by David Baer, March 21, 2018
Text: John 19:1-16a
In Jesus’ day, Rome was a powerful empire, but this great city in Italy had humble origins as a tiny state struggling for survival against neighboring tribes. In 321 BC, the Samnites, another tribe, trapped the Roman army in a narrow pass, forcing them to surrender. The Samnite general was advised by his father to spare the Romans and win their loyalty. Instead, he decided to disarm them, strip them of most of their clothing, and force them to walk under a yoke of their own spears, as their victorious enemies rained down insults and blows on them. The half-naked Roman troops, burning with humiliation, had to walk through the territory of their allies on the way home, where they entered the city in stony silence. The Roman historian Livy wrote that “the Roman mettle was cowed; they had lost their spirit with their arms… their necks were bowed as if they were still beneath the yoke. The Samnites had won not only a glorious victory but a lasting one; … they had captured the Roman courage and hardihood.”1 Nine years later, the Romans had their revenge when they captured the general who had humiliated them, paraded him in triumph, and had him beheaded. But this disgrace had entered the national bloodstream. No Roman would forget what it felt like to be at the mercy of their enemies. They would do almost anything to avoid feeling that way again, to make sure that from now on they were the ones standing over the yoke, not passing under it; to make sure that they were the ones mocking and roughing up their enemies, not being mocked and roughed up themselves.
It doesn’t feel good to be on the receiving end of mockery and disrespect, does it? If a spouse or a parent makes a joke at your expense at a party or other public setting, it probably starts an argument. If a boss repeatedly undercuts your contributions to your co-workers, you probably start thinking about finding a new place to work. If you lay out a dream for the future to someone you care about, looking for support and affirmation, only to have them laugh at you and dismiss your hopes, it kindles a smoldering anger inside you, doesn’t it? We human beings have an inborn need for safety and love, as well as a need to feel valued and worthy of respect from others. When we don’t have these things, at our worst, we might lash out violently, hurting ourselves or others in the process. But more likely we simply withdraw from relationships and circumstances that make us feel bad. In the face of scorn and mockery, we fight or we flee.
Not so Jesus. What’s striking about the way the gospel of John tells the story of Jesus’ death is that Jesus goes willingly with his captors. Jesus refuses to give Pilate the testimony about himself that Pilate is asking for so that he can free Jesus. Jesus lays down his life, he says, by his own choice. No one can take it from him. But the kind of death Jesus chooses is not a noble death. It isn’t a sacrifice that everyone is going to admire, like the death of a firefighter bent on saving a life, or the sacrifice made by a soldier on the battlefield. Jesus’ journey to the cross and the tomb is a march of humiliation, as the Roman soldiers make a mockery of his kingship and then strip him of his clothes and dignity. Most of his friends abandon him. Jesus is battered, insulted, and humiliated on the way to his death, and yet this is the death he chose. He didn’t fight, and he didn’t flee. Why? Why does Jesus surrender to the loss of his dignity and his life?
We began this Lenten season on Ash Wednesday hearing Jesus’ words about being the Good Shepherd, whose sheep follow him because they know his voice. I want to invite us to see what is happening in our gospel text as an example Jesus set for us. In his surrender to his enemies, he is winning, not losing, his fight. And he invites us to follow where he leads, to join him in the way of surrender, humility, and trust.
Jesus’ surrender is about love expressed in vulnerability. Jesus is hardly the first victim of the religious establishment or the Roman occupiers. But his choosing to surrender himself and to suffer alongside them is what makes him different. Jesus’ surrender takes God’s power and God’s presence and puts them in the place of the criminal, the outcast, and everybody else who’s been thrown away by people in charge. No more do the people on the bottom rung of the social ladder need to look up to a far-away God. God’s Son is right beside them, in their place. Jesus’ voluntary surrender, and all the indignities it brings, puts him in solidarity with the poor, the lonely, and the oppressed. Every humiliation visited on them fell on Jesus too.
