< April 10, 2009 >

Commentary on John 18:1-19:42

 

John's Passion account is its own sermon,

extending from betrayal at a place across the valley to devotion at the foot of the cross; from Peter's three-fold denial to Pilate's three-fold acquittal; from the many who call for Jesus' crucifixion to the two who remove him from the cross; from those who bind him by force at his arrest to those who bind him in love at his burial; from the beginning of the end in one garden to the end of the beginning in another.

The narrative expresses the Gospel's earliest proclamation: "He was in the world... yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God..." (1:10-12).

Perhaps it is enough of a sermon to present the Passion as a dramatic reading or oral performance. For preachers who want to say more, a closer look at some of the "players" in this drama is one place to start.

Jesus: I am he
Refusing to shy away from the threats of Judas and his henchmen, Jesus steps forward to meet them (John 18:4). As he does many times in this Gospel, Jesus maintains authority over events that seem to be spiraling dangerously out of control.

  • He orders Peter to put away his sword (18:11)
  • Under questioning by the high priest he answers openly and demands witnesses (18:20-23)
  • He takes a similar in-your-face approach to Pilate (18:33-38)
  • He carries his own cross, without assistance (19:17)
  • In his dying he establishes the bonds of a new family (19:25-27)
  • Only when he knows that "all [is] now finished" does he give up his spirit (19:30) choosing, it seems, even the moment of his own death

"Whom are you looking for?" (literally, "Whom are you seeking?"), Jesus asks the soldiers and police as they shatter the peace of the garden with their lanterns, torches, and weapons (18:3-4; meager lights against the Light of the World!). Is he challenging their display of power? Or inviting them to put down their weapons and follow, to do things another way? Or something else? We hear echoes of his question at the beginning of his ministry (1:38), and again, after the resurrection (20:15).

Whom are you looking for? What are you seeking? What do you need, at the core of your being, in that place where God alone knows the truth?

Our own answers will have a great deal to do with what we find. When the soldiers respond, "Jesus of Nazareth," he comes right back at them with, "I am he," (egō eimi 18:5-6; cf. 4:26; Exodus 3:14). Jesus might as well have said, "The Father and I are one," (John 10:30), or "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father," (14:9). It is no wonder they are knocked off their feet.

Peter: I am not [his disciple]
Peter has been with Jesus from the beginning (1:41-42). He has stuck with Jesus through events that he did not understand (12:16; 13:7)-- even when others have not (6:60-66)-- and he has boldly confessed his faith (6:68-69). Peter trusts Jesus enough that he is not afraid to challenge him (at the foot-washing, 13:6-9), nor to be corrected by him (in the same episode). He has fought to protect Jesus in the face of a deadly threat (18:10). Up until Jesus' arrest, Peter has been the best of friends to his Lord, even going so far as to offer his own life for the sake of following Jesus (13:37).

But then he takes it all back.

While Jesus is inside, testifying boldly to the high priest (18:19-23), Peter is outside, three times denying any association with the prisoner (18:15-18, 25-27). Then he disappears.

He is not around while Jesus drags his own cross up the hill, nor is he standing at the cross with the women and the beloved disciple. He does not participate in the preparation of Jesus' body for burial. When the going gets tough, Peter gets going-- but not in a positive direction. He deserts his friend, his teacher, his master, his Lord.

Why? Does his fear prevent him from following through on his promises? Is he questioning the truth of his own experience? Is he wondering whether it has been worth it? Is he in despair over events that he is powerless to stop? Is he railing against God for not stepping in to fix it?

Would our own response have been any different?

Pilate: What is truth?
Extra-biblical sources suggest that Pilate was not a nice man. But here, in the encounter with Jesus, he appears to be sympathetic. He also appears to be a man who wants to discover the truth. Note that most of his dialogue with Jesus consists of questions: 

  • "Are you the King of the Jews?" (18:33)
  • "What have you done?" (18:35)
  • "So you are a king?" (18:37)
  • "What is truth?" (18:38)
  • "Where are you from?" (19:9)
  • "Do you refuse to speak to me?" (19:10a)
  • "Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?" (19:10b)

Three times Pilate says he can find no case against Jesus, but when he hears that Jesus has claimed to be the Son of God, he is "more afraid than ever" (19:8). Afraid of what? Afraid of the Jews? Afraid of Jesus? Afraid of God? Afraid of the truth? Still he tries to release Jesus, until charges are flung against Pilate himself: "If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor" (19:12).

Now it is personal. If Pilate continues to defend this "King of the Jews," his own power at risk. Is the sacrifice worth it? Is the truth worth giving up a position of authority and prestige? Is it worth relinquishing what the world has to offer? Is it worth submitting to the ways of God?

In the face of his fear and these questions, Pilate ultimately hands Jesus over for crucifixion. Perhaps, though, he comes closer to the truth than he is able to admit when he has the inscription placed on the cross: "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" (19:19).