"Act Four, Sign Eight"
Golgotha is the fourth act of John's five-act Passion of Christ, the crucifixion of Jesus. If the gospel doesn't hold here, friends, it doesn't hold and we have gathered for nothing. Maybe not nothing. We do good work in this life together, but we preach a lie. When I was a little girl in a white Protestant, middle America church, the worship calendar flipped from Palm Sunday to Easter; Jesus went from being a king to being an angel as easily as we went from coloring palm branches one Sunday to dying eggs the next.
The Catholic kids across the street had Good Friday. They went to mass but not school and weren't allowed to play outside. We never thought to ask why. As grownups we know too well why. If all the world were palm-trees-and-Easter-baskets-certain, what need of Christ would there be? Good Fridays are why Jesus came. If the gospel holds there, it holds everywhere, where the world gets as mean and ugly and wrong and violent as it gets anywhere.
Imagine if we all wore our Good Friday selves on the outside like we wear our smiles. We bring our cleaned-up selves to church not because we are lying, but because we don't want to fall apart in public – partly so we don't bother others, partly because we don't want to be the nervous, crying heap we fear we might become if our Good Friday selves are given too much latitude. All of us walk around all the time, carrying hurts and griefs as carefully as eggs. Wayward children, abusive parents, shaky relationships; old hurts, old secrets, old lies; grief, shame, regret; fear, so much fear.
I was a child back when church was all kings and angels. But even then people were breaking, bleeding, and dying. Because I didn’t know it didn't make it not so. To these, for these, terribly tender places in us, Jesus came, that they not overwhelm us, but also that they not torture us like a hundred pinpricks a day for all the days of our lives – by Golgotha, by walking into and surrendering to the very heart of human darkness.
Can you see how Jesus goes where we most fear going in our own hearts and lives? the places and the parts of our minds and memories that poke and prick and pull at us? not just at our faith, but at our very sanity sometimes? our capacity to keep moving through time and space? If, IF ONLY, we could bring our most frightened, grieving, broken selves to the center of this story and focus fully on what Jesus wants to show us, I have the suspicion we would never again doubt that God is altogether good and loves us completely. Sad things would still be sad. But we'd never be afraid. And since we wouldn't be afraid, we'd hurt each other less.
This palm-branch-waving crowd, they loved him when they thought he was a winner, riding on a donkey like a king who had just won the city, knowing full well no battle had been fought. They love him, until they hate him. And they hate him, because our Good Fridays aren’t always about our sorrow, right?
They are also about our anger – and sometimes there's hardly a hair's difference between them – our capacity to take all the grief and hurt and fear and shame and regret inside ourselves, and hurl it at whatever target is closest, especially if we can find a bunch of other already angry people (mobs, people doing together what most will never do alone), sometimes for better – except then they aren't called mobs – so, mostly for worse. And now the mob has gotten what they screamed for: Jesus crucified; not dead; just nailed and lifted up.
Death by crucifixion took a long time, days in some cases. It was designed as torture only, and it left people horribly crippled, so they lived but were marked as having been crucified. Often vultures came before death. Jesus spent only hours on the cross, enough to know something of what people go through on this earth, I suppose. The guilty and the innocent.
Golgotha is Act 4 of John's five-act Passion Play. The urge to hurry up and flip the page simply makes us human. No one wants to sit with suffering, yet most people want to be sat with when our time comes – amen? To suffer is awful. To suffer alone is beyond the pale of God’s will for humanity, it appears. So if we can stop on this page and take in what Jesus has done for us, no matter what brave faces we put on to be with each other when our hearts are breaking, we will discover that he knows, because he chose to know. He willingly walked where we would never have gone had we had a choice, or where we ended up when we were too stupid or too stubborn or too weak to do different.
I remember when my mama died and I was giant pregnant and that baby just kept turning and I knew she wanted out of me. And I thought, Isn't it strange how when your heart is broken the world just keeps on turning, as if nothing at all has changed? The world still has its business to attend to. Babies have to get born, no matter what; and that is a blessing, no doubt. But friends, if the gospel doesn't hold when everything inside us says, this world is over and done for me!, then the gospel cannot hold at all.
