Friday 2 April 2021: Good Friday
The love of power and the power of love
Context: a mainly adult, English-speaking, congregation. The concluding prayer-poem may be read by a second voice or by the preacher and people together
Aim: to reflect on the encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, as recounted by John
When Pontius Pilate was appointed Governor of Judaea, he must have known that it would be a tough posting. The Jews were restless – and Judaea was a potential flashpoint for rebellion. Direct military rule from Rome was the emperor’s answer. From Pilate’s point of view, concessions had been made. The standards carried by the Roman army were seen as idolatrous and had been banned from Jerusalem, and so Pilate had attempted a compromise. The troops had marched in at night and standards were only revealed when they reached the parade ground. But this cunning plan had only made matters worse. From Pilate’s point of view, the Jews were ungrateful and all they understood was the use of force. And now they were confronting him with a strange and unlikely figure called ‘Jesus’, who – they said – had claimed to be a king. They wanted the man dead. But only the governor could impose the death penalty. Pilate was on the spot again.
John’s great account reveals the governor’s bafflement. He can’t allow himself to be pushed around by the truculent natives, but he struggles to make sense of the accused, who tells him that he does indeed have a kingdom – but ‘not of this world’. In this famous encounter the love of power is confronted by the mysterious power of love.
Had Pilate heard of the incident reported earlier in John’s Gospel – when Jewish militants had tried and failed to recruit Jesus as their rebel king? The Prince of Peace would have none of it – not then – and not later, when he stood defenceless before the crushing might of Rome. If his kingdom were ‘of this world’ – he said – his followers would be fighting for it. Instead he had come ‘to testify to the truth’. ‘What is truth?’ asked Pilate. Was he joking or genuinely bewildered?
Once again, he tried for a compromise. Why not release the eccentric prophet as a special mark of clemency to mark the Festival of Passover? But the crowd shouted for the rebel Barabbas and went on to hit the governor with a killer line. ‘If you let this man go, you are not Caesar’s friend.’
The Roman Empire was no democracy. The mob would never have dared to shout ‘Pontius Pilate, Out! Out! Out! Out!’ But their leaders might just send a secret message to the paranoid emperor, suggesting that his man in Jerusalem was a softie or a potential rival. Pilate caved in and sentenced Jesus to be crucified.
None of us holds the power of life and death, but in our own small corners we do have influence over the lives of others. And it’s all too easy to get a kick out of being king of our own small castle. When Jesus told his followers to ‘seek first the kingdom of God’, he was pleading for a world in which enemies would be reconciled, and outcasts honoured as precious people. And his supreme example reminds us that the power of love – manifested in the values of the kingdom – trumps the love of power that Pilate stood for. How does his Good Friday witness challenge us, in our own quite different daily lives?
As he faced the cross, our Lord bore witness that the power of love would outclass and outlast the love of power. On the day, it did him no good at all. Pilate sentenced him to a gruesome death. Love had failed. Power had prevailed. Or had it? Let’s reflect for a moment, and then join in a prayer-poem that probes the question further.
Dear God, it seems the good guy never wins.
Evil has come in first,
hatred has done its worst.
The Prince of Peace has had to die.
The Lord of love has lost the game.
And that’s the wretched end.
Yet even here, some say, new hope begins.
What if the loser won?
And Jesus who forgave and still forgives
made mercy out of shame
hung on the cross as king and friend;
and lives – and lives –
to prove the power of love which spins the sun?
On Sunday, we will celebrate the answer to that question.
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