Sunday, March 27, 2022

Phil Kniss: Delegating the dirty work

Lent 4 – “Hero turns Criminal: Jesus and Pilate”
John 18:28-40

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Just a heads up.
This sermon is going to get political.
I have no choice.
This is one of the most baldly political Gospel stories that we have.

You know me well enough not to get too worried.
I don’t do partisan politics in church.
But actual politics is unavoidable in church, and in the Bible.
You couldn’t keep politics out of the church if you tried.
Because politics is the process of figuring out,
in any social group, including nations and churches,
who has power, what kind of power,
how that power is distributed,
and how decisions are made.

That, dear friends, is the main plot of the Gospel story today.

We do scripture an injustice,
if we read John 18 too simply and spiritually.
That’s how I grew up hearing this text.
The main reason for the story, it seemed,
was to have Jesus make pithy spiritual quotes,
“My kingdom is not of this world.”
“I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”
“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
But we can’t just pull out a few good Jesus quotes,
and say we’re done with this story.

So let’s get political, shall we?

Let’s review the political players in the story, and behind the story.
Palestine was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire.
There is no doubt, not a shadow of a doubt,
who has the political power here.
Caesar does, and all he represents.
The population of Palestine, of course, was mostly Jewish.
It used to be an independent state,
with a deeply religious identity and power structure.
Now, it’s basically powerless, and small,
and in service to the Roman Empire.
Because of its strategic location on the eastern Mediterranean,
multiple trade routes criss-crossed through it.

Rome had a huge stake in this small region.
It needed to keep the land in its control.
And, they needed to keep the people in the land
just happy enough not to revolt.
A revolt against Rome would not just
be inconvenient, or embarrassing.
It would disrupt international trade.
If those trade routes were no longer deemed safe,
merchants would stop shipping,
and Rome wouldn’t get the goods flowing their way
from other parts of the Empire.

These facts are not incidental to today’s story. They are central.

Rome set up Palestine in a way that made this system work.
The real Palestinian headquarters of the Empire
were in Caesarea, by the sea.
A town named, appropriately, after Caesar.
That’s where Pilate, the prefect, lived,
and apparently spent most of his time.
But as the chief Roman officer in Palestine,
Pilate would travel to Jerusalem at crucial times,
and set up shop in his branch office
in the religious capital.
It was especially important to do this
during Jewish religious festivals.
The streets would be full of Jews from all over the country,
and beyond.
They had lots of time for gathering and celebrating,
and . . . potentially . . . organizing for rebellion.
So Pilate made sure the Empire was visible,
to discourage anything from getting started,
and if something did, to quash it before it got out of hand.
Same thing, in big cities today—NY, DC—on major holidays,
whole platoons of uniformed, armed, law enforcement officers
are stationed everywhere—
to discourage violence from starting,
and stop it quickly before it escalates.
That’s why Pilate was in Jerusalem.
And you can be sure uniformed and armed Roman officers
were also in abundance.

The writer of John’s Gospel again,
weaves the narrative so that we see Jesus for who he is,
in relation to God, in relation to the world and its powers.
And John’s style is to advance the narrative with dialogue.
John is not an action-packed Gospel.
It’s a conversation-packed Gospel.

So let’s follow the dialogue a bit.
Kind of like last week,
there are two different conversations going on.
And the camera cuts back and forth between them.
Except here, the main actor, Pilate,
is also running back and forth between the scenes.

Because, being Passover, any Jew would become unclean
if they entered Pilate’s headquarters (a Gentile space),
and ritual purification would take too long,
for them to be able to eat the Passover meal,
so we have this almost comical scene,
where Jesus’ accusers are outside,
and Jesus is inside (no real concern about a prisoner
being able to eat Passover),
and Pilate, the most powerful one in the picture,
keeps running back and forth,
trying to accommodate needs on both sides.
Not the most efficient way to run a trial.
But remember, Pilate has to walk a very fine political line here.
Show his power, represent the strength of the Empire,
but also show enough deference to his subjects,
that they don’t get angry and revolt.
Yes, Rome had the power to quickly shut down any revolt.
But it would look bad if it happened on Pilate’s watch.

The way this arrangement worked with Rome,
was that the Jewish Sanhedrin had the power
to prosecute and punish for religious infractions;
and the Roman court had the power
to prosecute and punish for legal or political crimes.

So after Jesus was brought inside—
presumably presented to Pilate for authorization to crucify—
Pilate then went outside to the accusers to clarify the charge.
When he asked what the crime was,
they gave a non-answer, like political leaders tend to do:
“If this man were not a criminal,
we would not have handed him over to you.”
Pilate saw what was happening, and said,
“Judge him according to your law.”
They objected,
“We are not permitted to put anyone to death.”

That was half true.
They could not crucify.
Jewish law did allow for capital punishment by stoning.
But knowing how popular Jesus was among the people,
especially outside Jerusalem,
they were not about to lead a public religious execution.
The political fallout would be too great.

So both Pilate and the religious leaders are in a fix.
They all want the same thing, but no clear way to get at it.
Killing Jesus would solve problems on both sides.

It would benefit Rome,
because Jesus’ popularity,
and rumblings about this “King of the Jews”
had Rome on edge.
Rome didn’t want a war of rebellion.
So much easier to collect taxes in peacetime.
But it was politically dangerous for Pilate
to execute someone without legal cause.

And Jesus’ death would benefit the religious hierarchy,
because common folks were spreading the notion
that Jesus was the Messiah,
which the leaders knew to be false,
because Jesus broke religious laws.
They had to silence that talk, and quick,
because a needless popular uprising would hurt everybody,
and destroy the political arrangement.

