a bit of artistic licence there, and our apple-based dessert was a flapjack recipé that contained apples), those who set things out and cleared things up.
What did you do for Maundy Thursday? What do you recommend? Have you participated in a ‘Christian Passover’?
If you believed the media, nearly all of us are getting excited about the Royal Wedding on Friday week. Well, not all of us: I noticed that BBC1 are showing a repeat of Shrek that afternoon, and the wedding in that cartoon is more appealing to me.
Not that I wish Wills and Kate any ill-will. Trial by media and marriage by media: no fun. They really do need prayer for a long and happy marriage.
But the coverage of all the royal frills will encourage all the existing wrong expectations people have of weddings. No expense spared – even if you haven’t got a royal budget. All about the day, rather than the life – the wedding, rather than the marriage. A focus on the couple, rather than on the mutual sacrifice that a marriage requires, as Giles Fraser recently got into trouble for saying on Radio 4’s Thought For The Day. The coverage of who’s attending – whereas, as Maggi Dawn recently commented, all you need is the vicar, the couple and two witnesses.
So it was a joy today to register a very different wedding. The bride runs a toy library that uses the hall of one of my churches. A year ago she found faith in Christ through an Alpha Course run by the local New Frontiers church, who worship on Sundays in a local secondary school. But without anyone haranguing her, she came to the conclusion that it was wrong in the sight of God to be living with her partner outside marriage. So at 11 am today she was married, and at 12 noon (in the building of another local church) she was baptised.
It was wonderful to co-operate with her pastor on the marriage ceremony. No trimmings – both bride and groom had had that for their first marriages, and they knew it made no difference. A simple service, with about twenty friends and family present. Not even any hymns, but some worship music on CD – even if the laptop misbehaved for the music during the signing of the register!
I think I’ll remember today’s wedding for longer than next week’s.
Like many churches, we’ll be marking the Last Supper and the institution of the Lord’s Supper this Holy Week on Maundy Thursday evening. However, it has long been known that the chronology of ‘Holy Week’ is problematic in the Gospels. The ‘Synoptic Gospels’ (Matthew, Mark and Luke) tie the Last Supper to the Passover, but John places Jesus’ execution on the day of Passover.
Theories to resolve this have abounded for years. One involves the idea that Jesus and his disciples used an unofficial calendar. A particular version of this theory has them using an Essene calendar, that varied from the mainstream. However, for many it is a further problem to see Jesus having any crossover with the Essene community at the Dead Sea, since his teaching was so radically different, especially his rejection of an ascetic approach to faith.
Others argue that the Synoptic Gospels got it right, but John put the Passover detail into his account of the crucifixion for symbolic reasons. While John is hugely different from the other three Gospels in many ways, I’m not sure that the way John incorporates this detail into his account easily reads as symbolism rather than history.
A further argument is that Jesus brought the Passover meal forward to an earlier date, knowing what was going to happen to him. This, too, is appealing to some, but if the last theory sits loose to John and history, this one risks not taking the historical detail of the Synoptic Gospels seriously.
Today’s Guardian reports another attempt to resolve the different narratives. In an article entitled Last Supper … or penultimate supper? Scientist challenges Maundy Thursday, the sub-editor makes it sound like a scientific solution to the dilemma. Which it isn’t. Although Professor Sir Colin Humphreys is a metallurgist, he seems to be using similar methods to resolve this conundrum to those used by biblical scholars. He is not the first to assert that the number of trials Jesus is subjected to in between his arrest in Gethsemane after the meal cannot be fitted into one night. Combined with the evidence that there are some missing days in the Gospels’ accounts of Holy Week, others have brought the Last Supper forward, as I have already indicated above.
I first heard a version of this theory in 1989 when I visited the Holy Land for three weeks, and Dr Jim Fleming, formerly of the Ecumenical Institute for Theological Research and the Biblical Resources Centre (now the Explorations In Antiquity Center in the USA) proposed to us that the Last Supper probably took place on the Tuesday. However, Dr Fleming seemed to lean on the Essene calendar theory.
