John 18: 33-37
One of the themes of John’s Gospel, as I see it, is that anyone who comes in contact in a personal and intimate encounter with Jesus has hope of a changed heart. It appears that there is always possibility, no matter who the person is or their position, something seems to happen in the encounter that surpasses the other gospels. That includes the encounter we hear today with Pilate. Unfortunately, because of the other three gospels Pilate has been type-cast and so it’s hard to look at him through a different lens. He’s simply the enemy who gives into the conspiracies and fears of the religious leaders of the time. The same is true in John’s Gospel; he’ll wash his hands clean. But there’s something very different about the encounter with Jesus here today that is unlike the rest.
The tell-tale sign of all of this in John’s Gospel is what often follows the encounters, no matter with whom it takes place. There’s chaos. It seems like a rather odd sign that somehow God is at work but after the initial encounter, it appears that lives are turned inside out and upside down. It appears that what they thought was right no longer is. It appears that what was considered norm somehow seems to fall away and they all begin to see in a different way, as if a new created order begins to take shape out of the chaos. This is the real point of John. The gospel writer takes us back to the beginning of Genesis where God creates a new created order out of the chaos, whenever God speaks. So, when Jesus speaks, and they listen to his voice, the chaos that ensues turns into a new created order. It’s not a one-time deal. There seems to be a need for consecutive encounters before anyone begins to trust that voice of truth but eventually leads to belief.
So today, the one who is seen to have unlimited power, or so he thinks, now has his chance on the stage when Jesus encounters Pilate and vice versa. Pilate walks into this situation thinking he has the ultimate power and that Jesus is just going to be like the other religious authorities of the time, merely a push-over. He thinks this is open-shut case until the actual encounter takes place and for the first time, Pilate begins to experience before him true unlimited power. Like all the other characters in the gospel, his head starts to spin and chaos follows. He doesn’t know what to make of this guy Jesus who turns the tables and puts him on trial instead, leaving Pilate looking for a way out. The chaos that Pilate experiences within himself plays itself out with a constant change of scene. He’s inside the praetorium now and then goes out to the crowd, and goes back and forth not sure who to trust or believe. It’s as if he keeps returning to the crowd because they feed his power, rooted in fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, reminding him that Jesus threatens it all, fearing to appear weak. Yet, he keeps returning for more in encounter Jesus. There’s something appealing about Jesus in this encounter. Does he trust the screaming voices of fear or trust the voice of God speaking within?
Of course, Pilate succumbs to the fear but we never know how the story really unfolds for him. He thinks he can wipe his hands clean, but does he really? He’ll eventually go onto ask his most infamous question, of “what is truth?” It is often interpreted as Pilate’s finally giving in to the religious authorities but is it possible, for the first time, Pilate shows signs of question and doubt of his own limited power in the face of the unlimited power of God, standing before him. Pilate gives into the destructive force of chaos but would it change in subsequent encounters with the Lord, if there were more time. When both the political and religious authorities see themselves as having this unlimited power, fed by fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, they place themselves as the agents of salvation, trusting in worldly power rather than the eternal kingdom that Jesus promises. Yet, because they can’t see and become blinded by their own power, they see that kingdom manifested in an earthly sense, marked by land boundaries, within their own kingdom, now under threat by this new “king”. Once again, though, the blindness of power leads to a misunderstanding of Jesus and the kingdom that lies within. If we look to religious and political leaders as somehow offering us salvation, we too need to check ourselves and our own fears. It’s the way they preserve their own power, clinging to what was rather than arriving with a sense of openness.
As much as every character that encounters the Lord in the Gospel begins with a sense of hope and the possibility of something, the thought of change scares people back into their own way of thinking. More often than not Jesus invites, over an over again, to see things differently, to gain a new perspective, even to being led to chaos, to questions and doubts. That’s the point, though. If we never question the earthly powers we cling to and all that we think gives us power, we simply become part of the crowd yelling at the top of our lungs to crucify! We can no longer hear the quiet voice of God, the breaking in of the kingdom within our own hearts, leading us to greater fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. Quite frankly, it leads us more deeply into chaos, not just in the world but in our own hearts, which is then played out on the world stage.
If there is any semblance of hope for us it’s that in a time when we find our world often spinning out of control, controlled by fear, and the thought of change, unmanageable, it’s that only God can bring a new created order out of such chaos. If we allow ourselves to step out of the way and trust in the true God, in our own encounters, then change is possible and we don’t need to find ourselves stuck as a country and world. The chaos and level of uncertainty says more about us as people and this ongoing idea that somehow, whether religious or political, leaders can pull us out of such chaos. We’re more like Pilate than we’d ever care to admit. It’s so easy to be allured by the fear and the noise of the crowd and world. It is only, though, by creative means, that a new created order, through the ultimate power of God found deep within, can lead us out of the chaos, that quite frankly, we created and only God can transform.