Wednesday, April 13, 2022

God's Kingdom Revealed: A New Kind of King

Today marks the fourth week that we have spent in just two chapters of the Gospel of John, chapters 18 and 19 -  these two chapters in which Jesus is, essentially, on trial. First, before the Jewish religious leaders and, then, for the past two weeks before Pilate, the Roman governor. Throughout this entire time, we’ve been talking about power. And kingdom. And how the world works versus how Jesus works.

Today marks the last of our time in these chapters. Today is the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. When we began these weeks going deeper into Jesus’ passion, perhaps, it felt out of place. After all, we usually hear these texts only during Holy Week, which we will mark next week. But, perhaps, by the time we finish today, we will admit that spending time deeply considering these texts, the issues raised in them, and the Jesus pictured for us in them - well, perhaps, we will decide that this time has, in fact, been helpful. Important even. To help us better understand who Jesus is for us. 

The soldiers took Jesus prisoner. Carrying his cross by himself, he went out to a place called Skull Place (in Aramaic, Golgotha). That’s where they crucified him—and two others with him, one on each side and Jesus in the middle. Pilate had a public notice written and posted on the cross. It read “Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city and it was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. Therefore, the Jewish chief priests complained to Pilate, “Don’t write, ‘The king of the Jews’ but ‘This man said, “I am the king of the Jews.”’”

Pilate answered, “What I’ve written, I’ve written.” --John 19:16b-22 (CEB

Before we move into this story from chapter 19, I’d like to spend a few minutes in chapter 12 - the reading we heard earlier as we gathered. The order of events in John’s gospel is different that in the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. Each of the gospels was written to a specific audience. John is no different. So, when we see these differences between gospels, it’s not a bad thing. Rather, it fills out the picture for us. We have a fuller picture, a fuller sense of the experiences that the early apostles had as they walked with Jesus throughout his ministry.

So, in John’s gospel, the entry into Jerusalem is very different. The differences are important to note, because they help us more fully understand the story John is trying to tell. The point the gospel writer is trying to make. I’d invite you to open up one of the Bibles under your seat so that, together, we can look more carefully at these texts.

Jerusalem at Passover season was the center of pilgrimage for Jews from all parts of the world. It was only in Jerusalem that the Passover meal could be properly celebrated since only in the temple could the lambs be sacrificed for the meal. Passover, if you remember, was a festival commemorating God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Many Jews under Roman rule longed for another such deliverance. In fact, it would be just 30 years later that a full-fledged war would erupt against Rome. During this time, longing for the Messiah-king was rampant.

In addition, during Passover, as with the other major festivals, Jerusalem was overflowing with visitors. Normally, it had a population of about 600,000. But, there is historical evidence to indicate that during the primary festivals, Jerusalem’s population would swell to between 2 and 3 million people. Think Miami Beach at spring break. Or New Orleans at Mardi Gras. On steroids. You can imagine how nervous this made the Roman occupiers. It was an incredibly volatile situation. Ready to erupt at any moment.

There was also an undercurrent running through the city. In the preceding chapter, Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead. The news of this miracle - this amazing sign - was spreading like wildfire throughout the city. Not just with the residents of the city, but also those who had come from the reaches of the Roman empire, from across the known world.

As chapter 12 opens, the crowd has just learned that Jesus will be coming to Jerusalem. They gather palm branches. Why palm branches? The other gospels tell us that the people gathered branches. Why the detail in John? 

Because palm branches were used to honor kings. This swelling crowd, having heard the miracle story, anxious to see Jesus took branches used to honor kings and went out to meet him. In John, it was only then that Jesus found a donkey and sat on it. This is a different order than in the other gospels. It's as if Jesus knew the kind of king the people wanted. A king who would lead them in a violent overthrow of the Roman occupiers. A leader to deliver them from bondage, just like Moses, thousands of years before. But, this wasn’t the kind of king Jesus intended to be. Jesus was to be the king portrayed in Zechariah: “he will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem. The bow used in battle will be cut off; he will speak peace to the nations.” Jesus would not be a nationalistic king. But a universal king, one whose realm would encompass the entire world, not just that of the Jews. “For God so loved the world….”

It was this very thing that terrified all of the leaders, Jewish and Roman alike, bringing us now to chapter 19. The Day of Preparation for Passover. The day of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Crucifixion is a horrible way to die. A few years ago, I started reading a book on this means of punishment. The descriptions of what happens to one’s body were so horrific, I was unable to finish it. Crucifixion is a horrible way to die.

That Jesus dies in this way says everything about who he is and what his death means. In John, Jesus is God, a divine being, Word become flesh. Throughout the story, Jesus is in charge, directing all of the events according to a pre-ordained script. John’s passion account is not so much a tragedy as a divine drama. 

In our text, Jesus carries his own cross. Not only is it the Word of God who dies on this cross, it is also the King of the Jews. Pilate puts that very sign on Jesus’ cross. The irony of this is something we cannot ignore. Because we know that statement to be true. 