So here is Jesus,
bound and imprisoned inside Pilate’s headquarters,
but still holding all the power in the equation.
And both the civil and religious power elite,
are outside, caught in the middle.

Pilate comes in again, and asks Jesus point-blank:
“Are you King of the Jews?”
If Jesus answers yes,
there’s a political crime worthy of crucifixion.
It’s treason, because there already was a Roman
King of the Jews—Herod.

Of course, Jesus knew why he was being asked.
He answered,
“My kingdom is not from this world.
If my kingdom were from this world,
my followers would be fighting.”
It’s like Jesus was saying,
“Pilate, there is no need for you to worry about the thing
you are worrying about.”
Not saying you have nothing to worry about.
But I’m not here to take Herod’s place.
My kingdom operates at a different level.”
“So you are a king?” Pilate says.

“You say I am a king.
I say, I came into the world to speak of truth.
Everyone who belongs to the truth knows what I’m saying.”
Then Pilate said, “What is truth?”

Now, we don’t have the screenplay for this movie,
telling us how that line should be spoken.
Was it a deep, existential question, with Pilate’s hand on his chin,
“What is truth?”
Or was Pilate saying it in frustration and under his breath,
as he stomped back outside to the religious leaders?
“What is truth?!”
I’m guessing that was more likely.
Because he is truly caught here.
He knows what he wants,
but doesn’t know how to get it.

He offers the crowd Barabbas,
an actual criminal facing a death penalty,
thinking that might calm them down.
They didn’t take the bait.
They want Pilate to take Jesus off their hands.

So . . . this is where the story stops for today.
It’s a cliff-hanger.
We’ll pick it up again next week.

But I want to leave us with some questions again,
that make the Gospel not just about them, and there, and then,
but about us, and here, and now.
So we need to get political.

If we don’t see ourselves in this story—
ourselves in relationship to Jesus—
then we’re missing John’s main point in writing.

What I see here in John 18 are a lot of people
trying to delegate the dirty work to others.
And that is something we are also prone to do.
Maybe, especially, we in the church.
Delegating dirty work to others
is a constant and strong temptation for people of faith.

It’s part of our Mennonite heritage—
being the “quiet in the land” was not just a theological position.
It was politically convenient, if we’re honest.
We could enjoy the economic and political benefit
of living in a robust capitalist system,
while being careful not to object to any injustice
done by the nation-state in our name,
just so long as they left us alone to live in peace.

I think of Mennonites in Europe in the late 1700s
who were invited by Catherine the Great
to go to the Ukraine and raise crops for Russia.
They didn’t have to go to war.
They could accumulate wealth.
They could be religious and ignore politics and social issues.

I think also of Mennonites in North America,
about the same time,
invited by the English colony in Virginia
to migrate to the Shenandoah Valley
and farm the land being given away,
which had previously been occupied by native peoples.

Seems like that’s not a far cry from what was happening
in John 18 in Pilate’s courtyard.
People of faith preserving their peace and stability,
while delegating the dirty work of violence to others.

We could name other examples in history,
where people of Christian faith could not in good conscience,
directly carry out some deed,
but . . . were quite willing to stand aside
and let someone else do the deed,
and secretly enjoy the outcome,
while keeping their own moral purity intact.

Or to bring it close to home,
surely we can think of times
when we took delight in someone’s downfall or demise,
someone who represented something repulsive to us.

In our current political climate,
this happens, literally, all the time.
And people of Christian faith are not immune to joining right in.

I wonder how often we’d be brought up short,
if we determined not to delight in any outcome
that resulted from some action
we could not morally support or engage in ourselves.

It gets more than a little complicated in times of war,
such as in Ukraine.
We would love for everything there to just miraculously stop.
We would love for there to be a change of heart,
a repentance on the part of those waging war.
Short of that,
how do peace-loving and justice-seeking Christians
feel about escalating counter-violence to end warfare?

In any war, I realize there is a thing called “lesser evil,”
which for pragmatic reasons,
we sometimes need to reluctantly accept.
But it makes a difference
what we say about that, how we frame it,
how we react when our side starts winning a war
that we are morally opposed to participating in.
One place to start is to choose not to cheer,
either outwardly or inwardly,
when bombs drop on the enemy—
be that enemy a nation-state bent on evil,
or be that a personal adversary of some kind.
As hard as it might be to say in the heat of a conflict,
our enemies, Putin included, are human beings,
and are, by definition, loved by God,
and made in God’s image.
That’s a biblical truth we cannot skirt around.

Perhaps, instead of delegating dirty work to others,
and rejoicing when that work gets done,
a more faithful response might be this:

When dirty work is done that we benefit from,
we choose to gaze on the total human cost, the human suffering,
and genuinely mourn that it came to this.
To weep with all people who suffer,
and redouble our efforts to work for healing for all
and work for a world that is more just and life-giving.

Let’s begin with that commitment
by reading together our prayer of confession.
You’ll find it in your order of worship,
and see it on the screen.
It includes singing “Kyrie eleison,”
so let’s begin with that.

all [sing “Kyrie”]
one Almighty God, you empower us to do your will, 
even when the cost is great.
Jesus, you call us to walk in your way, 
even when the way is hard.
Holy Spirit, you accompany us at every turn and every obstacle.
all Yet, we confess,
we often choose a path of less resistance.
one God, we admit we often stand aside in the presence of evil,
relinquish our call to risk all for God’s kingdom,
and let the powers of this world have their way when it benefits us.
Forgive us when we delegate our kingdom work to earthly powers.
all [sing “Kyrie”]
one God of Grace and Truth,
you forgive our doubt and indecision.
Give us the courage to stand up and represent 
your kingdom of truth and justice and peace.

—Phil Kniss, March 27, 2022

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