Whose Game Is This?

A sermon on the beginning of the trial scene before Pilate in John 18.28-40 preached at Wine Before Breakfast on April 1, 2014.

This man has your life in his hands,
but you seem to being toying with him.

He is the judge and yet you have turned things around
so that he is the one being judged.

He is the interrogator,
but somehow you are interrogating him.

He has the power of life and death,
and you seem fundamentally unconcerned.

You knew, it would come down to this, didn’t you.

You had said it often enough, that the Son of Man would be raised up,
and this was to indicate the kind of death that you would suffer.

Charges of blasphemy and the threat of stoning.
You knew that wasn’t the way things were going to play out, didn’t you.

No, it wouldn’t be the elite of the Jews who would bring your end,
it would be a cross.

You knew, didn’t you.
You knew that it would come down
to you and Pilate,
you and the empire.

And really, how else could this have played out?

Sure, the Jews were scandalized by all that “I am” talk,
all that pretension of you being nothing less than
the return of the very presence of God in their midst.
And when you said it again in the garden,
when you said “I am” to the police and the soldiers,
they all fell on their asses – Jew and Gentile alike.

But the empire could put up with a little intra-Jewish religious squabbling.
Heck, if these subjugated people were arguing amongst themselves,
then they might not have the energy left, or the unity amongst themselves,
to be too much trouble to Rome.

But there was something about you, and your message,
that couldn’t be contained to your own people.

No, you continued to use language that was blasphemous to Jews,
while potentially seditious to Rome.

You are the shepherd of the people, are you?
So is Caesar.

You are the saviour of the world, are you?
That would be Augusus.

You are the Lord, you claim?
We all know that Caesar is Lord.

And the son of God, you say?
Surely you know that the divine emperor is the son of god.

You’ve got a special relationship with the Father?
Don’t you know that the emperor is the father of us all?

You know what this looks like, don’t you?
You’ve heard it over and over again, and you’ve never denied it.
It looks like you are setting yourself up as the king of the Jews,
it looks like you are claiming to be a king,
and we know that there is only one king and he lives in Rome;
and that anyone else who might be named ‘king’
is done so only at the emperor’s pleasure and will.

It was your disciple Nathanial who first called you both
the Son of God and the King of Israel!
And you did not correct him.

The crowds who you fed with the loaves and the fishes
saw in you the potential for liberation,
and they wanted to make you king.

Granted, you didn’t accept their services at that time,
but when you rode into Jerusalem the other day,
fuelling their revolutionary hope,
you did not rebuke them for hailing you by singing,
“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord
– the king of Israel.”

And so here you are,
precisely where you knew you would be,
standing in front of Pilate,
and he wants to know if you are the King of the Jews.
It is not an unreasonable question.

Pilate may be a weak governor,
always trying to keep things under control by placating the Jewish hierarchy,
and sure he looks a little silly here going in and out of the praetorium
between you and the Jewish elite like some kind of messenger boy,
but you know that he’s got to take sedition seriously.

That’s why he’s here!
To keep this kind of thing under control.
To keep the peace, the pax Romana,
and he does so by means of crosses,
lots and lots of crosses,
and the only question here is whether that’s where you are going.

Now I know, I know, that you’ve been clear about all this.
Yes, you have had this crazy death wish thing going on,
and its been all about a Roman execution,
its been all about going to a cross.

But you’ve got to cut us some slack here
if we never could quite grasp what you were talking about.

I mean, no one willingly embraces such a death.

You might well recognize that such an ending is possible, even likely,
– I’ll bet Barrabas thinks that way –
but you’ve said all along that this is where your story is going,
and you’ve embraced this as your calling
from none other than your heavenly Father.

So I admit that I don’t get it.

But I do get that it all hangs on you being a king,
and, well, there can’t be two kings,
there can’t be two Lords,
there can’t be two saviours,
there can’t be two sons of God,
there can’t be two shepherds of the flock.

So when Pilate asks the question straight up,
the question that will seal your fate,
and will actually prove you right in what you said about your own death,
when he asks you, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
why don’t you give him a straight answer?

Is it just because you are an impertinent smart ass
and you couldn’t help yourself?

Is that why you put the question back on Pilate
and asked him where he got his information?

I mean, come on, you know where he got his information.

It was his troops that arrested you in great force,
don’t you think he had talked with the Jewish leadership?

And do you really think that you can pull off
that little bit of street theatre with the donkey
and the crowds hailing you as the king of Israel
without Pilate catching wind of it?

So what is the point of interrogating the interrogator?