Professor Humphreys tends towards the Wednesday. His work depends upon the crucifixion being in AD 33 and Jesus using another unofficial calendar, one that would have identified him with Moses. It will be interesting to see whether these two factors command assent from scholars. Watch this space.
Location, Location, Location. The Channel 4 programme about people trying to buy their dream home. It was one of a glut of home buying and home improvement TV shows that hit our screens a few years ago.
And ‘location, location, location’ might be a good theme for understanding the challenge of the Palm Sunday story that we’ve heard so often. Matthew starts with a detailed location report:
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives (verse 1)
Why? The prophecy of Zechariah (14:4) looks to the day when the Lord will stand on the Mount of Olives. It has notions of God fulfilling all his purposes for all time, and it is messianic.
But Bethphage? It’s a place whose name is literally translated, ‘house of unripe figs’. When you remember that a few verses later Jesus curses an unripe fig tree as a prophetic sign, you might say that the challenge of Palm Sunday is that the Messiah has appeared: are we bearing fruit?
So what does a fruitful life look like? To see what the Palm Sunday story tells us about that, we’re going to look at Jesus, his disciples and the crowd.
Firstly, Jesus. It’s not often that my wife Debbie and I get out to the see a film together, but last month we finally managed to see The King’s Speech before it left the cinemas. You will know the story, I’m sure – however relaxed the relationship between the screenplay and actual history was. Prince Bertie – later King George VI – has terrible trouble with public speaking, due to a stammer. In an early scene where he addresses a massive crowd on behalf of his father, King George V, he goes to pieces and you sense the difficulty his audience has, as well as his own agony. His authority is undermined.
There is no record of Jesus stammering, but he does undermine conventional approaches to authority. He comes into Jerusalem ‘humble, and mounted on a donkey’ (verse 5). His authority is expressed in humility. And that’s something some people find hard to understand or accept.
In the 2004 film King Arthur the Knights of the Round Table are portrayed as pagans, and Arthur as a Christian – albeit the only decent Christian, since all the other Christian figures in the film are shown to be corrupt. One day, pagan Lancelot overhears Arthur praying for the safety of his men before they go on one final, dangerous mission. Lancelot says, “I don’t like anything that puts a man on his knees.” Arthur replies, “No man fears to kneel before the God he trusts. Without faith, without belief in something, what are we?”
If we want to be fruitful in the kingdom of God, then Jesus shows us that humility is a prime quality. We may or may not be given special authority (beyond the general authority every child of the King has), but we are all called to demonstrate humility.
Yet isn’t that one problem the world often has with the church? Humility is not the first quality they associate with us. Arrogant, judgmental and with an air of moral superiority are more likely the characteristics of Christians, in their estimation. I’m not suggesting we should water down our profound moral convictions – far from it – but the way we present ourselves can suggest we know little of the grace that brought us to Christ in the first place. It is remembering that grace, that undeserved merciful love of God, that leads us to live in humility.
Sometimes we even inflict that arrogance on others in the church. Again, the problem is the same: someone who does not demonstrate humility is a person who has not let the gospel of God’s grace to sinners permeate deeply into their soul. Jesus didn’t need grace – he wasn’t a sinner. Yet he showed humility as he entered Jerusalem. If he, the sinless Son of God, behaved like that, then how much more should we?
Would it not be a good idea, then, for us to reflect all the more on the fact that we are sinners saved by grace, and let that stimulate the growth of humility in us? What could be more appropriate as we journey with Jesus towards Good Friday?
Secondly, the disciples. Elsewhere the disciples come in for a bad press in the Gospels. They don’t understand Jesus, they don’t do what he wants, they let him down. And coming up in Holy Week is perhaps the biggest failure story of a disciple: Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus.
