A Lenten Sermon
Providence Presbyterian Church
February 10, 2002
Text: John 18:28-40
by Pastor Jeffrey J. Meyers
With a little help this morning, I think you will be able see from the way this story is written, from the details that John has selected, what the Holy Spirit wants us to think about.
We are too used to reading the Gospels stories of Jesus arrest, trial, condemnation, and death from a devotional perspective and so miss a lot of what’s going on. We actually have a difficult time trying to figure out the meaning of the details of the story. Of course, we will defend the historicity of the details of the story against unbelieving academics and liberal churchman. But why these details? Why any details at all?
John, of course, has already wonderfully summarized things in chapter 1 and 3. “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” and “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” But what does God’s provision of a lamb for the sins of the world have to do with this long story of what happens to Jesus the night before he dies? What does God loving the world have to do with the machinations and conspiracies of Judas, the High Priests, Pilate, and the Jewish crowds? A great deal, truly, but we will have to learn to read them a bit differently.
You see, here in the narrative of Jesus’ arrest and trial and condemnation we have a somewhat surprising perspective—it does not contradict or compete with the other apostolic explanations of Jesus’ death, rather, it complements and enriches them. Remember, the meaning of death of Jesus is far richer than we are often used to acknowledging.
When we look at the details of the text—what events and characters and words John has carefully chosen to weave together from the story of Jesus’ last few days—we can get a pretty good idea of what he is trying to communicate. And if you respond: what do you mean “weave together” into a story? John simply narrated what happened! Are you saying he fabricated something? I will say, no, of course not. This is not fiction, but history. Nevertheless, narrating history is never simply a matter of reproducing what has happened. Out of a million and more little details one must pick and choose just what to record.
Remember, John could have written something very simple and matter of fact. Something like this: Jesus went out from the upper room and was met by Judas who betrayed him into the hands of the Jewish authorities and they in turn convinced Pilate to crucify him. That sentence could replace the entire story from 18:1-19:16. It is just the facts, Ma’am—the Dragnet method of doing history according to Sgt. Friday.
Or John could have written a huge fat book on the last few days of Jesus’ life. You know that there was much, much more that he could have recorded but didn’t. Volumes that Jesus said. That the disciples said. That others said. John himself will say that the world itself could not contain the books that might be written if every detail were recorded (21:25). What happened in the trials of Annas and Caiaphas? Surely John knew more than he tells us.
I’m always amazed at how much detail can be gleaned by a careful observer and researcher about events that occur in the space of a few hours or days. The book Blackhawk Down, by Mark Bowden narrates the story of a battle that lasted about 9 hours or so in the space of 300 or more pages. And even then, we scarcely scratch the surface of everything that these soldier’s thought and did on the streets of and in the sky over Mogadishu on Oct. 3, 1993.
So what does John want us to see and learn here? Think about the defining themes of this portion of the passion story as told by John.
He is very careful to tell us how Jesus ended up on the cross. He is very careful to rub our noses in the contributions of all the various parties in Jerusalem—Jewish and Roman, religious and political. And in the end everyone was unified—Jesus must die.
What John shows us is how all the parties and factions, each group and community and every individual in them, all came together to kill Jesus. Judas and his band of soldiers and bodyguards. The family of the High Priest (Annas and Caiaphas). Peter and the disciples. The Roman soldiers. Pilate and the Imperial Government of Rome. The Jews (18:38; 19:12). Is that surprising? Shocking? The death of Jesus has to do with the coming together, the unification of all these otherwise disparate, rival social units and individuals. Judas and Peter, the High Priest and Pilate, Israel and the Jews. People that would otherwise hate one another are all unified in their hatred of Jesus. They are one.
Notice how a genuine unity is achieved by the end of the narrative (19:16). Everyone is together. They are united. They are one. They confess Caesar as king, they are unified together in his kingdom. Isn’t this what Jesus prayed for in the upper room? Unity? Oneness?
This is unity, but not the unity that Jesus prays for in John 17
I want to talk to you this morning about two kingdoms, two ways of organizing and maintaining order in human society. Actually, since it is Lent and we are supposed to be about self-examination and repentance, I want to talk more about the counterfeit unity of Satan’s kingdom—a unity in which we are all too easily caught up.
John exposes the false unity of the fallen humanity. He exposes the ground and foundation of every unity of depraved mankind. What is manifest here in Pilate’s courtyard is not the “kingdom of Jesus” but the kingdom of fallen humanity. Communities, governments, cultures, societies, clubs, cliques, gangs, if they are organized and unified as fallen human communities, it is on the basis of hatred and violence—and it always moves toward release of that hatred on the death of an innocent victim.
