Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Who Is On Trial?

John 18:33-37

 If you have a Bible that divides the text up into sections with headings, it probably says that this is something like “Jesus’ Trial before Pilate.”  That’s true enough.  But in the end, it’s not really Jesus who is on trial.  

 Let’s back up and look at this story from the beginning.  The religious authorities, the Sanhedrin, have arrested Jesus using their own soldiers, the Temple Guard.  They have found him guilty of blasphemy, which according to their laws, is a crime punishable by death.  But they have a problem.  They don’t have what the Romans called the ius gladii, the right of the sword.  They are not allowed to execute Jesus.  They need help, so they take Jesus to Pontius Pilate.  

Who is Pilate?  We usually call him the Roman Governor.  Technically he was a procurator.  At the time of Jesus’ birth, the region of Canaan, the Promised Land, was ruled by Herod the Great, who had the title King of the Jews.  But when Herod died, his kingdom was split into three parts.  One part, which included Judea, Samaria, and Idumea, was given to his son Archelaus.  But Archelaus was a tremendous failure.  He offended people so badly with his policies and his taxes that they begged Rome to step in and get rid of him.

So Rome did.  But instead of naming a successor for Archelaus, they made Judea, Samaria, and Idumea into a Roman province, the province of Palestine.  Now Rome had two different kinds of provinces.  There were senatorial provinces, ruled by the Senate, and there were imperial provinces, ruled by the Emperor.  Palestine became an imperial province, which meant that the emperor named a procurator and also stationed Roman soldiers in the province.  

Pontius Pilate was one of the procurators named to Palestine.  Now he must have had a good reputation to get this post because Palestine was known as a “difficult” province.  But Pilate did a lousy job.  He hated the Jewish people and had no respect for their beliefs.  

Jesus was brought before him.  Now the Sanhedrin needed a charge against Jesus that Rome would care about.  Pilate wouldn’t care if Jesus was a blasphemer.  So they charged him with claiming to be a king.  Only Rome could declare a king.  One of Herod the Great’s sons asked to be given the title of king, and just for asking, he was exiled.  To claim to be a king was an act of sedition.

But Jesus didn’t look like much of a rebel.  So Pilate takes him inside for questioning.  “Are you a king?”

Jesus answers with a question, as he was in the habit of doing:  “Is that your idea or what others have said about me?”  I think what Jesus is trying to get at is, “Does Pilate really want to know who Jesus is, or is he just ‘doing his job?’”

Pilate’s responds, “Do I look like a Jew?”  It shows his attitude toward the people he governed.  He didn’t care about them.  He didn’t care to get involved in their affairs.  We know he tried to refuse to have anything to do with Jesus’ trial.  He didn’t want to be there.  

So Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.  If it were, my followers would have fought.”  The Kingdom of God has no geographical bounds, nor does it require a military to protect it.  

Unfortunately, I don’t think that this is an idea that the Church has always grasped.  In the Middle Ages, we had an idea called “Christendom,” God’s Kingdom on earth.  After the Roman Empire fell, we had a “Holy Roman Empire,” a church state.  The Crusades were basically an attempt to regain by military force those parts of the Christendom that had fallen to Islam.  

Nonetheless, Jesus is not an earthly king.  A king, yes, but unlike those that Pilate was used to dealing with.  He was born for a purpose; to bring truth into the world.  

At this point, Pilate decides that Jesus is utterly harmless.  He must be some kind of a philosopher, talking about truth and all.  Pilate had no use for philosophers.  He was a politician.  He had no use for the truth!  He was all about what was practical and expedient, not what was true!  He only cared about what worked, about what kept things moving, and what kept the peace.  

Pilate was in a difficult position.  He had already gotten himself in hot water a couple times for riots and protests.  He was already on the verge of “losing his job.”  And now he had a difficult decision to make.  No matter what he did, he ran the risk of causing more problems.  If he killed this innocent philosopher, Jesus’ followers might riot.  But if he didn’t, he would offend the local leadership and possibly have a bigger riot on his hands.  It was a no-win situation, and Pilate was already on thin ice.  Within two years, he would be recalled to Rome to answer for his mismanagement.

So he has no time for truth.  His famous line is “What is truth?”  And before the question is answered, he walks out of the room.  

What is truth?  Jesus is truth.  He is the way, the truth, and the life.  He is the one sent by God into the world to testify to the truth.  And those who know the truth, know him.  And those who do not know the truth, do not know him, and do not have the life that he came to give.  

Pilate says, “What is truth?” and walks away without understanding that he was staring truth in the face.  It’s not Jesus who was on trial.  It was Pilate.  What would Pilate do with the truth that was staring him in the face?  And in a larger sense, it is the world that is on trial.  We are on trial for how we will respond to Jesus, the truth which God sent into the world.  

I started thinking about this sermon back at the end of October, just a few days before the election.  And I couldn’t help but think about that decision as I worked on this sermon.  It occurred to me that every four years, at least somebody says, “This is the most important election of our lifetimes!”  They said it about Bush vs. Gore.  They said it about Bush vs. Kerry.  They said it about McKain vs. Obama.  And now they said it about Romney vs. Obama.  

Really?  Each one of these elections was “The most important of our lifetime?”  The really important decision is “What do we do with Jesus Christ?”  In the grand scheme of the universe, how much difference does it make if it’s Obama or Romney for four years?  Not much.

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Philippians 1:27 says, “Live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as citizens of heaven.”  Philippians 3:20 says, “Our citizenship is in heaven.”  

The city of Philippi was a Roman colony, which meant that everyone who was a citizen of Philippi was also a citizen of Rome.  And they were very proud of that fact.  And I think many of us are proud to be citizens of the United States of America.  But our real citizenship, if we are followers of Jesus Christ, is in heaven.  

The Greek word for citizenship was POLITEUMA.  It could mean more than just our idea of citizenship, in a legal sense.  It also meant conversation.  It meant thoughts and affections.  It was the root of our word “politics.”  Where are your politics?  Where

are your thoughts?  Where are your affections?  Where do your conversations lead?  To heaven or earth?  

I find it very interesting how both political parties in our nation try to use God for their own purposes.  Somebody told me one time that GOP stands for “God’s Own Party.”  I guess some Democrat didn’t like that because some years ago I saw a book called, “God is not a Republican.”  

The truth is that neither party represents God.  Neither party represents God’s values or God’s desires.  Both of them, from time to time, I think lay hold of something that God does care about.  But at the end of the day, God is not a Republican or a Democrat because both parties have their politics firmly grounded on earth.  Their politics are primarily about “What will keep people happy?  What will keep things moving?  What will get us the votes?”  

But our citizenship is in heaven.  We have a King who doesn’t change every four years, or ever, for that matter.  So let our politics, our affections, be rooted in Jesus Christ and not in the ever-changing whims and fancies of this world.

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