And if we don't stop and know Jesus with us at the very worst, the faith we claim on sunny days is frail and full of holes and has no business making promises it can never keep. John's writing is beautiful. In addition to his Five Acts of The Passion, he numbers Seven Signs of Jesus' Kingdom. Do you remember them?
I didn't preach them all, this time around:
Pilate was no hero. What he did, he did in fear and anger and revenge. But when he wrote and hung that sign, the truth was told all the same. Jesus was King, Messiah, the Ruler, the Savior, the Redeemer of the very people who rejected him. The biblical people, as we called them last week.
We know that following Act 5 of Jesus' Passion, many of them came 'round again and found themselves believers! In those same fickle people, the church first found our feet. Pilate wrote it in three languages, so that ALL people might read and know it. It hangs there still in every language read today, for every heart in the midst of breaking, for each and every one of us to decide as we pass by, to slow down enough to stop and look and take it in and know that we are not and never will be alone – in any sorrow this world, this life, might impose on us. God is with us in the darkness and the suffering and the fear. We are not and never shall be alone, in this world nor the next.
Would you pray with me?
When preserving one's personal power and privilege is presumed necessary, and when trying NOT to do the worst wrong thing is one's moral boundary, one is likely to find oneself in the same, impossible predicament where Pontius Pilate found himself in John, chapter 19: The most powerful man in Israel, more afraid than ever, John says in verse 8. Afraid to flex that power to do what he knew was the right, the just! thing to do.
Pilate knows Jesus is innocent, doesn't he? Three times he goes back to the crowd waiting outside his headquarters, saying, I can find no case against him. And every time, these opponents of Jesus – these biblical people, along with the mob that has assembled – shout him down, screaming for Jesus' execution. The last time, the biblical people up the charge, claiming Jesus called himself Son of God – a title reserved for Caesar. They dare Pilate to choose Jesus over Caesar, exposing for all the world to see whom they themselves had already chosen.
I really want you to get this, friends; I really want you to see what is happening here. Biblical people, lovers of God and God's word, are begging the oppressors of their own country; they are putting their hope and trust in the war-mongering, slave-keeping leadership of this world, while God's own self – beaten, bloody and bruised – stands to the side, the breathing embodiment of truth; of life; of grace; of peace; of hope.
Pilate, of course, is not free to act. He is stuck. Terribly stuck. Jesus tells him so in verses 9-11. Where are you from? Pilate wants to know. We already know. John told us with his opening sentences. Jesus is from God.
At first Jesus doesn't answer Pilate. Pilate pontificates about his personal power, "I can release you or crucify you." Maybe he can, but he doesn't. He's paralyzed to do either the right or the wrong thing. Jesus does answer then, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the ones who handed me over to you are guilty of a greater sin.”
There's a tinge of grace there, almost as if Jesus acknowledges the impossible position Pilate's in. To do the right thing – that is, release Jesus – may well ignite the very chaos he's trying to prevent. So he starts out by doing lesser wrong things than crucify him. But sadly, the flogging (remember, that's 39 lashes with bone- or metal-tipped whips) and public humiliation don't satisfy this crowd's bloodlust.
And so the great handing off of Jesus, begun so many hours ago, is now completed. Judas handed Jesus off to the biblical people who handed him off to Pilate who now hands him off to the executioners – not one of them having the slightest inkling that Jesus goes only when and where HE chooses, that they are each and every one agents of their own choices, but also players in a drama set in motion by the will of God for their own eternal benefit. And ours.
How many Bible studies have I attended in which we whipped ol' Pilate good? Or these Pharisees and Sadducees? Which, by the way, is why I'm not calling them Jews today – but rather, biblical people. Because if we are anyone in the text, we are them: people more confident than most that we know what God thinks and wants in this world.
