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Friday, March 28, 2014

Lent 4: Pilate and Christians who wash their hands of Injustice

Today, the fourth Sunday in Lent, we look at Pontius Pilate, who was not the first proponent of the Pilates exercise movement

but was rather very, very bad news in Judea during the time of Jesus. Somewhat strangely, he is the only human, other than Jesus, to be named in the major creeds of the Christian church…..yes….his name is mentioned daily by millions and millions of Christians on every continent around the world. He obviously deserves some attention, not least because there is a bit, or a lot, of Pilate in each of us and in the church of Jesus Christ. It is from this man that we, individuals and the church, have learnt the fine art of “washing our hands” of the injustice in the world around us…..whether we be investors in beautiful oriental rugs that are only beautiful because enslaved children with teeny hands have made them
…….or if we be buyers of “cheap” clothes which are only cheap because people in a far away country are exploited and abused in sweat shops and sweat factories. 
Pilate’s ability to wash his hands and walk away is alive and well.

There has been a tendency in the Christian telling of the Passion story to exonerate Pilate, or at least to make him an unwilling pawn of the Jewish leaders and crowds. Pilate, it is claimed, was a truth-seeking man who was caught between a rock and a hard place. Were it not for the pressure he received from the Sanhedrin and their supporters, he wouldn’t have crucified Jesus.

This view of the noble Pilate seems at first to fit the facts of the New Testament Gospels. But, upon closer scrutiny, it falls short in a number of crucial ways.

First, it overlooks Pilate’s record of cruelty in his dealings with the Jewish people. Far from being some benevolent ruler, Pilate frequently offended and grieviously mistreated those he was sent to govern. The Jewish historian Josephus records an instance when Pilate used money given to the Jerusalem temple for one of his pet projects. When a crowd of Jews objected, Pilate killed a great number of them. The Gospel of Luke records a similar instance when Pilate killed a number of Galilean Jews, mingling their blood with their temple sacrifices (Luke 13:1). The first-century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, once wrote a letter to Caesar, in which, among other things, he blamed Pilate for: “briberies, insults, robberies, outrages, wanton injustices, constantly repeated executions without trial, and ceaseless and grievous cruelty.”

Second, it’s unlikely that Pilate would have been forced to act contrary to his will by the Jewish leaders and the crowd they rounded up to call for the crucifixion of Jesus. Pilate was surely aware of Jesus’ widespread popularity among the Jewish people. This, in fact, would have been a major concern to him, especially during the Passover, when the normal population of Jerusalem (around 35,000) swelled to perhaps ten times that amount. In other words, if Pilate had wanted to keep Jesus alive, he surely could have “gone over the heads” of the Jewish leaders to the large group of Jesus’s supporters and admirers. Of course Pilate didn’t need anyone’s approval to have Jesus killed. He had the authority to order execution. But Pilate was no doubt concerned about whether such an action in the case of Jesus would lead to revolt. So, we have every reason to believe that Pilate in fact wanted Jesus to be crucified, otherwise he would not have sentenced Him to death.

Third, what we see in the Gospels is, in all likelihood, a carefully scripted plot by Pilate. Knowing how popular Jesus was among the masses, Pilate knew he faced the possibility of insurrection if he himself was believed to be responsible for the death of Jesus. So he had to find a way to use his authority to crucify Jesus, and, at the same time, to publicly wash his hands of this decision. Thus he cleverly toyed with the Jewish leaders and their supporters, until it appeared as if he was compelled against his will to have Jesus crucified. Thus Pilate could get rid of Jesus and, at the same time, insure that popular anger would be directed at Jewish leaders and not at himself and Rome.

The fact that Pilate had Jesus crucified strongly suggests that he saw Jesus as a threat to Roman order. Though not your ordinary terrorist or revolutionary, Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God (not Caesar) and accepted adulation as a messianic (kingly) figure. Moreover, even if his answers to Pilate were minimal, Jesus didn’t reject the charge that he claimed to be king of the Jews. So, even though Jesus wasn’t your run-of-the-mill Zealot, he was still the sort of person who was dangerous to Rome, and was therefore worthy of death, at least from the Roman point of view.

Why have I taken time to establish Pilate’s actual guilt for the death of Jesus? For one thing, this is an important antidote to the a-historical and anti-Semitic tendency among some Christians to exonerate Pilate and blame “the Jews” in general for the death of Jesus. To be sure, most (but not all) of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem wanted Jesus killed, and plotted to that end. But Pilate must not be excused for his central role in the death of Jesus. He alone had the authority in Jerusalem to sentence Jesus to death by crucifixion, and he must bear this guilt.

But, this is Lent, and I have focused on Pilate for another reason as well. He is the person we see so much in the world around us, we have seen him in the news in South Africa this week, we have seen him in court this week: he is the person who fails to take responsibility for his actions, the person who seeks a way out for something that is blatantly wrong, the person who seeks to justify wrong actions, who fools himself/herself into believing that…”it doesn’t really matter”…..and we know that person only too well, don’t we? Perhaps Pilate really believed he was innocent of Jesus’ death. Perhaps, as I have suggested, he was playacting for his own political benefit. Either way, Pilate issued the verdict that sent Jesus to the cross. Yet he did so in such a way as to appear innocent of Jesus’ blood. He did not take responsibility for what he had done.

How often do we do this sort of thing ourselves? How often do we rationalize our sins, blaming them on others? How often do we fail to take responsibility for what we have done wrong, preferring to assign credit to our parents for raising us wrong, our society for mistreating us, our boss for abusing us, our spouse for misunderstanding us? I can’t tell you how many times, I have heard people try to evade responsibility for their own sins by pointing to the sins of others. And,……….I’ve done plenty of this myself.

