Confusing the powers
November 22, 2022
It is almost Christmas. Black Friday sales started much earlier this year in October. They may have been disguised as something else, though the idea is to spend your holiday gift cash early, so no other retailer can claim it later with “better” deals. I noticed things were getting out of hand several years ago when “back to school” sales in the heat of summer co-mingled with “buy your Christmas tree now…on layaway!”
In comparison, church folks gather around the admonishment in late November not to rush into Christmas, but to arrive only to wait on the first Sunday of Advent (again, this year bundled into the rush of Thanksgiving weekend by starting the last Sunday of November when we’re half-asleep from turkey overload.)
The Church seems rather out of sync with the shopping malls and fourth-quarter sales projections. Next week, we start the Church’s lead-up to Christmas Day by not singing Christmas carols every week. Rather we will gather for the next four Sundays hearing scriptural texts, offering prayers, lighting a series of candles slowly, one by one, and singing hymns of anticipation, not of being immediately in Bethlehem on the blessed Christmas morn. Advent worship for Christians is off the script of retail America. Advent is a contrary word to cultural and economic understandings of Christmas. We wait, we watch, we yearn, we pray. Our rituals say plainly: “Wait.”
Now that’s what happens next week. Come prepared to rehearse waiting for the Christ.
This week, we come to the rather quiet end of the Christian liturgical year. We finish up a journey that started last Advent, going through the cycle of Advent/Christmas/Epiphany, then off to Lent and Easter, then Eastertide for a spell, and then Pentecost. Then we enter a long stretch we call Common Time or Ordinary Time, where the lectionary settled into telling familiar gospel stories and other parts of the Bible, and the colors for the season called for lots and lots of green.
So here we are at the end of the liturgical year, just before Thanksgiving and Black Friday, and…if we are reverent, the start of Advent. The cycle ends with what is called “Christ the King Sunday” when we recognize Christ’s rightful place and authority in the world and the greater cosmos. Yet the gospel reading from this past Sunday, John 18:33-37, sounds more like a Holy Week reading, not what we expect just before Advent.
The irony of this reading strikes me: while America gears up for Black Friday, the Church hears of Good Friday. Why aren’t we talking about the manger and dwelling instead on the looming cross awaiting Christ on trial? Jesus is in custody, betrayed by one of his own into the hands of the religious and state powers that be. Jesus will be tried and crucified. And the powers that be in Pilate’s court and the Temple’s ruling class will go about their business, figuring they have gotten rid of one more rabble-rouser.
If it sounds a bit stark, this is exactly the tone of John’s story of Jesus’ trial before the powers of Temple and Empire. Jesus is considered a threat to the Temple’s rulers, and they conspire to solve their “problem.”
Pilate seems a bit perfunctory in his treatment of Jesus being brought before him. Pilate is that middle-management sort of ruler, a bit off put that this situation has landed on his desk. While the gospel writer urges the reader to hear the story of true authority in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, Pontius Pilate is irked that these provincial rulers are trying to entangle him in something that seems a local matter. The religious elite involve Pilate as they claim Jesus has been a threat to the Empire as well as the Temple. On that count, Pilate has to get involved. Nobody questions empire. Rome was built on that premise.
The irony of reading the eighteenth chapter of John’s gospel on Christ the King Sunday strikes me. While America gears up for Black Friday, the Church hears of Good Friday.
So we encounter an odd image just before Advent begins, and we start getting ready to wait. The Christ who shall be celebrated as the babe in the manger stands as the adult Christ, roughed up and in custody after a late-night betrayal by an inner-circle disciple. It has been a long night already by the time Pilate is brought into the picture. Christ is on trial, considered a threat to religion, and barely worth a second glance by the representative of the state. Pilate will soon tire of this matter and leave Jesus’ fate in the hands of the crowd, who take a brigand (a highway robber) named Barabbas over a rural rabbi as the one for Pilate to release. It is a grim story, as the world takes leave of Jesus, and the gospel tells of his journey to the cross.
The challenge for the reader is to hear what Pilate and the Temple rulers did not: the authority of Jesus is not like theirs. Indeed, Jesus’ ministry is quite contrary to the types of authority exercised by Rome or the Temple. Jesus is a ruler who is most decidedly not like the high priest or local Roman ruler. To read this passage, we are given a review of the broad strokes of John’s portrait of Jesus: Jesus is of God, God made flesh who dwells among us. As you hear Pilate’s half-bored questions, recall the first chapter’s irenic meditation on Jesus as “Word made flesh.” Recall Jesus’ teachings as he engages Nicodemus on being born again, anew and in God, no longer “of the world.” Reflect on the words of Jesus, who teaches he is “the way, the truth, and the life.” Rome and the Temple have their own teachings, and they are not in step, or in remote agreement, with Jesus’ claim to truth. Jesus is not a king of this world. His disciples will not turn to violence. Indeed, these are strange words for Empire, a kingdom deeply vested in having the right amount of troops, weaponry, and control at all times, to hear.
Pilate wants to know what sort of kingdom Jesus claims. Jesus’ answers are lost on Pilate, as Jesus is not the sort of king of a kingdom that Pilate can understand. Pilate’s career was built upon the dominance of empire. The Temple elite vested their authority through mostly economic maneuverings. In his fine robes, Pilate seems the epitome of “the way things are to be,” whereas Jesus, roughed up from his captors’ handling, appears to bear the consequence for speaking against “the way things are to be.” Indeed, Pilate’s question about kingship is turned to a question of truth. Rather than the “truthiness” of Empire or Temple, the sort of truth that is good for the moment, Jesus seeks to witness, to embody even, the truth of the world as God intends it to be. The truth of Pilate and the Temple will unveil itself within the next generation as a local uprising will result in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple itself. As for the Church, the early Christians will experience great hardship and persecution themselves, yet it will be the truth Jesus offers that shall allow them great strength and endurance.
Pilate’s cynicism demonstrates the hard heart of the world. In hearing the truth, Pilate only hears what he wanted to hear. “What is truth?” is not the beginning of a new sort of conscience taking root. Instead, with a dismissive sneer, Pilate sends Jesus away for the next step toward the cross.
What sort of people, what sort of kingdom is formed by this story? It seems to end with tragedy, yet the gospel reshapes the status quo in the resurrection of Jesus. The kingdoms of Rome and Temple, the middlemen of Pilate and the Temple elite, shall not stand, even though they seem to hold all of the cards right now. What sort of people does this story intend to empower?
I recall the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Christian whose career as a gifted theologian and teacher was cut short by the tumult of the Second World War. Bonhoeffer saw the effect of another sort of Empire on the rise, growing in power and might, rising about the reproach of question and fashioning its own “truth” as the way things ought to be.
While Bonhoeffer would die in the last days of the Second World War at a concentration camp (sentenced to death as part of a failed plot to kill Adolf Hitler), his writings remain as a counter-witness to the powers of his day. While living in the turbulence of the times, Bonhoeffer offered a counter-witness to the “way things are to be” being impressed upon his nation. As he taught seminary students in the mid-1930s, he offered lectures that became his book called “Discipleship.” Therein, Bonhoeffer mentions this same Johannine text in passing as he describes what sort of discipleship is required by the gospel. He writes,
“If it engages the world properly, the visible church-community will always more closely assume the form of its suffering Lord.”[i]
The same question that confused the powers is the same question that challenges (perhaps haunts) the Church. How do we hear this story? Do we hear it through ears and hearts shaped by the world, or by those shaped by the gospel? There are stories at competition within us, being of the world and not of the world. What does it mean to take leave of “the way things are to be” and “more closely assume the form of [our] suffering Lord”?
Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.