Narrative Lectionary Reflection
March 18, 2018
“London Bridge is down.”
When the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom hears this phrase, he or she will know what has happened: Queen Elizabeth II has died.
Operation London Bridge is the code name for the plan that will come into action in the days following the death of Elizabeth. This is a plan that has been in the works since the 1960s with changes taking place every few years. It involves several agencies including the Church of England, the media, the British Armed Forces and London Park service. There are plans as to what will be played on the radio, how presenters will dress on television and when and where the successor (at this time it’s Prince Charles) will be made the new ruler of the UK. There are plans in how to communicate the message to the 51 nations that make up the British Commonwealth. Parliament will be recalled and the Prime Minister will address the House of Common and probably the entire nation. The plans even include the Royal Mint, that will immediately start printing money with the new monarch’s face, so that they will be ready once the successor is coronated.
Why such intricate planning? Mostly because the British had a bad history of royal funerals. The undertakers were drunk during the burial of princess Charlotte in 1817 and the death of King George IV funeral in 1830 was mismanaged. Queen Victoria didn’t want this to be her fate, so she started planning her funeral in 1875, 26 years before her death.
Royalty and other leaders get the…royal treatment because they are important figures. Societies believe that these leaders deserve a funeral that is dignified and respectful of the office they hold.
Today’s text is the second text featuring Pilate. The Roman governor is still debating with Jesus and tackling what is to be done with him. In the middle of all this, the soldiers roughed him up and placed a crown of thorns on his head. He was mocked as the “king of the Jews.
But what they didn’t know, what Pilate didn’t know, what the Jewish leaders didn’t know is that they were in the midst of royalty and in giving him a coronation of sorts.
Today, we see this odd coronation that crowns Jesus as the king of all.
Engaging the Text
10 So Pilate said, “You won’t speak to me? Don’t you know that I have authority to release you and also to crucify you?”
11 Jesus replied, “You would have no authority over me if it had not been given to you from above. That’s why the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin.” 12 From that moment on, Pilate wanted to release Jesus.
Last week, we had the first part of the encounter between Jesus and Pilate. Pilate questions Jesus who is as unscrutable as ever. Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is not from this world, meaning it operates in a way that is different to how the rulers in this world act. Pilate just wants to get Jesus off his hands, but he finds no real reason to put this man to death no matter the insistence of the Jewish leaders.
Today’s text opens up the argument between Pilate and the Jewish leaders continues. There are two stories that are taking place in this passage, so let’s take a look at both of them.
“Hail, King of the Jews!”
The soldiers take Jesus and is tortured by them. Scripture says “The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and dressed him in a purple robe.Over and over they went up to him and said, “Greetings, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face.” (John 19:2-3) He is beaten, and then has a crown of thorns paced on his head. Some accounts say that the thorns were pushed into his head, breaking the skin. It is a gruesome scene.
What the guards don’t realize is that through their mockery, they are revealing the true nature of Jesus. Throughout John, Jesus was “hiding in plain sight.” Now, the soldiers have said in no uncertain terms who Jesus is: king.
There is another example where Rome inadvertently sets up Jesus as king. Verse 13 states “When Pilate heard these words, he led Jesus out and seated him on the judge’s bench at the place called Stone Pavement.” The writer of John is actually ambiguous as to who was sitting at the judge’s bench. Was it Pilate, the person who was able to sit there, or was it Jesus? Which one was king? John seems to be saying that Jesus might be sitting there and that Pilate is installing Jesus as the new king. When Pilate says in verse 14 “Here is your king,” Pilate might be mocking Jesus and the Jewish leaders, but he is also proclaiming who Jesus is.
Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Caesar
Pilate and the Jewish leaders are still bickering over Jesus. Pilate doesn’t see why Jesus needs to be executed. He hasn’t done anything worth being crucified (though it didn’t stop Pilate from allowing his guards to torture Jesus).
