Pilate understands power. It’s the air he breathes. He knows its structures, he knows its relationships. The exercise of power is the way Roman society works. The powerful were expected to dominate the weak. Masters dominated their slaves, patriarchs dominated their families, Roman soldiers dominated the people of occupied nations. Yes, Pilate understands power. It’s the first criteria he uses when he’s sizing someone up, it’s his map as he navigates his way through life. And so far, he’s doing pretty well. He is the fifth Governor of the Roman province of Judea under the Emperor Tiberias. He has Roman soldiers under his command and Jewish authorities under his thumb. As Roman Governors go, he is a big fish in a small pond, but without much job security, and he knows that better than anyone else. Just as his own ruthlessness and maneuvering has brought him to his current position of power, he knows that if he fails to keep control of the province or falls short in collecting taxes for the empire, those who have more power than he will have him removed in an instant. Pilate understands power.
And so when Pilate addresses Jesus, the first question he asks is a power question. “Are you the King of the Jews?” But Jesus sidesteps the power question. Pilate persists. He needs to know the power dynamics. “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. Why, what have you done?” Jesus once again refuses to engage in the contest of power. Now, we know that Jesus is powerful. We’ve seen his signs and healings, we’ve seen how he can draw a crowd. But he lets go of all of that. And Pilate doesn’t understand. He’s perplexed by Jesus’ refusal to play by his rules. “Do you not know that I have the power to release you and the power to crucify you?”
Jesus won’t be drawn into the power game. “You say I’m a king.” You’re concerned about power. But I’m here for a different reason. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”
Truth vs Power. It is, I suppose, the classic confrontation. “What is truth?” scoffs Pilate.
Pilate has a lot invested in power. So do we, if you think about it. We spend most of our lives trying to become more powerful. We grow up. We educate ourselves. We compete for jobs. We increase our earning power. We network, we make connections, we acquire things, we have lines of credit and credit cards in our wallets. We strive for independence. We strive for security. We like to be in control of our lives. We like to be in control of our relationships too. We may not go as far as Pilate does, but we have a lot invested in power.
Do we make the same investment in truth? In response to a question of identity, Jesus responds that his whole purpose in life has been to reveal the truth. He has given up power in order to reveal the truth. And just what is this truth for which Jesus was born, to which his life and now his death will be a testimony?
I suppose that we could use many formulations and write many words to describe that truth. John, the gospel writer uses just three:
“God is Love”
I believe that God is love. But I’m not sure that it helps much to just say it. I think that if Jesus had simply told people that God is love, most of us would want that love to look like unicorns and rainbows[i], like one of the poems on the inside of a Hallmark Greeting Card.
I believe that God loves us. But I’m reminded of the advice that I was once given, that whenever I say ‘God loves you’ in a sermon, what most people hear is “blah blah blah blah blah”.
Because we need more than words. So it makes sense to me that God sent Jesus to show us what love is. To help us experience it. Jesus is the word made flesh, God in human form, the one who makes God known, who reveals God to us. And it is on the cross where God’s love is revealed most fully. Love is hard. Love sacrifices. Love suffers. Love serves. Love is vulnerable. Love weeps, love cries out, love forgives.
Or in the words of Leonard Cohen, “Love is not a victory march; it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”
God’s love is a refusal to exercise power, a refusal that for Jesus, results in death.
It seems to me that every year as we gather on Good Friday, as we hear the passion gospel, as we meditate before the cross, it seems to me that one of the things that we try to do is to draw meaning out of that death. One of the meanings that we as the church have drawn out of Jesus’ death from the very beginning is that through it our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled with God. How does that happen? Sometimes we try to answer that question by saying that a just God needed to punish humanity for its sinfulness, and that Jesus offered to be punished in our place and so the rest of us escaped punishment and are forgiven.
However, when we speak about the cross in this way we need to be careful not to reduce the cross to a logic that Pilate would have understood very well. We’re need to be cautious about using the language of power and the logic of exchange to propose a mechanism for how God forgives us.
I believe that the cross is at once much simpler and much more profound than a language of exchange can ever convey.
God forgives us because God loves us. Simple, yes, but also profound. Because love isn’t rainbows and unicorns. Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.
Because in order for forgiveness to really happen, something has to die. We know that from our own relationships, if only in a limited way. Whenever there is forgiveness, there is a death:
A dying of expectations
A letting go of your power over another
The death of your reason for feeling better than someone else
A breach in your wall of security which leaves you exposed and vulnerable
A letting go of anger or desire for retribution
An embracing of something that hurts when it could have been kept at arm’s length
We all know, each in our imperfect way, what it means to love. We all know, each in our imperfect way, what it means to forgive. And that means we all know or can imagine, at least in some measure, how painful it is to be rejected by the ones we love, and how much we suffer when we see the suffering of those that we love. We can’t love without being hurt, without being open to pain and sorrow. And we know how much it costs to forgive those that hurt us and to forgive those that harm those we love, to remain in relationship with them and to continue to love them.
How much more then must God, who is love, and created us out of love, suffer and endure pain as a result of what happens in our world. In the course of human history, with its war and violence and genocides, in the course of our own personal histories, imagine how much pain and suffering a God who loves has had to endure.
God loves us. God forgives us. And every day God is dying. Every day, God hears the cry of his people, and suffers with them. Every day, God endures the pain and anguish that come when the people you love turn against you, abandon you and reject you. Every day, something in God dies as God forgives us and loves us and draws us near.
Now, we don’t get to see that every day. God is, for the most part, invisible to us, a mystery that transcends us. But perhaps God in God’s wisdom thought that we should see it at least once in human history. That at least once the veil should be removed. No one has ever seen God. But it is God’s only Son who has made God known. And Jesus, the Word who was God, the Word made flesh, he has made God known to us, and known must fully on the cross.
Pilate orders a sign to be placed above Jesus on the cross. “The King of the Jews”. He meant it sarcastically, he meant it as a warning. He didn’t realize that for once he spoke truth. Because Jesus is king, and this is how he rules: in self-sacrificing love, humility, and vulnerability, in solidarity with the weak, the poor, and the oppressed.[ii]
Jesus died on the cross to testify to the truth that God loves us. Because we needed to see that love with our own eyes, we needed to experience it, we needed to see what love looks like, and what it costs. And once we’ve seen it, we’ll never be the same again. When Jesus said “Love one another the way I have loved you,” he wasn’t talking rainbows and unicorns.
“Love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”
Homily: Good Friday. April 18 2014. St. Albans
Isaiah 52.13-53.12; Ps 22; Heb 10.16-25; Jn 18.1-19.42
Image by Diane Brennan (Creative Commons)
[i] Brene Brown, http://www.davidlose.net/2014/04/brene-brown-on-church-as-midwife/
[ii] Sarah Sanderson-Doughty, http://aplm2013.blogspot.ca/2018/03/homiletic-reflection-good-friday.html