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Sermon: People At The Cross And The Tomb – Pontius Pilate And Power

John 18:28-19:16

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?

Sermon: The Problem Of King Jesus

John 18:33-37

‘What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.’

Many of us think of Francis Bacon’s famous words when we read this account of Jesus before Pilate. But we have a problem: the Lectionary omits verse 38 where Pilate says, ‘What is truth?’ for reasons that are beyond me. Well, unless it is to do with the political correctness that afflicts the Lectionary in some places. Maybe Pilate has to be rehabilitated.

But aside from strange editorial decisions in the compilation of the Lectionary, this is a difficult passage, however familiar it seems. We read it today, because today, the Sunday before Advent, is the Feast of Christ the King, also known as Stir-Up Sunday, from the famous collect

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And hence Jane’s piece at the beginning of the service with the cake! If today were just about cake, we’d have few problems with it – maybe it would be suitable for Back To Church Sunday!

But the kingship of Jesus is a problem. It’s a problem throughout the Gospels, and it’s a particular problem here. The kingship of Jesus is a problem for everyone who encounters him. By considering how King Jesus is a problem for different people, we shall see how his kingship challenges us all.

Firstly, and obviously, King Jesus is a problem for Pilate. To return to Francis Bacon’s words, I don’t think he is ‘jesting Pilate’ at all. Pontius Pilate has a serious political problem here. As a Roman Governor, he is used to being able to throw his weight around, using the occupying army to subdue the locals. His trouble is that he has done it too heavily-handed once too often, having desecrated the Jerusalem Temple. The Jewish leaders had sent a deputation to Rome to protest, with the result that Pilate was on a final warning. However aggressive the Roman Empire was, they saw no need to cause what they believed to be unnecessary provocation in the lands they conquered.

So when the Jewish leaders hand Jesus over to him, Pilate has a big problem. Yet to be fair, he starts from a position of justice: ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ (verse 33); ‘What have you done?’ (verse 35)

Yet by the end of the interview, we know Pilate, like a politician today, will cave into compromise and short term expediency. Throughout the conversation, he can’t get a handle on who Jesus is. He doesn’t fit his categories. Because Pontius Pilate only understands one language: the language of politics. He’s expecting Jesus to be a revolutionary. Well, he is, but not in the sense Pilate expects: Jesus is no terrorist. Not only does Jesus’ lifestyle deny such an idea, he contradicts it in his reply:

‘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.’ (Verse 36)

Some people seize on this as a sign that obeying the kingship of Jesus means we don’t get involved in politics. They quote it as ‘My kingdom is not of this world’. Therefore, they argue, since we are part of that kingdom, we should not get embroiled in dirty, everyday politics: that’s a different kingdom.

But what Jesus says is perhaps better rendered, ‘My kingship is not from this world’[1]. He’s not advocating withdrawal from the world, he’s saying that he does things differently. His kingship comes from heaven, where justice is not established by force or violence. His kingship is therefore radically different from the tactics employed by Roman Emperors or Jewish Zealots.

Jesus doesn’t bail out of politics: it is about the common good, and he cares about that. But his kingship redraws how his disciples will get involved. They will do so peaceably, not forcefully.

What does that mean for us? Not all of us are directly involved in politics. Apart from anything else, I believe it means that if we live under the reign of King Jesus, we conduct ourselves in public in a peaceable way. We do not shout, scream, demand, manipulate and scheme. We speak up more for the poor and the voiceless than for ourselves. We do so passionately, but without aggression. Is that possible? Jesus managed it.

Secondly, King Jesus is a problem for the Jewish leaders. There’s a lot of reference in John’s Gospel to ‘the Jews’. Tragically, down the centuries some Christians (and others, such as Hitler) have used it to justify prejudice and violence against Jewish people.

However, John does not use ‘the Jews’ to mean the entire Jewish race at the time. He normally uses it to refer to a distinct group, and he is clearly aware of other people in the story – not least Jesus – who are also Jewish but are not included under ‘the Jews’. Mostly, it stands for the religious authorities who are in opposition to Jesus and his ministry. It is these people, designated ‘the Jews’, who have handed Jesus over to Pilate (verse 32).