Pilate tries to get the Jewish leaders to execute Jesus themselves, but they come back with a strong retort: “We have a Law, and according to this Law he ought to die because he made himself out to be God’s Son.” (John 19:7) When he hears the leaders saying his person claims to be God’s Son, Pilate is nervous. The phrase “Son of God” had a lot of meaning in the ancient world and for Pilate it meant he could be dealing with a divine or semi-divine being. When he asks “Where are you from?” he wants to know if Jesus is of human or divine origin. Pilate is a ruthless leader, but in this context, he is rather indecisive when it came to facing the Jewish leaders. He could not put his foot down, but instead is getting rolled by the leaders. Even Jesus shows Pilate how truly weak he is in this situation, when he responds to Pilate by saying the governor has no authority over him that isn’t given by God. Pilate might think he holds Jesus’ life in his hands, but Jesus announces that it is really he that holds Pilate’s life in his hands.
When Pilate wants to release Jesus, the Jewish leaders say something that is absolutely stunning. They say ““If you release this man, you aren’t a friend of the emperor! Anyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes the emperor!” (John 19:12) Later, when Pilate asks if they want Jesus their king put to death, they respond, “We have no king except the emperor,” (John 19:16) What makes this so stunning, is that even when Israel had kings, the belief was that there was no greater king than God. In fact, the commemoration of Passover was a reminder that God was the one in charge, not the Pharaoh. The writer of John shows the irony of the leaders who can’t enter Pilate’s quarters for fear of contamination that would keep them from taking part in a holiday that reminded them that God was their king, telling Pilate that they have no other king save Caesar.
Theologian Karoline Lewis thinks Pilate was in many ways a plot device to bring out the Jewish leaders’ true natures, one that showed them rejecting God.
This is as much a commentary by the fourth evangelist on the community that rejected the audience to whom he writes. The inside/ outside motif is less about Pilate’s waffling decision than about firmly situating the Jewish leaders on the outside of the presence of God, outside of the sheep pen, outside of the fold, deeply and decidedly in the darkness, in sin. The final verdict, or judgment, for the Jewish leaders they end up bringing upon themselves. Their words are not only a rejection of Jesus but simultaneously a rejection of God. Their descent into the dark side is complete, with God pushed away as far as possible. 1
The passage ends showing us what we have known all along: that the people who saw themselves as insiders, as the ones favored by God, were the outsiders after all.
Where are the nails that pierced His hands?
Well the nails have turned to rust
But not so the Man
He is risen
And He reigns
In the hearts of the children
Rising up in His name
Where are the thorns that drew His blood?
Well, the thorns have turned to dust
But behold the love
He has given
In the hearts of the children
Who will love while the nations rage
While the nations rage
The quote is from the 1989 song, “While the Nations Rage” from the late Christian pop singer Rich Mullins. The song seems fitting here, reminding us that the thorns that Jesus wore, the nails driven into his body those symbols intended to show the power of mighty Rome are no more. Pilate believed he had the powers of life and death, but within a short time following this trial, Pilate was recalled by Rome. The power of Rome would wane and finally disappear. The plans that the United Kingdom have put to prepare for Queen Elizabeth’s passing are necessary, but they also show the power of the state and the power of the kings, queens and presidents of our age. But again, like every other leader, these people pass from the stage, because in the end they are mortal, pretenders to the throne. Today’s text reminds us that true power comes from God, God is the the true king and we must keep that in our minds as we are tempted like the Jewish leaders to pledge fealty to Caesar.
At the same time, this trail in John19 is not just one that puts Pilate on the hot seat. We are also on that seat. Who is King or who is Lord in our own lives? When do we say we have no king but, name-your-modern-day-emperor?
The hymn Ah, Holy Jesus, How Has Thou Offended can seem a little over the top to people. But it many ways it gets to the point of our being on trial.
1 Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
that we to judge thee have in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
O most afflicted!
2 Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee. 2
The hymn reminds us that we, all of humanity have judge Jesus. We were the ones asking for Christ to be crucified. It’s a downer of a hymn that seems to want us whipping ourselves for our offense. But the reality is that we, like Pilate and the leaders have at times in our lives missed the true king staring us in the face. And it is only through the life, death and ressurrection of Jesus that we are forgiven and freed.
1. Lewis, Karoline M.. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) (p. 227). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
2. A stirring version of Ah, Holy Jesus was recorded by the artist Sufjan Stevens and a choir in 2012. You can listen to it here.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.