Rev. Teri Peterson
no king but Love
6 April 2014, NL4-31, Lent 5 (at the threshold)
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, ‘Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.’ So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’ When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.’ The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.’
Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.’ From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.’
When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’ They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’ Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.
This weekend, I finally watched the movie Frozen. The friends I was with got tired of me saying, over and over again, “hey, that would totally work in a sermon!” The only part they agreed with me was when the trolls are singing to Kristoff and Anna, and they say “people make bad choices when they’re mad or sad or stressed, but with a little love, you can bring out their best!” In addition to being true and difficult, it also reminded me of this story of Jesus and Pilate and the Jewish leaders.
Last week we watched as Pilate went in and out between Jesus and the crowd of religious leaders, trying to make up his mind as to which way to choose. This week we have the second half of that story—three trips through the door last week, and four this week. Still Pilate is caught between two ways forward: the way of popularity with the world, and the way of Truth. We heard him ask last week “what is truth?” and we remembered that Jesus said “I am the truth.” In the face of The Truth, what happens?
Well, if today’s reading is any indication, fear is what happens. While scripture, and Disney, tells us that perfect love casts out fear, it is still true that fear won’t go without a fight.
Sometimes fear looks like anxiety. Sometimes it looks like uncertainty or nervousness. Sometimes it looks like wild over-indulgence and flitting from thing to thing. Sometimes it looks like withdrawing and isolating. Sometimes it looks like making plans for every contingency, even the ones that will never happen. In today’s story, we see three really common manifestations of fear—and what happens when we let fear guide us.
At the beginning of the story, fear lashes out—in the form of whips and words, put-downs and sarcasm and mocking. It’s often our first line of defense, to bolster our own egos by denigrating others. They should have tried harder, they made bad choices, they deserve what they got. They just don’t understand us, don’t commit the way we used to, are only looking for easy answers and a handout. We do it on an individual level and a corporate one—we look for a scapegoat that can bear the burden of our anxiety, and we push it out into the wilderness and breathe a sigh of relief that we’re better than that.
Yet Jesus said that whatever we do to the least of these, we do to him. Our mocking and put-downs weave together into a crown of thorns that can only be worn by the One who intentionally places himself with the outcast, even as I congratulate myself on my quick wit. And the leaders and police and guards and politicians who turned their abuse on Jesus, they end up declaring the very thing they are decrying—that Jesus is Lord. They think it’s a fun game, to hurt and abuse and put down, to turn Jesus’ words against him.
But it only lasts a little while. Pretty soon we need another scapegoat, because I don’t know about you but when I’m relying on myself and my ego, I need a boost pretty quickly. Not to mention that, more often than not, we find out along with those who pressed that crown into Jesus’ head that our words turn back on us. Jesus doesn’t respond with hateful words of his own, he just keeps on being the same Love, the same gateway to Abundant Life, the same King who came to serve, not to be served.
The religious and political leaders can see that this is not working—Pilate is still trying to navigate some middle path that will allow him to be both right and popular, but they want him to come fully to their side, so they bring out the biggest charge against Jesus: he claimed to be the Son of God.
Which, of course, Jesus has done, more than once. And Son of God is a title that the Romans reserve for just one person: the emperor. To claim to be the Son of God in the Roman world is treason. And to claim to be the Son of God in Jewish world is blasphemy.
For all we talk about how Jesus was sinless, there is also the reality that when it comes to breaking these two laws, he was guilty.
And Pilate, John tells us, is more afraid than ever.
In his fear, he starts doing the next thing many of us do when we are terrified: he asks a zillion questions, none of them the one that will bring him an answer. He wants to know where Jesus is from, why Jesus won’t answer, does Jesus understand anything at all about power. He cannot wait for an answer, of course, because in his fear his mind and his mouth are running a million miles a minute, in all the wrong directions.
How often have we confronted something scary with a bunch of questions? I know I do it, and I bet most of us do. I’ve gone round and round with questions like “how can I fix her? why is this happening to me? what on earth is he thinking? If I say this, what will they say?” We have questions for doctors, questions for church experts, questions for coaches, questions for teachers, questions for friends, questions for ourselves. But rarely are they the right questions. Pilate’s questions don’t lead him any closer to choosing which door to walk through—they lead him deeper into his fear instead, deeper into his own understanding of power rooted in violence, while Jesus is embodying power rooted in love.
Now Pilate and the other leaders are feeding on each others’ anxiety, the same way politicians and advertising executives count on us to feed each others’ anxiety, and we get to the final step in giving in to fear: the chief priests, the very ones whose job is to ensure that everyone carefully follows all the religious rules, are so desperate that they break the first commandment. They declare “we have no king but the emperor.” And, just as Peter’s denial of his identity as a disciple was accidentally the truth, so the chief priests have accidentally told the truth. In one place, they proclaim there is no God but God…but outside those walls, their words and actions tell a different story: security and power are their real gods. They so caught up in the possibility of losing their status and safety, they let God go without a second thought.
And here’s where we really hit close to home. There are lots of ways we too finish that sentence: “we have no king but _____.” What are the things we bow down to, pledge our allegiance to, serve? we have no king but…busyness? money? our political party? the military? no king but our memory of the way things used to be? no king but our picture of what life is supposed to be like? what church is supposed to be like? We have no king but our own desires, which we’ll ask God to bless?
We have no king but the emperor, the chief priests cry. And so Pilate comes out to the judgment seat, to the stone table where the sacrifice is made, and at noon on the day of preparation for the Passover, he gives the order to sacrifice the Lamb of God, whose life will pour out for the life of the world.
Pilate wants desperately to have it both ways—he is caught between the doors, with no way to walk through both. He has to choose, as we must choose: the ways of the world, with power, wealth, status, and security? Or the way of Jesus, which insists on meeting people’s pain with compassion, meeting contempt with hope, meeting anger with love. When we are afraid, we so often lash out and hurt others, or we lash in and shame ourselves, but the way of Jesus is about faith, hope, and love. It is about being a peacemaker and a caretaker, even when that way seems impossible and ridiculous. It is about choosing the door to the cross, which will mean leaving all else behind.
That is a scary proposition, even though Jesus has walked this way before us. Jesus has already traveled this road of suffering, grief, hope, compassion, friendship, loss, laughter, tears, pain, frustration, and joy. He told us that we too know the way, so we do not need to be anxious. After all, perfect love casts out fear—which does not mean we will not feel fear, it means we don’t have to act on it. Perfect love pours itself out, washing away the well-worn ruts of our mocking, our questions, our idolatry, making new paths of faith, hope, and love. Or, as the trolls in Frozen sing: “People make bad choices when they’re mad or scared or stressed, but true love will bring out their best.” One of my friends reminds us often that “hurt people hurt people”—but we don’t have to hurt them back. Perfect love calls us to love as well—to follow in Jesus’ footsteps even when that means letting go of the paths we have always known, even when it means saying “We have no king but Love.”
May we step across the threshold into abundant life, today and every day.