by Jason Micheli
John 18.30-38 (click to see Scripture text)
There are so many stories like it you’re forgiven if you’ve forgotten the details. A little over three years ago, a Dallas patrol officer entered the apartment of a twenty-six year old accountant and fatally shot the unarmed man. The police officer, Amber Guyger, claimed she’d entered Botham Jean’s apartment by mistake. Thinking it her own apartment, she believed him to be a burglar.
He had been sitting on the sofa eating ice cream.
The shooting ignited a nationwide feeding frenzy about police corruption and institutional bias. But even more so than the transgression, the news of the absolution that followed both captivated and confused the country. In the fall of 2019, a Dallas jury found Amber Guyger guilty of murder, and Judge Tammy Kemp sentenced her to ten years in prison. The trial was over. Justice had been served. Punishment had been meted out. Yet this judge was not done. Or, as one observer in the courtroom commented, “It was like she had only just begun her work.”
First, she invited Brandt Jean to speak to the woman who had murdered his brother. “I don’t want to say twice or for the hundredth time how much you’ve taken from us. I think you know that,” Brandt Jean said, “But I just…I hope you go to God with all the guilt, all the bad things you may have done in the past. … If you truly are sorry, I speak for myself, I forgive you. If you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you.” The African American judge, reporters noticed, wept as Brandt Jean spoke of forgiveness. After speaking with and hugging the victim’s parents, Tammy Kemp returned from her judge’s chamber to the courtroom with her personal Bible in hand. She gifted it to the convicted officer and pointed to John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” Later that day, Brandt Jean posted on his Facebook Page, “Whenever you open the Bible, the Accuser— that is, the Devil— gets a headache.” Receiving this judge’s personal Bible, Amber Guyger reached out her arms to the judge. The judge, still in her black robe and pearled necklace, wrapped her in a merciful embrace. “It was like she was sharing in the woman’s guilt and anguish,” said another observer in the courtroom.
The reactions to Brandt Jean’s absolution of his brother’s murderer, the reactions to Judge Tammy Kemp’s act of compassion— the reactions were so swift and so divergent and so dependent on one’s place in society, one’s privilege relative to another and one’s political perspective that, as one legal expert from Stanford told a reporter, “It feels as though we are actually the ones on trial not the accused.”
It feels as though we are actually the ones on trial.
One of the ways we, as Christians, remember that our Kingdom is not of this world is by marking time in a different manner than the kingdoms of this world. For example, next Sunday begins a new year on the liturgical calendar. Advent is the Church’s Times Square Extravaganza, which makes today not the Sunday before Thanksgiving but the feast day known as Christ the King Sunday. For the observance of Christ the King, the lectionary appoints this scene— one of seven scenes— from Christ’s Trial Before Pontius Pilate. It’s it’s a peculiar choice of passages for Christ the King Sunday. Jesus seems rather ambivalent here about the royal title in our text today and not for the first time. In John 6, after the feeding of the five thousand, the crowd responds by trying to install Christ as king and Christ responds by running away across the water.
Chances are, your Bibles all title this scene “Christ’s Trial Before Pilate,” but St. John suggests with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer that Pilate is not the judge here and Christ is not the defendant. Notice how Jesus answers the judge’s question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus replies, “Who’s asking? Is this you talking or did someone else put you up to it?” You don’t need Nancy Grace or Court TV to point out for you that this is not a standard way for the accused to answer a judge’s serious question. It’s insubordinate. It’s out of order. He’s a hostile witness.
Pontius Pilate questions the accused again in verse thirty-five, “What did you do?” And again the accused calmly evades the question, “My Kingdom is not rooted in this world.” Once again, the judge asks the accused in verse thirty-seven, “So you are a king?” Yet once more the accused does not feel compelled to answer the judge, “You’re saying I am. I have come into the world to bear witness to the truth.” And Jesus’s choice of the word for you, the emphatic you in Greek, is the exact same word Pilate has just pointed at him. In other words, the accused is taking umbrage with the judge and throwing his words right back at him.
Christ is not the one under judgment here.
Christians can debate whether the Bible teaches universal salvation. But what the Gospels give us beyond a shadow of a doubt is universal implication.
Jesus may be the one whose hands are zip-tied together but Pontius Pilate is on trial. And with him, all of us who are like him.
Pilate asks maybe the most important question, “What is truth?” But, notice, he can’t be bothered even to wait for the Truth’s reply. Before Jesus can even answer his question, he’s gone back outside to keep his status quo. Maybe Pilate’s question is a sincere question. The ancient Church Fathers thought it was a sincere question. It just goes to show far short sincerity falls from the glory of God. In the end, the answer to his question is less important to him than just getting through his daily To Do list and minimizing the headaches in his life and preserving his place in this kingdom’s pecking order. We know from the Gospel of Matthew that Pilate’s married. Maybe he’s got kids at home and he’s only got but so much time to spend on the answer to his question. He’s only got but one hour to spend on God.
Christ is not the one on trial here.
The passover pilgrims outside the courthouse— they are on trial.
And with them, all of us who are like them.