Were  you just seeing if Pilate would distance himself from the Jewish elite,
trying to cover up his own complicity in all of this,
his own political duplicity?

Is that it?
Were you pushing him to come clean with his own role in all of this?

I mean, you sure unnerved him.
“Who me? A part of the Jewish elite? Are you crazy?
They’re out there, I’m in here.
They’re the one’s who brought you here.
So you tell me, what is your crime?”

Okay, okay, that was kind of funny.
The judge asking the prisoner what crime he has committed.

But you could have then put it on the table and said,
“You’re right, Pilate, I do claim to be the King of the Jews.
And you are right, that is sedition, a crime punishable by death.
So get on with it and do your duty.”

But that’s not what you did.

Pilate wants to know if you claim to be a king,
but you want to engage him in a conversation about the nature of kingship
and the precise way in which you are a king.

My kingdom is not of this world, you say.

Pilate’s kingdom is clearly of this world,
and he can’t imagine any other kind of kingdom.

He understands ruling by force and cunning, by control and violence,
but you want to make clear that this is not the game you are playing.
No armed revolution, but a kingdom of a very different sort, you say;
a kingdom very much for this world, but not of this world.

“Aha!” exclaims the governor feeling pretty good about himself,
“so you are a king!”
Gotcha with your own words!

“So you say,” you reply. “Yes, I am a king,
but not a king by your terms.”

“You want to know what I’m all about, then listen up:
You say I am a king. Well, that’s right.
For this I was born, and for this I came into the world
– you listening, Pilate? this is the heart of the story here –
for this I was born, and for this I came into the world,
to witness to the truth.
Everyone who belongs to the truth, listens to my voice.”

Everyone who belongs to the truth, listens to my voice.

Pilate wants to talk about kingdoms in terms of power,
and well he might,
I mean, after all, he’s got the power and your are bound before him.

But you insist that the real issue here isn’t power,
but truth.

The real issue isn’t wielding authority,
but bearing witness to truth.

And then you push it even further, don’t you?
You push it to the question of belonging and listening.

Everyone who belongs to the truth.
Not everyone to whom the truth belongs,
not, everyone who has possession and control of the truth,
but everyone who belongs to the truth,
            listens to your voice.

You were questioning Pilate again, weren’t you?
You were asking him whether he belonged to the truth.
You were asking him if he was the kind of person,
indeed, the kind of leader,
who was possessed by the truth,
or was he under the grip of the lie?

Here you are, standing in this man’s possession,
and you want to ask him if he belongs to the truth.

And you set the standard by which he would be judged.
Everyone who belongs to the truth, will listen to your voice.

You were testing to see if Pilate was listening, weren’t you?
You were giving him an opportunity to listen.
You were inviting him to belong to the truth,
and so to belong to you.

But he didn’t get it, did he?

“What is truth?” he asked, and walked out of the room.

He didn’t stay to listen, did he?
He wasn’t even listening while you were talking, was he?
He couldn’t hear what you were saying.
He couldn’t see beyond power to truth.
He couldn’t imagine a kingdom of truth,
instead of a kingdom of power.
He dismissively asked, ‘what is truth?’
and didn’t wait for an answer.

But then again, he couldn’t have heard an answer anyway,|
because he wasn’t listening,
and he didn’t have the eyes to see
that Truth was standing right in front of him.

So he puts the question to the Jewish leaders:
“who should I set free,
Jesus, the King of the Jews,
or Barabbas, the known insurrectionist?”

Barabbas, whose name means ‘son of the father’
or Jesus, who claims to be the Son of God?

Barabbas, a man who vowed to bring the kingdom of God
through violence,
or Jesus, whose kingdom is not of this world, but is rooted in truth?

“Give us Barabbas!” At least he plays by the rules.

And I get that, Jesus.
I get it that they would prefer to deal with Barabbas.
They know what he is about,
and they’ll capture him again.
He too will eventually go to a cross.

It breaks my heart, but I get it.

And I’m trying to listen, Lord.
But I’m not sure that I can listen all that much better than Pilate.
Maybe I’m still hung up on a kingdom of power.
Maybe I’m still trying to possess truth somehow,
rather than finding myself belonging to the truth.
Maybe I’m still praying and praying and praying,
your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven,
because I’m frustrated with a kingdom that is not of this world,
I’m longing for a kingdom that isn’t just for this world,
but a reality in this world.

I want to belong to the truth,
but the lies continue to rule,
the lies continue to seduce me.

Open my ears.
Open my eyes.
Open my heart.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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