When I was in school my preaching professor told us that we should be careful to not show off the work that we do. However, It seems important to give you a little bit of a behind-the-scenes of what he has been doing and adjustments we have made over the last several months. We started looking at the gospel of John with the promise that our words are important because the gospel of John starts with Jesus as the word made flesh. Well Throughout the gospel of John, There are some issues with words. If the text didn’t specifically say: Pharisees or the high priest then, the word that is used has gotten translated as: “The Jews.” We tend to use in this church a translation called the New Revised Standard Version. It claims to be the most up-to-date and authentic based on the oldest manuscripts found thus far. Here’s one of the things that it means, though they very rarely would add words then aren’t there in the text they did sometimes but not often and one of those times is when It’s when it says the Jews. We have chosen, whenever it makes sense, to replace it with “Jewish leaders.”
I’m going to offer us 2 reasons why this is has been really important: One of which is that Jesus was a Jew. Everyone that traveled with him was Jewish. The crowds that gathered around Him to hear him teach were Jewish. Jesus is teachings for deeply rooted in the law and the prophets and the traditions of Judaism. So to say “the Jews”, particularly when it seems negative, seems to separate Jesus from his tradition. At the time of this being spoken and written down, some 60 plus years after, that’s what the Jesus followers were doing, but that’s not what Jesus was trying to.
In our reading today the religious leaders, the temple leaders, the Jewish leaders, all the same, are saying that they aren’t able to kill Jesus but they want to–which is super confusing because earlier in the story we have them planning to stone a woman to death and when we get to the story and Acts we have Paul, a Jewish leader, overseeing the stoning of Stephen but fine. And in this conversation between Jesus and Pilate, where Jesus says, “or I wouldn’t have been handed over to the Jews” where we have added leaders isn’t even consistent within this gospel! He was taken by the Jewish leaders and handed over to the Empire.
All of this could lead you to the conclusion that it is in fact the Jewish people, all of the Jewish people, who killed Jesus. Because it is kind of the way this gospel is written, and then, for hundreds of years, that is how it was used and misused–as an excuse and a justification to exclude, abuse, make less than human, and kill Jewish people. We can say a lot about Martin Luther, And his work in the reformation, But he also had a lot to say about Jewish people and literally none of it was good. And his work would continue to influence his land and his people and the culture hundreds of years and I hate to do this, but it isn’t a long stretch to get from the work of Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism, written in Germany and supported a culture that allowed Nazi Germany to try and completely eliminate Jewish people from the face of the Earth.
And I know I’ve spent a long time on this but if we believe our texts are sacred and that we are the descendants and the legacy of those who have gone before us and who have lived this tradition then we need to hold the text and our ancestors accountable. Because I had a boss in the restaurant industry who mostly unprompted said “Well, the Jews killed Jesus,” which was a joke? Or maybe what he thought Christians think? Or what he thinks the bible says? And From January of this year to March 23rd there have been more than 150 incidences against the Jewish community from bomb threats, vandalism, And that standoff in Jewish places of worship and the people contained therein as well as We’re both threats and assaults and physical violence on Jewish people as they are living their lives on the street and in the world.
When we come to a sacred writing, when we come to scripture sometimes we like Pilate need to ask, “what is truth?”
And speaking of Pilate, our story at least makes him indifferent of what’s happening around him.. At best between this part of the story and what will look at next week, Pilate is almost a sympathetic character. Sometimes he sings delightful songs! But historians of the day had a different opinion of Pilate–they said he was cruel and a bully. He was sent to Judea as the governor because he had done something to upset the emperor. In the year 37 he was removed from the governorship of Judea I’m the governorship of Judea and placed on trial before the emperor because his brutality had gone too far. This is not a benevolent leader. This doesn’t seem like someone who would be hesitant to use the state as it means to execute people So why would it be written like this some 60 to 80 years later? Maybe it was part of distinguishing the community from Judaism. And maybe it was trying not to suffer the same fate as those who had watched the temple be destroyed by Rome.
Like Pilate, we need to ask, “what is truth?”
Maybe you are asking why do I even read The Bible if I’m going to pick it apart like this. I think a lot of it has to do With how I answer the question: what is truth?
We live in a weird time where the phrase alternative facts exist, Where we have news and we have fake news and you could ask all kinds of different people and they won’t agree on which is which. Sometimes it is hard to agree on what is true.
Rome may not have like some modern nations have had an official state propagandist but Rome counted on its stories and rumors to perpetuate itself, to keep others under control. Crucifixion was designed to be a public act of execution for the purpose of punishment, yes, but also to deter anyone else from doing the thing that got that person so brutally and slowly killed. It probably worked about as well as capital punishment works today. But, in that kind of environment and system, you don’t search for truth, you make truth.
