Good Friday — 19 April 2019
Trinity – 12:15 pm
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 | Psalm 22 | Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9 | John 18:1-19:42
Pilate asked them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but the emperor." [John 19:15b]
As you may be aware, especially if you have been wandering around in the Books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings (and haven’t we all?!), Israel always had a problem with kings. In the first generations after the deliverance from slavery in Egypt and the entry into the Promised Land, there was no central rule among the Israelite tribes. Sometimes a charismatic leader would arise to repel outside oppression, but that was not a long-term solution, and eventually there arose a desire for a single national king. The prophet Samuel said, “That’s a bad idea – the Lord God is your king.” The people said, “Yeah, but we want one anyway, like all the other nations,” and so God and Samuel relented and gave them a king, Saul. Well, that didn’t work out very well. So they tried again, this time with David, and that worked out a little better, though probably not as well as they recalled it in retrospect. David was succeeded by his son Solomon, who was remembered for being very wise, for reasons not very well supported by actual history. And then the kingdom split up into two, each with their own king, a few of whom were pretty good but most of whom were not (you remember Ahab and his queen, Jezebel. Lovely couple!). And then first the Assyrians, and subsequently the Babylonians, put an end to the whole Israelite King business. Eventually the Jews put together a kingdom of sorts following the successful revolt of the Maccabees against the Greek empire, but that really didn’t work out very well, and ended up with the sort-of-Jewish Herod (“Herod the Great,” at least that’s what it said on his baseball caps), installed by the Romans as “King of the Jews.” And we know how that worked out.
For people of faith, God is King. Period. The prophet Samuel tried to tell us three thousand years ago, and we didn’t believe him then. We still don’t.
Actually, I think Pontius Pilate rather enjoyed the notion of this Jesus of Nazareth being King of the Jews. (“Shall I crucify your King? You bet – just watch me!”) He had a sign made for Jesus’ cross, and according to St. John’s Gospel it was in three languages, to make sure that nobody would miss the point. The high priests whined to him, “Don’t say that! Say ‘This guy claimed to be King of the Jews’!” To which Pilate replied, “Yeah, well, get over it. This is what Rome thinks of your ‘King of the Jews’.”
“We have no king but Caesar.” (That’s what the text actually says; it refers to “the Roman emperor” of course, but Tiberius was a member of ol’ Julius Caesar’s extended family, the stepson and adopted son of Octavius Caesar Augustus, and Tiberius still used the family cognomen. But by the end of the century when John’s Gospel was being written, Julius’ family dynasty was long gone and “Caesar” had become an imperial title, no longer a familial proper name.)
“We have no king but Caesar.” This wasn’t just about the high priests. It’s about us. We still have a problem with it. The Church has had a problem with it through most of our history, and we still do today, as you will have noted if you have read a newspaper or watched the TV lately. We are confronted with the same choice, the ultimate choice – a choice we must make, a choice we are making every day of our lives: Who is to be our King? Caesar, or Jesus? our own world, or the kingdom of God? Wealth and power, or justice and love? Death, or life?