Seeing Through the Insanity--July 17, 2018
"Pilate 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'." [John 19:9-11]
Sometimes I forget that, in addition to loving Jesus and worshiping Jesus and praying to Jesus and all the other things Christians say we do, it is also "right and salutary" (as the old liturgy goes) to look up to Jesus... to learn from Jesus... to see how he handles the hardest situations one can face, and to learn from him. It is true and right that we confess Jesus is Lord and God... but it is also right and true and good for us to say, "And look how Jesus offers us a way to face the upside-down insanity of the world around us!"
Because he does.
Jesus offers an alternative, in those times when it feels like everything in the world is coming unglued, an alternative to both the blustering, inflated shouting of voices like Pilate's, and an alternative to feeble, fearful despair. Both of those are dead ends... and Jesus offers a third way. Jesus offers a power that Rome and its successors simply cannot understand. Jesus offers a hope that will not cower when Pilate makes his threats. We can learn from that--we can learn from Jesus. As much as we will also worship him, bend our knees to him, praise him, love him, and sing our hymns to him, we would also do well to actually pay attention to Jesus' posture in a moment of sheer lunacy like this trial scene before Pilate, and to see how Jesus charts a course for looking the madness in the eye without fear and without bitterness.
As John the narrator gives it to us, this is actually one of Jesus' most powerful moments--even though there is not a miracle performed, a drop of water turned to wine, or a leper healed. And even though it certainly would appear that Jesus is powerless in this moment. That is, of course, exactly how Pilate sees it. He takes a look at his position, and he takes a look at the half-naked homeless rabbi before him whose hands are tied and whose back is bleeding and raw, and Pilate believes that this is all evidence that he wins. He brags about his position. He boasts about his power. He blusters and threatens about all that he could do to Jesus, and hints that he could also let Jesus go if the rabbi would just cut a good deal with him and the Empire. Pilate wants to project the image of being "extremely strong and powerful," and talk like someone who believes he holds all the cards... and yet, there is something, something maybe just under the surface, that suggests he is deeply afraid and insecure.
That's the thing. Even though Jesus is ostensibly the one on trial, Pilate is the one steadily coming unglued when Jesus doesn't break like Pilate expects him to. Pilate gets increasingly anxious--running back and forth, in and out of his fortress, looking for allies in the religious leaders, looking for some cover from somewhere, looking for some way to wash his hands of responsibility and some way to shrug off responsibility for what is about to happen to Jesus. Pilate is a downright coward, but he tries to hide it behind all of his talk about being strong and powerful and having the "authority to crucify" Jesus as well as the power to pardon him. Pilate thinks this makes him seem intimidating... when in truth, it only makes him look weak and pathetic.
Jesus remains in control.
Jesus remains calm.
Jesus does not buckle under the power of fear, nor give into Pilate's way of doing things by threat and chest-thumping.
And with a single sentence, Jesus deflates Pilate completely. For all of the Roman governor's talk of having "power," all of his insistence on being unquestionably in charge and having the authority to kill Jesus, Pilate is really just a puppet on a string. He only has power that has been granted to him; he only can go as far as the leash that Caesar has put around his neck will let him to. Pilate isn't really very intimidating at all--like my fluffy little dog barking fiercely at his own reflection in the cabinet glass, all Pilate can do is make noise... but he cannot really bring an end to Jesus and his movement.
Jesus doesn't bargain or plead. He doesn't threaten back or strike Pilate dead on the spot (as he says in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus surely could have summon legions upon legions of angel armies to come to his defense, except that that is simply not how Jesus' power or God's Reign works). Jesus simply tells Pilate that he can see right through him... and then he willingly endures the worst that Pilate can do to him. Jesus, as he himself puts it earlier in John's Gospel, is the one laying down his own life, thank-you-very-much, and Jesus is the one with the power to take it back up again.
Pilate simply doesn't know what to do with someone like that. He knows how to deal with people who are ruled by fear or dominated by bitter anger. You threaten them enough, and they either fold or lash out--and either way, you can crush them. You break the spirits of the fearful, and you break the necks of the defiant. That's Lesson One in Rome's book of Standard Operating Procedures. But Jesus? He is different--and not because he does something superhuman in this moment, not because he shoots lasers or fire from his eyes, and not because Jesus finally calls in those angelic armies. Jesus does something utterly... human, something that any one of us could do in the face of such an insane moment, if we chose to. Jesus speaks--without fear and without bitterness. He just refuses to let Pilate's threats, or the chaos of the moment, or the bloodthirstiness of the crowd, or the jealousy of the Respectable Religious Gang set the rules. Jesus speaks, revealing Pilate's impotence. And then Jesus bears whatever the worst Pilate and his borrowed authority can muster... and he endures.
There are times in this life when it can feel like the whole world is coming undone. There are times when we are tempted, or when it feels like our only choice will be, to buy into the brutality of Pilate and accept it as "just the way things are done" or to be crushed with despair when it looks like the inflated arrogance of Pilate is winning. In those times, we who bend our knees to Jesus will need to remember also to look to the model and the path he gives us, so that we can practice the same kind of power as Jesus, the power to see through the insanity to real and solid cross-tested hope.
Lord Jesus, give us your power to endure without despair or succumbing to the worst in us.