(photo Avril Cutler)
As I read a large chunk of the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion this morning I was struck, not for the first time, by the role of the Empire.
Pilate is the Roman Governor and so plays the part of the Empire in political terms. He tries Jesus and finds no crime but does the will of the people because politics isn’t about right and wrong, it’s about getting things done. Pilate’s conversation with Jesus is fascinating. Throughout we read again and again that Pilate is astonished and amazed because Jesus refuses to play the political game.
The whole pattern of the crucifixion mirrors the coronation of the emperor. It’s a subversion of the story of power. Right from the first line of the first Gospel, Mark, we see this counter story laid out.
The beginning of the good news (gospel) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1)
For us that seems like an obvious, even bland introduction. But it’s not. It’s a hugely loaded political statement. It says Jesus is Lord… not Caesar. The Roman Empire spread ‘peace’ across the known world through fear and violence. The Emperor was a god and ruled as such.
Jesus is the opposite. He has no army, no political ambition to rule or to dominate. He does have one thing… authority. And it terrifies those in power. Pilate can see it. The religious leaders can see it. And their Empires can’t live with it.
Empire stretches far beyond the rule of Rome. The religious Empire was just as powerful. Even the Roman governor is scared of facing off against them. They have contained and codified God. They have quite literally put God in a box in a room that nobody is allowed to go into, even though the box isn’t there anymore. They have regulated how and where and when God should be worshipped. They have decided what is and is not pleasing to God, what behaviour will be tolerated and what rituals must be performed. They even dish out the punishments, including death, when people break the religious rules.
This Empire can’t cope with a God who isn’t angry and vengeful. This Empire doesn’t know what to do with grace.
So, when this Jesus comes along and challenges both Empires by being all that they should be but are not, there can be only one outcome… he has to die.
If Good Friday teaches us anything it surely has to be some kind of lesson about power. A king who washes feet, who has compassion and love for the poor and the sick, who has no place to live, never mind a palace, who has no army or uniform and no claim over territories or governments or countries, stands before the might of two empires and is executed in a brutal manner on a garbage heap. Power and ambition and rules and authority and fear and hatred win…
Each time we try to claim Christ as ours and ours alone, each time we try to create rules and regulations, to enforce our way of thinking or our way of doing it, or when we just plain want our way, we join the empire and take the side of domination. We stand with the crowd, shouting “Crucify him!”