The Passion of John
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Pilate brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench. It was the day of Preparation for the Passover. He said to the people ‘Here is your King!’ They cried out, ‘Away with him! Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ And the religious leaders answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’ Then Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified.
“We have no king but the emperor!” Many of us are discomfited by the idea of mixing religion with politics. After all, we live in a country proclaiming the separation of church and state. But any reading of the Passion of our Savior, no matter how cursory it might be, cannot escape the fact that Jesus’ death was not simply religious in nature—it was political. Jesus was executed for treason—a crime against the Roman state. For no one could compete with the emperor’s claim to divinity and absolute authority. No one.
So, Pontius Pilate is guilty, for as much as he might try to wash his hands of the matter, he is guilty, as is the Roman State he represents.
But doesn’t it just make your heart sink to hear religious leaders chime in “We have no king but the emperor!” Particularly when we consider that on a day before the Passover was to begin, at a time rapidly approaching the hour when the lambs for the festival would be ritually slaughtered, and among the chants of the faithful were those proclaiming: “We have no king but Yahweh!” We have no king but God! The religious people of God, they were guilty as well. The crucifixion of our Lord consigns everyone, from gentiles to the people of God, to guilt.
Perhaps you might be tempted to ask yourself: How could the religious leaders have given in so easily? Even if they believed Jesus to be nothing more than a troublemaker, how could they have said: “We have no king but the emperor.” For faithful Jews—scores of them, in fact, had died precisely for their refusal to give in to the notion that the emperor was both god and king. How could they have forsaken their faith so easily. The answer, I believe, lies in the dual facets of fear and expediency.
So, it’s worth asking, of what were the religious leaders afraid? Of Jesus, certainly; for people were listening to his teachings and following him. Maybe people had begun questioning long-held assumptions and this was perceived as theatening. Perhaps the religious leaders were afraid of the Roman authorities as well. Remember, this part of the world was occupied territory—and it wasn’t uncommon for Jewish people to walk by rows of those crucified on the outskirts of the city. Witnessing the oppression, suffering and death of your citizenry is certainly a deterrent to speaking up, as the Romans intended it to be. Death was all too common. And, let’s face it, it’s easy to see how the death of Jesus presented an expedient solution to the problem of this man whom many were proclaiming to be the Messiah.
As for the Roman leaders, they too were fearful, concerned that Jesus was stirring up the populace. John’s Gospel, in fact, is clear to tell us that Pilate too, was afraid. He’s afraid of the mob gathered right there in front of him. Guilt for the death of Jesus is shared equally by everyone. None of us, absolutely no one, escapes responsibility.
“We have no king, but the emperor!” It’s tempting to consign this statement to the annals of history—to assume it was said in a particular time for a specific reason. I suppose this is true. And yet, I see shades of this sentiment echoed today. Our world is at least as fractured and as frightening as the one in which our Savior lived and died. And, let’s face it, fear and expediency—these continue to be motivating forces for what is proclaimed from too many pulpits the world over. There is, I believe, a temptation for too many religious leaders of various stripes to assume Jesus stands for one political party or another. Religious leaders, it seems, are far from immune from the temptation to align themselves with the forces of political power.
And yet, those who also say that politics should never enter the pulpit have also manufactured something of a moral falsehood. For the reality is—as people of faith—what our Savior says should inform how we live. There is no unbreachable wall between what we proclaim on Sunday and how we act come Monday. Politics and faith are always intertwined.
“We have no king, but the emperor!” It’s a statement that calling each of us to account. For, I suspect that if we are honest with ourselves, each of us have had moments when our public actions have been far removed from the faith we proclaim? On this holy day, as our Savior suffers on the cross, it’s well work asking: when have you bowed to the temptation of fear and expediency—denying your faith in Jesus, or failing to speak up and take action because you didn’t want to appear foolish or judgmental in front of others; or because what our Lord says in the Scriptures is clearly at odds with how you want to live your life? How often have we been guilty of failing to be witnesses and advocates of our faith and have, instead, conveniently stepped aside from standing boldly as a witness to the crucified God?
On Good Friday, none of us is allowed to stand at the foot of the cross and absolve ourselves from guilt. Not Pontius Pilate, not the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, not ourselves. For we are all guilty, every last one of us. The only innocent person is Jesus—and on this day he is hanging from the cross.
The crucified God stands above and before us. Always. On a day in which we confront the magnitude of our failing and our guilt—we should also be able to see in the face of our suffering savior his compassion, his grace and his forgiveness. And in this, perhaps, perhaps we shall also find the strength to renew our faith in his great and unending love for each of us. For in the end, neither fear nor expediency, neither politics nor even religiosity, none of these things, powerful though they may be, none of them have the power to hold shut the door of the tomb; and for this we offer our thanks and praise. In the hope of the resurrection. Amen.