We came from the upper room where Jesus was speaking of the unity he had with his Father and his prayer that such a unity would come to characterize his disciples in their community. The unity that Jesus spoke of was a unity grounded in love and self-sacrificial giving. Read the last line of the upper room discourse (17:26). The Father loves the Son and lives to glorify the Son. The Son loves the Father and lives to glorify the Father. That is the foundation of unity in the Godhead and ought to be the foundation of unity in humanity, made in God’s image.
But there is another way to achieve unity—a way that is the antithesis of love and sacrifice. It is that way which is so carefully narrated here in John 18-19. It is the way of paganism. It is the unity sanctioned by every archaic religion, from the Greeks to the Persians. It is exposed here for all too see.
It will do us good to pay very careful attention to how this pseudo unity, the false foundation for building communities works. It is simple, yet profound. You will resist it. You will not want to believe it is true about you. But you must, if you are a Christian. Carefully examining the process will allow us once again to penetrate the superficial illusions we so artfully embrace about our own sinful hearts. This is the purpose of Lent. This is why we meditate on these narratives. At least that’s the intention anyway.
Here’s the outline of the process of achieving the wrong sort of unity, a Satanic oneness.
1. First, it begins with rivalries between individuals and groups foment trouble in a community. So in our story the Jews have a love/hate relationship with the Romans. They love their power, but they want it for themselves. They are intensely envious of what the Romans have. They ought to have it. This is a manifestation of the primordial sin. Satan enticed Adam with it. Why should God have what you want? You can be gods yourself. James make this explicit: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within in you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:1-2b).
2. Second, in their hatred for Rome, they come to be like Rome. They imitate Rome. Rome achieved power through violence. The Jews will achieve the power that Rome now has through violence. One becomes so obsessed with one’s rival that one is transformed into the image of one’s rival. The Jews seek to bring down Rome through violent rebellion. Conversely Rome hates the Jews. They are fascinated by them and yet fear them. The rivalry escalates and begins in infect and contaminate all of life and culture in Palestine. Rome wants to humiliate and break the Jewish spirit. The Jews want to humiliate and break the Roman Spirit. The point is rivalries transform both parties into the other. It is a viscous circle and the result is that the violence of hatred is pent up and ready to be released.
3. Third, who’s to blame? Why can’t the Roman’s put down the Jews once and for all? Why can’t the Jews overthrow the yoke of the Romans and restore the glory days? Who’s to blame? Well, not the Jewish leadership, not the chief priests? Not the people? John the baptizer proclaimed as much, and we believed it for a while, but nothing has happened. We thought maybe this guy Jesus was the Messiah—a Messiah in the image of our distorted expectations, a military might to finally destroy Rome. So who’s to blame? Why is everything so messed up?
4. What happens next is crucial—violence is about to erupt, but against whom and how? What will restore order and achieve unity in our society? What will commend us to the Romans and give us time to organize our resistance? And the Romans are thinking, what can we do to insure the compliance of these Jews. An answer emerges: find a single victim and unleash all the pent up violence on him. Blame him. Punish him. It matters not whether he is guilty of not. All that is important is that he is strange and odd and appears to be the source of the weakening of our unity. Well, who is that? Jesus.
Look at John 11:45-53.
By arresting, torturing, and killing Jesus, the authorities thought that they were securing well-being and peace again in their society by means of the tried and true method of a single-victim scapegoat. Everyone’s thirst for violence will be satisfied and we can get on with the business of everyday life.
Once they decide on this violence, they are all unified. The anger and frustration and hatred of everyone converges on a single victim. If we don’t understand this process we will just be baffled by the bizarre unity achieved in John 18-19. The escalation of the rivalries and the advent of violence always witnesses the strangest about faces and the most unexpected regroupings. Pharisees and Sadducess. Zealots and Herodians. The bodyguards of the High Priests and the Roman Cohort garrisoned in Jerusalem. Judas and Peter. Caiaphas, Annas and Pilate! Religious and Political. Barrabas and the Jews. The Jews and the Romans! “Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other” (Luke 23:12).
We have a united kingdom. One society. One kingdom. A kingdom of this world unified in their hatred and violence. They all conspire together against the Lord and his anointed (Psalm 2).
But here is Jesus, the innocent victim, the scapegoat. “My kingdom is not of this world, Governor Pilate.”
And Pilate says, “Ah, so you are a king!”
And Jesus replies, “Yes, it is as you say: I am a king. But I know you don’t understand a word of what I am saying, but for the benefit of those that will read and reflect on this story after my death, I tell you this. I have come into the world to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting.
Pilate: “Ah, what is truth?”
And we remember what Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me.”
And it is just here that Jesus unveils the truth about us. It is Jesus’ own humble submission to death, his giving in to the snowballing of rivalries and hatred. His giving into death. His willingly becoming the scapegoat. The innocent victim whose death everyone thinks will achieve a new unity for them, will indeed achieve a unity and peace like no other victim before him.
