Every year we celebrate Good Friday. And every year its the same text—the Passion according to John. And every year I am (or someone like me is) charged with getting up into the pulpit and saying something meaningful about Good Friday. About Jesus’ trial and crucifixion and death. About what it means and what it means to you.
And what more is there to say? I mean, we should all be intimately familiar with Good Friday. With disappointment and betrayal and death. Living life means facing all of those things. It’s not like explaining some cosmic mystery or a complicated theological concept or a liturgical festival like Ascension or Transfiguration. You all know—perhaps better than I do—the implications of Good Friday. So, again, what more is there to say?
Of course, the story remains the same, but the world all around us does change. We each get a little older. Some people depart from our lives while others enter it. We lose and we gain. And all of this casts new light onto the old story.
And so this year as I read John’s passion, I continued to be drawn to the character of Pontius Pilate. And maybe it’s because our world is so steeped in politics and paranoia right now that I’d be most interested in the bureaucrat in the story. But here he is, standing before us. Pontius Pilate, the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea.
I imagine that Pilate didn’t want to be there in Jerusalem. It’s an assignment kind of like manning a station in the Arctic Circle. That backwater province is about as far from the action and glamour of Rome as you can get. And he’s stuck mediating between these squabbling religious factions. And one day you’ve got this crazy nut-job who has convinced a small group of followers that he’s God’s son, he’s not answering any of your questions, and while he hasn’t actually done anything wrong by your book, you’ll go ahead and snuff him out to keep the people happy.
Pilate had the power to release Jesus, but he failed to act. The situation spun out of his control. Pilate wasn’t an evil man, it was just that he was complicit in evil things. Pilate was in that little outpost of empire to ensure that Pax Romana—the peace of Rome—stayed in place.
And in handing over Jesus and putting him up on that cross, he was very successful—at least for the time being.
And the more I think about it, the more I wonder if Pilate isn’t the most human person in this story. How often do we try to control things that we really have no power over? How often do we fail to stop something or look the other way? Wash our hands of it? Go for the expedient solution?
How often are we complicit in evil things done in the name of peace or our way of life or even God?
The death of Jesus and what comes next unmasks the empty power that the Pilates of the world are here to prop up. It exposes their limitations and their vain promises. And it sets us free to be the anti-Pilates in the world, to be active actors, agents of love and hope and life.
Because what Pilate didn’t get and what we all to often struggle to grasp is that the true power of this world—God’s power—is found in weakness, in sacrifice, in humility, in the Cross.