Texts: John 18–19;
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/evA3mDJ7iwo
A COLLISION OF POWER POLITICS
Last night we began the Three Days with our remembrance of the Last Supper. One of the last things Jesus says to the crowds before the Last Supper is this:
“Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” [And John explains to us,] [Jesus] said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. (John 12:31-33)
Here we are on Day Two of the Three Days, and we just read the showdown between Jesus and the “Ruler of this World,” represented in the figure of Pontius Pilate. So how might we understand that — as Pilate is about to pass judgment on Jesus and send him to his death — how is it that judgment on the world is about to take place? How is it that the ruler of this world is about to be driven out?
First of all, let’s make no mistake about it: this day is about the quintessential clash between powers. Pilate’s power to judge and execute exemplifies the kind of power that human beings have mostly believed in throughout our history. On the other hand, Jesus’s intentional walking into that typical human power to be judged and executed on the cross displays God’s greater power of love, God’s greater power of truth. How is the world judged? By judging Jesus in the typical human way. How is the ruler of this world exposed and on his way out? By letting himself be exposed through judging the true Lord of this world who reigns in love.
Another way to put this is that this day, the Friday we call “Good,” is entirely and thoroughly about politics. As your pastor, I’ve raised the prospect that the failing of the church in recent generations is that we’ve tried to make the Gospel message not about politics. But if Jesus’s Gospel message centers on the reign of God coming into the world, then it must be about God’s brand of politics coming into the world through Jesus. It’s about a clash — a clash between two vastly different kinds of politics: the typical human politics that derive from the shape of our sinfulness — that descend, in other words, from our Us-vs-Them thinking and its deadly consequences of endless divisions and violence — and God’s politics coming into the world through Jesus, a politics based on love and forgiveness that will ultimately heal our sin. The dialogue between Pilate and Jesus that we just read makes this all explicit. This clash which ends in Jesus dying on the cross is all about opposing kingdoms, opposing empires, opposing kinds of reigns, opposing politics. Jesus makes clear that his politics aren’t of human origin. They aren’t the typical politics of this world. Rather, they are from God.
And he gives a quick example of the difference: if his politics were typical human politics, his followers would be fighting. Human politics are based on fighting violence with violence. It’s the only thing human beings have ever really believed in when it comes to our problem with violence. The only remedy to violence, we think, is to oppose it with more violence. And it’s all done, of course, within the bounds of Us-vs-Them thinking. Their violence is, of course, bad. Our violence which we use to stop them is good.
Jesus, however, has come into the world with a very different truth. There is a power more powerful than armed force. It’s the power of love. That’s the only power which can ultimately defeat the power of violence. It’s a truth that is made explicit throughout the New Testament, especially by centering on the story of this day, this Friday we call Good. Jesus unveils the truth of who we are in our belief in the power of violence. In John’s Gospel, there is a particular moment of truth. Jesus says to some Judeans who have been trying to kill him, “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). This is the truth that we have endeavored to talk about all through our Lenten journey (Lent 1A). Namely, that our fall into sin began with the serpent, who symbolizes the devil, convincing our earliest human ancestors of a big lie, a conspiracy theory, that God is holding out on them with the knowledge of good and evil. In believing that lie, we have become trapped in a way of thinking that leads us into constant rivalry, conflict, and violence. Instead of gaining God’s knowledge of good and evil, we have instead descended into an Us-vs-Them thinking which leads to constant murder, to killing our fellow human beings, to a politics based on using armed force. That’s the truth about us, that Jesus came to reveal.
So what’s the truth about God, and God’s politics? Let’s read on.
We left off our previous meditation with the truth about us — the truth about how we believe in the lies which lead to killing our fellow human beings. Jesus came to testify to that truth, the truth about us. But Jesus also came to testify to the truth about God, the truth about God’s reign coming into this world through Jesus with a completely different politics based on love. There is only one commandment in God’s reign, as we read last night: love one another as I have loved you.
In the Second Sunday in Lent (Lent 2A), we read the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, that ends with Jesus telling Nicodemus, ‘God loves the world such that he sent the only Son not to judge the world but to save it.’ As we’ve already noted tonight, the judgment of this world doesn’t come from God. It comes from us. We are judged through our judging of Jesus. We expose our true belief in the power of force to bring death upon others, upon those we judge to be evil. When we impose that judgment on Jesus, we expose it as a lie that has been at the heart of human society since our beginnings.
So the judgment comes from us, precisely through our judgment of Jesus. What comes from God is salvation. What comes from God is a very different politics based on love and forgiveness as the only thing that can ultimately save us from our violence. God sends the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world. What is the sin of the world? The Us-vs-Them thinking and its deadly consequences. How does God save us from this sin? Recall the words of Jesus with which we began these meditations: And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” [And John explains to us,] [Jesus] said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. (John 12:31-33) In other words, Jesus lifted up on a cross is how God is saving us. It is how God is addressing the endless divisions wrought by our Us-vs-Them thinking, and it begins to draw all people to Jesus into one human family. Do you see the difference? One politics divides. The other brings us together and heals our divisions.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, as we come to the end of this Good Friday, with the specter of Jesus hanging naked and sorely abused on a cross, can we come to comprehend what kind of God it is that’s hanging there? A God that addresses our fundamental sin of violence by taking it upon God’s self through Jesus? Do we comprehend how crazy that is? How fundamentally different this God is from the gods who reign behind our usual politics? Gods of wrath, gods of lies, gods of conspiracies, gods of judgment, gods of killing. When we are truthful to ourselves about our history of wars, our history of oppressing other peoples — even in God’s name, for Christ’s sake! — can we be truthful on this night in asking ourselves: have we ever truly and completely believed in the God who hangs on this cross? If we were to begin to, what would that look like? Maybe we can begin to suggest some answers when we gather again in the morning on the Third Day. (The boldest answer will be a politics of anti-racism; see Easter A)
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, April 15, 2022
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/evA3mDJ7iwo