How do we follow a Jesus who loves by making himself vulnerable, by giving up his protections and power? We might start with taking stock of the advantages we have. Do you have a job? That’s an advantage—not everybody does. Are you in good health? That’s an advantage too—plenty of people long for healing from disease and infirmities. And then there’s the whole host of other advantages that we don’t choose, that simply fall to us because of the unfairness of our world—the advantages that we enjoy because of our citizenship, or our skin color, or gender. And then, for each of those advantages, think about how you might use that advantage for the benefit of someone who doesn’t have it. For example, you might ask yourself, “What is something I can do, because I have the stamina and physical ability that comes with good health, not to increase my own advantages, but to give power to someone whose health is not so good?” And one way to answer that question—not the only way, but one way—might be that you volunteer to go shopping for someone who’s homebound. Or if you’re the kind of person that people in power take more seriously, for example, you might ask yourself how to use your voice to amplify the just claims of those who aren’t taken seriously. Do you see how that works? You are surrendering a part of your advantage over others, you are denying yourself an opportunity to use that advantage to get ahead yourself, in order to lift up someone who doesn’t have the advantage that you have. That’s a choice to make a sacrifice, and it’s one way we follow Jesus, who said that just as he laid down his life for us, we are to lay down our lives for one another.
But Jesus’ voluntary surrender accomplishes something else too. Pilate repeatedly pronounces Jesus’ innocence. It underscores something that was true and apparent even to the people who were putting Jesus to death—namely, that there’s no part of what Jesus suffers that is deserved. “I find no case against him,” declares Pilate. And yet, together with the chief priests and their rabble of allies, he has Jesus flogged, insulted, and crucified. Jesus’ suffering therefore exposes the failure of human beings and our institutions to uphold justice and goodness. In shining the light of judgment on these institutions, Jesus invited people to turn their back on these oppressive systems, and to enter into a new kind of community—the kingdom of God, the body of Christ. It’s worth remembering that the first Christian believers refused to swear civic oaths. (This would be like refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance, or stand for the National Anthem.) And they refused to serve in the Roman military. They did this because the death of an innocent Jesus had demonstrated how thoroughly broken those systems are, while his resurrection had not just proved his innocence, but also shown the possibility of a different kind of life in God—a lasting, even everlasting life—where the hungry receive bread, the blind receive their sight, sinners receive forgiveness, and the dead are raised to live again.
How do we follow a Jesus who endures suffering in order to expose evil for what it is, and to invite people into a new kind of life in this world that seamlessly coheres with everlasting life? This is tricky. Too often religious teachers like myself have pointed to the suffering of Jesus to encourage people to stay in abusive relationships or tolerate unjust treatment, with the result that the oppressive systems Jesus came to bring into the light are strengthened, rather than exposed and held up to judgment. That doesn’t seem like following the way of Jesus to me.
I was talking recently with a colleague about someone in his life who constantly erupts with vile bitterness. I’m sure you can think of someone in your circle like this—you know, people who are always bad-mouthing others, or who constantly poke and prod at your own insecurities, or who seem forever governed by fear and mistrust. It seems more and more common these days—our politics and our media seem designed to make us hostile and anxious. But there are people who by temperament are especially vulnerable to this, and they’re not pleasant to be around. I don’t know about you, but when I encounter this sort of person, I start looking for the exits. But my colleague had this to say: “Sometimes the bitterness needs to come out. Sometimes this kind of person needs to vomit out all the unhealthiness within, and they need someone who won’t run away or attack them while the spiritual sickness leaves them in the ugliest way possible. What if they express themselves in the way that they do because they’re desperate to get all the bile out?”
That image has stuck with me. What if there are those in our circles who have ingested spiritual toxins, and they need someone to hold their hand and sometimes their head as the poison comes out? If you can keep yourself calm and steady around such a person while being careful not to get poisoned yourself, if you can call out their hurtful words and distorted, harmful beliefs while nonetheless expressing respect and love for them as a person, your endurance and forbearance might just bring healing to someone who needs it. But this requires discernment—sometimes the danger is greater than the opportunity to do good, and in the end, although we follow Jesus, we are not Jesus. It’s OK to pull back, especially from a relationship where neither you nor the other person is being lifted up. But I suspect there are people in your life right now who could experience healing and transformation at the cost of your suffering the brunt of their anxiety and hostility for a little while.
Jesus chose to suffer. He made himself vulnerable. He surrendered himself into the hands of sinners. He stretched wide his arms on a cross to give us a new kind of life, a life we live not for the sake of ourselves and our advantages, but for the healing of the whole world; not just for our friends, but for our enemies and those who treat us with hostility. “Here is the man,” Pilate said. Here he is, weak and abandoned. Here he is, mocked and abused. Here he is, leading us through the very worst that can happen to us, and out the other side to everlasting life. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Titus Livius, Everyman’s Library: The History of Rome, vol. 2. Tr. Rev. Canon Roberts. Ed. Ernest Rhys. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1905. http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/ah/Livy/Livy09.html. Accessed 3/16/2018.