But, there’s more. This sign is written in three languages - Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. All of the languages of the known world. Jesus is not only the Word of God dying on the cross, or the King of the Jews dying on the cross, but the king of heaven and earth dying on the cross. At the same time the Passover lambs will be slaughtered for the Passover festival. Jesus, who sacrifices himself. “For God so loved the world….” 

So, what kind of king do you want Jesus to be? No really, what kind of king do you want Jesus to be? Do you want Jesus to be the kind of king - the rescuing king - who swoops in to deliver you from whatever hardship you might be going through? Or, perhaps, you want Jesus to be the nationalistic king, who saves you while destroying your enemies, whoever or whatever they may be? Or maybe your King Jesus is the king who saves you from your sin so that you can get to heaven, with no thought to what discipleship might mean here and now? On earth?

What kind of king do you want Jesus to be?

In John, this is the kind of king we see Jesus to be. A courageous king who moves toward conflict, instead of away from it, restoring and deepening relationships. A truth-telling king who speaks honestly and authentically, with no regard for his own life or his social position. A sacrificial king who carries his own cross. A humble king who stoops down to wash his disciples’ feet. Even the feet of Judas, the one who will betray him. 

This is the kind of king Jesus is. Will you follow this kind of king?

Preached April 10, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville, and New Goshen Presbyterian, Prospect.
Palm/Passion Sunday
Readings: John 12:12-27, 19:16b-22; Psalm 24

Sunday, April 3, 2022

God's Kingdom Revealed: Real Power

Today’s story is a continuation of last week’s story as the chief priests take Jesus from Caiaphas and deliver him to Pilate. If we were to create a drama out of this two-part story, Pilate’s headquarters, or praetorium, would be staged in two parts. 

The first part would be set outside. On the left is the pathway where Jesus has just been questioned by the high priest. We also have in view the fireside where Peter denied Jesus.

This path leads to a simple but open outdoor space for groups to stand under the night sky. The corners of this space are lit by torchlight, perfect for conversation.

At the front of the stage is a single seat. It’s the judgment seat. 

There is a great door that divides this side of the stage from the other side, which is inside. Inside is a walled space, still in the open air. One side of this space is set for conversation with a pallet, or a reclining chair for Pilate to lay on. The other side of this interior space is busy, with military equipment hanging on the walls. Crates stacked for storage. And in its center there is a flogging post standing ready for use.

With this imagery in mind, we read from the Holy Gospel, according to John.

Then Pilate had Jesus taken and whipped. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and dressed him in a purple robe. Over and over they went up to him and said, “Greetings, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face.

Pilate came out of the palace again and said to the Jewish leaders, “Look! I’m bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no grounds for a charge against him.” When Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here’s the man.”

When the chief priests and their deputies saw him, they shouted out, “Crucify, crucify!”

Pilate told them, “You take him and crucify him. I don’t find any grounds for a charge against him.”

The Jewish leaders replied, “We have a Law, and according to this Law he ought to die because he made himself out to be God’s Son.”

When Pilate heard this word, he was even more afraid. He went back into the residence and spoke to Jesus, “Where are you from?” Jesus didn’t answer. So Pilate said, “You won’t speak to me? Don’t you know that I have authority to release you and also to crucify you?”

Jesus replied, “You would have no authority over me if it had not been given to you from above. That’s why the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin.” From that moment on, Pilate wanted to release Jesus.

However, the Jewish leaders cried out, saying, “If you release this man, you aren’t a friend of the emperor! Anyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes the emperor!”

When Pilate heard these words, he led Jesus out and seated him on the judge’s bench at the place called Stone Pavement (in Aramaic, Gabbatha). It was about noon on the Preparation Day for the Passover. Pilate said to the Jewish leaders, “Here’s your king.”

The Jewish leaders cried out, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

Pilate responded, “What? Do you want me to crucify your king?”

“We have no king except the emperor,” the chief priests answered. Then Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified. --John 19:1-16a (CEB)

In keeping with our theme of the unexpected today, I’d like to invite you to pull out the yellow insert in your bulletins. Turn to the side that is opposite the Easter flower order form. No, I’m not preaching on Easter flowers today. Well, not until our time of announcements. Instead, flip to the other side that’s entitled, “Chiasm: Jesus Before Pilate.”

The entire story of Jesus before Pilate - the story we began last Sunday and that is continuing to today - is set up as a chiasm. A chiasm is a common rhetorical device used in ancient Greek writing where lines or scenes unfold and then are repeated in reverse order. Creating a parallel format. It gets its name because the structure takes the shape of the Greek letter chi, which looks like an X for us. Do you notice, as you look at the insert, the X-shape?

The story of Pilate and Jesus, which begins in Chapter 18, consists of seven scenes. If we look at this story carefully, we notice that there is one scene that stands at the center of the X. It stands alone. It has no parallel or corresponding scene. In Greek rhetoric, this stand alone scene is something to pay attention to. Because that portion of the story has special thematic significance. On the insert, this scene is marked with a D.

