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April 15: Good Friday

John 18:33-38

[This sermon was preached as part of a Good Friday Tenebrae worship service. This sermon was preached at the start of worship. After the sermon, we read the story of the arrest, suffering, and death of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke.]

Pontius Pilate thinks he's in charge here. He's the Roman governor in charge of Jerusalem and the surrounding region of Judea. His power and authority come to him directly from the emperor, from Caesar himself. He's doing something that he's done dozens, if not hundreds, of times before. What he's doing – at least, what he thinks he's doing – is something that was a pretty common part of a Roman governor's job. A local troublemaker – someone who has been stirring up the crowds, causing trouble for the local authorities – some troublemaker has been brought before him, and it's his job to render judgment.

Jerusalem and Judea were famous for their uprisings – the people didn't like living under the heel of foreign occupation – and Rome was pretty famous for putting those uprisings down mercilessly. Pilate had sat in judgment over dozens of so-called messiahs and would-be saviors. And Rome's way, Pilate's way, of dealing with revolutionaries and troublemakers was simple and brutal – execute them, in the most gruesome and humiliating way possible – usually by crucifixion. Beat them, torture them, humiliate them, and kill them. That's what Rome did, and it didn't usually worry too much about it. Sit in judgment, eliminate the troublemakers, and move on – all for the glory of Rome.

And, so, when Jesus is brought before him, Pilate probably thought Jesus was just one more in a long line of nondescript, unlikely to be remembered troublemakers. All part of the job. Old hat, all in a day's work, for an experienced Roman governor like Pontius Pilate. Pilate takes his place, and prepares to sit in judgment, to put Jesus on trial.

Except, as we know, and as Pilate soon discovers, this is no ordinary Jewish revolutionary. This is not just another day on the job. With this interaction, Pontius Pilate enters into the historical record – because of this one day in his life, billions of Christians across time and around the globe remember his name, even two millennia after his death. This trial is a turning point, it is a moment of transformation, an interaction that takes an unexpected turn – for Pontius Pilate, and for us.

The four Gospels all tell this story slightly differently. Some of them depict Jesus as totally silent as he faces his accusers. Those stories, by depicting a silent Jesus, imagine Jesus as "a lamb who is silent before its slaughter" and force us to wrestle with what it means that God could have stopped this – Jesus could have walked away from this fate – but, out of faithfulness to his mission and to us, he accepted it anyway. Those gospels, particularly Matthew and Mark, who us a Jesus who has been abandoned by everyone, and who nevertheless remains resolute in his faithfulness God's work, in his commitment to what must be done.

John, on the other hand, does not show us a silent Jesus. John, as he tells the story, zooms in on Jesus being interviewed by the Roman governor. As Pilate asks Jesus questions, Jesus repeatedly turns them back onto Pilate. Pilate asks questions, and Jesus gives answers that strike at the core of his identity, at the root of reality. Jesus points to the tenuous nature of Pilate's authority, how all of the Roman pomp and ceremony and glory is actually so fragile and fleeting. During the course of this interview, it is slowly revealed that Pilate isn't actually in control of this moment. This is not just another day at the office for him. This is not just another trial. Sure, he has the power to grant freedom or execution, to decide between life and death – but there is something deeper going on here, something he can't quite grasp, and that he definitely can't control. Pontius Pilate thinks that he is sitting in judgment over Jesus, but what John reveals to us in amazing clarity and beauty – what all the gospel writers reveal to us in their own unique ways – is that, in actuality, Pontius Pilate isn't the judge. Jesus isn't the one on trial here. Pontius Pilate is.

And it's not just Pontius Pilate who is on trial. All four of the Gospels, as they tell the story of the betrayal, arrest, trial, suffering, and crucifixion of Jesus – all four of them, in their own way, are saying something similar. All of them are saying, in essence, that this trial isn't for Jesus – it's for us. As we read these stories, we discover that we are on trial. And it's not Pontius Pilate who is sitting in judgment – it's Jesus.

As the Gospels recount the story of the passion – of the suffering and death of Jesus – they paint a picture of Jesus as the one who is tested – the one who is put on trial – and who remains faithful in the midst of the most impossible and brutal circumstances. They also describe all sorts of other characters – the religious elites who sought to kill him, the disciples who abandoned him, Judas who betrayed him, Peter who denied him, the Roman authorities who ordered his death, the Roman soldiers who carried it out with overflowing brutality – they show us all these other characters who, when they are confronted with Jesus, fail to recognize him for who he is, or fail to remain faithful to who they know him to be, or fail to practice peace and love because hatred and violence are easier, more convenient. In other words, these other characters, when they are put on trial, they do not pass the test.

And, what this story asks us, each year, is how we would respond – how we do respond – to Jesus. Would we run away, deny him, betray him? Would we give in to the lure of power and safety and security and control – like the religious elites and the political power-brokers? Would we do awful violence and say that we were "just following orders"?

As we prepare to read this story – and as we slowly remove the light from this space, to symbolize the gathering forces of darkness who sought to overcome the light of the world – as we read this story, we are invited to ask ourselves where we might be in this story – and to confess that, in all likelihood, we would have failed this test, we would have joined with the crowds crying out for his crucifixion.

But, here's the Good News: we might have failed the test – we do fail the test of loyalty to Jesus, over and over, throughout our lives – but Jesus did not fail. When put on trial, Jesus remained faithful. Jesus walked the way of darkness – all the way to death – in order to bring us through into the light – and the promise of resurrection. Tonight we tell a tale of darkness. Tonight, we are put on trial. Tonight, we are challenged to choose faithfulness, to learn to follow Jesus, to respond to his presence better than Pilate did, more faithfully than Peter did. And then we are reminded that, even if we don't, even if we fail the test, even if the verdict at the end of our trial is "guilty," – in the end, that's not the more important thing. In the end, the Good News is that, though we fail the test, Jesus has passed it. When we are put on trial and declared guilty, Jesus has been declared innocent – and, by grace, has declared all of us innocent too. Jesus passed the test. Therefore we have hope.

So, come, let us journey into darkness. Let us face the trial. And let us hear the story of the True Judge, who faced judgment for us, and passed the test. Amen.

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