But what do we have here? We have a positive story about two of Jesus’ disciples. He sends them to the village ahead with cryptic instructions to untie a donkey and her colt, and bring them to him. We don’t know whether Jesus had prearranged a signal with the owner of the animals, or whether this is some prophetic word. Either way, though, it puts the two disciples in a strange position. They could have looked (and felt) like fools, acting on Jesus’ instruction. But the good news is, they obeyed. And that is the second sign of spiritual fruitfulness here: obedience to Christ.
However, obedience stands in contrast to certain cultural values today, especially the popular understanding of freedom. A shallow understanding of freedom is quite common, thinking that freedom is only about me being free to do what I want. I am my own master. I take no orders from anybody else – well, apart from my manager at work, and I only do that in order to draw a salary.
This, however, is a terrible misunderstanding of freedom. True freedom is not about self-indulgence, it is about being free in order to do what is right. Mostly we do not have that kind of freedom, because we are enslaved to sin. But if freedom is the possibility to do the right thing, then freedom and obedience are connected. They are not opposites.
A journalist called Tobias Jones wrote a book in 2007 called Utopian Dreams. He wanted to find out why we affluent westerners were so unhappy. He went to explore various experiments in communal living that were proposed as solutions. Eventually, he embraced Christianity, saying it ‘works because it is true’. He realised that if freedom were only about pleasing myself, then community would not be possible: we would all be doing our own thing, regardless of each other. He concluded that freedom and obedience were not opposites, but two qualities that belonged together.
Now I suggest to you that the two disciples who obeyed Jesus’ strange command to bring the donkey and her colt knew that: the health of their community of disciples depended on obedience. Obedience to Jesus gave them freedom for all that was good.
And does it not make sense for this to be the second sign of fruitfulness? If we know we are sinners saved by grace and that engenders humility, then something that also leads to is obedience to Christ in gratitude for all he has done for us. With that obedience comes true freedom – not just freedom from sin, but freedom for goodness.
Thirdly and finally, the crowd. You may have noticed that I have not included one major potential hymn for Palm Sunday today – ‘My song is love unknown’. Not that it doesn’t have a lot of worthy content, but there is one aspect of the words that I find seriously misleading. It’s the way the hymn portrays the rôle of the crowd in Holy Week. It presents an idea that the same crowd that acclaimed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is the one that also cried out for his execution. You’ll remember the words go from ‘Sometimes they strew his way’ to ‘Then “Crucify!” is all their breath’.
It’s a seriously misleading and highly unlikely scenario. Why should the same crowd be around several days later, when thousands of pilgrims descended upon Jerusalem for the Passover? And isn’t it more natural to read that the mob who bray for Jesus’ death are associated with the chief priests and teachers of the law who handed Jesus over to Pilate? Indeed, the word ‘crowds’ used there may simply mean ‘those alongside’.
If that is so, then all we are left with here is not a crowd that will later turn against Jesus, but simply a crowd that is trying to come to terms with him, and which isn’t quite there yet. Jerusalem is in turmoil at Jesus’ entry (verse 10), just as it was when news of his birth reached King Herod, and to the question, “Who is this?” the crowds reply, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” (verse 11).
Of course, that doesn’t really do Jesus justice, does it? He is a prophet, but he is more than a prophet. Not until he is crucified later in the week will he be recognised for who he truly is.
How, then, do we react to people who have an incomplete picture of Jesus? It would be very easy to go into ‘telling-off mode’. We’re quite good at that, as I said when considering the humility of Jesus. Thinking back more years than I care to admit, I recall that when Jesus Christ Superstar became a popular West End musical, some Christians reacted by saying, ‘Jesus Christ is not merely a superstar. He is the Son of God. Accept no substitute!’
Now I agree with the content of what they said, but not the tone. And we have a gospel opportunity to be alongside people who have only caught a half-glimpse of Jesus. We can be the quiet voice of gentle encouragement, not the strident voice of condemnation.
