Commentary on John 18:1—19:42
On this holiest of Christian observances, Jesus’ death is front and center. John offers a blow-by-blow account of the betrayal by Judas, the trial, sentencing, rejection by the crowd, crucifixion, and burial. Although we know the real ending comes with Jesus’ resurrection, it is important that as Christians we approach the events of the day with the solemnity and seriousness that it deserves.
This lengthy text of Jesus’ passion is not easily read in its entirety in most congregations, and it is often overridden by the conglomerate narrative contained in the Seven Last Words (of Christ) that are ritually preached in a three-hour service in many churches, or perhaps by the poignancy of a Tenebrae service, moving from light to darkness or even observance of the longer Stations of the Cross. Despite this, the story narrated in this lengthy pericope in the fourth Gospel is familiar to most church-goers and even in some summative form to most professed Christians. Therefore, as preachers we are challenged to make inviting that which has been taken for granted and to shine new light on that which has been heard too often for some and which, while not discarded, has been relegated to the forgotten familiar.
There is much that may be preached from this text, but in light of the global situation of the COVID-19 pandemic and the worldwide call for justice for people of color, there are nuggets of information that may be taken from the text that may well fit the current societal context nationally and globally. Here are a few issues that arise from the text that relate to the present national context, and that, depending on your preaching context, may provide fodder for a Good Friday sermon.
- Jesus’ arrest and trial
Jesus, innocent of any wrong-doing, carrying out his mandate of seeking justice for all people, is betrayed into the hands of an establishment that cares little for those on the lower levels or on the fringes of society. He is tried and convicted without conclusive evidence. He exemplifies the situation of so many who, although innocent or for whom there is no conclusive evidence of culpability, are forced to defend themselves against accusations that are untrue and unjust. In many instances they are convicted in courts that serve their own type of justice based on laws and policies that do serious harm to those who are not considered of worth in society.
- Mob rule and violence
The spectacle of the storming of the Capitol building is burnt into our hearts and minds. Again and again moving pictures were shown on television and the horrific event was seen in homes in the United States and around the world. The people are egged on and the mob that results is difficult to contain. One can well imagine the furor of the crowd that called for Jesus’ crucifixion. It does not require much imagination to put before the congregation the danger that exists in allowing oneself to be swayed by rhetoric that calls for the destruction of any person, place, or thing, or when one is caught in the grip of unchecked emotion sparked by the rejection of civility and personal responsibility.
While it is not particularly helpful to dwell on the cause of the insurrection that resulted in the storming of the Capitol, the event provides an opportunity to call the hearers to reflect on the propensity of individuals to follow the crowd. It offers a caveat against unchecked anger or a follow-the-crowd mentality that is generally destructive. It invites the preacher to offer cautions based on the treatment of Jesus by an unruly mob, fueled by unjustified anger based on untruths, and to invite the hearers to seek the truth that is often evident upon careful research or measured consideration.
- The notion of power
Jesus knows that the cross is his destiny. He knows that as Son of God he has the omnipotence of the divine. Yet he chooses not to exercise his divine power in the face of human injustice. When Pilate expresses the belief that his power is the greatest and therefore can be exercised either for or against Jesus, Jesus responds with divine confidence, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given to you from above….” So often as leaders of God’s people we assert with righteous zeal that we have empowered the people. And yet, all power belongs to God.
On the other hand, so many in society, especially during the present crises, feel powerless because of their circumstances. This text reminds us, and provides an opportunity to remind the people of God, that as long as we hold fast to God, God empowers us to deal with every circumstance of our lives. Regardless of the loss we have suffered, whether of loved ones who have died, or much-needed employment, or the company of friends and family, or even the sense of who we are because of the changes that have been forced upon us, we are not powerless. God gives us power to face every circumstance. Jesus, the all-powerful God in human flesh, is our model. He trusted in the power of God to bring him through this death-dealing situation and so can we. So we must as we look to the future that God is already shaping in each life.
The challenge to offer a relevant word for our times from this time-worn but honored text should begin with the reality of our global context that calls the preacher to dig deeply into the text and ask the relevant questions for this time. In so doing, the preacher can receive the response that lies within this story, that speaks clearly of God’s amazing love shown in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.