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Lenten Perspectives: Pilate—John 18:28-19:16

Good morning, church. Please go with me to John, chapter 18, and we’re going to start in v.28.

I’ve been praising God over the past several weeks for all of the people who have been joining online who are able again, because of the vaccine, to join us in person: Momma Rose, Ms. June, Jess, Bill, and Patty. But I gotta give a shout out to two special guests who usually join us online and are able to be here with us today, all the way from Vidalia, Georgia: my mom and dad. It’s their fault everyone, why I am the way I am.

Be kind to them. I’m trying to convince them to move here and be a part of the church, so if you see Kallee or Momma Rose trying to talk to them, do something to stop the conversation—we want my parents to come back.

Maybe it’s my parents being in town, or my brother’s new baby girl being born this week, or just the passage, but I had a moment of nostalgia when I first went to write this sermon: this is the first passage I ever preached at Vieux Carré, way back before thanksgiving 2019 as part of the John series, before I even had a thought about coming here as a pastor. And if you’ll allow me to be a little emotional—yes, Phil, I have emotions—I wanted to read a bit of that sermon, because it’s just as true today as it was then:

I wrote, “What a privilege it is to be here with you this morning…my name is Alex Brian. I’m a husband and father, a brother…I work for the local branch of our denomination. We pray for you often, especially as you’ve been searching for a pastor, always thanking God for you all.

My wife is here with me this morning, and if you only have time to meet one of us, I would highly suggest meeting her instead of me. She’s far more pleasant than I am. This is a real story, I actually had someone try to defend me this summer by telling a person, “He wasn’t trying to offend you, that’s just his personality.” But luckily I’m not here to tell you about myself, I’m here to talk about about Jesus.”

Amen, past Alex. And you should know, church, I’m still here wanting to talk about Jesus, and I still pray for you—even more so now that you’ve found a pastor, about every day—and my prayers are still to thank God for you and ask for his care and guidance.

We’ve decided, through the season of Lent, to follow individual people through the last week or so of Jesus’ life, to see through their eyes the events which brought our savior to the cross to die in our place—just as he died in the place of each person we’ve talked about so far—Caiaphas and John, Judas and Peter. My hope is that we would begin to see pieces of ourselves in each of the men and women we’ll focus on, so that we might understand, in new and more personal ways, what it means that Jesus died on the cross for us, in our place and for our sake.

This week, I’m going to focus on Pilate. Read with me, John 18:28-19:16 [John 8:28-19:16]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly. Father God, you are king above every other king; Christ, you shared so much of our shame so we might be able to experience your righteousness; Holy Spirit, you always speak truth, even when truth is utterly lost; we pray you would show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.

If you’ve been here the past few weeks, you know what I’m about to say: we are Pilate. We are just like him. We make the same mistakes, and we value the same things he values.

Pilate is the Roman governor of the region. His role was to maintain Roman rule, stop rebellion. If anyone tries to get the crown, to be a king, Pilate’s task is to cut him down, not just kill him, but crush any hope that rebellion is possible. And governors like Pilate did not get fired. If they lost control of their district, they were at least humiliated, but usually they were executed. So Jesus’ kingship, his claim to be the son of God, were threats to Pilate’s honor and his life.

Being the Roman governor essentially meant that he had absolute rule over the region—there were other kings and rulers in place, like Caiaphas and Herod, but Pilate is over all of them. He is a king of kings. He is sovereign, meaning there is no one able to contradict Pilate or stop him from doing whatever he wills.

And I say these things because I want you to see the contrast of Jesus standing before Pilate at the end of what we just read. Jesus has been flogged, so he’s bleeding. The soldiers placed a crown of thorns on his head—and we always imagine the crown of thorns being brown and stripped of leaves, but if you imagine it that way, you miss the joke the soldiers were making. See, Pilate would have worn a crown of laurels, a leafy vine twisted on his head. Imagine a leafy vine twisted together to look just like Pilate’s, only with thorns. The soldiers are laughing at him, saying, you wanted to rebel, to wear Pilate’s crown? We have a crown you can wear just like his.

The soldiers also placed a purple robe around Jesus, soaked in blood at this point. Purple was a color of royalty, so Pilate would have been wearing purple as well. It’s a stark image, the two kings facing each other; mirror images in a way—and yet, at the same time, could they be any more different? They stand opposite each other talking of authority and truth, guilt and innocence, with drastically different conceptions of the source of truth and authority in the world, and also the way to set it back to rights.

