Rev. Teri Peterson
caught between the doors
30 March 2014, NL4-30, Lent 4 (at the threshold)
Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?’ They answered, ‘If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.’ The Jews replied, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death.’ (This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’
After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, ‘I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ They shouted in reply, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas!’ Now Barabbas was a bandit.
When I was in 8th grade, I used a big sharpie and beautifully decorated the front of my notebook with a quote that said “what is right is not always popular, and what is popular is not always right.” I didn’t know it at the time, but the line is usually attributed to Einstein, which makes me look back on my 8th grade self with a little more pride than I did before.
This quote has been running around in my head as I’ve thought about this story of Pilate doing his in-and-out, in-and-out dance between the religious leaders outside, refusing to enter the palace for purity reasons, and Jesus on the inside, calmly talking about how the kingdom of God has its own rules that have nothing to do with ritual purity, coercive power, or personal agendas.
It’s early in the morning the day before the festival of Passover begins—often called the Day of Preparation. It’s the day when all the leaven is cleaned out of the house, the various foods are prepared and, most importantly, the day the Passover lamb is slaughtered in remembrance of how God saved the Israelites from slavery.
Pilate’s job was to keep the peace. Passover could be a rowdy festival, as the people celebrated God saving them from slavery, crushing an oppressive power along the way. Pilate needed to look powerful in order to ensure no one stepped out of line, and the way Rome’s power worked was with fear, force, and pointy spears.
The religious leaders, meanwhile, wanted this Jesus character dealt with, and soon. He threatened their power, tenuous as it was. He talked about himself in God-language, he taught that loving God matters more than the rules, he healed people and fed people and raised the dead. People were beginning to believe there might be more to this Jesus guy than to the other healers and teachers roaming the countryside.
The only way out of their predicament was to get rid of Jesus, and the best way to do that and maintain the precious rules at the heart of their reality was to take him to Pilate.
I’m always intrigued by how they won’t even go inside, though they send Jesus in without a second thought…and then I’m intrigued by the fact that Pilate goes out to meet them. Before he even hears from them, he puts all the power in their hands, meeting them on their terms. He wants to keep the peace, and it almost seems he wants to be liked. He knows who has the real power here, and it’s not him. These Jewish leaders can make or break Pilate’s career, either inciting a Passover riot or helping him look competent and in control.
This is the truth of Pilate’s situation: he has a choice to make, and on one side of the door is his own self-interest, accompanied by numerous loud voices.
On the other side of the door is Jesus.
So Pilate goes in to check that side out too. But Jesus’ words are like gibberish to a man whose whole life is caught up in serving an earthly empire. Jesus says “my kingdom is not from this world” and all Pilate can hear is “so you have a kingdom? doesn’t that make you a king?” That would be the evidence he needs for a guilty verdict, of course, but Jesus doesn’t hand it to him so easily. Jesus says he has a kingdom but that it doesn’t play by any rules we recognize. This kingdom is founded on love, which does not coerce. Perfect love casts out fear, so there’s no way to manipulate people. And Jesus has already redefined power as service, kneeling at the feet of his friends and washing their feet. The kingdom of God is about relationship and covenant and hope, not about violence. And just when it seems the kingdom is under attack, the citizens, the disciples of Jesus, are nowhere to be seen.
Well, Pilate has no frame of reference for power without violence or a kingdom without people defending it. Then, as now, national security and defense took up most of the budget and most of the conversation. How could there be a nation without boundaries, without an army, without weapons? And what does it mean for us to then pray “thy kingdom come”?
Then Pilate asks the big question: What is truth?
It’s hard to tell if he’s asking a profound question or offering a throwaway line to end a conversation he doesn’t understand. Truth is often conceived as simultaneously absolute and personal, found in lists of right and wrong, in facts and courtrooms, and in social media quizzes and magazine articles
Jesus didn’t answer the question, because he is the answer to the question. Jesus is the truth. Truth is not a proposition, Truth is a person. We know Truth because we know Jesus, because we are in relationship with what is eternal and holy. Truth is living and breathing and active, Truth is about love and hope and healing and feeding.
Remember the things Jesus said: I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. By this the world will know that you are my disciples: Love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself—on these hang all the law and the prophets. As often as you do it to the least of these, you do it to me. You are the light of the world. I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you.
What is truth?
Truth is standing in front of Pilate, and in front of all of us, as we stand between the doorways and wonder: will we choose what is popular, or what is right?
The silence with which Jesus meets Pilate’s question must have stretched on for ages. In many ways, it still stretches before us. In that silence is an invitation to step across the threshold the other direction, into the kingdom of God rather than the kingdoms of human power. Silence is often the only way to hear the invitation—when we stop defending our way of doing things, we can hear God’s way that cannot be contained in words, only known in relationship. Pilate is not interested in a holy relationship, he’s interested in his own agenda. He wants to be both right and popular, but if he can’t do that, he’ll settle for popular and he’ll use his power to make it right. So rather than consider the possibilities, Pilate closes the door of his mind and heart, opting for the tried and true rather than The Truth. He wants a kingdom he can see.
One of my favorite prayers includes the line “our hearts are sometimes full of wrong things.” I often think the word “sometimes” is unnecessary—it’s very rare that our hearts are completely free of those things that keep us from loving God and loving our neighbor, those things that keep us more invested in ourselves than in relationship with Jesus. Much of the time, our relationship to earthly power and wealth matters more, our relationship to one another matters more, our relationship to tradition and expectation matters more, and so we sacrifice the holy on the altar of convenience.
But Truth cannot be contained with power or popularity, and cannot be controlled by force or intimidation. And more than once, Jesus said that following him would not be popular. To take up the cross and walk his way will mean setting down the kingdoms of this world and making room for God’s new thing to emerge. We cannot pick up the cross if we are still carrying our rules about social status, economic success, or violence as a means of getting our way. We cannot walk through the gate if we insist on bringing our system of rules and regulations with us. We cannot create the kingdom of God according to our specifications, we can only answer the call to come in. As long as we insist that truth lives on a page or in a list rather than a holy relationship, we’ll be stuck standing at the threshold.
This is the truth: that we love, because God first loved us, and Jesus said the world would know him through the way we love one another. Not in right answers or tightly drawn circles, but in the messiness of life, the hard work of relationship, and the unknowns of the future, where the Spirit is already at work.
May it be so.