Sunday’s sermon: Testimony is Insistent

Text used – John 18:28-40

  • Every night at bedtime, I read to my kids.
    • First read to Julia → tuck her in, sing to her → head downstairs to read to the boys → tuck them in, sing to them → say goodnight and turn out the lights
    • Truly, reading to my kids is one of my favorite things to do.
      • Fun to read through pictures books when they’re Julia’s age
      • A whole different kind of fun to read through chapter books now that the boys are older → hanging on together as the story twists and turns from one chapter to the next, from one night to the next
      • Right now, we’re reading the first book in a popular series called the Wings of Fire series by Tui Sutherland.
        • Books about a land populated by all different kinds of dragons
        • Very creative
        • Great dialogue
        • Really fun to read out loud
        • One of the great things about Sutherland’s writing is she’s really good at cliffhangers. The end of each chapter leaves us wondering and guessing about what’s going to happen next, especially now that we’re about halfway through and the storyline has really taken off.
          • The thing about cliffhangers: they can be a little tough on the nerves, right? → perfect e.g.: When I finished our chapter last and went to reach for the bookmark, Luke said to me (in a very exasperated way), “Mom, why do you keep saying things that make me think?!” (referring not to anything I’d actually said but to the cliffhanger chapter ending that I’d just finished reading)
            • Had a conversation about the arc of a story
              • The importance of a climax and how that’s what makes the story interesting/moving (my e.g. last night: “Once upon a time there was a snake. He had a rattle on his tail. The end” = lame story … not good) → importance of building up to a climax
            • And as I was talking to the boys about this – the whole idea of story building and climax and how it’s important for stories to make you think – it dawned on me that that’s exactly where we are with our Scripture reading this morning.
              • Today’s text = one of those uncomfortable points in the storyline that makes us squirm … that makes us think … that builds us up for what is to come
  • Tying last week’s story and this week’s story together
    • Last week = period of time just after Jesus’ arrest[1]
      • Jesus is questioned by Annas, one of the chief priests and Caiaphas’ father-in-law
      • After receiving Jesus’ unsatisfactory answers to his questions, Annas sends Jesus to Caiaphas, the high priest
      • And in the midst of all that, we read John’s account of Peter’s three-times denial of Christ.
    • Today’s text follows directly after that but still skips a bit
      • Verse 24 (last week) = Annas sending Jesus to Caiaphas
      • Verses 25-27 = Peter’s 2nd and 3rd denials
      • Verse 28 (today): The Jewish leaders led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Roman governor’s palace.[2]
      • When we put it all together, it seems to indicate that Jesus is being passed around a bit: chief priest to high priest to governor. And I don’t know about you, but to me, that seems to indicate that those who arrested Jesus don’t really know what to do with him.
        • Get further indication of this as we continue with this morning’s text: [Pilate] asked, “What charge do you bring against this man?” [The Jewish leaders] answered, “If he had done nothing wrong, we wouldn’t have handed him over to you. (Which, you’ll notice, isn’t really an answer.) Pilate responded, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your Law.” The Jewish leaders replied, “The Law doesn’t allow us to kill anyone.”[3] → It feels a little like a really dangerous round of hot potato, doesn’t it? Clearly the Jewish leaders want Jesus gone – permanently gone – but they can’t do it themselves. But Pilate doesn’t really want to deal with Jesus either. So what are they going to do with this problem … this radical … this man?
  • Let’s take a closer look two little bits in today’s text before we move on. → bits that could be easily missed but are really interesting – Bible-nerd interesting!
    • 1st – finish out the first verse of today’s reading: The Jewish leaders led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Roman governor’s palace. It was early in the morning. So that they could eat the Passover, the Jewish leaders wouldn’t enter the palace; entering would have made them ritually impure.[4]
      • Particular verse = giving us some timeline context → tells us that Jesus’ trial is happening on the Day of Preparation, a day to prepare for the high holy day of Passover
      • Particular verse also gives us some ironic insight into the minds of the Jewish leaders – scholar: The key detail [here] is the narrator’s note about ritual defilement. There is a historically plausible explanation for this note. The Mishnah stipulates that dwelling places of Gentiles are unclean … The narrator’s comment [establishes] its theological irony. The trial narrative opens with [the Jewish leaders] insistence on ritual purity and their meticulous attention to the demands of their faith, and it will end with their complete denial of the claims of that faith.[5] → The Jewish leaders are so concerned about being made unclean by simply stepping over the threshold of Pilate’s house – of this unclean Gentile’s house – even while the very errand that brings them to the house is beyond unclean: killing Jesus. The irony is both thick and significant.
