There are lots of ways to feel or be powerless:
You can be trapped in the McDonald’s drive thru at rush hour, with a long line of cars in front of and behind you, and then realize after you order that you left your wallet at home. You can start telling an off-color joke to a friend or sibling, only to have your boss or your mom enter the conversation and ask you to continue with what you were just saying. You can propose to your significant other on the jumbo-tron at an NBA game, only to have that person say “no” in front of 10,000 people.
On a more serious note (not that rejected marriage proposals aren’t serious):
You can walk the hallways of your school in fear, watching your back for that bully who somehow always manages to find you anyway. You can cut every luxury and non-essential expense from your budget, only to realize that you still have to choose between paying rent and buying groceries for a week, because you’re hourly-wage job won’t allow you to do both. You can struggle for years to break a bad habit or overcome an addiction without much success.
There are lots of ways to feel or be powerless.
There is no such thing as absolute power. Every single person on this planet, up to and including the president of the United States, experiences powerlessness in some way or another. Officially or unofficially, everyone answers to someone.
In spite of this fact, or perhaps because of it, people everywhere are constantly trying to step over one another in an attempt to be top dog of whatever hill they happen to be climbing at the moment. In a social system where power comes in limited quantities, people try to take whatever they can for themselves, believing (rightly or wrongly) that with power comes security. So they grab whatever power they can get and use it to their own advantage. Powerful people fight one another for more power. People with this mentality tend to use phrases like, “It’s a dog eat dog world out there. It’s survival of the fittest. Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten. No one is looking out for you. You’re on your own.”
Compassionate and kind-hearted folks tend to wince at this kind of cynical talk. We don’t want to believe the world really works that way, but when we look at the facts, we have to admit that the world often does seem to work that way. What makes cynicism so enticing as a philosophy of life is its apparent realism in the face of difficult circumstances. Is this who we really are? Is this all we are? Or is there another way of being, of being of being alive, and of being human?
This morning’s gospel reading sets us down right into the middle of a particularly intense competition for power in the ancient Middle East. The religious authorities of Judea were engaged in an ongoing cold war with the occupying Roman government. Each side, through their official representatives, vied for the loyalty and obedience of the people. On the particular day in question, their conflict revolved around a common nuisance: Jesus of Nazareth, the latest in a series of so-called Messiahs who promised peace, liberation, and yes: power to the people of Judea. Each one would rise up, gather an army of zealous insurgents, try to overthrow the Roman occupation by terrorist campaign, and eventually fail. The religious authorities, on the other hand, had learned different ways of dealing with the occupation. Some, like the Pharisees, sought to empower Judean society by a return to traditional morals and values. In time, so they thought, God would intervene on their behalf to free them from foreign rule. Other groups, like the Sadducees, learned how to manipulate the strings of the political system from the inside.
Members of these last two groups saw Jesus as “just another self-appointed Messiah with his army of zealots.” As such, he was just another temporary nuisance and a threat to their power that had to be dealt with. So they brought him to Pontius Pilate, Rome’s appointed governor over the perpetually unstable and troublesome province of Judea.
Pilate, for his part, didn’t care about who Jesus was or the content of his message, nor did he care about the Pharisees and Sadducees with their incessant squabbling and competing strategies for survival. The only thing Pontius Pilate cared about was maintaining order and loyalty to the Empire. If this Jesus really was claiming to be the anointed one who would liberate the Judean people from Roman rule by military force, then Pilate would have to deal with him swiftly, in the name of maintaining civil order.
Jesus, for his part, was powerless: caught between multiple groups who were competing for power on a national stage. To the outside observer, he appeared to be a failed revolutionary: his closest followers had denied, betrayed, and abandoned him at the moment of truth. His own people had arrested him and handed him over for crucifixion, a punishment reserved for terrorists. Pilate’s job, in this situation, was to figure out whether Jesus really was a terrorist or not.
This morning’s gospel reading opens as Pilate begins his examination of Jesus. By all accounts, Jesus is helpless, powerless. He has been reduced to the status of a pawn in chess game between multiple powerful parties. The scene plays out as one would expect: Jesus is examined, cross-examined, tossed back and forth, and eventually executed, not because he was found guilty, but because Pilate could find no other way to regain control of a volatile situation.
But, when we look at the conversation between Jesus and Pilate in detail, a different picture emerges. The author of John’s gospel tells this story through the eyes of a Christian, writing decades after the events of Jesus’ crucifixion took place. As John tells this story, the positions of power are actually reversed. It is not Pilate who is interrogating Jesus, but Jesus who is questioning Pilate. Jesus makes no apology, confesses no crime, and concedes no ground. Reading this story is actually confusing to the modern reader because it seems like Jesus and Pilate are talking about two different things. In fact, they are. They’re not so much talking to each other as much as talking past each other. Pontius Pilate obviously doesn’t understand what this Jesus guy is all about and Jesus obviously doesn’t care about Pilate’s need to maintain order. Their conversation goes around and around but never really gets anywhere.
At one point Jesus says to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world.” Pilate, thinking he’s finally found his opportunity, pounces and says, “So you are a king?” But Jesus wriggles away from his trap and returns the proverbial tennis ball back into Pilate’s court. “You say that I am a king.” Jesus says, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Their bizarre dialogue ends with an unanswered question in Pilate’s witty retort, “What is truth?”
