The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
April 9, 2017
“So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.”
Pontius Pilate looms large in Christian thought. We say his name on Sundays in the Nicene Creed. I say his name every day when I pray the Apostles’ Creed. When you think about it, we say Pilate’s name just as much as we say the Virgin Mary’s name. So, who was this man? Why did he have so much power? Power to condemn and power to release? Power to pardon and power to crucify?
Just a little historical context. The Roman Empire controls this territory around Jerusalem at the time. And the Romans, they don’t like trouble or uprisings. See, Jerusalem, this whole area where the Jews lived, was a critical crossroads for commerce. The Romans needed to lock down Palestine because that was a buffer to protect their source for grain in Egypt. Egypt was the bread basket of the ancient world. Without Jerusalem, without Palestine, Egypt would be open to attack. And if the Roman Empire lost Egypt, then Romans would starve. Amazing, isn’t it? World powers have been vying for the Middle East for over two thousand years because of the region’s natural resources. Some things don’t seem to change.
And we know how this works. The more pressure a foreign empire applies to the local people, the more the local people resent it and fight back. And the more the locals fight back, the more pressure the foreign empire applies. A vicious cycle of violence and retribution. A cycle that ended with the destruction of the Temple forty years after Jesus. A cycle that continues to play out today in contemporary geopolitics.
But back to Pilate. Pilate’s job is to make sure the Jewish rebels don’t disrupt the status quo. Pilate is there to root out and kill insurgents. Insurgents, of course, being the Jews who were fighting back against the Romans. They did not plant IEDs, they carried knives and daggers, but the intent was the same. To kill the foreign power. And the foreign power responds with brute force.
This is how I read Pontius Pilate; Pilate as a jack-booted thug. I think he probably hated the Jews, hated being in this provincial backwater, hated their religion. We know from other ancient sources that Pontius Pilate wantonly took money from the Jewish Temple to build an aqueduct and crushed those Jews who resisted. Pilate sent troops into the Temple itself to kill some Galileans Jews, and then mixed their blood with the offerings being presented to God. Pilate was not there to win hearts and minds. Whenever there was any hint of uprising or revolt, Pilate’s retribution was swift, violent, and brutal. And the most savage way of showing the power of the Roman Empire was, of course, crucifixion.
Crucifixion was not for common criminals. Crucifixion was reserved for political criminals, for insurgents. The Romans would crucify political rebels as a way of showing everybody else, “this is what happens to you when you mess with us.” Not a very subtle message.
And this is why Jesus is crucified. The charge against Jesus is that he is the King of the Jews. And according to Pilate, there can be no other kings.
So Pilate sentences Jesus to death. And don’t be misled by Pilate washing his hands. I think he was just mocking the people and their leaders. Whereas Pilate’s wife lost sleep over the matter, I doubt Pilate even batted an eye. For him, it was just another day at the office.
Now, you might say, “but I thought Jesus died to take away my sins.” Yes, that is true. But it’s more than that, Jesus died on a cross to break the power of sin. The power of death. It’s not that our sins have been erased, it’s that the power that sin has over us has been defeated. Jesus, perfectly innocent and yet condemned, faces the powers of the world, the powers of sin, and breaks them down by his sacrifice on the cross. Jesus disarms evil through the power of love. Though it looked as if Pilate and the powers of the world had defeated Jesus, they are actually the ones who have lost. By the crucifixion, God has trampled down the gates of hell and the powers of death.
But make no mistake, though those evil powers and its henchmen like Pontius Pilate have been broken, they are still at work among us. Evil has received a mortal wound, but it is still fighting against us.
And though the powers of darkness that threaten us today are less obvious than the callous boot of the Roman Empire, they are by no means any less malignant and damaging to our souls. Pontius Pilate is now the divorce attorney, the divorce lawyer, who keeps stringing along a settlement at the expense of a shattered and bankrupt woman. Pontius Pilate are the pill factories, and the dealers, that know just how devastating prescription painkillers are but keep on selling them for the sake of profits. Pontius Pilate are the magazine editors that set unrealistic standards for beauty that only drive our young men and women into spirals of shame and despair. Pontius Pilate is the one who orders a chemical attack on civilians. Pontius Pilate are the leaders in this world who turn a blind eye to injustice in order to pad their bottom line. Pontius Pilate are the forces of evil that plant bombs in churches.
These are the powers of evil confronting us today but, as always, those powers will break down against the love of the cross. When we claim the cross, when we cling to the power of love, we can never be defeated. Because an open heart, an open mind, a giving soul – those things will disarm and overturn the powers of evil.
Jesus did not simply die to take away your sins. Jesus died to break the power of sin. And so when you confront the sinful powers still at work in this world, still at work in our lives, do not fight fire with fire. This lesson is never more appropriate than a today like today, when we wake up to read in the news of churches in Egypt being bombed on Palm Sunday. I know, we are tempted, like the disciples, to pick up the sword and fight and kill. To choose death instead of life. Instead, though it means our own little crucifixions, we must do what Jesus instructed his disciples to do on that fateful night in the garden. If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword. Render no man evil for evil. When we fight back, we simply become what we despise. We must, truly believe, that the corrupt leader, the drug dealer, the terrorist has already been defeated. Our Christian faith tell us then, that what we must do is love. Open wide your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross. When faced with injustice, with violence, with anger, with malice, be motivated by love, and not by hate. If you wish to follow Jesus, if you wish to join Jesus in breaking down the evil powers at work in this world, there is only one thing you can do: pick up the cross and follow him.
Let us pray. Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified. Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.