One interrogation in the early hours defined the two views of power which wrestle for the soul of this world
The encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate is visceral, shocking and deeply symbolic. Here was a man dragged away in the dead of night, rendered to Caesar, like countless others in history who have been spirited away by a capricious State. Jesus knew what awaited him. Before meeting Pilate he had been punched in the face. After Pilate he would be severely beaten before being tortured to death. The early hours of the morning are disorientating enough and the sure knowledge of what lay ahead that day would have been sufficient to silence the bravest of people and yet Jesus defies every expectation of a bored and sleep-deprived Roman ruler. As the conversation progresses, there is an emerging sense that Jesus is actually putting Pilate on trial as the symbol of despotic human power and all that is wrong with the world we have invented.
It would have been those words: ‘my kingdom is not from this world’ that arrested Pilate. The Romans had ruled their provinces with an ordered viciousness; they understood the pitiless language of brute force and stood for all human regimes which have toyed with the weak and vulnerable. Joseph Stalin once cynically observed: ‘how many divisions does the Pope have?’, ridiculing the clout of a man who could not match the material power of a May Day parade of tanks and missiles. He would probably have used the same words on Jesus.
In the natural focus we have on the redeeming work of Christ on the cross, we can overlook the significance of Jesus’ following words: ‘if my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over’ he says. In this way Jesus passes explicit judgment on all ways in which the Christian faith has been spread by force. However well intentioned some may have been, Jesus established an exclusively peaceful basis for our mission the moment he told Peter to put his sword away in Gethsemane. People cannot be coerced into believing in Christ; they will come to him by love and humble persuasion. That we understand this today is no ground for complacency, however, for it is a big challenge to the way we interpret the world.
Today’s dominant creed is materialism, meaning we put our trust in concrete, observable things. One function of this is our preoccupation with what we can measure, a trend which is spreading ever more widely. We grade our well-being as a nation by our Gross Domestic Product. This is a valuable calculation when it comes to measuring the strength of our economy relative to others, but an inadequate measurement of the intangible qualities which make life worth living and thus a poor clue as to our purpose in this world.
Yet what cannot be measured today is treated with great scepticism – and not just by radical atheists. The recent release of a report measuring the nation’s happiness was greeted with derision by some. The measurements used may have been inexact, but the question of our well-being should be treated with more respect than it received in some quarters. That human well-being is so low on our public agenda shows the size of our challenge for the Church.
We should affirm our belief in that kingdom Jesus spoke about in the silent hours of the night in a Roman arena of power. As it happens, we can measure some aspects of our work. We can see when churches are growing in size and when people are giving money generously; we can observe the number and enthusiasm of the volunteers; the size of the Alpha course and Messy Church; the people coming to baptism. We can count the number of initiatives which reach out into the community, be it toddler groups, youth projects or lunch clubs for older people. But these are just measurements of the life of a local church. The growth of the kingdom of God occurs on a vast scale, and yet in the intangible and often secret places of human life. This is the mysterious and romantic nature of the teaching of Jesus: even a word, a smile or a hug can sow a seed which can become a tree.
Expressed simply, we are put here on earth to pursue a relationship with God and relationships with one another. These are the things that make us truly human and bring us lasting joy. On the Day we meet our maker and redeemer – a moment which the encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate prefigures – it is the audit of these intangible relationships which will feature highly. There may be many things we are understandably proud of achieving in life, but our relationships are likely to be the prism through which our lives will be interpreted. Jesus has given us a clear indication of this. When he is asked by a lawyer how he might inherit eternal life, Jesus confirms that loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves is the right answer. It is as if the tables are turned in that solitary encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate as that which cannot be measured is suddenly quantified for all to see and those measurements we have used in our material world melt away.
In Hebrews 11, the author says that ‘faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen’. To bear the name of Jesus is to cherish what cannot be seen but which will endure; to make these the values by which our common life is guided.
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