Jesus stands before Pilate, and they look at one another: one with fear, and one with love.
Jesus could fight for his life. Pilate is seriously unsure of the guilt of this man, and if Jesus were to just say a few key words, he might be able to convince Pilate of his innocence. All he needs to do is acknowledge Pilate’s authority, maybe plead a bit, and give Pilate a good reason to convince the chief priests he’s innocent, to let him go.
But those are precisely three things that Jesus can’t, or won’t, do.
- He can’t acknowledge Pilate’s authority, because he knows that Pilate only has borrowed authority, whereas to Jesus belongs “all authority on heaven and on earth”.
- He will not plead for his life, because “for this very purpose he has come to this hour”; “to drink the cup that his Father has given him”.
- And he cannot give Pilate a good reason to convince the chief priests he’s innocent, because in one sense he is not innocent of what they are accusing him. He has claimed to be the Son of God, and he is the King of the Jews, although neither of these is blasphemy the way the chief priests claim, because in saying them, he is simply telling the truth. He is equal to God.
And so Jesus doesn’t plead, and so Pilate is afraid.
He’s torn between his suspicion that Jesus may not deserve death, and the chief priests’ insistence that he does; torn between his fear of allowing treason in the Roman Empire, and his fear of making the wrong decision and putting an innocent man to death. There’s no way out that he can see, and so Pilate is afraid.
For Jesus, standing in front of Pilate, it’s been a long night. He’s been grilled by the high priest and the chief priests all night, he’s been slapped around, and he has looked in Peter’s eyes – Peter, one of his best friends – and has seen his denial. Now the chief priests have brought him to the Roman governor to pass this death sentence that they aren’t allowed to give.
So Jesus faces Pilate, this man with fear in his eyes, and he offers him a choice. “I testify to the truth,” he says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Listen to my voice, Pilate, he says. I am Truth, standing in front of you. Don’t turn away, don’t whisper bitterly, “What is truth?”, as if you can’t see me. You can sense it, you can see it, and I know you are afraid of its consequences, of its demands. You are afraid of the outcry that would follow if you dared to listen to my voice, to belong to the truth. Don’t turn away. Look into my eyes of love.
But Pilate turns away.
It’s easy for us to look at Pilate and to scorn him for not standing up for what was right. But today, faced with this cross that is a mirror, I invite us to look deeper and to see Pilate as the everyman. How often have we been caught in the same position, with a choice between listening to the truth and standing up for it along with its consequences, or turning away and saying what the world, or our bosses, or our friends, want us to say? How often have we felt afraid, helpless to stand up for what is right, to fight for truth in a world that desperately needs to hear it but denies its very existence?
Yes, Pilate is the everyman… or, everywoman. Because I can see myself in this mirror too. I’ve kept silent when I should have spoken up. I’ve turned away for fear of what the crowds or my friends might think.
And it’s an especially hard thing to stand up for the Truth that is Jesus, in this world, and especially in our culture. We are told that there is no one truth, that whatever truth we choose to believe is fine for us, but that we have no right to inflict those beliefs on others. We’re told that we should keep our faith private, individual, as if it’s laundry that we shouldn’t be airing in public rather than the best news that we could ever share.
Because that’s what we forget – that if, as Jesus claims and we believe, he is the Way, the Truth, the Life, then holding this beloved Truth to ourselves, privately, is depriving others of hearing the best news in the history of the world. The too-good-to-be-true-but-still-is-true news of this God who actually entered the world that he created, not to be served but to serve. The news of this God who loves every single person in this world so much that he was willing to take all of our brokenness and pain and sin upon himself. The news of this “astonishing upside-down” way of the cross. Because this is what we believe, and what we have to proclaim to the world desperate for truth. We believe in life from death. We believe in the amazingly heartbreaking love of God. We believe that we can know the truth, and the truth does set us free. We believe that to give up our lives is to save them, and that the cross is good news for every single person on earth.
Oh, friends, it is hard, yes, to stand up for the Truth that is Jesus. This is our way of the cross. It is allowing ourselves, with Jesus, to stand with love in our eyes before those who are afraid, and to speak the truth in love to them, and to let the world crucify us for it.
And when we fail (because we do), when we turn away because it just feels too hard, or too demanding, the love in Jesus’ eyes remains strong. Just like we couldn’t point at Peter without having three fingers pointing back at us – because there is something of Peter in each one of us, and each of us has been both betrayed and betrayer – so we can’t point at Pilate without knowing that we, too, have been guilty of turning our back on the Truth.
But the amazing news of the gospel, the news that we can see through the window of the cross that is open for us today, is that it is for the Peters, and for the Pilates, and for every one of us, that Jesus walked to the cross that day, that Good Friday. Just like he heard and responded to our cries of Hosanna!, Save us!, before we had even shouted Crucify him!, so he stands before Pilate determined to love each of us to the end, regardless of how many times we turn away from him. And this, too, is part of our message of love for the world: that even as people who look in the mirror and see brokenness, even as those who betray him and walk away from him and hand him over, he loves us.
Pilate had a choice. He could have gone out to the chief priests, and he could have said: “You’re wrong, and I won’t be party to this, and if you want him dead you’re going to have to figure out some other way of doing it, because you can’t use me. I know the Truth, and the Truth is standing just inside those doors with love in his eyes, waiting for us to decide what to do with him.”
Pilate couldn’t say those words, because he was afraid. And so he let the crowd decide for him.
“Shall I crucify your king?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” And he handed the Truth over to them to be crucified.