"If You Really Want to Subvert the Evil Powers of This Age"

Last Pentecost.B.18
John 18:33-37
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

In her book Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “As a general rule, I would say that human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God.” Such is the case with the priest Annas, and his son-in-law, the High Priest Caiaphas, who have made the decision that Jesus must die. As Caiaphas so bluntly puts it: “It is better to have one man die for the people.” But herein lies a problem. Priests don’t have the power of capital punishment, and this is why Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate, and accused of the crime of treason.

Bear in mind that the last thing Pilate wants, is get into the middle of a Jewish religious hassle right when thousands of Jews from all over the empire are packing the city for the observance of Passover (this is a disaster ripe for the picking—and perhaps we might even be able to muster up a bit of sympathy for the predicament in which Pilate finds himself). He tries to wiggle out by telling Annas and Caiaphas to take care of the problem themselves, but they point out the regulations which Pilate, himself, is in charge of upholding: “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” And so, back on the hot seat goes Pilate, and this is where we find him this morning.

He summons Jesus asking: “Are you the king of the Jews?” But let’s get something clear. I don’t believe for a moment that Pilate was making an honest inquiry. Think of this as a mocking statement: “So, you’re the King of the Jews, are you?”

And about now is when things get interesting, because Jesus’ response—well, it’s astounding. He doesn’t appear bullied, or afraid. In fact, if you think about it, he certainly acts like a king of some sort. He’s hardly taking on the appearance of a victim—and the truth is, the closer we look, the more it seems that Jesus, rather than Pilate, appears to be the one in charge of this particular interview. His reply to Pilate is hardly deferential: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

Pilate is put on the spot, and he doesn’t like it. He snips back: “I am not a Jew, am I?” Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
Jesus loses nothing of his cool—and responds with remarkable dignity and confidence: “My kingdom is not from this world.” And Pilate replies: “So, you are a king?” And, I wonder here, if for only a moment, if Pilate might be grasping at salvation—but he quickly turns tail and avoids the deeper questions of the soul and retreats.

By the end of the exchange, you cannot help but realize the truth, which is that the one who is really on trial during this interview—It’s not Jesus. It’s Pilate himself.

The author John Steinbeck once wrote: “Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts. Perhaps the fear of a loss of power.” Following their exchange in the praetorium, Pilate declares his verdict: “I find no case against this man.” Yet, sensing the mood of an angry mob (which, if you think about it, possesses a power all its own)—he counters with an offer—the release of Jesus the King or Barabbas the Bandit. Pilate, you see, is showing his true colors. He is afraid—afraid of losing control. And the people choose Barabbas. Pilate isn’t done—and nor, for that matter is the crowd. He has Jesus flogged; and discovers that even this fails to appease an angry mob. And Pilate says to Jesus: “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus responds: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” Pilate tries to release Jesus, yet capitulates to the demand of the crowd. In the end, the allegiance he chooses is one of familiarity—the easiest path available--the trappings of imperial power.

Here’s the crux of the issue. The power base of Jesus—it doesn’t lie in his followers—devoted and well-intentioned though they may be. It comes from God. Amy Tan wrote this about the nature of power: “You see what power is—holding someone else’s fear in your hand and showing it to them.” Jesus’s power, ultimately is Truth. A truth which holds up the consequences of Pilate’s decisions (and our own) to the scrutiny of God. The kind of power our Messiah wields is one which shows us our deepest fears and longings, and says to us: “Be not afraid…for I am with you always.”

In the end, today’s lesson should make all of us profoundly nervous. How many of us, like Pilate, have been tempted to avoid conflict and take the easiest path—side with the mob, fail to look deeper than the current spin of the news cycle, rely upon sound bites to articulate our positions rather than struggling with the deeper realities which lie on either side. How often do we choose silence, or initiate a swift change of topic rather than engage in a potentially messy and honest conversation, speaking the truth that resides in each of us. If given a choice between Christ as our King, or Caesar, how many of us would look at the cost of being a disciple of our Savior, and choose, instead, to raise our hands and proclaim (as did the mob in Rome) “We have no king but Caesar!” Because the truth is, that Jesus is asking of us something more than what Caesar wanted. Caesar simply wanted power and control. Jesus—well, he wants your heart. Caesar wants you to toe the line, pay your taxes and keep in your place. Jesus, well now—he wants to enlist you as a foot soldier to participate in a revolution—that of bringing the kingdom of God here on earth.

Early Christians were believed to be fanatical, seditious, obstinate and defiant (they probably weren’t invited to many cocktail parties). The Roman orator, Tacitus went so far as to refer to them as “haters of mankind.” These Christians—they scorned long-held Roman religious traditions. They didn’t go to the games at the colosseum. They refused military service. They were accused of failing to understand their civic duty.

What the early Christians understood—that we, living in an age where truth is relative, seem to have lost, is that if God is truly king; well, that means that for us, the rulers of the world are not—and the kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied, well, that is precisely the kingdom to which we owe our deepest allegiance, and for which we are to work to make a reality here and now.

So consider this. Perhaps one of the most subversive of all political acts that we, as disciples of Christ our King, can engage in against the powers of this world isn’t joining protests, engaging in boycotts or writing letters to people in power—helpful though this may be. The most subversive act against the evil powers of this age is this: to pray. Specifically, to pray the Lord’s Prayer “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” People who truly live and pray this way—they have a very different agenda than Caesar’s. The lesson for today ends with these words: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” In the end, we’re all on the hook—and each of us is left with a decision. Who is our King? And how shall we serve? In Jesus’ name. Amen.

(I’m indebted to Kathryn Matthews Huey for many of the thoughts in this sermon)