What I think we’re witnessing here are the early signs of God’s work in these people, preparing them for the message of his Son. I can recall being asked to visit non-churchgoers at times, not expecting much out of the visit, and probably stereotyping them before I went and at the beginning of the meeting. But then I find they start asking deep spiritual questions, and I realise that while they don’t yet have a handle on all that Jesus is, nevertheless something is going on in their lives. Actually, I don’t so much think it’s something happening in their lives, more like someone. The Holy Spirit is preparing them for the Good News of Jesus.
In other words, it’s what John Wesley called ‘prevenient grace’: God is at work in people’s lives before we ever show up on the scene, and our task is to join in with what he is doing. And that’s exactly how Jesus saw his own ministry on earth. He said he only did what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19).
A third sign of spiritual fruitfulness, then, is to ask the Holy Spirit to show us where he is already at work, so that we can have the privilege of being God’s junior partners in the work of his mission. Let there be no doubt that the Father wants people to find his forgiving love in Jesus Christ and discover true purpose as they become disciples of him. Whatever we think about the state of the church in the Western world at present, it doesn’t change the fact that God is hard at work in the world, wooing people with his love. But he needs us to be the midwives who usher his new life into the world. Humble and obedient disciples will want to pray, “Lord, show me where you are at work so that I may be your assistant in making more disciples of your Son.”
Now that doesn’t sound like a ‘house of unripe figs’ to me. It sounds like true fruitfulness.
Its ten pledges make no reference to God, which leave it doomed to failure in an important sense for me, although it rightly emphasises doing things for others as a source of happiness. Nevertheless, aiming for my own happiness is like looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. You won’t find it by seeking it.
However, it’s interesting to note that one of the founders, Labour economist Professor Richard Layard, says the project is important because organised religion has failed to turn back the “tide of narrow individualism”. And that’s a criticism I think we should listen to in the Church. Has that happened because we simply have not persuaded people of the virtues of the Gospel? Or is it more about us failing to embody an adequate Gospel?
In an already overtly consumeristic culture, Western Christians tend to view the church as a place that exists to serve my spiritual needs. When viewed like this, it becomes just another silo. If one church (silo) doesn’t fulfill my particular taste and perceived needs, then I will simply look until I find one that does. If this is true, then we can probably say that many Christians have now subconsciously determined that “the community exists for me”, rather than the more missional “me for the community”. (Page 166)
So – there’s the challenge for the Church: to be a community, not a silo.
‘Ello. I wish to register a complaint.
Anyone who ever followed Monty Python’s Flying Circus will soon recognise those words from the famous Dead Parrot Sketch. John Cleese’s character Mr Praline has bought a Norwegian Blue parrot from a pet shop but it proves to be dead. The pet shop owner says, “He’s not dead, he’s resting.” Exasperated, Mr Praline eventually declares the animal to be “an ex-parrot”.
The Dead Parrot sketch came back into my mind as I re-read Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. A friend of mine rewrote it as The Dead Church Sketch. So for the part of the sketch where Mr Praline complains that the parrot is not moving and he is told that the parrot has been nailed to its perch, we instead hear the excuse that the congregation has been nailed to the pews.
In Ezekiel 37 the prophet encounters a vision of a ‘Dead Church’, or Dead Israel to be more accurate. A Dead People Of God. He is taken back and forth among the bones to make it clear that the people of God in exile in Babylon are ‘dead’. Spiritually dead.
The vision is appalling and offensive. You didn’t leave dead bones out in the air: the Jewish custom was (and still is) to bury the dead within a day or two of the death. And contact with dead bodies made a Jew ritually unclean, so to leave them out like this for so long increased the number of people who would be made unclean by coming near them.
More offensive than the implications for Jewish ritual law is the message of the vision: the people of God are dead.
Somewhere among our struggles for the future of Church is a similar fear. Declining church numbers. The lack of under-40s. Does The Future Have A Church?
The historian Callum Brown said in his book The Death Of Christian Britain that he could envisage the disappearance of Christianity from this nation. Ten years ago Archbishop Cormac Murphy O’Connor spoke of our faith as having been ‘almost vanquished‘.
