Sunday, April 3, 2022

Moriah Hurst: The fear of power or the power of fear

Lent 5 – “Praising turns to Taunting: Jesus is Condemned”
John 19:1-16a

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Our story opens mid stride. We are stepping in half way through this courtroom drama. Pilate and the Jewish leaders are in the middle of seven scenes going back and forth, inside and outside. With argument, reasoning, shouting and questions. Last week we started this long morning with Jesus early in the morning. By the end of today's text it is noon.
I’m reminded of my maternal grandma who used to have a large collection of VHS videos with movies on them. I loved going to her house to watch things, partly because we didn’t have a tv at home for most of my growing up years. The problem was that Grandma was the queen of spoilers. We would be 5 minutes into the movie and Grandma would walk in and say “oh did the mother died yet?” or “do you know that little boy has cancer?”, (dead pan) “No Grandma, we didn’t know that yet.” But like my Grandma, we know what happens here. We get the spoiler every year or any time we open our bibles to the end of any of the gospels. Yet we are suspended in this painful moment with Jesus. We are invited to witness the wrestling for power, the calling of names, and the cruel shouts for death by crucifixion. We see Jesus standing alone, beaten and mocked, yet still composed and thoughtful in his answers.

We start midmorning with Pilate ordering the flogging of Jesus. The soldiers make a show of mocking the title and role that Jesus has been accused of claiming. “Hail King of the Jews” they seem to spit in his face. After dressing him in the color of royalty and pressing the jabs of a thorny crown into his head, the soldiers approach and strike him on the face. Hitting the central place of our identity and recognition, with slaps that both challenge and demean.
The guards are an extension of Pilate’s power. He can order others to work under him, to do his dirty work and to enact violence on his behalf. But this very power to order violence and punishment is what the crowds and Jewish leaders work to subvert and use to their own ends.

We follow these two threads: what we call this man Jesus, his title and true identity and who has the power in this situation. As this scene unfolds we see different parties vying for power. Like a chess match trying to outwit the other. And our ideas of who holds power is thwarted.

Pilate offers that Jesus is a man but the Jewish leaders shout back that he should die because Jesus is claiming to be not just a man but the Son of God. Who is this Jesus? Is he human or is he God? Surely he cannot be both, can he? Yet, that is what we have gotten to know of Jesus in our journey through the gospel of John. Fully human and fully God, yes and not either or.

Pilate should hold the power here. He is the one connected to ruling bodies and given that authority by them to lead, but he is backed into a corner and we see him going from reasoning, to fear, to resignation that he may have to give into something he may not want to do. Saying “I find no case against him”.
Commentator Bishop Criag Satterlee say it this way:

“In both scenes, Pilate asserts that he finds no case against Jesus. In both scenes, Pilate tries to assert his power or use the system to escape the situation. And in both scenes, the Jewish religious leaders (who claim to be the powerless ones) win out.”

The crowds hold an interesting line. They want to keep themselves pure for the celebration of the passover festival. Which almost humorously harkens back to scenes that mirror this back and forth reasoning with those who are ruling over them. Moses and Pharaoh squaring off against each other as Moses asks for the release of God’s people and Pharaoh suffers the plagues sent as he refuses. The passover comes before the Exodus when God’s great deliverance is shown to the children of Israel. Here, these Jewish leaders don’t want to defile themselves so that they can remember God’s great work among them at the festival and at the same time are yelling to kill God’s next great deliverance that stands before them in the man of Jesus.

But Jesus in his teaching, his perceived disrespect for their ways and laws, his challenge to their power and way of working, is seen more as a threat than as a savior. So they project this  threat onto those with more political power so that Jesus will be disposed of without the blood or responsibility falling on them. “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” They find what button they need to push in Pilate to make him do what they want. They tip the scales by playing on Pilate’s fears of losing control of the crowds or his position in the government. I wonder, In our fear who do we lend our power to?

We have seen the power of the crowds lately. For good and ill. Unions organizing workers at Amazon and Starbucks. A mob storming the capitol building making claims over an election. Protesters filling the streets trying to make their voices heard to change what they see as injustice. Ordinary people organizing so that their power is held together in their numbers.

Does this kind of power scare us? We as a congregation have committed to working as part of Faith In Action. On their web page they say: “Faith in Action is a coalition of faith communities and organizations in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County working together to enact change and justice in the Shenandoah Valley”. As Faith in Action has restructured over the last year and hired a community organizer, we have needed to have conversations around organizing people, money and power. It is not only those in political leadership or with lots of money who have power. We have to claim our voices, our relationships, and yes, even the power we hold. We tend to fear talking about power, especially the power we might have over others. But power in and of itself is not a bad thing. We have choices about how we use our power. When we feel powerless to change a situation might be when we can join with others to make changes in our combined strength.

While the Jewish leaders feared Jesus they did not fear stepping forward. In raising their voices they played on Pilate’s fears turning their power to a threat.  Maybe that is our fear too, that this group energy might go astray or be corrupted.
In contrast to the shouting crowds Jesus wields the power of silence, refusing to answer Pilate’s questions. And when he does speak his words resound. Just as Jesus has had choices on the way to Jerusalem, he has a voice and he chooses when to use it. Even after being beaten and mocked, Jesus looks in the face of the man who could have him killed and says “you would have no power over me unless it had been given from above”.
And here we are brought back to who this person Jesus is. He is a man standing before a ruler. Yet not only could he be a king but he is the son of God. Jesus calmly claims power beyond human ruling positions and reminds all there that he is descended from the divine.

Like the children of Israel crying out in the wilderness to go back to slavery in Egypt, these Jewish leaders would rather promote allegiance to the Emperor and maintain what little power they have then allow for Jesus to be part of God. They cut themselves off from the saving work that Jesus would offer them through true freedom. I wonder “How do we condemn ourselves by the alliances we make and the company we keep?”

As Jesus is led away to be crucified we are left with several soul searching questions. When have we refused to see God in our midst and instead tried to stay removed, pure and clean? Is our fear blocking us from the very thing that could free us? As we approach the cross with Jesus can we hold this tension of Jesus being fully human, fully God. A savior come to show us the way. And are we willing to follow the costly non-violent power that Jesus enacts in the week to come.


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