What’s their problem? Simple. Jesus doesn’t fit their expectations. Jesus is at odds with most of the major groupings in the Judaism of his time. He won’t cosy up to the Roman authorities like the wealthy Sadducees and some of the priestly classes. He won’t use the Scriptures as a weapon to exclude people in the way the scribes and Pharisees do. He won’t retreat to a secluded, pure community like the Essenes. And as we’ve already noted, he rejects the violent revolution of the Zealots. He just doesn’t fit.

So what are you going to do with a misfit who keeps causing you trouble? You’ll try to get rid of him. The traditional Jewish punishment of stoning was still sometimes spontaneously used, as we see from the story of the woman caught in adultery . But around AD 30, Rome took away the Jewish right to execute someone. But it further suited the purposes of the religious establishment to have Jesus crucified, because then by being hung on a tree he would be subject to a curse, according to Deuteronomy. It’s sobering what lengths human beings will go to in order to exclude someone they regard as a misfit.

I’ve talked before in sermons about the way we wrongly fit Jesus into our own preferred image and can’t cope with the fact that he won’t be confined to it. Recently, I read something helpful that a friend posted on Facebook. Pam is an American Christian (a Methodist minister, in fact) who recently returned to the USA from the UK. She has obviously been listening to the famous American radio show ‘A Prairie Home Companion[2], hosted by the author Garrison Keillor, author of the well-known series of books that began with ‘Lake Wobegon Days’. Keillor, a Christian of Lutheran and now Episcopalian background, tells fictionalised stories based on life in rural Minnesota. They often draw on his My friend Pam quoted a gem from a recent broadcast by Keillor:

Jesus came to earth and disappointed a lot of people.

When you follow Jesus, he will disappoint you. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were quickly disappointed by him. He won’t conform, and life with him will not always go the way we want it to. For he is king, and it is his rule that matters.

The question therefore comes, what will we do with our disappointment? Will we attempt to banish or exclude him, like the Jewish establishment of two thousand years ago? Or will we continue to follow him, mixing joy and disappointment? It’s a hard choice, but let’s remember that only those who continued with Jesus through disappointment got to see him in his risen glory.

Thirdly, King Jesus is a problem for us today. It’s simply this: even if Jesus radically reinterpets kingship into a peaceful form, it’s still a reworking based on a notion of kingship that has very little equivalent in our world today. We may still have a monarchy, but our Queen is meant to act on the advice of her ministers. Largely, therefore, she gives Royal Assent to Bills in Parliament that have been shaped by politicians. She retains certain powers, but they are much diminished. She is no absolute monarch. Long gone are the days when we spoke about ‘the divine right of kings’.

And in other cultures, the gap is even greater. How do you think about King Jesus when you live in a republic with a President as head of state? The American Christian author and speaker Brian McLaren has spoken of his cultural struggle with the biblical references to kingship and the kingdom of God. He suggests an alternative. We should refer to ‘the revolution of God’.

I think that’s helpful! If following King Jesus joins us up to the revolution of God, then one thing is certain: we are not in for a quiet, cosy time, at least not in the way some church communities seem to envisage. We are called instead to a dynamic, challenging, risky way of life.

The other day I read a piece by Bishop Graham Cray, who leads Fresh Expressions nationally for the Anglican, Methodist and United Reformed Churches. Let me read you a few sentences:

A risk-free existence can look very attractive for a while. Although the fine line between risk-free and unbearably boring is easily crossed. But those who want risk-free should never become Christians. To follow Jesus means risking all to follow him. I was recently reminded that the Church of Scotland report ‘Church Without Walls’ says that the essence of church is ‘People with Jesus at the centre, travelling wherever Jesus takes us.’ The whole fresh expressions initiative is about allowing Jesus to take us to those whom our existing churches do not reach, and working with him, as he forms a new group of people, who are willing to go wherever he takes them. That inevitably involves risk.

Because that is the logical conclusion of the other two issues we have thought about. Risk. It will be risky to follow King Jesus in the ways I have suggested. People who campaign for the poor in public life and do so in a peaceable way may end up on crosses. People who are willing to keep following Jesus even through disappointments are not signing up for a safe and quiet life, even if they do live with the hope of resurrection. But we remember how Jesus finally answered Pilate:

‘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.’ (Verse 37)

Nothing else is the way of truth.

[1] Richard Burridge, John (The People’s Bible Commentary), p215.


[2] British listeners can hear this on BBC Radio 7.