We’re beginning to look like a pile of dead bones out in the air.
Might we turn on to Ezekiel again and see whether God might bring a similar message of hope in the face of devastation to us?
Three times God tells Ezekiel to prophesy. The first occasion is this:
Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’
To dead bones comes the promise of life. Life will enter the dead by the breath of God, that is, his Spirit. It’s the same word in Hebrew for wind, breath and spirit. Just as the Spirit brooded over the waters at creation and God put his breath in the man so that he might have life, so to have new life – spiritual life – requires the breath or Spirit of God.
Somebody once said that if the Holy Spirit were taken from the Church, ninety-five per cent of all activities would continue just the same. Was that person right? Instead of defining the Christian life as life in the Spirit, we have defined it by busyness and by whether the church has a full and varied programme of activities.
In my last circuit the ministers had to give reports to every Circuit Meeting on the ‘new initiatives’ in each of our churches. Healthy church life was
measured in new programmes and projects, not in signs of the Spirit. Eugene Peterson says,
Along the way the primacy of God and his work in our lives gives way ever so slightly to the primacy of our work in God’s kingdom, and we begin thinking of ways that we can use God in what we are doing. … [I]t turns out that we have not so much been worshipping God as enlisting him as a trusted and valuable assistant.
[Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places, p 124.]
The Old Testament calls God the Helper of Israel. Some English translations of the New Testament call the Holy Spirit the Helper. But this should not be taken to justify that subtle shift from utter dependence upon God to regarding him as an accessory. When we treat the Spirit of God like that, we end up as dead bones.
Ezekiel calls us, then, to receive the life of the Spirit and stop depending upon our dead ways of doing church and being Christian. We fill our empty lives with busyness and possessions, when the only fullness that will satisfy is the fullness of the Holy Spirit.
Some will object and say that throughout the Old Testament the Spirit was only given to certain people and at certain times. In our era, living after Pentecost, the Spirit has been given to all who believe and we who have faith in Christ have already received the Holy Spirit. In response I offer a favourite story.
The evangelist D L Moody was once taken to task for the way he preached on Ephesians 5:18, where Paul says, ‘Be filled with the Spirit’. Moody pointed out that it could be translated, ‘Continue to be filled with the Spirit’, and accordingly encouraged his listeners to be filled again with the Holy Spirit.
Afterwards, a minister berated him, saying, “I received the Holy Spirit at conversion. Why are you telling me to be filled with the Spirit again?”
“Because,” said Moody, “I leak.”
Have we leaked the Spirit? Are we living by faith in dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit? How many of us can honestly say, “Yes”?
The second prophecy. Ezekiel sees some movement:
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.
‘But there was no breath in them.’ Devastating. That which the bones most desperately need – breath – is still absent. What next?
Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
‘Prophesy to the breath.’ And if the breath is being summoned prophetically by Ezekiel, then we have here something like that ancient prayer of the Church, ‘Come Holy Spirit’ (‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’), so often used at ordination services. In our terminology, Ezekiel is praying, “Come, Holy Spirit.” It’s an ancient prayer that has come back in popularity in the last twenty years or
so, largely thanks to the late John Wimber and the Vineyard Movement.
Again, certain people will object. They will again say we are living in a post-Pentecost world where the Holy Spirit has been given and is already present. Why say, “Come, Holy Spirit” when the Spirit is here anyway?
Because we are distinguishing between the general presence of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s particular actions and interventions. We are not simply seeking the general presence of the Holy Spirit, but the manifest presence. We need to experience the Spirit at work in our lives and in our midst. Dry bones need to know that the breath is coming into them.
But how do we know when the Holy Spirit has manifestly come? In the Book of Acts there seems to be a common denominator of bold speech in the name of Jesus. It may be the gift of tongues, it may be preaching, it may be courageous testimony.
