What happened was Pilate went back inside, and this time, he was terrified. He looked at Jesus who was wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, gazing straight ahead. Pilate asked him, Where are you from? And when Jesus didn’t say anything, that really scared him. Pilate tried again: Don’t you know I have the power to kill you or the power to release you? (You can tell Pilate’s trying to convince himself!)
This is the moment when Jesus turned, and looked at Pilate, and loved him. Jesus noticed that Pilate was afraid. With tenderness in his eyes, Jesus spoke up: Look, man, it’s okay. You have no power over me…
All through the Gospel, when Jesus encounters people, he makes a point to see them for who they really are. He sees their truth. He listens to their deep worry. He heals their wounds. He sends them away transformed. Nobody has an interaction with Jesus then walks away from that unchanged!
So here’s what I want to know. In these hours before his death, when he’s already in custody, what do you suppose Jesus does to Pilate…
Here’s a controversial claim I invite you to consider…
What if there are no bad people in the world?
Of course, there are evil forces at work in the world. Of course, there are people who do terrible things. Now if some people were simply hardwired for cruelty, if some people were poisoned in their soul so horror is just part of their nature, this might explain why there is suffering. The notion that there are simply bad people— that’s an attractive theory. Only thing is… what if there aren’t?
You can tell why this is controversial! It might even feel threatening to give up on the idea that some people are just plain bad, but actually, this is not nearly as threatening as its corollary: What if there are no good people in the world?
A lot of us really want to be good people. All our lives we strive to be good enough. Without even realizing it, we go and confuse our achievement with our worth. If there are grades, we want A’s. If there are medals, we want gold. If there are rules, we want gold stars.
Whatever it takes, let me dazzle you with my accomplishment because maybe then you’ll believe I have worth. And if you believe it, maybe I’ll begin to believe it too. Look at this record of goodness we’ve accrued, surely it’s got to count for something!
One of my favorite poems is Wild Geese by Mary Oliver. The first line knocks me down every time I hear it.
You do not have to be good, she writes.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
And wow, this is not what the world teaches. The demons in the world are so quick to tell us who we are, to tell us we’re bad, here’s all the reasons why. Or they’ll tell us we’re good, here’s all the reasons why.
But what if the poet is right and the demons are wrong?
What if there’s no such thing as a bad person or a good person— even if all we want is for the LORD to look at us and give us her approval, and what if that’s not what happens…
Today the scripture Georgia read brings us right to the moment when Jesus gets handed over to be crucified. This is what the creed means when it says “Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate.”
As the Roman Governor of Judea, we meet Pilate when he arrives in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival.
Now in each of the Gospels, Pilate is a conflicted and conflicting character. In every iteration, Pilate offers to release Jesus as part of the tradition of pardoning someone for Passover, but the crowd says, No! Release Barabbas instead.
In Mark, which is the earliest Gospel and the most concise, Pilate hardly puts up a fight. And look, it’s not like Pilate agrees with the crowd’s decision, but he sure doesn’t try too hard to sway them.
In Luke, Pilate interrogates Jesus and pronounces him Not Guilty. When the crowd refuses to accept his verdict, Pilate sends Jesus to Herod, but that doesn’t resolve the matter, and Pilate eventually gives in to the angry mob.
Matthew’s version has some of my favorite details. After he questions Jesus, Pilate returns to the crowd, but that’s when his wife interrupts the proceedings to warn Pilate that she had a nightmare about Jesus getting killed. Despite his reservation and her bad dream, Pilate yields to the pressure of the crowd— but not before making everybody watch him make a whole production out of washing his hands, as though all you need to do is wash your hands, then you’ll be absolved of any crime.
Today we’re hearing John’s version, and once again, Pilate is conflicted in his conscience. This gives us both a problem and a possibility.
The problem is the writer of the Gospel of John had a particular agenda of blaming the Jewish authorities for Jesus’ death. In our Bibles, this comes across as villainizing quote “The Jews,” and you know what’s happened since. You know Christians have used this scripture to authorize hate and violence toward our Jewish sisters and brothers. I invite you to join me in renouncing and repenting from this reading of the Gospel.
It is not okay to exonerate Pilate in order to prove that the real bad guys in the story are the Jewish people. That is a problem!
But there’s also a possibility.
It could be that we are part of the crowd that was intent on shouting Jesus to death. It could be that in the coming weeks, we will hear the words “Crucify him!” come out of our own mouths. The creed got it wrong. It’s not that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate! He suffered under us.
Maybe Pilate represents all of us.
Maybe Pilate’s conflicted conscience gives us permission to feel that trouble in our own soul…
To begin with, Pilate never even wanted to deal with this, but now he’s got Jesus in his office, and what is he supposed to do? He starts in with the standard questions, but he never expected this. What Pilate is about to learn is that whenever the love of God shows up in a place of hate, well, the hate can’t stand it. No wonder he becomes afraid.
Jesus tells Pilate, For this I was born, for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. And instead of telling him to Be quiet already!, Pilate leans in and asks the Lord, What is truth?
Pilate goes out to the crowd again and offers to release Jesus, but no. He has him flogged, the soldiers crown him with thorns and robe him in purple, then Pilate brings him out in front of all of us. And we can’t even stand to see him —this Word of God, this Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. We can’t even stand to let this Love see us —so the people tell Pilate that Jesus is the Son of God.
Pilate goes back inside, and this time he is terrified. Jesus had been brought back into his office, he’s gazing straight ahead, so Pilate begins questioning him again.
This is the moment when Jesus turned, and looked at Pilate, and loved him. And I’m pretty sure Pilate knew that for the rest of his life, he would be haunted by this love.
And what if Pilate represents all of us?
What if we are signing up for this exact same threat…
I need to tell you. We really might live in a world where there are no bad people, there are no good people. There are only loved people.
I think we expect the LORD to look at us and see that we’re really bad. I think we want the LORD to look at us and see that we’re really good. Instead the Holy Spirit looks at us and loves us, and this changes everything.
On Wednesdays, we’ve been sharing the book Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans. Let me share a passage that our group pointed out right on the first night. Here’s what she writes:
“Our sins join in a chorus— you might even say a legion— of voices locked in an ongoing battle with God to lay claim over our identity, to convince us we belong to them, that they have the right to name us.
Where God calls [us] beloved, demons call [us]: addict, slut, sinner, failure, fat, worthless, faker, screwup. Where God calls [us] child, demons beckon with: rich, powerful, pretty, important, religious, esteemed, accomplished, right…”
She continues: “We all long for someone to tell us who we are. The great struggle of the Christian life is to take God’s name for us, to believe that we are beloved, and to believe that is enough.”1 Evans, Rachel Held. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Thomas Nelson: Nashville, TN, 2015. page 19.
You are not bad. You are not good. You come from love and to love you shall return.
Love is the gaze through which we see the world. Love is the voice of truth that calls us by name.
When Jesus turned and looked at Pilate with tenderness in his eyes, he saw the very love of God. He saw the mercy in Pilate’s soul. And Pilate knew it!
When Jesus looks at us, he sees the same thing. May this haunt us forever…
|Evans, Rachel Held. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Thomas Nelson: Nashville, TN, 2015. page 19.