Now Rome did a lot of good. They expanded trade making it a global society in which people interact with each other. They brought roads and aqueducts and sanitation. But that came at the cost of war and violence and enslavement. And as the Empire expanded and grew beyond what is even reasonably Without cell phones or the Internet or even the telegraph it was violence and threats of violence that became the truth of Rome.
When Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king, Jesus says if my kingdom were of this world my people would have risen up. And we have the story where Peter had tried to rise up With his sword to save Jesus and Jesus shut it down. That this is not what Jesus and the work and the ministry and the mission this is not what Jesus’ kingdom is about. And when Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world it’s not because it is in a far off heaven, rather Jesus is life and ministry and love and work happened here on this Earth, this plane of existence. Jesus’ kingdom is the reality he lived. Jesus brings and is the kingdom.
Which brings me back to the priests, the religious leaders. The plot to kill Jesus started way back in the 11th chapter when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. The priest engaged in this conversation realized that this man Jesus somehow controls the powers of life and that this is gonna be a problem. This man, Jesus, brings life. What human beings rely on is violence and fear and the capacity to wield death or the fear of having death wield against you. And even the religious leaders at the time might have realized or admitted that this was not the ideal way to function in the world, but at least they knew how to survive in it. One who brings life, who brings freedom from that fear, that person is actually dangerous. They cannot be controlled and you cannot always predict what they would do. That is the kind of person who might put a whole nation in danger. That person might bring the Empire down on everyone.
The word that is used to describe what Barabas had done that condemned him is: Bandit. Which to me sounds kind of fun and wild west-y and wearing a bandana over one’s face. But the word that is used use often used to describe those who violently opposed Rome, those who would wield the weapons of the powerful against in hopes to topple the system. And we can pass all the judgment we want about how they shouldn’t have participated in the systems of the world and the power structures and the Empire and the government and the politics of their day up their day but Christianity and the power, Empire, government, be it a throne or an elected official, have been merged since the 300 years, often like here participating and wielding in the powers of death. Jesus is about to be killed by those who rely on violence and fear and the capacity to wield death and those who are afraid of having death wielded against them.
What is truth? It is not this. Truth is not what the powerful claim it is or the propagandists say it is. This Violence and death are not at the core of what the world is. This is not how it was made. This is not who God is. Pilot and those religious leaders were missing what God was doing in the world. It seems that maybe they were missing what God had been doing from the very beginning but they were certainly missing what God was doing now.
Pilate asks, “what is truth?” and he doesn’t realize that the one who says I am truth and life is standing before him. Jesus is the embodiment of truth and Jesus has revealed what that truth is while he walked on this Earth.
By healing and feeding. By washing the feet of his disciples and then saying to them, and us, “love one another as I have loved you.” By doing the things that bring life and life abundant.
What is truth? We know how to handle a Barabas. But Audrey Lord said the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
What is truth? it is loving one another and the face of death and violence to the point that one loses their life out of a refusal to return the violence.
The crucifixion of Jesus is an act of love that reveals to us that the world works differently because it comes alongside and hand-in-hand with the resurrection. Revealing to us that the greatest power that the Empire government or army or force can put up against us, It’s overcome with life.
There are countless examples of times when it was responding in love and non-violence that brought change, because silence isn’t an option and violence will only bring about more violence. It’s the Civil rights movement, it’s Act Up, it’s the Housing Marches, it’s Nuns on buses, umbrella protests, and hundreds of others who have changed the world by defying the way the powers work, that are means to lift up the oppressed, set free the captive, to bring life.
So in the face of and in response to just another shooting when you, or me, or all of us asked what are we going to do about this the answer can’t be to militarize the police And it can’t be more guns. The answer is what brings life and what brings life abundance. It’s education and tutoring, resources and health care.
It is forgiving and reconciling if it’s safe for you to do so, when you’d rather lash out. It is choosing compassion over indifference. It’s believing in abundance when it seems like there might be enough. It’s choosing hope and life in the face of fear and death. It is seeing, recognizing, and responding to truth that we cannot follow or participate in the way the world works and the way of Jesus–they are incompatible. We are always having to choose. It’s living the way of Christ revealed in the life and work and death and resurrection. It is the truth that self-giving love results in life that is for all, that lifts up the people who society says are “less than” and Resurrection says that ultimately, even the power of death that empire, that government, that power can wield against you is not as true as the life that comes from God through Jesus Christ.
Which means we are not helpless and we are not hopeless. It means we always can respond with the love given and revealed in Jesus generously to the world in need.