Other occasions in church history have seen obvious signs that the Spirit was at work. We think of Wesley having his heart strangely warmed and also the dramatic effect upon listeners to his preaching as they sensed the gravity of their sin before God and their need of salvation. We saw it a few years ago with the dramatic phenomena of the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing’.
There are, then, clear signs in history of the ‘manifest presence’ of the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit also comes quietly, and it is not for us to choose whether the mode of his coming is quiet or dramatic. The ‘fruit of the Spirit’ – his work in us to produce Christ-like character – is a slow process, just like the growth of ordinary fruit. There may be few outward, visible signs when this work begins or continues.
What matters is that we are open to God to do his work in and through us as he sees fit, and not be limited by our restricted vision, our fears or our prejudices.
We recognise that we need the Spirit’s empowering, and refuse to be complacent. The Holy Spirit may be ‘the Helper’, but he is not our ‘Santa’s little helper’. He is one Person of the Trinity. When we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit,” we are saying, “Come, Holy Spirit, in whatever way you see fit, and to do whatever work you see fit.”
Can we pray that? We need to.
The third prophecy:
The story so far: Ezekiel has seen the deadness of God’s exiled people. He has firstly been summoned to prophesy their need for the breath or Spirit of God. Secondly he has prophetically called on God’s Spirit to fill them.
But what now? The loss of hope still needs addressing. It’s no good bringing God’s people back to spiritual life if they are still left in their sense of despair. So this is how the vision concludes:
Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am theLord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’
Ezekiel addresses ‘the whole house of Israel’ and he brings them good news. Their new life in the Spirit will involve being placed on their own soil again.
But for that to mean something for us as Christians, it needs translating. Although Christianity has continuity with the Jewish faith, it does not share the promise of physical land.
Our inheritance is both now in Christ and future in heaven. If the Spirit of God places Christians ‘on their own soil’ now, it may or may not indicate a revival of Christianity in our land. But it will mean renewed confidence in Christ. It will mean a sense of hope about our faith that goes beyond the personal hope of glory. It will mean being positive about Christ rather than forever being on the defensive. It will mean boldness to speak of Christ even when we might face opposition, because we know the Holy Spirit will give us the words. It will mean finding ways to live for one another and not for ourselves, as the Early Church did soon after Pentecost, in defiance of our consumerist culture. It will mean the Sermon on the Mount becoming a lived-out reality now.
Are we seeing these things now? How do we measure up? For however far we fall short of these signs of the Spirit, that is the indication of how much we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
So let us pause. If we are not showing all the signs of life in the Spirit that Jesus would wish us to then now is not the time to rush on. Let us stop and drink from the rivers of living water that he gives us.
Perhaps you’re like a guy called Charlie. He worked in a laboratory. After a Christian meeting he asked the visiting speaker this question: “It says of the early disciples that people took note that they had been with Jesus. How come no-one says that about me?”
The preacher prayed with him. Nothing spectacular happened at the time.
But a few days later, one of his work colleagues said to him, “Charlie, what happened to you the other night? You’re a different kind of Charlie.”
For those of us who want to be a different kind of Charlie, this is the hour. Come, Holy Spirit, breathe life into us. May we be planted in the soil you have prepared for us.
 Deuteronomy 33:29; Isaiah 41:13-14; Hosea 13:9
 Where others say Comforter, Counsellor or Advocate – John 14:15, 25; 16:7.
It’s not what you know, it’s Who you know – Marijke Hoek on Christian approaches to tackling social inequality.
Our American friends have a term for it: Lame Duck President. When a President of the United States is impotent because the opposing political party dominates both Houses of Congress – the House of Representatives and the Senate – he is a lame duck President. He cannot do anything. He is at the mercy of his opponents and rivals.
Today, we think about the lame duck politician in the Passion of Jesus: Pontius Pilate. That may surprise you. Don’t we expect the Roman official in charge of Palestinian territory to be a strong and authoritative man? Indeed, I was once part of a play on Good Friday where I had to play Pilate, and the director made me play the part with some force to bring him alive.