Why is this wrong? Well, for one thing it’s dishonest. Yet, beyond this, when we fail to accept responsibility for our sins, then we lose the opportunity to experience forgiveness for them. If I’m blaming others when I do wrong, then I won’t confess what I’ve done as sin. And this, in turn, will keep me from experiencing the grace of God with respect to this particular sin. (I’m not saying this will keep me out of Heaven, but rather than I will fail to enjoy the fullness of God’s forgiveness in this life.)

You might have noticed that one of my hobbyhorses this Lent has been to get us to identify the unconfessed sin in our lives. To confess our sins to God is not to tell Him anything He doesn’t already know. Until we confess them however, they are a deep chasm between us and God, but, here’s the grace, the unconfessed sin in my life which is a chasm between me and God….that same sin, when I confess it, becomes the bridge which makes it possible for me to approach and get closer to my God……..isn’t grace just amazing?

Hand washers like Pilate can be right next to Jesus, but there is a chasm between them so that the God who in Christ and His Holy Spirit is with us can seem so distant. (The same principle applies in our personal relationships, but I’ll leave that for you to think about)

When we’re tempted to be like Pilate, we’d do well to remember a portion of the first letter of John in the New Testament:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)

As you look at your life, don’t be like Pilate. Don’t try to wash your hands of that which you have done wrong and of that over which you think you have no control. God isn’t fooled. Rather, tell God the truth about your sins and our role in institutionalised sin, the sin others commit on our behalf, so that you might experience His forgiveness through Christ.


Friday, March 14, 2014

Lent 2: Humility which comes with a Whip and overturns Tables

The Cleansing of the Temple

I have chosen as a text verse today 1 Corinthians 3:16:
         
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple 
and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Lent 1: Suffering Kingdom-bringers, Suffering Kingdom-sharers


 
This first Sunday in Lent, we focus on the brokenness and suffering towards which these 40 days are journeying.    As I read the 3 readings set for this Sunday, please listen for the brokenness and suffering they contain and especially let these words remind you of your own brokenness and suffering……and be encouraged to bring your brokenness and suffering to the Cross of Christ. 


Brokenness and suffering, some of it completely undeserved, some of it (in Peter’s case) deserved – he deserved the rebuke of the Lord.  Some of our brokenness and suffering is deserved……some is undeserved……the invitation of grace is to bring all our brokenness and suffering to the Christ who suffered and was broken.

Jesus introduces His Kingdom towards the end of His Ministry as a kingdom which is inaugurated,.... which comes, ......through suffering, brokenness, rejection..... and to His first followers this is so shocking as to be incomprehensible. The Kingdom of God in our midst, turns everything upside down, we've seen that as we've looked at the parables the last few weeks.  
And now Jesus tells His Disciples that this long awaited kingdom can only be launched through His death, and again, His first followers were completely unprepared for that, and indeed, they refused to allow it:

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” 

Suffering lies at the heart of the Gospel……and at the heart of what it means to be Christian.  It shouldn’t surprise us – though many are surprised to hear this – that the early Christians understood their calling as Jesus' followers to include, as a central element, their own suffering, misunderstanding and likely death!  It isn’t just that as followers of a misunderstood Messiah, they themselves would naturally expect misunderstanding and persecution (although this true) but it is rather that the suffering of Jesus followers is, like Jesus’ own suffering, the way by which God’s purpose is achieved.

To put it another way, suffering is not just sometimes a consequence of being a Christian, it is actually the WAY through which God brings TRUTH and LIFE.  This is true of deserved and undeserved suffering – God can use it.

When Jesus tells His followers to pick up their cross and follow Him, we see a line straight through the New Testament to the theme of suffering and martyrdom.  Listen:

We don’t like this message, but it is the message of the whole of the New Testament: our suffering somehow has the positive effect of carrying forward the redemptive effect of Jesus’ own death, not by adding to it, but by sharing in it.

Jesus has chosen His followers as those who share His work of bringing His Kingdom – that’s why He sent out the 12, then the 70, then all those who came and come to believe.  But if we are to bring His Kingdom in His way, we will be people who share His suffering and who always see our suffering as an opportunity for God’s Kingdom to come. 

We are to be suffering Kingdom-bringers, suffering Kingdom-sharers.  Sharing His suffering is the way in which we extend His Kingdom on earth……it remains the way His Kingdom comes.

Now, a closing word to those of us who suffer because of our own serious mistakes.....what some would call "deserved suffering".  We live in a world which loves to put a mark on us, to try and identify us forever, by mistakes we might have made.  I’ve seen that mark on all kinds of people: unmarried moms, divorcees, ex-church members, people who've had abortions, married people who have had affairs, people who've made serious mistakes with their children, and countless others, like this preacher, who have made serious mistakes.  There is too little around to help people who suffer in this way. Where do you turn to when you live with someone who says, or who you know is thinking, "you should never have done that"....it can break us. We need a theology of brokenness, a theology which teaches us that even though we cannot unscramble an egg, God’s grace and ability  to use our mistakes and our “deserved” suffering, the suffering we bring on ourselves, let’s us live happily and even with renewed innocence far beyond any egg we may have scrambled.

So……the amount of suffering (“deserved” and “undeserved”) in this sanctuary……is HUGE.
But please hear this: The amount of grace (from God) in this sanctuary……is HUGER.

Bring your suffering, your pain, your brokenness to the Cross and know this……in the great mystery which is our God and His grace……He can and probably already is using it so that His Kingdom may come. Be encouraged, suffering Kingdom-bringers, suffering Kingdom-sharers.



Tom Wright's How God became King has been an invaluable resource
 and inspiration regarding the call to be 
Suffering Kingdom-bringers, Suffering Kingdom-sharers.
 Buy it here