Jesus could have died of cancer. He could have taken his own life. He might have died of poison administered by Judas or Herod. But instead he dies at the hands of a religious, self-righteous mob. And by so doing he exposes the pagan religious mechanism for what it is—self-seeking violence looking for a victim to blame.
The crucifixion exposes the violence of these escalating rivalries. Exposes and expunges it once for all.
What happens in the passion narratives is that the single-victim, the scape-goat mechanism that fallen human cultures have always turned to unite and regenerate the community is exposed for what it is. The passion of Christ makes clear what is going on—an innocent victim is being sacrificed for the good of human society. Of course, this is true, but not exactly in the same way that his murderers intend.
Behind this collective violence is Satan, the accuser of the brethren, the prince of this world. He is the power behind paganism and the power behind Judas, remember. He is the one whom the Jews in the first century emulate (“Your father is the devil. . . from the beginning he was a murderer”). Satan is the one that rules the Roman Pagan world, and Satan is the one who desires to sift Peter and the disciples like wheat.
At the arrest, trial, and condemnation of Jesus, everyone is unified by a camaraderie of collective violence. Furthermore, it is collective violence that characterizes all pagan religions. All pagan rituals and myths are designed to sanction violence against innocent victims in order to guarantee social harmony and peace. Israel and Rome are united in their pagan bloodlust to kill the one they believe is disrupting their social peace and harmony.
What Christ conquers on the cross —and this is one very important but all too neglected perspective on the crucifixion—is the Satanic pagan way of organizing communities. A Satanic unity. Jesus will indeed gather the scattered children of God into one. But will do so not by fighting, but by self-sacrifice. He will take to himself all the violence of humanity and by doing so he will conquer it.
It is the most remarkable turn of events in human history.
Rene Girard: “As Satan was making humans obligated to him, putting them in his debt, he was making them accomplices in his crimes. The cross, by revealing the lie at the bottom of Satan’s game, exposes human beings to a temporary increase of violence, but at a deeper level, it liberates them from a servitude that has lasted since the beginning of human history.”
The death of Jesus releases human communities to find unity in love rather than in violence and hatred and murder.
But, of course, we cannot stop there. If the season of Lent is good for anything it is not about giving up chocolate ice cream or red meat on Fridays for 40 days. It is about honest reflection on how the depths of our own depraved hearts are revealed in the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and condemnation.
When we take on our lips Johann Heerman’s haunting hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus” we dare not trivialize it or tame it. Meditate the first two stanzas in Hymn #179 (Trinity Hymnal):
“Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
That man to judge thee hath in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected, O most afflicted.
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus hath undone thee.
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified thee.”
The mechanism exposed here in the Gospel stories—rivalries that are overcome through the release of hatred and violence against a single innocent victim—is at the heart of the way we fallen men and women continue to form friendships and enjoy the illusion of unity and community. It is the way we crucified Jesus.
It is those almost invisible rivalries between us, that barely concealed hatred of one another. Our envy and jealousy that secretly longs for nothing better than the demise of our rival. Innocent of any real offense against us, these men and women have simply achieved or possess something we want. Something we thing we have a right to. Just how the Jews, the old people of God, longed for the power of Rome.
Be honest with yourself for once before God this morning. How easy is it for you to wish for the downfall of someone you consider to be a rival? Someone whom you envy in your heart of hearts simply because he or she has something that you want. Consider how easy it is for you and I to get sucked into a conversation that quickly snowballs into verbal violence against another (and the hatred is oh so delicately concealed behind “righteous” “pious” sounding words). It happens in conversations on phones and in seminary lunchrooms quite regularly.
How often do we fantasize about another’s downfall or rejoice in it when it actually happens. And the fact that hatred is simmering in your heart, cunningly dressed up in self-righteous justifications, is proven once anyone gives you an opportunity to vent it. For if you find someone who shares your hatred, you will both find endless hours of satisfaction and unity in verbal criticism that only barely conceals your violent hatred of that other person. Or that other church. This is what often unites factions in our churches, in our denomination, in the Christian world at large. We find unity in our hatred of a common enemy and often that enemy is quite innocent, guilty of nothing more than having something we want or of being different than us.
Now, of which kingdom are you a subject? Satan’s “the accuser of the brethren”? The Lord of hatred and violence and murder, justified by self-righteousness. Or the kingdom of Jesus? The king of love and sacrifice? The innocent victim who willingly allowed himself to be hated and killed by you and me? For you and me. To establish once and for all a new foundation for friendship, society, and unity?
As the Apostle Paul writes to a church riddled with rivalry and dangerously divided: “For it stands written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart. . . For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. . . For I decided to know nothing among you—nothing over against each of you and in your community—except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”