Pilate never gets an answer to his question, presumably because he would never be able to understand any answer that Jesus gave him. In the language of John’s gospel, Pilate exists in “darkness”, quite apart from the “light” that Jesus offers. Pilate is an “unenlightened” being. The 21st century spiritual teacher and Catholic priest Richard Rohr would say that Pilate was “operating at earlier stage of consciousness” than Jesus was. Pilate was operating out of what Rohr would call a “tribal consciousness” wherein an individual is preoccupied by identifying with a particular group in conflict with all other groups. Competition and power are primary concerns for those who see the world through an “us vs. them” ideology like Pilate had. Jesus on the other hand, according to Richard Rohr, was operating out of a much higher, non-dualistic consciousness. He was not caught up in the petty us/them struggles of the world as Pilate knew it. In the eyes of Jesus, all people and all things are one in God. This is why Jesus was able to say to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world.” I don’t think Jesus ever meant for us to think that he came from some far-off, magical kingdom in the sky where everyone is happy and sits around on clouds, playing harps all day. That is the stuff of fairy tales and story books. Nevertheless, Jesus’ kingdom is a reality and it truly is “not from this world” in the sense that it includes all people, all creation, and all other kingdoms in its wide, wide embrace.
As a king, the “king of kings” in fact, Jesus redefines power. In place of domination, Jesus holds up service as the ideal. He said to his disciples, “You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as this human being came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” At the Last Supper, we see Jesus leading by example in this regard as the Servant King. He gets up from the table, wraps a towel around his waist, and proceeds to wash his disciples’ feet. This was a task typically assigned to the lowest, most despicable slave. No one in his or her right mind would volunteer for this job, but Jesus told his disciples that this is what being a king, a leader was all about. Humble service, for Jesus, is one of the marks of true power.
In a similar vein, Jesus’ kingdom is “not of this world” because he rules by compassion and mercy rather than by violence and judgment. Forgiveness, according to Jesus, is the most powerful act any person can ever commit, whether king or peasant. Victory is not achieved when your enemy is defeated. Victory is won, according to Jesus, when your enemy becomes your friend.
Obviously, Jesus’ ideas seem “out of this world”. They were incomprehensible to Pontius Pilate. They were foreign to the Judean religious authorities. They still sound bizarre to our ears in the 21st century. We’re still operating out of a lower level of consciousness where our competitive, tribal concerns keep us from seeing the big picture, the whole of reality in which we live, move, and have our being.
When it comes to Jesus’ kingdom, we’re simply not there yet. We might not ever get there in this lifetime. But we, as those who claim to be Christians, who claim to follow Jesus, have an obligation and a responsibility to take Jesus’ words and Jesus’ life seriously. What Jesus is offering Pilate (and us, by extension) in today’s gospel reading is a new of being, of being alive, and of being human in this world.
Something inside each of us cries out for this. Even though we tend to give in to the temptation toward cynicism, even though we tend to trust in the power of warfare, weapons, and bombs to make a better world, even though we tend to seek power rather than service, there is nevertheless a deep longing within our souls for a world and a life where we will not have to live in fear and mistrust. Something inside each of us knows that this is not how the world was meant to be.
Something about Jesus awoke this longing within people. In some way that we still don’t fully understand, he embodied, even incarnated this alternative way of being in the world. In Jesus, the longing took on flesh and showed us what it could do if it was given the chance to run free over the face of the earth.
I have seen moments and known people in whom the Spirit of Christ does run free and raises them up above that immature, ego-centric tribal consciousness. I remember one such person who made an impact on my life when I was in high school. His name is Phil. He was a grad student and one of the leaders of a youth group I attended. Through him, I discovered another way of being, of being alive, and of being human in the world.
Phil was the first person I ever knew outside of my family who made me feel accepted for who I am. He spent time with me, mostly just goofing off and hanging around. He didn’t care that I wasn’t popular or influential in school. He didn’t preach to me. He didn’t have any kind of religious sales pitch for getting me to sign on the dotted line as a Christian. He just seemed to care. During my freshman year, when I was going through a hard time and even contemplating suicide, Phil was the one I trusted enough to open up to. He wasn’t a pastor or a therapist, but he knew how to love people like Jesus did and that’s what made the biggest impact on me.
Over time, I gradually came to see something in Phil. Looking back, I think I would call it the Spirit of Christ. And that, more than any sermon I’ve ever heard in my life, is what made me want to live as a Christian. I had been going to church ever since I was a baby, but I never had any desire to make that spiritual path my own. After my experience of seeing Christ in Phil, I wanted to follow Jesus too. Since that time, almost seventeen ago, I’ve been through several crises of faith and endured many seasons of doubt, but I keep on going back to the Christ I saw in Phil: Jesus who is the friend of the friendless, the one who welcomes the outcasts, the one who “eats with tax collectors and sinners”, the one who lives above and beyond this world’s sick systems driven by competition and lust for power, the one who offers me an alternative way of being, of being alive, and of being human in the world.
Each and every one of us is called to be a ‘Phil’ to someone, somewhere, at sometime. None of us is perfect, so we’ll each do it in our own small, temporary, imperfect, and partial way. But when the moment comes and the Spirit moves us, will we have the faith to set aside our twisted hunger for power and competition? Will we take up the mantle of compassion, humility, mercy, and service when it is needed? Will we allow Christ live again in us, so that someone else might hear and respond to the call of that same Spirit in his or her own way? If that hunger in our hearts for a different world, a better world, is true and not just an illusion, if this world’s sick system of power-hungry competition is not finally an expression of all that we truly are, if there is another way of being, of being alive, and of being human in the world, then it is absolutely imperative that we open our hearts and minds to this Jesus, so that Christ can live again in us, continuing in our community today the same ministry he started in Palestine two thousand years ago. May it be so, even here, even now.