At my Good Friday services this year we read the story of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion in John’s gospel. Below are the thoughts I shared.
The story today began with Jesus’ interrogation by the powers of the world, the powers that be, if you like. He is questioned first by the High Priest and then sent to the High Priest. Confusing? Well, the first high priest in the story is Annas. He was appointed by the Roman legate Quirinius as the first High Priest of the newly formed Roman province of Judaea in 6 AD when Rome took the region under its direct control. Although he had been retired for some years by now, having been deposed by the Procurator Gratus, Annas seems to have remained the power behind the throne. His political and social influence is said to have been aided greatly by the use of his five sons and his son-in-law as puppet High Priests. It is to Annas’s son in law, Caiaphas, that Jesus is sent next. After some more questioning and some rough treatment, Jesus’ onward destination points to where a greater power lies.
He is taken from the High Priest to the representative of the military power that allows Caiaphas and Annas their considerable but ultimately limited power. Jesus is taken to Pilate, to the palace of the Roman Governor, or Prefect. He’d taken over from Gratus and was top dog in the area, but, of course, he was responsible to a greater power still, the Emperor Tiberius. Tiberius was one of Rome’s greatest generals, although by this time, after the death of his son and never really wanting to be Emperor, he’d apparently removed himself from Rome and left things in the hands of a pair of unscrupulous Praetorian Prefects. It might be interesting to know, when we consider the names given to Jesus, what the regal name of Tiberius was: “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, the Emperor”; in other words, Tiberius, Son of God.
Jesus is taken before the representative of the Son of God. When the gospel writers give that same title to Jesus they are saying something very striking indeed, and very challenging to their contemporaries and, if we can hear it, to us. If Jesus is Son of God, then Tiberius, the Emperor, is not!
Who rules, who reigns, who is in charge is the question debated in the exchange over Jesus’ kingship. Is he king of the Jews? We have no king but Caesar, that is, the Emperor, say the Jews. Or do they? Well, some maybe. Other Jews, even if rather hesitantly, like Peter who contrived to deny even knowing Jesus, are saying yes we do have another king, and his name is Jesus. Members of a little Jewish sect with Jesus of Nazareth as its leader have decided that they march to the beat of a different drum, that they do not recognise the powers that be, that God looks somewhat different from the image that Rome or any other earthly power projects.
The image that they have seen portrayed in the life of Jesus, incarnate in the life of Jesus, is not about an institution, civil or religious, sacred or secular, that must protect itself by wheeling and dealing, by violence, by wealth; it is not about marching into people’s lives on great horses followed by chariots and men at arms over fields of blood left by a conquering army. No, this is about a man who rides a donkey, a foolish looking sight, laying not blood but palm fronds on the earth so people can dance in joy and liberty not cower in fearful servitude, who are released to life not condemned to death.
My kingdom, says Jesus, is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight. If my way of doing things were like yours, says Jesus to these representatives of civil, military, social, religious, and cultural power, my servants, my disciples would do like you do. They would use violence; they would manipulate money, power, people and privilege to achieve their ends. In fact, Jesus does not accept for himself the title of king, because, perhaps, that name is freighted with all the imagery of domination. If I were a king, he says to Pilate, in effect, it is a sort of king you would not recognise. My kingdom, what makes me tick, what drives me, what compels me, says Jesus, is from another place.
“My kingdom is not of this world.” I am here, Jesus says, to testify to the truth. I am here to live the truth. The unspoken continuation of that statement is to say that what you are living, Pilate, Annas, Caiaphas, is a lie. Though it may be a condemnation of Roman power, this is not condemnation of Jewish faith; let’s not fall into that trap. There lies the anti-Semitism that has been a terrible stain on Christianity throughout our days. What Jesus is implying here is that the abuse of power, the setting of institutions above people, the resort to violence, all are lies, all detract from truth.
It is interesting in passing that English and most other Indo-European languages do not have a primary verb for “speak the truth,” as a contrast to lie. Truth has its origin in the Greek word Alethia and in the idea of something being faithful, sincere, evident, unhidden. Perhaps we might translate it as real, authentic. I come to testify to the authentic life, says Jesus, and in his death, that testimony is writ large.
Make no mistake about this. What happens next is a part of Jesus’ testimony. The truth is made real in the words of the end of this reading. “Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.” (19v42)
They laid Jesus there; they laid truth, reality, authenticity, there; but as, we know, do we not, this is but Friday. There is Sunday to come and truth, reality, authenticity will not lie down and die.