Sermon: Meeting violence with love (Mar. 11, 2018)

Lent 4 (NL4)
March 11, 2018
John 18:28-40


“He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.” We all know his name: Pontius Pilate. He lives in infamy in our creeds. All four Gospels include in the passion narrative an account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. But John’s account is the longest. We’ll hear part of it today, and more of it next week. So before we get into it, I wanted to give you a little info on this famous character in the story of Jesus’ passion.

Pilate was a Roman prefect, and a notoriously brutal one. He even had to be removed from one post in Samaria because he had been so harsh in stopping an uprising. In the first century, Philo, the Jewish philosopher, described Pilate as having “vindictiveness and furious temper.” In governance, Philo describes Pilate’s “corruption, his acts of insolence…, his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continued murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never-ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity.” Yeesh! All this makes it especially curious that Pilate seems to be trying to set Jesus free! Certainly an interesting character.

Now, about Jesus’ and Pilate’s conversation: Remember back when we started John’s Gospel, I talked about how in John, Jesus pulls a kingdom of God canopy over the world, and Jesus talks from “up here” in the land of spirit and light, while people of “the world” (and Pilate certainly represents “the world”!) talk “down here” from the land of flesh and darkness. This is abundantly clear in this exchange between Jesus and Pilate. Jesus talks about how his kingdom is not of this world, and Pilate has no clue what he’s talking about. So, let’s see if we can figure it out. Please rise. [READ]

Ecce Homo (“Behold the Man”) by Antonio Ciseri

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In an exercise with our confirmation class this past week, I asked the students to describe the world 20 years ago, the world today and what they predict the world will be like in 20 years. It was hilarious to hear them try to describe the world as it was when I was their age. But it was disheartening to hear some of their descriptions of the world today. “Scary,” they said. “Violent. High crime.” I agree with them. The world today is a scary place, for a lot of reasons. In many ways, it does not feel physically or emotionally safe, and it is difficult for people or societies to thrive in that environment.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus tells Pilate. Well, I should hope not! I hope that God’s kingdom is something utterly different than this world so often full of tears, loss, pain, and sadness. Yet, I don’t think Jesus is talking here about an afterlife, or heaven. Throughout John, Jesus has been the light of the world, dwelling in and overcoming this darkness. He has brought God’s kingdom to earth. And so, I think when he refers to “his kingdom,” he is referring not to some different place, but to a way of life – right now – that is of God. A way of life that is “belonging to the truth,” as he says. Isn’t that what we pray for, after all, when we say, “Thy kingdom come”? We’re not praying that we would go to God’s kingdom, somewhere else, but that God’s kingdom would come here, on earth as it is in heaven. Whatever it is that makes God’s kingdom, God’s kingdom, we pray that it would come here, to earth, and soon!

So… what does that mean? What is it that we are praying to come here? Well, looking back over John, Jesus has made pretty clear that to “belong to the truth,” to have abundant life, to live as a part of God’s kingdom… means to be in an abiding relationship with God. In other words, God’s kingdom is about relationship. And while yes, the primary relationship we’re talking about here is the one we have with God, we could also say that our relationship with God is played out in our relationships with one another. After all, what commandment did Jesus give after he washed the disciples’ feet? … That we love one another as God has loved us.

Love one another. That’s what it looks like for God’s kingdom to be here and now. Love one another. Sounds simple enough, yeah? Of course depending on the situation and the people involved, loving one another can be pretty difficult. I wanted to talk about one such difficult situation for loving today because Jesus brings it up, and that is: violence. “If my kingdom were from this world,” Jesus says, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” In other words, in the kingdom of this world, “down here,” the one of flesh and darkness, people fight one another when they feel threatened – just like we saw last week, when Peter pulled his sword in the garden. Peter, Jesus’ follower, was willing to fight for him to keep him from being handed over! But Jesus says no. Jesus told him to put that sword away, because that is not the way of his kingdom. Jesus’ kingdom is something different. In Jesus’ kingdom, his followers don’t resort to violence.

Now, I think a word about the meaning of violence is necessary here. Usually when we hear that word, “violence,” we think of physical violence – weapons, or hand-to-hand fighting, the sort Peter demonstrated. But I think words can be just as violent, maybe even more so. The childhood chant about sticks and stones is simply not true – words can and do hurt us. Bones heal in a few weeks, but the damage done over the years to our hearts and spirits – and yes, to our relationships – by people’s words can be incredibly difficult to overcome. And so if we are talking about a kingdom of God that is based on loving relationships, we need to address how we talk to one another.

This past Wednesday, as a part of our Lenten series on healing and wholeness, a group of us gathered with Kit Miller from the Gandhi Institute for Non-Violence. We talked about whether it was possible to have “conflict without contempt.” What would be required, she asked, for us not just to agree to disagree, which is sort of passive, but to actively work toward peace and restoration, even if we don’t end up agreeing with each other? We talked about how usually when we feel angry, it is a sign that there is some other emotion going on that is presenting itself as anger. If a child runs in front of a car and narrowly escapes injury, the parent will grab the child by the arm and say, “Don’t you ever do that again, do you hear me??” The parent seems angry. What do you think is the real emotion there? … Fear. So Kit challenged us, next time we are acting angry, to consider what the real emotion is behind that anger. We talked about how, when a conflict is present, whether big or small, it is because some emotional need is not being met, and she provided some tools for determining what our needs are. Once you can name the need, you can start working toward seeing that the need is filled in a healthy way, and conflict without contempt becomes possible.

I can’t speak for others who were present, but for me, as we worked through various scenarios, it felt as if my heart was weeping and healing, all at once. I felt like the struggles, needs and hopes of my heart were being acknowledged, named, spoken aloud. I felt hope – hope that we as a society can, actually, love each other, even in the midst of division and conflict, and that there is indeed such a thing as “conflict without contempt.” I felt hope that Jesus’ “out-of-this-world” kingdom can exist even in this broken world.

Martin Luther King, Jr., as you know, was a champion of non-violence. He drew a lot from the teachings of Gandhi, but his primary strength and guidance came from Jesus, especially his words in the Sermon on the Mount. This week I came across this wonderful quote from Dr. King, that could have come straight out of John’s Gospel: “The ultimate weakness of violence,” he says, “is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder the hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Jesus’ kingdom, Jesus’ truth, invites us to something different from violence – something a whole lot harder, but absolutely worth the effort. Is it risky? Sure. Who ever thought love wasn’t risky? Love is what got Jesus hung on a cross, after all. Love makes us vulnerable. It softens our hard hearts, and removes our guard.

But it also offers a lot more hope than the alternative. Love does diminish the evil. Love does establish the truth. Love does decrease the hate. And love does bring the Truth and the Light – indeed Christ himself – into the darkness of this world.

So… which followers do we want to be? The followers of this worldly kingdom, who try to overcome violence with violence, who fight to keep Jesus from being handed over? Or do we want to do the hard work of the followers of Jesus’ kingdom, who strive toward love and non-violence, who strive to mend and heal and build relationships, even when conflict threatens to destroy?

“For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son so that we would not perish but have eternal life.” What a gift of love. If God loves us that much, then I, for one, would like to find it in myself to seek the more difficult, but also more loving path in my encounters with God’s other beloved children. It is hard work. But I believe this work can bring healing to this dark and broken world.

Let us pray… Loving God, you are the Light that dispels the darkness. You are the Love that establishes truth. You are the Truth, and the Way, and the Life. Help us to be citizens of your kingdom, who seek to overcome contempt and darkness with your love and light. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.