Some of you have heard of the infamous “Pax Romana”….the Peace of Rome. It was one of the catchphrases of the Roman Empire…the Emperor prided himself on his reign of “peace”. Of course, it was a twisted version of “peace”….peace through strength, as some might say. It was a Peace established through military power in occupied countries The kind of “peace” Russia hopes for in Ukraine. The ‘peace’ Israel keeps in the West Bank. Pilate is the Roman governor of Judea. in Judea, Pilate’s job is to be a “peace-keeper”… in that way that political leaders and militaries and law enforcement and judiciaries have all too often “kept the peace”. With weapons and threats …with backroom bargaining and the kind of justice that is carried out in the dead of night. That’s what’s happening in our story today.
Now Judea is the area around Jerusalem, which is the heart of the Jewish faith…it is the home of the Jewish temple, and in this province, nearly all the people Pilate governs are Jewish. So his job, for the Roman Emperor, is to collect the taxes and keep the peace…keep these Jewish people from uprising and threatening Roman rule. He really doesn’t give a whit about the inner workings of the Jewish faith or how they organize themselves, so he mostly lets them take care of their own…as long as they don’t make trouble for him or make him look bad to the Emperor. In fact, usually, he lives in his palace by the sea in Caesarea….but it is Passover…when thousands of Jews crowd to Jerusalem for the festival…so he is there, with his troops, as a show of power…to keep the peace.
So…having these Jewish leaders show up in the dead of night…is annoying, to be sure, but it also makes clear that they want something to happen that would make problems in the light of day. Problems for them…and problems for Pilate. Jesus’ conviction is urgent for them. They want it done immediately. They want it over and done with before the morning…because they know how easily Jesus sways the people…and they are afraid that might sway Pilate. But, they also want it done during this time of the Passover feast…while Jews from all over have come to Jerusalem for the festival because they want everyone to witness it. They want Jesus publicly discredited, humiliated and killed by Rome…so once and for all, every Jew will see that he is nothing but a criminal and a liar.
Jesus was a threat to their authority as leaders of the Jewish people…a threat to the status quo. But in this instance, they can’t take care of it themselves. They can’t rely on their own way of punishment …public stoning…because, frankly, they already tried that and Jesus walked away. The people… even the temple guards refused to rise up against him. At this point, the influence Jesus had over people terrified them and they need Rome to execute Jesus publicly as only Rome can do. And thus, we find ourselves at Pilate’s door in the dead of night.
This is the way things work in our world. Fear and power dealing out ugliness and death. Politics making strange bedfellows. The Jewish leaders are seeking to keep the peace…keep people from questioning their authority…maintain order. And Pilate is also seeking to keep the peace..the “pax romana”. But injustice masquerading as justice is too often our world’s version of keeping the peace….even among religious folks. Unfortunately, this scene in Pilate’s headquarters has played out in halls of justice and police stations throughout history….when Christian Klansmen killed and terrorized “misbehaving” black folks and law enforcement looked the other way….all to “keep the peace”. When lawmakers approved the genocide of Native Americans and churches justified their atrocities at the schools as “mission work” all to “keep the peace.”
Yes….we have justified all sorts of injustice under the guise of “keeping the peace’….and now…this is where we find Jesus. Right at the heart of it….under the cover of night….we find Jesus, who we follow. Jesus, who is the reason why we are here….another Palestinian victim of “peacekeeping”.
Dear friends, in no way, as a church, are we here to “keep the peace”…to preserve power, or justify the status quo. I actually had someone tell me once that that was what he believed the church was for…to preserve the “moral order” of society — to keep people in line, basically. He didn’t think we were doing a good job of it. But that is not what the church is for…it never has been. The church is the body of Christ. We are not here to support political agendas or cultural norms….rather, we follow the one who was hated for challenging those very things. We follow the one who was caught in the crosshairs of political and religious power plays…we follow Jesus…who was killed in order to keep the peace. Jesus, who cares only for the truth in a world where “truth” seems to be incredibly elusive. For both Pilate and Caiaphas…truth is basically whatever is politically expedient. Caiaphas, the high priest, has already said that it is better to have one person die for the sake of the people. It is better for Jesus to die, unjustly, to preserve their moral order…their religious community…and they will do whatever they have to to make that happen. Pilate knows Jesus has done nothing to deserve a Roman execution, but to keep the peace with the Jewish leaders…he will have Jesus killed anyway. Truth, in political life, is always murky at best. Pilate isn’t even sure it exists, or matters at all…”what is truth?”, he asks.
But Jesus knows the truth. Jesus tells the truth. Jesus IS the truth…and his followers recognize that.
So what is the truth? What is the truth Jesus testifies to? What is the truth Jesus embodies?
It is not a moral code…it is certainly not a cultural ‘norm’. It is the truth about who we are. It is the truth about what it means to be human.
Jesus comes to speak the truth that we are connected to God…we are children of God. We abide in God and God abides in us. Jesus comes to speak the truth that God loves this world, even with all its Pilates and Caiaphas’ and all our current political and religious leaders and ugliness….and wants to save it.…To give us life and hope and peace. Real peace…not the kind of “peacekeeping” that requires weapons and backroom deals. But the peace that comes from knowing God is greater and God holds all creation and all eternity in God’s own heart.
Jesus is the truth…that loves us to our bones…even in the midst of our trauma and doubt…and assures us that the power of God is stronger than anything we face…stronger than death.
Jesus speaks truth…that we belong to God and nothing…nothing in all creation…can snatch us out of God’s hands.
The world doesn’t recognize that truth. The world’s “truth” measures and judges. The world’s “truth” abuses power and codifies hatred. But the Truth that is Jesus restores, heals and forgives. Jesus is the truth that values every person…sees and hears and cares for every person..no matter where they come from…no matter what they’ve been through. In the face of the world’s truth…in the face of Pilate and Caiaphas — Jesus stands as the truth of God’s love for a lost humanity… longing to gather us under her wings and bring us back to who we truly are…people created for love. …people created to care for one another. And the only one who will ever truly give us peace. Only Jesus. Our way. Our truth. Our life. Amen.