    • 2nd interesting bit: Just after the Jewish leaders tell Pilate that the Law doesn’t allow them to kill anyone, we get this little aside verse in parentheses: (This was so that Jesus’ word might be fulfilled when he indicated how he was going to die.)[6]
      • Rewind to 2 previous points in Jn (both Jesus’ own words)
        • Jn 3:14: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up.”
        • Jn 12:32: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.”
        • It’s clear that Jesus is referring to crucifixion in both of these references … but as the scholars that I read this week pointed out, crucifixion was a form of execution practiced only by the Romans.
          • One scholar: [This verse] is the only time in the trial narrative in which [John] interrupts the story to provide explicit theological commentary; Jesus’ crucifixion at the hand so of the Roman government is to be interpreted in the light of Jesus’ earlier predictions of his death … The maneuvering of Pilate and [the Jewish leaders] in reality is in the service of Jesus’ exaltation and return to God.[7]
  • Following this exchange, Pilate takes Jesus into his house so he can question Jesus himself. → challenging back-and-forth btwn Jesus and Pilate
    • Pilate keeps trying to get Jesus to either admit to or deny something … anything!
      • Pilate: “Are you the king of the Jews?”[8]
      • Pilate: “Your nation and its chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”[9]
      • Pilate: “So you are a king?”[10]
    • Jesus’ evasive and enigmatic responses
      • Jesus: “Do you say [I am the king of the Jews] on your own or have others spoken to you about me?”[11] (answering a question with a question … classic deflection)
      • Jesus: “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.”[12]
      • Jesus: “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into this world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.”[13]
        • Followed by Pilate’s final (perhaps exasperated? perhaps resigned? perhaps introspective?) question: “What is truth?”[14]
    • So let’s think about this interaction in terms of what we’ve been talking about throughout Lent this year. Let’s think about it in terms of testimony. On the surface, it seems like Pilate is seeking Jesus’ testimony, doesn’t it? It seems like Pilate is offering Jesus one opportunity after another to tell his story. But is that really what he’s doing? I don’t think it is.
      • Testimony = insistent → It’s emphatic, unrelenting, resounding because it’s our story. One of the central aspects of testimony – of our own faith stories – is that testimony speaks to your own experience. It speaks your Not anyone else’s story. Your own. And it speaks your story without being influence or led by where someone else wants your story to go or thinks your story should go. It is your story and your story alone.
        • Throughout this interaction btwn Pilate and Jesus, Pilate is trying to get Jesus to say one, definitive thing: either Jesus is or is not the King of the Jews (as the Jewish leaders have accused him of claiming)
          • Trying to lead Jesus’ story
          • Trying to influence Jesus’ story
          • Trying to force Jesus’ story into one small, simple, predictable box: king or no king → But Jesus’ own story is so much broader and so much deeper than that simple formula.
            • Rev. Barbara Essex: [John] portrays both [the Jewish leaders] and Pilate as those who have eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear. Jesus – the truth and light – stands before them, and they are so caught up in their own political fog that they are unable to see God’s new thing in their midst.[15]
        • But again and again, Jesus insists on telling his own faith story as it is. He doesn’t let the Jewish leaders tell it for him. He doesn’t let Pilate tell it for him.
          • Makes me think of a line from Maya Angelou’s poem “Our Grandmothers”: She said, But my description cannot // fit your tongue, for // I have a certain way of being in this world, // and I shall not, I shall not be moved.[16] → In the poem, it’s a line spoken in the face of all the ugly, profane, dismissive, belittling names that Black women have been called … names they’re still called today. In Jesus’ context, even in the face of what he knew it would mean … even in the face of what he knew was coming … even in the face of the surety that this portion of his story was coming to it’s climax and ultimate conclusion, Jesus told his story. He wouldn’t let others tell it for him. He would not be moved – not by those in power, not by those who held his life in their hands, not by those who refused to see and hear. He would not be moved.
            • Rev. Essex’s conclusion weaves in the threads our own stories with Jesus’ story: [John] turns the question back to us. In the end, we must all make a decision about Jesus – for or against. How we respond depends on whether we see and hear.[17] → It’s a story that’s true. It’s a story that’s powerful. It’s a story that’s worth telling. Again. Amen.

[1] Jn 18:12-27.

[2] Jn 18:28a.

[3] Jn 18:29-31 (plus my own insertion).

[4] Jn 18:28.

[5] Gail R. O’Day. “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 9. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 815.

[6] Jn 18:32.

[7] O’Day, 816.

[8] Jn 18:33.

[9] Jn 18:35.

[10] Jn 18:37a.

[11] Jn 18:34.

[12] Jn 18:36.

[13] Jn 18:37b.

[14] Jn 18:38a.

[15] Barbara J. Essex. “John 18:28-38a” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 271.

[16] Maya Angelou. “Our Grandmothers” in The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. (New York: Random House, 1994), 254.

[17] Essex, 271.

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