A Sermon on John 19:1-16
On Wednesday morning, some 200 students gathered in the auditorium of West High School as part of a nationwide walk out to protest gun violence. They spent 17 minutes in silence for the 17 students killed a month ago in Parkland Florida. That same afternoon, about 40 of us sat in the Heritage Room with Officer Justin Newman as he talked us through Active Violence Active Shooter protocols. And all the while, I was pondering the violence of the stories from John’s gospel of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion. It is part of the life of a preacher that we learn to see the connections between the events of the week and Sunday’s scripture, so I knew that the Holy Spirit was trying to say something, but I couldn’t quite hear it clearly.
And then, much to my surprise, the Holy Spirit spoke through the mouth of Officer Newman. About half way through his presentation, Office Newman began to speak specifically about the profile of a person who becomes an active shooter. “They are fascinated by violence” he said, and I heard the chief priests discussing amongst themselves a plan to get Jesus killed. “They are obsessed with perpetrators of other mass shootings,” Officer Newman said, and I heard the religious leaders crying out for the release of Barabbas. “They worship those perpetrators,” he said, and I heard the chief priests answer Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar.”
It disturbs me that the violence we find in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion is so closely mirrored in our lives these 2000 years later. It saddens me that so much of our first instincts are still the same: to run from the violence in our lives as though we can actually escape it, to barricade ourselves behind locked doors as if we can hide from evil, to answer violence with violence as if there is a cap on the amount of killing humans can endure. More than ever, we need the example of Jesus who came to show us a different way.
I’ve been following the commentary of Meda Stamper on these John texts, and couple of weeks ago as we began the story of Jesus’ death, she wrote this: “On all sides of this story there is violence, but stretching out into eternity beyond the violence in either direction is love. Violence is easier than testimony. The nonviolent resistance of love expressed in testimony is vulnerable and courageous.”
From the beginning of this gospel, Jesus’ words and actions have called us to a way of living that is opposite of our self-protective intuitions, those gut instincts that lead us to fear. At every turn, we see Jesus resisting the violence of our world, refusing to participate in a system rigged for injustice, rescuing people from the pathways that lead to death and destruction.
When the temple system prioritized bodies over buildings, Jesus’ own body flipped the money changer’s tables and drove out the dove sellers, re-defining the center of our lives. When a Pharisee came by night to ask Jesus where his power came from, he advised Nicodemus to born from above as he had been, so he could understand that God came in flesh to love the world, not to judge it. When the Samaritan woman came to the well in the isolation imposed on her by a judgmental community, Jesus spoke the uncomfortable truth about her life aloud and turned her into a testifying disciple. When his friend Lazarus died, Jesus took time to weep before raising him, in sorrow that even this most powerful sign would not be enough to convince God’s people to forsake their death-dealing ways.
Finally, in chapters 18 and 19, the conflict between the abundant life of Jesus and a system that leads only to death comes to it’s head. As Judas and the soldiers come forward with tools of violence, Jesus puts himself in their path, his own body on the line. When Peter answers violence with violence and cuts off Malchus’ ear, Jesus explicitly says that violence cannot win this fight.
When he comes before the chief priests, Jesus suggests his accusers question witnesses, but they have already condemned him. There is no justice in this system, only violence, and his suggestion is answered with a blow from a policeman. With no other answer, Jesus is sent to Pilate, the tool used to accomplish ultimate violence.
It is in Pilate that we see most clearly how the systems we have set up to serve us ultimately fail. Pilate can see that Jesus is innocent of the charges against him, but this man who is supposed to be the most powerful in Judea finds himself trapped. On the one side, he has a riot incited by the religious leaders, and on the other, the emperor, who has assigned him to this region for the express purpose of preventing such riots. The only choice left to Pilate is no choice at all: give in to their demand for one death in hopes of preventing a full scale insurrection. The one who acts as judge at Jesus’ trial is condemned by his own action.
But notice, that even as his death draws near, Jesus’ speaks a word of grace and love to Pilate. In a moment of desperation, facing a silent and serene Jesus, Pilate blurts out “Don’t you know I could release you?” the implication being that all Jesus has to do is deny who he is and this will all be over. “Don’t you know I have the power to crucify you?” Pilate says. “The only power you have,” Jesus replies, “is the power that God has given you to play your part in this story. But don’t worry, I know you’re stuck, therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”
That greater sin becomes immediately apparent, when Pilate appeals to the chief priest for the last time. Let me release Jesus, your king, Pilate begs. “We have no king but Caesar” they blaspheme, and Jesus is handed over to be crucified.
In the gospel of John, Stamper writes, “Servants of Caesar are known by their violence. Jesus says everyone will know his servants by their love.” So, I ask you this morning, how are we known, we who profess to know and love Jesus? Do our words and actions reflect that we have been born from above, lovers of friend and enemy alike? Or do our words and actions communicate that our first allegiance is to something else — a nation or party or our own personal safety?
Will we here at Bethlehem answer the threat of active shooters by arming our ushers and locking down our buildings, or will we dare to love and welcome even those disgruntled people who might be on the path to violence? We will as a community turn away from the fear-mongering news of the day feeling powerless to change things, or will we stand up together, believing boldly that nonviolent resistance in community really is the most effective way to bring about God’s reign?
The answer to this questions is unclear, proving again that we need the good news of Jesus. It is exactly the broken world that God loves, it is for Pilate and the chief priests, for them and for us that Jesus came. As Stamper says, “The judgment of this world is also its salvation.When truth-telling love is bound and beaten and killed…that is never the end of the story.”
In his boldness even unto death, Jesus did what we often cannot. And in his resurrection from the dead, he broke the cycle of violence so that we need not find ourselves trapped like Pilate. By his death and resurrection, Jesus enables us to face violence with peace, to overcome our fear with power from above, to speak truth as we boldly proclaim, “we have no king by Jesus.”