Many in the crowd, the Gospels make clear, are bitter and exhausted after having suffered generations of oppression and poverty. They’ve not come to the courthouse looking for the execution of justice. The’ve come to the courthouse looking for the execution of a scapegoat— someone who can serve as the golem of their rage and frustration.
Some in the crowd are angry and disillusioned. Jesus had cracked the whip, and thrown a temple tantrum. Jesus had checked every box on the JD for revolutionary leader. It was time to bring low the high and mighty. But then, he stops short of an armed insurrection. He doesn’t take up the sword. He lets himself be handed over.
But most in the crowd are pilgrims from the Jewish diaspora who’ve come to Jerusalem for the Passover. They’re on vacation. They’ve not been privy to Jesus’s ministry. They’ve not read about him on Twitter or heard about him on FoxNews. Therefore, they’re just there for the spectacle. They are there because, no matter what they tell themselves or their friends at church, they enjoy the name-calling and brutality. They relish the endorphin rush that the mockery and the cruelty and the violence give them.
Like, Kyle Rittenhouse, they’ve been drawn to the chaos.
And notice what St. John writes about the crowd in our text today. For whatever reason they’ve come to the Praetorium, the reason they have remained outside (it’s not because Pilate wouldn’t permit their entrance) is because they do not want to ritually defile themselves for the Passover by entering the Gentile courthouse. The Passover Lamb who takes away the sins of the world is no further away than a flight of stairs, but they remain outside because they prefer to practice their piety before others, to earn their righteousness, to justify themselves.
Christ is not the one on trial here.
It’s all of us.
Look how the soldiers respond when Pilate asks them, “What charge do you bring against this man?” They say, brazenly, “If this man wasn’t guilty, we wouldn’t be handing him over to you.” Their answer implies that anyone they bring to Pilate is guilty by default. Guilty until proven innocent.
If he wasn’t guilty, he wouldn’t have run away.
If he wasn’t guilty, he wouldn’t have resisted.
These arresting officers do not even see the accused as a person. They refer to Jesus as “this one” and “that one.” In fact, they do not so much as give Jesus a personal pronoun— he or him— until they get him to Golgotha.
When Pilate suggests to the soldiers that they take Jesus away and judge him according to the Jewish Law, they tell Pilate, “Unfortunately, it’s not legal for us to put anyone to death.”
But here’s the Big Bible Fact for today:
THAT’S A LIE.
Of course the Law gives them the authority to put a transgressor to death. Here in John’s Gospel, they’ve already attempted to stone Jesus twice (8.59, 10.31). This is the same goon squad that will stone Stephen to death after Pentecost. These cops are lying. It’s not that they lack the authority to put Jesus to death. It’s that they want Jesus to die a death that only Rome can execute.
It’s no longer enough for them to stone Jesus.
They want Jesus to be crucified.
Remember, according to the Book of Deuteronomy “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” The arresting officers and the interests and institutions they serve— they want a crucifixion for Jesus because a crucifixion will invalidate Jesus. As New Testament scholar, Frederick Dale Bruner puts it, they want more than the death of Christ. They want to nail Jesus into a blessed oblivion.
Why do they want Jesus not simply executed but annulled?
The intersection of justice and mercy in Amber Guyger’s judge, the offer of undeserved forgiveness from her victim’s brother, it not only perplexed the secular media it provoked outrage from observers.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a complaint with the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct, arguing that the judge’s “proselytizing” amounted to an ethics violation. “Compassion is not a judge’s role,” they argued.
Critics questioned whether a black defendant would have been shown the same compassion from a judge.
Christopher Scott, a black man who spent thirteen years in prison for a murder he did not commit, complained that in his entire experience with the criminal justice system he had never received a hug from a judge. “I didn’t even get an apology at my exoneration hearing,” he said. “I’ve watched all of the exonerations that happened in Dallas County— I’ve never seen it. We don’t get handshakes, we don’t get hugs, we don’t get Bibles. They just say, “You can go.”
Black Lives Matter activists criticized the way white people latched onto the discrete story of the compassionate judge as a way of avoiding the more difficult matter of systemic racism. “White people are always looking for examples of heroic, forgiving black people to give them a clear conscience,” one activist said.
Many religious people meanwhile insisted that Brandt Jean should not have forgiven his brother’s trespasser in the absence of any penance. One religious leader tweeted, “Forgiveness without concrete acts of repentance is unjust.”
Here’s the thing:
All of them— THEY’RE ALL CORRECT!
It’s not a judge’s job to come down off the judge’s bench and show love and compassion! Of course a black defendant in America is less likely to receive such mercy! White people do grab onto inspiring stories to assuage our guilt— I just did it in this sermon! And forgiveness with no strings attached? Undeserved acquittals?
IT IS UNJUST.
IT IS UNFAIR.
IT IS OUTRAGE-OUS.
A retired judge from Texas told a reporter, “That brother, that young man, and then the judge too, the compassion and the grace they showed were amazing.
It was almost like seeing Jesus. It surprises me how they’ve outraged so many people.”
