Scripture: John 19:1–16a
(Note: This sermon was written by Pastor Cristina Adams, but was preached on 4/3 by Pastor Matt Sturtevant. Pastor Cristina was unable to be with us due to a death in her family.)
It has been a long road to the cross. As Jesus disrupted systems and continually showed others that God’s love and power is more expansive than previously imagined, he slowly made religious leaders feel increasingly angry and threatened. Through the narrative lectionary we have seen this progression.
- First, Jesus began his ministry by cleansing the Temple, upending tables and driving out animals, signaling that he was going to disrupt the status quo. Reasonably, the Temple leaders question him, asking him what authority he has to do such things, and Jesus gives no straight answer, leaving the leaders mystified with a big mess to clean up.
- Then we went to Nicodemus, a Pharisee and Jewish leader, came to talk to Jesus in the safety of the night, presumably so he could not be seen by other leaders, indicating Jesus was already causing tension among the leadership.
- We read healing stories that caused more people to believe. After Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, we read for the first time that Jewish leaders started persecuting Jesus because he was healing on the Sabbath (John 5:16), and when Jesus responded to the accusations, he called God his Father, and John says for this reason, “they began seeking all the more to kill him” (5:18)
- Then Jesus returned to Jerusalem, and religious leaders tried to have him arrested, but the temple police did not because they were amazed to hear the authority Jesus spoke with and that people were calling Jesus the Messiah (John 7:32, 45-47).
- When Jesus heals a man born blind on the sabbath, there is great debate among the leaders and those who witnessed the sign about where Jesus’ power comes from, and Jesus once again refers to God as his Father. There, Jesus is almost stoned and arrested for blasphemy “because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God” (John 10:33) but he escaped.
- After Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, a shift appears. The religious leaders are not just mad at Jesus for saying God is his father, they feel threatened by his signs, words, and presence and they say they are worried what will happen to the Jewish community as more and more people start to believe in him. Leaders got together and talked, saying, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place/temple and our nation.” And the high priest said, “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
- So when Jesus returns to Jerusalem for Passover, Jesus is arrested and brought before Pilate. The accusation before Pilate is this, “Jesus is claiming to be king of the Jews?”
Other gospels portray Pilate sympathetically, that he didn’t want to hand Jesus over to die but felt forced to. Here in John, something different is going on. From historical accounts, Pilate is described as “a mean-spirited and hard ruler, who scorned his Jewish subjects,” (NIB, 697). In this text, it seems that Pilate is not sympathetic to Jesus but is using Jesus to tease the Jews.
Our text today enters halfway through the encounter. Pilate and Jesus have already had one conversation. At the end of chapter 18, Pilate brings Jesus out in front of Jewish leaders saying, “I have no case against him” (18.38), but apparently there was a custom for a criminal to be released as passover, so Pilate offers to release Jesus, who he is identifying both as a king and a criminal, taunting the Jewish leaders that their king is a criminal.
Pilate continues this ridicule by dressing Jesus up as a king–putting a crown on his head and a purple robe, the color of royalty, on him. But the crown placed on Jesus’ head is a crown not of precious metal and jewels, but of lowly and painful thorns and the purple robe must have been bloodied from Jesus’ wounds. Pilate brings Jesus out in this condition and in essence is saying, “Here is the man that at least some of your people claim to be their king…doesn’t he look royal?!”
Multiple times Pilate says “I find no case against Jesus” but the religious leaders want Jesus to recieve the Roman death penalty, because they believe it to be the appropriate punishment for someone who is threatening their holy nation. When Pilate tries to put Jesus back into their hands, they threaten Pilate saying that they have a law where anyone claiming to be the Son of God should die. It is part of Pilate’s role as leader of the area to honor such local customs, and Pilate becomes afraid when he realizes the religious leaders are threatening his leadership. So Pilate has one last conversation with Jesus, and tries to release him, but the religious leaders more explicitly threaten Pilate, saying he is not a friend of the emperor if he releases Jesus.
