Things are not what they seem – Good Friday – March 29, 2024

Preacher: Phil Schmidt

The world in which we live seems to be ruled by bullies and tyrants. But the true reality of this world is concealed. This is the message which the Gospel of John conveys. But his message is hidden under the surface. In the Good Friday reading from the Gospel of John there are places in which messages can be uncovered, which are not apparent. For example, at one point we heard in the reading:

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

If Pilate had been a well-balanced person, this first question to Jesus would have been formulated differently. His first question should have been: Do you claim to be the king of the Jews? Or: Do you imagine yourself to be the king of the Jews? However, he is taunting Jesus by asking him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” This is like asking a person in a psychiatric clinic: Are you Napoleon? Or Are you the Archbishop of Canterbury?

However, Pilate did not know the full implication of what he was asking. The Hebrew Bible and Jewish prayers proclaim that there is only one legitimate “King of the Jews”, namely God Himself. Only God – or the person he designates as the Messiah – may rule Israel. This is why present-day ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel refuse to acknowledge the state of Israel. They are waiting for God himself to take charge on the Day of the Lord. 

Jesus replied to Pilate, 

„My kingdom is not from this world… If my kingdom were from this world, my  followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over “ 

It sounds as though Jesus were saying: I have a purely spiritual kingdom which only affects individual souls and has nothing to do with the power politics of this world. But he is saying something completely different. What he is saying is a challenge to Pilate and the Roman empire. Jesus is claiming that his authority to rule is not derived from this world – which means: it is not a result of political tactic or military victories. Because Jesus’ kingship is not “from this world” his followers do not need to engage in armed conflict for his sake. Jesus has the highest authority imaginable, namely God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth. So, whatever happens, God is going to establish his rule over everything through Jesus. Pilate is only a subordinate.  

That Pilate is an underling was exposed in his final attempt to mock Jesus and the Jews. Pilate’s final action was to officially document Jesus to be King of the Jews by writing this title in three international languages on the sign-board to be placed above the head of Jesus on the cross. 

Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.'” Pilate answered, “What I have  written I have written.”

Pilate claimed that what he had written was irrevocable, which means that he acted as though he had written a word of God. This moment is full of irony. Pilate thought that he was in complete control and could insult the Jews with this sign. However, he is an unwitting prophet of God. Without knowing it, he did write an irrevocable word of God. Unintentionally, he proclaimed the truth about Jesus. Jesus is indeed King of Israel – but also King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

That Jesus was King of Kings and Lord of Lords was revealed in the final act of his life.

As we heard in the reading:

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

There is something peculiar about this finish. The monumental work of redemption is complete. Why does John report an apparent triviality at this climactic moment? Three times within two sentences he mentions “sour wine”, which means that he wants his readers to take note of this word. 

The Greek word translated as “sour wine” was the common drink of soldiers and laborers, because it was a cheap thirst-quencher. It was also called “posca”, and in some country areas of Italy it is still drunk today. Roman soldiers, when they had an assignment outside of their barracks, were required to carry a drink receptacle, which was closed off at the top with a sponge. John uses the correct Greek term for this container. 

The last act of Jesus in his life was to request an act of mercy from the soldiers who had nailed him to the cross. He doesn’t ask them directly, but simply mentions his thirst, which is an indirect appeal to them that they share with him a sip of their cheap wine. He invites them to perform a service of mercy on a dying person. Surprisingly, they react immediately. This is a moment of fellowship between Jesus and his tormenters. It is reminiscent of Holy Communion, except that Jesus in this case receives the wine. 

In order to understand the significance of this moment, we need to remember a special feature of John’s Gospel. The Gospel of John insists again and again that the crucifixion is the glorification of Jesus. For Jesus, the cross is a throne. Being lifted up onto the cross will make Jesus the focal point of all of humanity: As Jesus is quoted in chapter 12: “ ’And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ (John 12: 32.33) 

That Jesus had already begun to draw all people to himself was indicated when the Roman soldiers responded to his thirst with a gentle act of mercy, giving him a sip of their wine, a sign of human fellowship between Jew and Gentiles, victim and executioners, the living and the dying. It was a sign that Jesus’ work of reconciliation was already taking effect, so that he could say as his final words: “It is finished.”

In other words: the passion story conveys the message that things are not what they seem. On the surface, ruthless, cynical bullies like Pilate seem to be in command and seemingly they can do whatever they want. But there is a hidden domain where God is shaping reality, using people’s words and actions as raw material for a new creation. The brutality of dictators and soldiers will not determine the fate of this planet, but God’s work of reconciliation in Jesus. 

So, the next time you read the newspapers or watch the news on television or TikTok and ask yourself if this world is ruled by greed, by lust for power, by chaotic, demonic forces, by cold-blooded terror, just remember that the true reality of this world is momentarily hidden below the surface. It was revealed once and for all in the passion of Christ.  Whatever people do, God is going to incorporate it into his recreation of the world. God is going to succeed and nothing can stop him. For this reason, we should never be discouraged or give up hope. We can try to make this world more human, knowing that whatever we do in love will not be in vain but will contribute to the future world which God is creating and will one day accomplish. Amen.