Not only are the arresting officers lying— they do have the authority to execute Jesus— they’ve been conspiring to kill him from the get-go. At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus says to the paralyzed man on a mat, whose four friends have lowered him through a hole they dug in the roof just to get their friend to Jesus, “Your sins are forgiven.”
That’s the moment.
That’s when they decide to kill him.
“He can’t talk like that. Only God can forgive sins,” they say, which is really just a way of saying, “We don’t want forgiveness for him.”
The theologian Gerhard Forde writes that conspicuously missing from the way most Christians speak of the crucifixion is the brute fact that we killed him.
We’ve so pushed the cross into the realm of theory, anchored it to divine necessity (what Forde calls “covering the cross with roses”) that we forget the cross was an event, in actual history, as real as any story in the newspapers, the end result of a basically simple story: In Christ, God came preaching the unconditional forgiveness of sins for sinners who do not deserve it, and we killed him for it.
In other words—
While it’s true Christ is King, we shouldn’t forget that the only crown he wears is the one we place on his head to mock him before we nail his body to a tree. Christ bears our sins in his body upon the tree— that is literal before its theological. We beat him, spit on him, mock him as a “king,” crown him with thorns, and torture him. He bears our sins in his body— actually.
“The liberals in the Church are right,” Forde writes, “God is love; God is merciful. They just do not see that this is why we must kill him…forgiveness full and free with no strings attached is just as dangerous and criminal as robbery or murder or sedition. It cannot be allowed. It shatters all order, offends all morality, and smashes every system of justice.”
More fundamental than King, Forde says, Jesus is the one in whom God did God to us. He did God’s mercy and forgiveness to us. He bore relentless witness to it; therefore, he had to die. And not just die, his reckless message had to be hammered into oblivion.
In his work, Atonement as Actual Event, Forde offers a grisly analogy to clarify the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
Imagine, Forde writes:
“A child is playing in the street. A truck is bearing down on the child— maybe the driver is simply a bad driver, maybe the driver is a reckless driver, maybe the driver is drunk. Suddenly a man throws himself in the path of the truck, saves the child, but is himself killed in the process…
It would be all too easy to identify ourselves with the more or less innocent child playing in the street and to look on the sacrifice as a sacrifice that averts our death. To make the analogy work properly, however, we must say that we are not the child playing in the street. We are the driver of the truck. If anything, the child playing in the street is our neighbor— maybe a neighbor so close they live in the same house as us or share the same bed with us. The child in the story is not us. We are the driver of the truck.
Suddenly, there is the someone who throws himself in our unheeding way and is crushed against the front of our machine…
Jesus is the one splattered against the grill of your truck who comes back to you to say, “Shalom!””
We are the ones on trial here.
But then on the third day of deliberations, the victim suddenly bursts forth from the Judge’s chambers to announce that all charges have been dropped.
About ten years ago, a man in my congregation asked to meet with me.
Dan sat across from me one morning in my office. I knew him from classes I’d taught, pleasantries in the line after service, and a few hospital visits to his spouse, but I didn’t know him.
“Since we’ve decided to make this our church home, I thought you should know my story,” he told me, rubbing his hands along the channels of his corduroy pants over and over again.
His voice was taut with anxiety or shame.
I didn’t say anything. I just waited.
After you’re a pastor for a while it doesn’t take Robin Williams from Good Will Hunting to spot someone who’s wanting to drop whatever burden they are bearing. Still, what he told me surprised me. It wasn’t the sort of story you hear everyday.
With long pauses and double-backs and tears— lots of weeping— he told me how a few years earlier he’d been driving home from the grocery store in the middle of the afternoon on Route One in Alexandria. Out of nowhere a pedestrian stepped into the street. Dan hadn’t been drinking. He hadn’t been distracted. He wasn’t texting or talking.
“There just wasn’t enough damn time!” he said with such force it was clear that he— not me— was the one he was trying to convince.
What he told me next surprised me even more. Dan told me how his mind developed a split personality to cope with the trauma of having killed another man.
He spent nearly a year, he said, hospitalized for schizophrenia. He told me how worshipping at a new church, where folks didn’t know him and didn’t stare at the floor whenever they saw him, was one of the goals he’d set for himself upon his discharge.
He wept for a long time.
I had to get up, leave my office, and go hunting for more tissues.
When I returned and sat down across from him, he said, “I know Jesus forgives me, but I just can’t forgive myself.”
And I didn’t respond immediately. I waited for his eyes to meet mine.
When they did, I said to him, “You know Jesus forgives you, but you can’t forgive yourself? Just who in the hell do you think you are, Dan? The one who forgives you— he’s your King. You think you’re above him? Mr High and Mighty? Who are you to hold on to what he’s let go of? As though he’s wrong and you’re right? If you’re looking to repent of anything, repent of that.”
I didn’t know of what I said to him was helpful.
I just knew it was true.
And it is for you too— no exceptions.
It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters,*so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. 29So Pilate went out to them and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?’ 30They answered, ‘If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.’ 31Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.’ The Jews replied, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death.’ 32(This was to fulfil what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters* again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. 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.’ 38Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’
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