But there were lots of players. There is Judas. Maybe he was just a thief. Or maybe he was a disciple who thought he could help the movement by rescuing it from a leader who insisted on working against the system when they might have worked better with it. Who was too trusting of powerful people when they offered to help him and who got burned for it.
There were the soldiers who did the dirty work of executioners. So easy to say we'd never do that, except that we expect soldiers to do terrible things on our behalf ALL the time – until we find out after the fact how terrible they were, and claim they should somehow have been more honorable or moral or braver than any of us has ever been required to be. Read The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien.
Then there is the mob, the ones yelling for Jesus' death. My mom used to say that my dad could go to a ball game between two teams he'd never heard of, and five minutes in he'd be a diehard fan of one of them. People will literally get into a line without knowing what the line is for.
This happened to us when our family went to Paris a few years ago. We were going to a museum on the subway when the train began to fill up with more and more African people all dressed up. We got so curious that when they all got off at the same stop, we did too. We forgot about the museum and spent the whole afternoon at the West African Bastille Day Street Festival.
In the best and worst sense of the word, we are tribal creatures; we hunger to be part of a group, sometimes ANY group. We care more about belonging than we care about the mission of the group. Sometimes we belong to one group simply to stake our opposition to another.
This crowd screaming for Jesus' crucifixion is all the scarier for being made up of people who have no idea who Jesus is, who have no opinion about his guilt or innocence, and who will not remember this afternoon a year later. We're most obviously like these biblical people than all the others, of course – not for being so mad at Jesus, but for thinking ourselves the religious ones; claiming the high ground of biblical faith and the call to love others as God loves us; burdened by the injustice of the world; dedicated to its correction; and wishing it were just as easy as all that.
Because, brokenhearted as we are about all the sadness and injustice everywhere, knowing the truth and being able to do anything about it is (and this is as theological as I know how to put it) A Big, Fat Mess, so long as Jesus hasn't risen from the dead. OR, so long as those who claim to be his own don't believe he has. Because honestly, what is the functional difference?
If Jesus didn't rise, which he hadn't when Pilate was turning himself inside out and this mob was screaming its head off, the gospel wasn't yet in play. So they couldn't think or act outside the confines of their privilege. Because outside that privilege, they had no hope! The truth can't set you free, if the only truth you know is what this world dishes up! Jesus risen from the dead is the truth that sets us free – free from everything besides that Truth itself.
How, how, HOW is it possible, friends, that a worldly man like Pilate got talked out of the truth by biblical people? Biblical people are supposed to be sensitizing this world to the ways of God – by our words and our deeds, PREACHING to this world the justice and goodness and grace and hope of God.
In my experimental psychology lab job in college, I put rats in mazes and timed how long it took them to learn certain patterns. But before I could do that my professor, Dr. Haggbloom, had to take me through desensitization therapy so I could handle the rats – because rats are gross and creepy. Desensitization happens through repeated exposure to the object of one's revulsion. In the case of lab rats, the exposure was measured and progressively more intense in a very short time. I was handling rats within two hours of being terrified of them.
Pilate got over crucifying an innocent man in the course of a morning. The more the crowd screamed at him, the more guilty Jesus sounded. The more beaten, bloody and bruised Jesus got, the more guilty Jesus looked – never mind that the crowd and Pilate were causing the very degradation convincing them of his guilt.
Pilate, the biblical people, and this unthinking mob commit themselves to continuous injustice to justify the injustice required to maintain the power and privilege they believe they need in order to be safe and well in the world. The dog believes his tail is chasing him – and he doesn't know how to make it stop.
Nothing ever means just one thing in John. All we can see and hear is never all that's going on. Our text ends with Jesus beaten, bloody and bruised, handed over one more time from the politician to the military death squad. And the power in the scene lies in the least obvious location.
But everyone has their part to play, including us. And our part is not to say what we would have done had we been there then. But rather: here and now, how shall we live these days by faith in the whole gospel, fearless and alive, sure of nothing more than that we are sure we have nothing left to lose that we cannot do without – crazy as that sounds out loud.
Because he rose, we will too. Will you pray with me?