Pilate lived in Caesarea Phillipi, which was a city built on the sea after the fashion of Roman cities. It would have a lavish palace for the governor, a gymnasium, a stadium for chariot racing—you know, civilization. And I bring this up, this city-on-the-sea, because everything Pilate valued came from across that sea. He wanted to live and think and act and be as close to Rome as he possibly could. When Pilate talks of his authority, in his mind it’s coming from Rome. When he talks of truth, it’s truth as defined by Rome. He doesn’t want to be in Jerusalem, he doesn’t want to learn from people there, he doesn’t want to live with them, and he certainly doesn’t think he might need anything from them—not love, not grace, not family, not forgiveness.

Chapter 18, v.37, Jesus tells Pilate that he is not attempting to usurp Pilate’s reign, but he’s bearing witness to the truth—the truth that Jesus doesn’t need to usurp the throne; he is already king. Jesus, himself, is truth, and Pilate responds with, “What is truth?” The question is a dismissal. It’s what you would hear out of the mouth of a philosopher in Athens, it’s a subtle way for Pilate to call Jesus a fool, uneducated, simple in his understanding of truth and authority.

Church, listen: we are Pilate. We are just like him. We make his same mistakes. We have the capacity to look truth, himself, in the face and ask what is truth? We reject him in small ways, this truth of God, his suffering, his body broken for us, his blood shed for us.

As a pastor, the whole of my role is pictured in the giving of communion. I take the body and blood of Christ, and I feed people. As they come for the bread and the cup, I preach the gospel, that Christ’s body was broken for them and his blood was shed for them. I’m supposed to give it out to anyone who will come. I try not to spill, to mess it up, or say the wrong words. Sometimes I exclude people I shouldn’t, sometimes, in my eagerness, I include people who aren’t really ready. But the gospel, the truth of God, is like bread for the hungry, drink for the thirsty. Every time I see someone take and eat, I get to watch them grow and thrive spiritually, to become strong and be able to work and even become a laborer in the harvest, able to feed the community around them.

Every time I counsel someone, or share the gospel, or offer friendship, or invite to church, I’m just trying to give them something to eat and drink so they don’t starve or thirst. But—this is why I’m talking about this—most people I invite to the table reject the invitation. Either they don’t come to church, or, for those of us in church, we don’t approach a sermon or a bible study as though we have anything to learn, we don’t ask for prayer or listen to encouragement, we don’t confess our sins to each other or hear words of forgiveness, we don’t seek out discipleship relationships—in all of these things, we are casually asking, what is truth? We are implying Jesus doesn’t really have anything left to teach us.

And I’m not talking about just a few proud people, but pretty much everyone at some point, and I oftentimes reject truths laid right before me by those who minister to me. We’re all Pilate. We have Bibles on our shelves or in our bags, and we leave them there. We don’t read them only because we don’t think we need the bread and the wine found in the pages.

We orient ourselves to the world and not to Jerusalem. Everything we value comes from Rome, or D.C., or New York, or Hollywood. We want to live and think and act and be close to these places. We may visit the church house, but only for a moment before we return to our real lives. We are so satisfied with Rome that we don’t even want to visit Jerusalem, much less live there. Everything we value comes from Rome—our conceptions of truth, and authority, and innocence. Even with truth incarnate standing in front of us, given to us, preached to us, we can’t see that Jesus is truth—he is sovereign, and we are broken.

I want to go back to the image of Jesus being dressed to look like Pilate, them face-to face with each other. Pilate, in his conqueror’s robes, Jesus bloodied and beaten, two crowns, two robes. The soldiers dressed Jesus in those clothes, like I said, as a joke. The joke was, look how ridiculous your king looks in comparison with ours, and Pilate keeps bringing him out to the crowd and shouting, “Behold the man!” “Behold your king!” Pilate is urging the crowd, and John is urging his readers—look at Jesus, and look at Pilate, and decide which one is king.

I hope we do behold them both today, side by side, Jesus and Pilate, and in doing so that we would look at ourselves next to Jesus. I pray God would give us eyes to see what Pilate did not see.

When Pilate stood next to Jesus, Pilate saw an uneducated, religious leader from a small town. Pilate would have had a private tutor his whole life who taught him classical philosophy and rhetoric. He assumes he is too knowledgeable, too experienced, to learn much from this man, and we do the same. We live in a society that is constantly brushing truth off as unknowable, just like Pilate does here. “What is truth?” We constantly ask the question.

Whether intentionally or not, whether or not we can bring ourselves to admit it, we look at Jesus next to Pilate and think how ridiculous Jesus looks, next to this great man. But I hope this morning we will look again.

