A politician’s dilemma: sermon for the Kirking of the Council 2013

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 8 September 2013: The Kirking of the Council

SERMON

Texts: John 18.28-19.16a (NRSV)

A politician’s dilemma

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

You might think that today’s readings are more appropriate for Good Friday than for the Kirking of the Council. But whenever I read or hear the sequence of stories in the Gospels about the last days of Christ’s life, I’m always struck by how public the events are. Today we’ve read of the encounter of Jesus with the most powerful government on earth at the time.

Just as few days earlier, on Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, to be welcomed by crowds who called him a king. During the week the tension built, as Jesus became mired in controversy. He turns over the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. He argues about faith and morals with the religious leaders. They try to catch him out with a political question about whether they should pay taxes to the Roman occupiers. So he has a coin brought, with the emperor’s head on it, and says that they should pay to God what belongs to God and to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Meanwhile, there is discontent among his own closest followers. Soon after celebrating the Passover meal with his friends, one of them betrays him, and he is arrested by the religious authorities. At a hastily arrange hearing in the middle of the night at the house of Caiaphas, the high priest, Jesus is tried for blasphemy, and found guilty.

And then the religious authorities have a problem. The penalty for blasphemy is death, but they do not have the power to carry out such a sentence. That is reserved to the civil power, and it is the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, the local representative of the Emperor Tiberius Caesar, who is the civil power in this case. So they take him to Pilate’s headquarters. It sounds as if Pilate has heard of what is happening, and so he tries to palm them off: ‘Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law’. But they want Pilate to deal with him, and they subtly alter the charge, from blasphemy (a religious matter which would not concern the governor) to a charge of sedition. They tell the governor that Jesus claims to be a king. Now it’s a political charge.

We know from other sources that Pilate had a hard time dealing with the unruly province of Judea. The population was sullen under Roman rule. And they clung to tenaciously to their religion. It’s not surprising that in some historical sources, Pilate comes across as heavy-handed, unnecessarily inflaming religious tension, acting brutality to deal with insurrections against Roman rule. (He seems to have been recalled to Rome eventually, after one especially bloody encounter). But perhaps the hardest decision Pontius Pilate ever made was what to do about Jesus.

While Jesus and Pilate have their dialogue inside the headquarters, outside, a crowd which seems to get larger as the morning wears on, is demanding, cajoling, arguing- we might say lobbying today- for Pilate to execute Jesus. Rome was no democracy. But like today’s politicians, Pilate cannot ignore the voice of the people. He would have felt the pressure on him as he had his conversation with Jesus.

Right at the beginning of their conversation, Pilate asks Jesus, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ It’s the sedition charge which the religious leaders have reframed to get Jesus into trouble. Pilate is trying to work out if Jesus really is a rebel against Roman rule, threatening the peace of this Roman province. But Jesus is not that kind of leader.

There’s a story a little earlier in this Gospel that when he was arrested, someone tried to defend him, and ended up cutting off a slave’s ear- but Jesus reprimands his disciple for doing so. Although the violence of the cross lies ahead, Jesus does not threaten violence. ‘If my kingdom was of this world’, Jesus tells the governor, ‘my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over’. His kingdom is ‘not of this world’, he says.
That does not mean that Christ’s followers are not to concern themselves with ‘this world’. This world is a world in which war and military might are too are too often seen as solutions to our problems. But even as they face the problems of this world, Christ’s followers should by attempting to commend the values of that other world which we believe is to come- the kingdom of peace and justice which the prophets of the Bible looked forward to.

This was memorably expressed in Martin Luther King’s famous phrase, ‘I have a dream‘ which he said was deeply rooted in American values of equality. So, for example, he said, ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character’. And at the end of that passage, Baptist preacher that he was, King sums it all up by saying by quoting the Bible:

‘I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together”‘.

King’s dream was deeply rooted in the prophet traditions of the Bible. It was a dream of another world, a better world, a vision to move people in their struggle- and it was a hard struggle, the struggle for racial equality in the United States, and it is not over yet, either in that country or across the world. But the words of the prophets- Amos and Isaiah, and Jesus, and Luther King- still stir us to seek those dreams.

Earlier in that speech, King had warned the civil rights members to avoid the temptation to use violence for their cause. He cautioned,

‘We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

I think that Jesus, as he meets Pilate, meets the threat of violence against himself with soul force. Pilate has armies at his command. He represents an Empire built on slavery and conquest. He can- and eventually does- condemn Jesus to a terrible fate, crucifixion. But Jesus says to him, ‘If my kingdom was of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over’. Jesus meets the possibility of violence with soul force. Jesus was in danger of losing his life, yet he refused to resort to violence. And it is Jesus whom we remember today, not Pontius Pilate.

Christian people are called to live by the values of Christ’s kingdom: not to be ‘of this world’, but to be living for a better world. In this world military might and war are all too often seen as a solution to problems. Jesus is a prophet of a peaceable kingdom, and calls on his followers to follow the way of peace. That’s why Christians must always press the case for peace, even in the face of great evils. Most Christian leaders in recent weeks have found it difficult, if not impossible, to see how Western military action in Syria could make things better for the Syrian people. It must surely be better to seek diplomatic solutions, and to spend money on humanitarian aid, than to use bombs and bullets which will only make the suffering worse.

