Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. 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 the emperor.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. John 19:1-16a (NRSV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last week we began a new series that will take us into Holy Week--it’s entitled God’s kingdom revealed. The word we focused on last week was “truth.” As you can still see on the walls of our sanctuary, we first considered some of the “truths” of the world in the headlines you wrote on the large note paper. These so-called truths that bombard us daily.
We, then, considered the truth of God’s kingdom. If you participated, you wrote a “truth” of that kingdom that was important to you. “Jesus loves me.” “Jesus loves all people.” God’s kingdom is revealed to us in these truths.
Today, we are considering the unexpected. Now, I’m wondering if there haven’t already been a few unexpected things here today and, also, last week. First, for many of us, I think, it’s unexpected for us to be reading these stories of Jesus’ passion now, nearly two weeks before Holy Week. Usually, the only time we read John 18 and 19 is on Good Friday. So, it may feel a little unexpected to be walking through these scenes of Jesus’ arrest and trial now. And, yet, hearing these stories now provides us with an opportunity to unpack them a little. To perhaps, gain a little more meaning and understanding.
I’m also wondering if having to make some of our own meaning in last week’s sermon also wasn’t a little unexpected. Having to write our own truths and then get up and post them over the world’s so-called truths instead of passively sitting and listening through my sermon--that this felt unexpected to you. Perhaps, even a little uncomfortable.
We fall into patterns in our lives. Now patterns and rituals and order aren’t necessarily bad things. There’s a reason, for example, why we establish bedtime rituals for our children. Or why we establish boundaries around them. All of these rituals and traditions provide them with a sense of security. Security so that, we hope, they will feel safe enough to push through these boundaries and more fully become who they are as adults, as individuals.
And, yet, sometimes we hold tightly onto these patterns and rituals and order simply out of fear. In a world that seems to change so quickly from one moment to the next, or in our lives where we are healthy one moment and receive a serious diagnosis in the next, or in our relationships where we are with someone we love and in the next moment lose them--we cling so tightly in our fear to the pattern. To what we know. To what we expect. Because to be afraid--to admit that we are afraid would be to acknowledge our own weakness, our own insecurity, our own human brokenness.
This, I think, is what is happening with Pilate in our lesson today. It might have begun as an ordinary trial. Pilate was used to sitting in judgment of accused criminals as the Roman prefect. He had presided over many, many other trials. Yet, it is not long before Pilate realizes this one is different. Unexpected.
He finds no fault in this defendant. “Look!” he says to the Jewish leaders in verse 4, “I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” Pilate attempts to turn Jesus back over to them.
They refuse. And Pilate becomes afraid. Then, they challenge his loyalty to Caesar. “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor,” they tell him. Pilate becomes more afraid. And, then, even knowing that Jesus is innocent, Pilate hands him over to be crucified.
I’ve been reading these verses over and over this week. And, there is something I can’t help wondering about. What might have happened if Pilate had done the unexpected? If he had refused to crucify Jesus?
Now I fully get that this plan--this plan that Jesus, God’s Son, would die, that this was a plan of God’s making. And, that Pilate didn’t have any real power in this dynamic. Or that, if he did have any power, it was because God had given it to him.
But, imagine what might have happened if, instead of reacting in fear and clinging so tightly to his status and perceived power, he risked it all. That, instead of declaring his allegiance to Caesar in his actions, he declared his allegiance to God. How unexpected that would have been! To witness Pilate’s vulnerability. To see him put himself out there, risking everything--status, power, prestige--not knowing what might happen. How unexpected that would have been!
I think there’s a bit of Pilate in each one of us. We are so desperate to belong that we grasp at the same things as Pilate. Seeking status. Seeking power. Seeking prestige. Thinking that, if only we get that promotion at work, or that “A” in class, or more money or whatever untruth we have told ourselves or that the world has told us, we will belong. People will look up to us. People will accept us. People will love us. Because, if they only knew who we really were, they could never, ever love us.
There is a well-known researcher and sociologist I’ve mentioned before by the name of Brene Brown. Dr. Brown has done years and years of research at the University of Houston on courage. The word “courage” comes from the Latin word “cor,” which means heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word “courage” mean “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time, the definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds.
What Dr. Brown has found in her research it that, when we define courage as heroic or brave, we fail to recognize the inner strength--the inner heart--and the level of commitment that is required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences, both good and bad. This willingness to be vulnerable, to move past the shame of our mistakes or bad decisions or difficult experiences, is the catalyst for courage and for compassion and, finally, for connection. For belonging. For being loved. No matter what we have done or what has happened to us. The more vulnerable we are, the more connected we become.
It’s unexpected, isn’t it? When the world teaches us that belonging comes through status or power or privilege, in fact, it comes through vulnerability. Through baring our souls and being fully who we are, warts and all. For being human.
Jesus is a model of vulnerability for us in this unexpected aspect of God’s kingdom. This Messiah, this Christ, this king, who doesn’t act like a king. This God who doesn’t act like a God. But, who instead, enters into our humanity, becoming one of us. And, then, willingly and vulnerably takes on our brokenness so that we might be freed to become the whole people God intends us to be. Fully forgiven. Fully redeemed. Fully loved.
In just a moment in our worship today, as we pray our prayers, I am going to ask you to be vulnerable. To turn to a neighbor, to move beyond the fear or shame or whatever it is that keeps you from being vulnerable and from being fully honest about your life, and to share the things for which we need prayer. To be vulnerable. Just as Christ was vulnerable for us.
And, perhaps, as we engage in these moments of vulnerability, and openness, and prayer. Perhaps, just perhaps. The kingdom of God might happen right here. Right now. Unexpectedly.
Preached March 18, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Readings: Psalm 146; John 19:1-16a