When we look at Jesus next to Pilate, I hope we see a king of kings and sovereign Lord standing next to Pilate, who is unclean, broken, and hurting.

When we look at Jesus next to Pilate, I hope we see a king who had used his authority to kill as many people as he needed to kill to save his own life, next to the creator and sustainer of the universe who used his authority to defeat death itself, gave his life to save his own people.

When we look at Jesus next to Pilate, I hope we see a king who washed his hands to absolve his own guilt over killing an innocent man, next to one whose hands were bloodied to forgive and save the guilty.

When we look at Jesus next to Pilate, I hope we see ourselves in Pilate’s place.

Behold the man! Pilate keeps saying, and in an ironic sense, he’s right: one of the two of them is ridiculous, a pretender, a usurper, ignorant, and helpless. And we are Pilate.

My second point for today is, if we are Pilate, and Jesus died in Pilate’s place, then Jesus died in our place.

In. v.6, Pilate admits he finds no guilt in Jesus. His part in the death of Christ is motivated, not from any sense of justice in his judgement, but from not wanting to cause political problems for himself. This is an execution of convenience for Pilate. He’s making a trade, Jesus’ life for his own comfort and his own place. He doesn’t want anything to change. He wants to be seen as a true Roman, a friend of the emperor. He wants to go back to his palace by the sea.

This sermon series, like the lenten season, is coming to a close. Next week is Palm Sunday. I’ve said through this whole series that I want you to imagine yourself in the place of each of the people in the passion narrative, and I want to tell you why.

Our sins, the mistakes we make, this brokenness about ourselves and the world, sometimes seem so small that it’s hard to imagine they matter or could have any consequence, so we don’t think a whole lot about our need for forgiveness. For Pilate, condemning Jesus to death was not a memorable event. It doesn’t come up again in almost any Roman records, there’s really just one mention of Jesus in the Roman logs, it’s a single sentence, and they misspell Jesus’ name. I’m sure Pilate moved on from this judgement and lived very happily with himself in his palace by the sea.

We do the same. Most of the people I talk to as a pastor, I ask them first what they are praying about, and they usually answer, nothing much. I’ll bring up church or Jesus, and usually they haven’t thought much about it. Many of us who go to church, too, come on Sunday, and then we leave and mostly leave church behind us, we move on, like Pilate, to our jobs and lives elsewhere. But I would argue, whether or not Pilate realized it, his part in Jesus’ death is one of the defining moments in his life. And whether or not we realize it, whether or not we’ve ever even given it a thought or been concerned, our part in Jesus’ death is one of the most defining moments in our lives.

Jesus did not have to die that day. He was innocent. Every person involved in this story played some kind of role in nailing him to that cross, and so have we. Christ didn’t have to die, Phil. Jesus didn’t have to die, John. Mr. Joshua. Jesus didn’t have to die. He died for you, in your place, to save you. If we could live according to the will of God for our lives, the world would be healed and restored, justice would flow down like a river, and peace would reign. But the world is broken, and we broke it.

Every time we sin, every time we do something that contributes to the brokenness of the world or even to our own lives, we take part in the death of Christ on the cross. We’ve seen it, all through the past few weeks, how these small lies, denials, deals, and maneuvers brought God himself to be branded as a criminal; but even here, even now, our sins, our mistakes contribute to the brokenness of the world, and that is the real reason Christ went to the cross—to redeem his creation, to restore the world and set us back to rights. Jesus didn’t have to die. He died for you, in your place, so you could have a chance at life.

I wonder if Pilate had any kind of sense that washing his hands that day didn’t quite get the blood off his hands, didn’t quite accomplish the forgiveness he wanted. I imagine him washing them again later that day and remembering Christ whom he sent to a cross. There’s nothing we can do to accomplish forgiveness for ourselves. No amount of washing, no penance, no amount of good deeds will make us clean unless Christ washes us. If Pilate had knelt down on his knees and reached out to take Jesus’ robe, he would have gotten his clothes dirty, he would have gotten blood on his hands, but he would have been healed and clean.

Jesus died in our place, so that we might have life. I would invite you today to confess your role in Jesus’ death, whether you are Caiaphas, or John, or Peter, or Judas, or the crowds, or Mary, or some combination of all of them. Confess your role in sending Christ to the cross, and ask him for grace and forgiveness. Our God abounds in steadfast mercy. If you confess your sins to each other he is faithful and just to forgive you of your sins and cleans you of all unrighteousness. He will wash your hands clean.