However, history tells us a different story about Pilate. And it’s one that makes sense of his powerlessness in the face of the demands from that part of the wealthy religious establishment that wanted to keep its cosy relationship with Rome and thus benefit in terms of finances and power.
Pilate’s problem was this. He had committed several acts of antagonism against the Jewish faith. He set up Roman standards with graven images of the emperor in Jerusalem, an act regarded as idolatry. He may well have diverted money from the Temple treasury to build an aqueduct. There had been protests to Rome about him. He had to be careful not to cause further trouble, for fear of the Emperor Tiberius taking a dim view of him.
How strange, then, that this is the man who humanly has power and authority, and whose words count far more than anybody else’s in Palestine.
And who does he encounter here? Someone claiming to the the Son of God, yet who has been arrested and is at his mercy. Another character, fatally weakened by circumstances, it seems.
So it’s not surprising that Pilate and Jesus have a conversation about power and authority. Here in this episode we see a God’s-eye perspective on these issues.
The first of these issues is kingship. Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews (verse 33), and idea he’s clearly picked up from Jesus’ religious enemies (verses 34-35). Jesus makes his famous reply:
“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (Verse 36)
In showing that his followers have not been fighting, he exposes the lies of those who have claimed he is a political rival, and should be executed for that reason. However, his general statement, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, has been open to all sorts of poor interpretation. Jehovah’s Witnesses have taken it to mean a ban on getting involved in politics. Some Christians have seen it similarly, as restricting Jesus’ influence to personal and private matters. Thus you get the kind of Christian who behaves one way on a Sunday, and a completely different way in the office on a Monday. There are non-Christians who would like to think this were the Church’s position. When I once wrote as a minister in a local newspaper about a matter of local politics, I was criticised the next week on the letters page for bringing religion into politics. I was told to go back and concentrate on why the churches were declining today!
But Jesus cannot mean this. If he did, there is so much of the Bible we would have to jettison. The Old Testament prophets, for a start. The judges of early Israel. It doesn’t stand up.
No: Jesus’ kingdom being ‘not of this world’ is explained by his statement that his ‘kingdom is from another place’. It’s an issue of where his kingdom is from. The reign of Jesus is from heaven. Because he reigns from heaven, his kingdom covers everything, not just the personal and the private.
So politicians like Pilate, and anyone else who thinks they have ultimate authority or influence, need to hear the message of Jesus that what they do and say will be judged by him. Christians need to see that the public arena – politics, the media, entertainment and the arts – is a fit place for us to live and work with kingdom of God values. We complain about unchristian influences in these areas, but often the sad truth is that Christians have retreated from them and left a vacuum that has been filled by others. If Jesus’ kingdom comes from another place and the Pilates of this world are placed under him, then we need more politicians who are Christians, more artists and entertainers who are Christians and more communicators who are Christians.
And all of us need to realise that every area of life comes under the reign of the One whose ‘kingdom is from another place’. An old Christian adage says,
“If Jesus Christ is not Lord of all, then he is not Lord at all.”
Secondly, Jesus steers the conversation onto the subject of truth. When Pilate says, “You are a king, then!” Jesus replies:
“You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (Verse 37)
Pilate responds with his famous words, “What is truth?” (verse 38), but Francis Bacon was wrong to call him ‘jesting Pilate’ who ‘would not stay for an answer’. Pilate was not jesting. This was serious. This is serious. Truth is a serious matter in every sphere of life, but especially when it comes to power and authority.
Why? People in power and authority – whether we’re talking about governments, multinational corporations or the media – want to control access to information and filter what you might hear as being true. It’s especially prevalent today, but it has always been the case. They will use claims about the truth to bolster their own power, and to exclude from power those they consider undesirable. No wonder Pilate is confused about what truth is: he has probably spent much of his career managing people’s perceptions of the truth.
