The Power of the Cross
READ: John 18.33-37
Picture a pastoral setting. The warm sun is dropping off the horizon. A shepherd builds a fire against the cool of the evening. Behind the shepherd, hemmed in by a hillside, is a flock of so sheep. They are grazing contently, unaware of the wolf hiding in the thickets just a few yards away. But the shepherd knows of the wolf’s presence. And he is prepared to raise his staff against the ravenous predator, no matter the cost. All the shepherd has is a wooden staff. Pound for pound, the wolf would have little problem breaching the shepherd’s fortress Who holds the power? ###
In our reading today in John’s Gospel, Jesus stands eye to eye with Pontius Pilate. Pilate is the prefect of the Roman province of Judea, serving under Emperor Tiberius. Jesus is a poor wanderer with no currency, no home, no political sway… "Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks Jesus. Jesus answers, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate, who has the full weight of the Roman Empire behind him and has answered this request by the Jews to try Jesus, holds Jesus’s life in his hands. A simple thumbs up or thumbs down decides Jesus’s fate. Pilate replies, “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” “If my kingdom were of this world,” Jesus tells Pilate, “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.” Who holds the power? ### Jesus hangs upon two wooden beams intersecting heaven and earth. The Jews who sent him to die watch. So do the Roman centurions and a handful of others, including Jesus’s mother. That cross, which has seen the blood and nails of countless others put to death. He hangs, and begins to draw his final breaths. His body broken. His existence waning. Who holds the power? Christ the King It is 2,000 years later, and millions of Christ’s followers, like us, have filled churches on this very Sunday morning and for countless Sunday mornings before this, all around the world. They, like we, sing hymns of Christ’s power and glory. They, like we, dress the altars in white to signify Christ’s power and glory. They, like we, pray in unison, in language and words that celebrate Christ’s power and glory. Yet, like the shepherd prepared to die fighting for his sheep; like the very human Christ standing before a man who seemingly holds Jesus’s life in his hands; and again, on that cruel wooden beam that shows no mercy as Christ agonizes… What did Christ “win”? What power was really given? That all depends on what power looks like to us. Because the wolf is always waiting to devour, the strong of the world always dictate the fate of the weak, and the cross even claimed the life of Jesus of Nazareth, who was supposed to save us all. What really happened here, and why are we celebrating Christ the King this Sunday, and remembering the shepherd who gave his life for the sheep? Power If anything, Pilate sees Jesus’s kingship as a political one: a direct attack against the empire — treason. And the Jewish religious leaders who send Jesus to Pilate seeking capital punishment see Jesus’s kingship as blasphemy — a direct attack against their power established by the rigorous Law. But the event recorded in John’s Gospel here helps us to see Jesus’s kingship as a theological one that redefines the world’s understanding of power. So the question becomes: Who is questioning or interrogating whom? Because Jesus is redefining power. On God’s terms. As he stands, the trial turns. It is now Pilate who stands before Jesus. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” Jesus finally adds. And Pilate, who has completely lost his bearing between the truth of God and the lies of this world depressingly slips into the rhetorical style of the day: “What is truth?” he asks. It’s all he’s got. Do you see the irony? Pastor and author Brad Roth writes, “…any exercise of power that does not trace back to the self-sacrificial love of the cross is illegitimate.” “What is power?” is no longer a question, because Jesus answers it, once and for all. Power isn’t iron spears, full-metal jackets, or atom-splitting ballistics. It isn’t brute force, it isn’t domination, and it sure isn’t rewriting the qualifications for what is truth. It’s kind, generous, empathetic, selfless and eternal love. It is a shepherd with nothing but a piece of wood. The piece of wood that defeats death. The resurrection that proves true and eternal power. The Power of the Cross The altar is dressed in white. We’ve sung the hymns, we’ve prayed the prayers, we celebrate a new power. Christ’s redefining of power. Everlasting life. Unity with God the Creator. The reality of heaven on earth. Christ defeated death. The wolf turns back into the woods. The sheep continue to flourish. The prefect commits suicide. The tomb is empty. The author of Revelation tells us: “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” Power is redefined. Or is it? How do we define power today? Here, sitting in the church pews disarmed by hymnals and prayers and the Bible, we celebrate the meek and kind shepherd. Outside of these walls, doors and stained glass, do we do the same? What does power look like in the world outside the church? Is it more like the wolf or is it more like the sheep? Is it more like the prefect or the one standing trial? Is the powerful Pilate or the meek Christ? Is it the one pulling the switch, or the one receiving the lethal injection? See, we know the answer because we understand Christ’s example. And at the end of the day, or the end of our lives, we understand that the only one who rescues us from the power of death is Christ and Christ alone. “To him be glory and dominion, forever and ever.” Where is our allegiance this morning, church? It’s a hard question, and it’s one that can be answered just like Pilate… “Well, what is the truth?” What is the truth about the power in the world? How do we define it? Is it the bravado and muscle and brawn and might of being able to control, or is it love and mercy and grace? We’re here this morning because we already know the answer. The question is whether we believe it. And if we do believe what Christ has told us and shown us and commanded us to do, are we living it out? And if not, what’s stopping us? Decisions We make thousands of decisions each and every day. And so many of those decisions are based upon what the world dictates to us is right and what the world dictates to us what is good. And too many times those dictations run directly counter to what Jesus teaches, the way Jesus loves us, and the way Jesus wants us to love one another. Where the two intersect is like the two planks of wood of the cross. And before Christ, that cross dictated what power was. But when Christ sacrificed himself —that is, took up the cross and the nails and was raised up on it, Christ redefined what true power really looks like. Friends, power isn’t in the political officeholders we elect; it’s not in the bank account, trust funds, inheritances, and investments we keep; it’s not in our position or rank or color or gender or country or race; and it’s not in our physical bodies or our mental intelligence. It’s not in the prowess or might of our military. No, true power is found in the ability to give of ourselves for others; to share the gifts and talents we have received; to be thankful for the opportunity to serve one another and serve Christ; and in the fact that when we live and love as Jesus taught us to — to live for and love all of God’s children — we will experience kingdom now, on earth as it is in heaven. The power and the glory. And we will celebrate in the light of our lord and savior Jesus Christ. Eternally together, the kingdom and the power, for ever. Christ the King Today, we celebrate the one who changed everything. Who took all the ideas and thoughts and past and present and future examples of power, and flipped them all over upside down. * We no longer define power as the one who has something over another; we define power as the one who serves the others, both above and below her or him. * We no longer define power as accumulating the most for ourselves at the expense of those weaker than us; we define power as knowing God is the provider of all good things, and there is more than enough to allow everyone to live in peace. * We don’t define the king by lifting him up; The King is the one holding us up. We don’t hold Jesus up; he holds us up. We can celebrate Christ the King Sunday here in church and in churches all around the world on this very day; but unless we live out the true definition of power —that is, Christ’s definition of power— our words and acts are empty. When we leave this sanctuary, lift up others as Christ lifts us. Celebrate others, as Christ celebrates us. Glorify the King of Power and Glory by living as Christ calls us to. For it is in the way we live inside and outside of Sunday that demonstrates the true power that Christ is, and the true power that Christ has given.