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