Into this fallen landscape where truth is halved or turned on its head, Jesus says,
“The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (Verse 37)
How different is Jesus’ approach to truth! He does not browbeat people with the truth, he does not manipulate the truth, he does not force the truth on people. He testifies to the truth. A testimony is there to be accepted or rejected. Jesus knows who will accept his testimony to the truth: ‘everyone on the side of truth’. He’s not running a General Election campaign. He’s not advertising, nor is he cajoling. He’s presenting the truth, and simply waiting for those who will respond, because the Holy Spirit leads them to do so.
It’s not a recipé for success, is it? If Jesus were a politician, how would he ever get elected? If he were a marketing man, how would he sell his product?
And there’s the issue: the Jesus approach to truth is the opposite of the way people in power and authority try to use truth. No psychological techniques to persuade people, he relies on the Holy Spirit to do the persuading. It’s quite precarious, isn’t it?
It’s all rather impractical, heads in the cloud stuff for those who feel they have to use truth to get their own way. The kingdom of God will never win an election on Planet Earth. Jesus is not a product to be sold, but a Saviour who looks for a response of love and a Lord who seeks willing obedience.
So let us never as the church seek to coerce people with the truth; rather, like Jesus, let us testify to the truth and rely on the Holy Spirit to show people the truth. Of course, like Jesus shortly after this conversation, we may end up on a cross for our troubles. But that place of suffering witness to the truth is a more powerful place to win converts than a bludgeoning attitude to truth.
Thirdly and finally, we move to the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate after the flogging, when Pilate is trying to make one last desperate attempt to save Jesus’ life, even though he is in this politically weak position where he is afraid of the religious leaders (verse 8) who say he will be seen as no friend of Caesar (verse 12). It’s a dialogue about power.
Despite his fear, Pilate reminds Jesus that he has the judicial power to free him or crucify him (verse 10). He still wants to think he’s Mister Big Shot. He has to big himself up. “Look at me!” he seems to say to Jesus.
But is Jesus impressed? No.
“You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” (Verse 11)
That’s his reply. Pilate, you couldn’t talk like this unless my Father had allowed this. You are weak and passive, and so you bear some responsibility for what’s about to happen, even if Caiaphas is worse, because he initiated and planned the plot that brought me here.
In other words, divine sovereignty and human responsibility sit together, one over the other. Pilate’s power is not absolute: it is to be exercised under divine sovereignty. Pilate does not lose any responsibility for his actions, even though God in his sovereignty has permitted the betrayal of Jesus.
What does this combination of the sovereignty of God and human responsibility mean for the exercise of power? It means that everyone who exercises power is accountable to God. The world holds politicians accountable to the electorate, but Christians hold them accountable to God. When Christians hold positions of responsibility, we are accountable, not only to those who put us there but also to God. We remember the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Roman centurion whose servant was at the point of death. That centurion understood true faith when he said to Jesus,
“For I myself am a man under authority, with solders under me.” (Luke 17:8)
He got to give orders because he was a centurion, but only because he was under authority.
So it is with us. We may be entrusted with power or responsibility. It may be small-scale and private, it may be large-scale and public. But whatever it is, God has allowed us to have that measure of authority. And within his permitting us to take that up, we are accountable to him as well as whoever humanly appointed us.
In the end, Pilate chooses accountability not to God but to the mob, so that he can save his political neck. The temptation is there for all of us who exercise power or authority. Will we seek to make the decisions that please God, or is there some hidden impure motive that drives us towards compromised policies?
Indeed, what choices will we make in relation to power and authority? Will we choose to live all of life under the Lordship of Christ and his kingdom? Will we witness to the truth, rather than use it as a weapon? And will we always remember that we are accountable to God for the choices and decisions we make when we are entrusted with responsibility?
In our story, one man thought he was powerful, but was fatally weakened, and he made the wrong choices. But the other man, who came chained as a prisoner, apparently at the mercy of the other, lived with the greatest freedom and authority of all.
Will we make godly choices about power today?