‘My kingdom is not of this world’, says Jesus. Ah, but do you admit to being a king, asks Pilate. ‘So you say’, says Jesus, but then changes the focus of the issue as he claims to be the one who speaks the truth. ‘Truth?’, asks Pilate. ‘What on earth is that?’ For this is beyond his competence, for the discussion is no longer about politics, but about something else, something beyond the political, about matters which Pilate is never going to grasp. Pilate never did get an answer to his question, ‘What is truth?’ It seems he never stayed to listen.

We think we are living in a secular age, but matters of faith seem to create more controversy than ever at the moment. I suspect that’s partly because, like Pilate, we often miss the point when it comes to faith in the public arena. Politicians are full of answers. But often they are not answers to the questions which faith and philosophy attempt to answer. We use political labels- conservative or liberal or socialist or nationalist or whatever. Political ideologies can be helpful for enabling us to understand the complexity of our civic life together. But they do not have all the answers. As Pilate found, not all truth is found any one political philosophy.

The Church of Scotland’s General Assembly has not taken a view on whether independence is the right way forward for our nation. Christians are on both sides of the argument, or yet to make up their minds. But the referendum campaign does give us a chance to think through some of those deeper truths which ought to inform our politics. We have to ask both sides- what are the core values you wish to see inform our community life together? And what will your solution mean for the poorest and vulnerable in our society? Here is an attempt to get at more the important truths beyond the political banter which has so far dominated this very important debate.

And so, over the next few months, the Church of Scotland will be hosting a series of open public discussions called ‘Imagining Scotland’s Future’. This will be our contribution to the debate surrounding next year’s referendum on Scottish independence. We will be asking people, not if they will vote yes or no, but about their dreams for Scotland. What kind of a country do we want to live in, regardless of whether we are independent or not? Our congregation will be hosting just such at event, and what we hope is that it will help people think about the deeper issues of values and morality, the deeper truths behind the yes/no debate, in the spirit of Jesus who came, he said, to speak about the truth.

In Christian theology there are various answers to the question, ‘Why did Jesus die?’ But the first answer, the reason he died that day, is that it was a matter of political expedience. The religious leaders say to Pilate, ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor’. This is a very political argument. Pilate has already said that Jesus is innocent of any crime. But the threat that he might no longer be seen as a friend of the emperor- the threat to his political status- is decisive for him. So the judicial murder of Christ is, in the first place, as a result of a political decision by a man who knew that it was not the morally right thing to do.
Status seems to be important to politicians. We are told that they who act decisively are seen as strong leaders. I was disturbed the other week by the way parts of the media at times reported the result of the Commons vote on Syria. It was seems as being bad for the Prime Minister, and his status. The implications for the suffering people of Syria seemed almost an afterthought. But policy to be decided on the basis of what is really important, than for it just to be about the reputation of a politician. But Pilate eventually put Jesus to death because they told him that if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be the emperor’s friend. That seemed to weigh more heavily on him than the life of an innocent man.

Jesus goes to his death, but we know the rest of the story- of how after his execution, his followers came to believe that he conquered death. And the example of Jesus shows us that for Christians there must always be a different way of doing things. Sometimes our politics degenerates. The language stops being impassioned and becomes merely derogatory. At times Christians trying to be involved in public life are tempted to ape such tactics. As Jesus argues with Pilate- even his very life is at stake- he does so in a calm and respectful way. Sometimes, indeed, he responds to Pilate’s questions with silence- and silence can be eloquent too! Just as he rules out the threat of physical violence, so there is no aggression in his conversation with Pilate. Christ is the one who remains calm in this encounter. He serene in the knowledge that he is carrying out God’s will, trusting throughout that God is still sovereign, sure that God, ultimately, is more powerful than Rome.

Sometimes it’s suggested that church representatives should keep out of politics- after all, what do we know? But I think that Christians should speak about the truth behind the great political issues, reminding us that political decisions also have a moral dimension. And it is surprising just how much direct experience and knowledge churches bring to the great political debates. Last year I found myself on a bus from Pittsburgh airport to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) with the general secretary of a small Middle Eastern Protestant church. He was based in Lebanon, but he was travelling to Syria almost weekly to visit his congregations there. He certainly knew, first hand, what was going on in that region. Closer to home, most people working in local parishes may not be experts on poverty or the welfare state, for example. But many of them are experts on the effects of poverty or the failings of welfare policy, for they see that very day. It is only right that they should speak about the grim realities of poverty, speaking the truth as they experience it, for the sake of justice and for Christ’s kingdom.

The core story of Christianity is one about a man who, because he spoke out, became a victim of political power play. With this story in our consciousness, Christians will never be able to privatise our faith. It will always have a public dimension. As Jesus did, we will take the side of the poor and marginalised. We will speak of moral issues when others want to just be political, trying to get at the deeper truths. But as we consider the dilemma which faced Pontius Pilate, we might also put up a prayer or two for today’s politicians in their dilemmas. Even if we are critical sometimes, know that we pray for you!

Ascription of Praise

To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

Biblical references from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo

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