But, before we dig into this particular scene, let’s look at the others and how they parallel each other. We can often gain insight into other themes or points of emphasis.  We can see, for example, that in the two B sections, Pilate and Jesus have extended discussions. One is about kingship. The other is explicitly about power.

If we look at the C sections, we see that in both of these scenes, Pilate is trying to assert his power or to use the system to escape the entire situation. In both of these scenes, the Jewish religious leaders (who, interestingly, claim to be without power) win out. In the C scene in chapter 18, they call for the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus. In today’s C scene, in chapter 19, they bring a charge that sends Pilate into a great state of fear that causes him to reconsider his judgment. What is that the religious leaders say that causes Pilate such fear? “He claimed to be the Son of God.” Pilate realizes that this situation might jeopardize his position of power. The title, Son of God, was used for Caesar. And for someone to claim that they were the Son of God was much closer to sedition against the Roman empire than calling someone the King of the Jews.

And, then, in the A scenes, this potential threat to Pilate’s power becomes even more explicit, when in today’s A scene, the religious leaders say to him, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor.” Pilate already knows what happens to those "Friends of Caesar" who fall out of favor. One of his mentors just a year or two before this moment had been executed on the charge of sedition. So, yes. There is good reason for Pilate to be afraid. To fear losing his power. And, perhaps, even his life.

So, he caves. Giving into the religious leaders who, throughout this story, have claimed they have no power. Yet, they are the ones who, at least on the story level, are clearly controlling the situation.

Power, once again, is central to the story.

But, while our attention has been drawn to Pilate, we do well to remember that, throughout the gospel of John, Jesus has always been in control of his own fate. He has moved toward this moment as an act of his own will. We are now at the cusp of the climax that the entire John narrative has been moving toward - the moment when Jesus will be lifted up.

Now, let’s look at the D section. It’s the central and most important part of the chiasm, the opening lines of our text today. It is a coronation scene - a coronation scene that is not like that of Queen Elizabeth, which we remembered this week. Instead, this coronation scene begins with Pilate having the soldiers whip Jesus. Who then place a crown on Jesus’ head. Not a crown of gold encrusted with diamonds, but one that has been woven from thorns. They then place a purple robe on his shoulders, the color marked for royalty. Over and over, they come up to him saying, “Greetings, King of the Jews.” And, then, rather than bowing down to him, they slap him. Over and over and over again. 

Our human eyes might view this scene as Jesus’ weakest moment. But, in truth, in the gospel of John, this is Jesus’ most powerful and victorious moment, even as the soldiers mock Jesus as a defeated king, who has failed in his Messianic claim. Throughout this episode, Jesus has remained stoic, knowing that the systems of power at work both in the temple and in the empire - the systems that seek to keep people divided in order to maintain power - that these systems of power are way too small for his plans. 

Power, once again, is central to the story. 

But, who has the real power in this story? Is it the religious leaders who feel so threatened by this Jesus that they must have him killed? Is it Pilate, fearful of being called a seditionist, of losing his seat of power? It’s interesting to note that just a few years later, Caiaphas, the chief priest loses his power, dismissed because of growing public dissatisfaction that he has gotten too close to Rome. And then in just a few more years, Pilate will die. And although the circumstances surrounding his death are somewhat of a mystery and source of contention, whether he committed suicide or was executed by the Roman emperor for his conversion to Christianity, Pilate, too, loses his position of power. 

So, what about us? Now I’m not saying that any of us will be executed for our own need to hold onto power. But we, in the Church, need to notice how and why we exert power. 

Yesterday, in our Saturday morning discussion, we watched a video by Father Greg Boyle. Those of you at Grace & Glory might remember him, I’ve mentioned him before. He is a Jesuit priest working in East Los Angeles, one of the most gang-infested areas of the city. Over the past several decades, he has worked to cross the boundaries and to build a community that welcomes everyone in, with all their tattoos, their prison records. Their brokenness.

You see, it’s our very human tendency to put up barriers. To demonize others. To - in our fear and anxiety about the future - to try to control everything, to seek to hold onto power. The result is that we build barriers between us and other people. We create them right here in this place. We are really no different than the characters in our story, little Caiaphuses and Pilates, who create a God that looks and acts like them instead of a God who looks and acts like Jesus. Jesus, as he stands there, whipped and mocked by the soldiers in all of his humility, yet at his most powerful and victorious.

This Church, with a capital C, is not about us. But about Jesus. And about his kingdom. A kingdom that comes to us in the most unexpected ways. That comes to us when we grow deeper in community and in relationship with God and with one another. When we welcome others in. Because it’s really hard to demonize someone who you know. 

But, in the end, the kingship of Jesus isn’t about power. But about kinship. It’s a vision of an expansive kinship, where all are welcomed and loved, where barriers are dismantled, where humility brings the ultimate victory and power, and where there is no longer “us” and “them,” but only “us.”

This is the astonishing nature of God’s kingdom. May we join in and may we be open to the unexpected. Amen.

Preached April 3, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville, and New Goshen Presbyterian, Prospect.
5th Sunday in Lent
Readings: John 19:1-16a; Psalm 146