Pilate brings Jesus outside, still in his crown and “royal” robe, and depending on how you interpret the text, Pilate either sat on the judge’s bench or sat Jesus on the judge’s bench. I think the second option is more compelling. Imagine Pilate placing Jesus on the bench where the ruler sits, and pointing to him, bloodied and bruised, taunting the religious leaders and saying, “Here is your king!” But they do not accept him as king and instead cry out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asks, as a continued taunt, “shall I crucify your King?” And the chief priests answer, “We have no king but the emperor.”
What began as the religious leaders being mad at Jesus because they said Jesus made himself equal to God by calling God his Father, which was dishonoring God because no human could be equal to God. What continued with the leaders feeling threatened by this growing following of Jesus that could threaten their nation, which was made holy by God…has now made them renounce the God they were initially trying to protect.
Fear of change, fear of losing power that was given to them by God, made them unable to recognize their true king; and so they turned away from God and towards the emperor, the state to maintain their protection and power.
How often do we do this? How often does fear drive us to turn away from God and towards something else? Looking at this text, it seems obvious…their king is right in front of them! And yet things of this world–staying in power, making sure everything fits into neat religious boxes–blocked them from seeing the truth and gave them a false sense of security. In fear and desperation, they turned away from God and towards the things that look powerful and grand from worldly standards.
In You are What You Love by James K.A. Smith, Smith argues that humans are all programmed to love something, to make something their king, but we have a choice as to where we direct that love, who we declare as our king. He says that love is a habit that is formed over time. This largely happens unconsciously as we are formed by small, everyday acts. In all that we do, we are either training ourselves to love God and God’s kingdom or to love something else and a kingdom of this world.
I wonder if this is what happened with the religious leaders. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say that at first, they really were concerned that Jesus was some sort of scam artist trying to lead people away from God and the faith of their ancestors and towards something heretical. But as time went on, they became more and more infatuated with what Jesus was doing and saying and with who was following him. A little at a time, this infatuation grew into a habit. They became obsessed with finding Jesus’ mistakes to discredit the authority others saw in him, and when they saw Jesus becoming a leader in the community, they saw their leadership and power being threatened. What may have started out as wanting to protect God and their community from a hypocrite, turned into a campaign to maintain their own power. They became so focused on the threat they thought Jesus was, they completely lost focus on God and ended up renouncing God altogether.
Does this pattern feel familiar? I think it is one we often encounter to varying degrees. It would be easy to say this is just something our leaders, the people that have more power than us, do. But if we really reflect, I think we will find that we all do this in our own way at times. The religious leaders wanted to be power, in control, a common desire because people don’t like feeling out of control. We don’t like admitting just how much is out of our control, so instead we create our own rules and systems to help us feel protected and in control, we turn to distractions and entertainment to drown out our fearful thoughts, we turn to temporary comforts again and again. Now these things are not necessarily bad every in themselves; we can all enjoy a fun movie or comforting a bowl of mac ‘n cheese and rules and systems are helpful and even necessary for the world to run smoothly, but if those coping mechanisms become the only things we turn to, if they become habits and the center of our love and worship. Then we miss the only thing that can truly bring lasting peace–God. We make something else our king. If our habits and daily routines do not include acknowledging God’s presence and work in our lives, we slowly train ourselves to love other things before God, to make things of this world our king with God in the background or maybe nowhere at all.
And so, what do we do? How can we develop habits and practices that train us daily to love God and God’s kingdom over the kingdoms of this world? There are many ways to do this, and it will look different for each of us, but in general, I am going to propose that leading up to Easter, we find times to intentionally focus and meditate on the love of God. As I prepared this sermon, a song called “Love > Fear” by a Christian group called “The Many” played in the back of my mind. Listen to some of the words:
“When I can’t find another way
When I don’t have the words to say
I pray that you are there
I pray love is greater than fear
Love is greater than
Love is greater than
Love is greater than fear”
The religious leaders that brought Jesus before Pilate let fear take over. They were afraid of Jesus changing things. They were afraid of losing power, and that fear consumed them and led them to lose focus of God. There are so many things that could cause fear in our lives today, it is easy to be consumed by fear. 1 John 4 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear….We love because he first loved us.” May we focus and meditate on that love, finding rhythms and habits that echo it, so that God remains king in our lives. Amen.