Notes from Our Pastor March 2018 – Approaching Holy Week

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At the end of this month, we observe Holy Week, with all the drama of Christ’s betrayal, trial, suffering, and death presented within the services. Not only is this the most moving time of the Church year, but it always reveals for me new possibilities of how I (and perhaps you as well) can see myself in the various personae who comprise this drama.  While we are aware that behind the scenes, God is directing all actions toward the ultimate act of love in Jesus’ Crucifixion, nevertheless, the action is also accomplished by each human player’s personal choices and actions, whether faithful or not.  The God of history works with and through human beings and we can never escape responsibility for our freedom to choose and to act.

To illustrate this, focus upon Pontius Pilate, who is neither Jew nor disciple of Jesus, and who, among all the characters, appears to have the most earthly power at his disposal and should therefore be able to act freely to his own ends.  There are many explication and comments that should be made when reading John’s Gospel as a whole, and particularly with reference to his treatments of “the Jews,” but right now let’s accept the drama as the gospel presents it to us as part of the Passion Gospel which we read every Good Friday during the service.1 Within this extended reading, we can focus on Pilate and learn from him.

The historical Pontius Pilate was anything but merciful or tenderhearted; in the end, the Emperor removed him from his position as prefect (or governor) in Judea because of notorious cruelty and constant uprisings by the people which resulted from his actions. But John depicts Pilate as a man intrigued with Jesus and his plight. Instead of condemning Jesus outright – which is all the priests and temple leadership want him to do – the Roman governor asked Jesus himself to explain what he is guilty of. The problem is that he cannot hear or understand the answers he is given.

As a representative of the power of Rome, Pilate asks the reasonable question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (Jn 18:33) Jesus answered:

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 to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here. (Jn 18:36)

Unclear what of what to make of this answer, Pilate presses Jesus, but unfortunately, the answer he receives is not in the terms of the power/powerless distinction Pilate can understand. Jesus instead answers,

For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. (Jn 18:37)

Rather than trying to learn more and thereby understand who Jesus believed himself to be, Pilate takes the tone of a cocky sophomore and dismisses Jesus and his message by offering the rhetorical rejoinder, “What is truth?”

Not only does Pilate not understand Truth, he also does not understand authority. He publicly declares Jesus innocent of guilt, but sends him to be flogged in the hands of his sadistic soldiers. After his exhibiting of the prisoner before the crowd, their cries to crucify Jesus further confuse Pilate. Hearing them repeat the claim that Jesus claimed he was the Son of God (Jn 19:7), the fearful Pilate turns to Jesus again for answers—answers which the power-minded prefect cannot comprehend. Jesus remains silent in response to the Roman’s questions, having in his own mind moved beyond this moment with the prefect and on to his ultimate exultation on the Cross.

Pilate’s world is crumbling fast. Though armed with the authority of his office and the military power of Rome, he does not seem able to intimidate or win over the angry crowds outside his palace. Now even his prisoner, brought back within his chamber, refuses to speak to Pilate. Enraged and threatened because his power is not avail him, the prefect threatens as a bully would:

Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” (Jn 19:10)

Jesus’ response to this threat of violence defeats his prosecutor:

Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above… (Jn 1911)

Ultimately, the deflated Pilate abdicates his opposition and allows the crowd to crucify his prisoner.

As Roman prefect over the whole province, Pontius Pilate should have been the most powerful figure in this drama. But Jesus’ fearless words shattered the illusion of his power as they affirmed the ultimate authority of God over all rulers and earthly systems. Equally true is the fact that Pilate failed to recognize the truth when it was presented to him. He allowed events happening around him and considerations of power – whether exercised, threatened, or dictated by others – to cloud his judgment and to lead to his damnable retreat from true authority.

Pilate said to the Jews, “Here is your King!”

They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!”

Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?”

The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.”

Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. (Jn 14-16)

Pilate believed himself in the end to be overmatched in this conflict, but the deciding factor in his tragedy is that he did not exercise his own freedom and judgment. He had the power of life and death over Jesus, but by ignoring what his heart warned him about exercising that authority, he abdicated to the events and their inexorable power. He stepped back from decision-making when the moment called for a decision, and thereby allowed himself to become an accomplice to the wrong he halfheartedly wanted to avoid.

Accepting John’s account of this drama at face value, we can learn some valuable lessons. First, that the events of Good Friday were but the final act of the plan which God has set in motion from the time of Jesus his Incarnation. The will of God was done with a great deal of irony concerning all the players. Peter swears ultimate fidelity, but denies Jesus because of his weakness and fear. The chief priests of Israel do not recognize their king, and thereby give him his “exaltation” – on the Cross! Caiaphas plots Jesus death so that “one man should die for the people” to save the nation, unaware that after the Resurrection, Christians would affirm exactly that. The inscription over the Cross, intending to announce the reason for his execution, ironically proclaims him, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”  And Pilate, who senses that an injustice is being done before him, cannot make effective use of the authority which he has been granted—and that failure of his use of power enables the reality of the Crucifixion to follow its divine trajectory to God’s appointed end.

See you at services between Palm Sunday and Easter!

Fr. Bill


1All references are to the Gospel John, using the New Revised Standard Version.

 

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Notes from Our Pastor Feb. 2018 – The Journey Ahead

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The month of February contains Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. There are many ways we could characterize Lent in terms of repentance/penitence, spiritual discovery, or renewal, to name just a few. This Lent, you and I are about to embark on one of life’s journeys. It is anything but new, of course, to characterize the Christian life as a spiritual journey—Christian writers of all types, including Dante and John Bunyan, have used the journey as the means to describe the course of internal change as the soul seeks God in ever-new situations. This year, both our congregations and I myself will begin our journeys in search of how we can best serve God and live into our Christian calling as we deal with change.  My change will involve leaving my beloved Downriver churches to move to San Francisco and a new life with my daughter, son-in-law, and grandchild.  For you, the journey will be from the current pastoral situation to a new form of parish life under a new priest and with new or renewed vision of the parish’s mission.

In its wisdom, the Church has set aside the season leading up to Christ’s Passion as a time for reflection, prayer, and taking stock of our lives. The express purpose of our Lenten journey is to prepare to move forward spiritually, to seek to grow towards greater maturity in our life in Christ so that we may more fully understand and embrace the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection. In order to grow, we also much accept change.  Jesus aptly likens it to a death experience:

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12: 24)

Unless we are willing to let go of some things, we cannot move on.  Thus, one inevitable but crucial aspect of making any journey—including this Lenten spiritual journey—is taking leave of one place (parallel to the seed’s death) in order to move to another; leaving behind some parts of our self in order to allow other parts to grow and flourish.  As we reflect on Christ’s journey to Jerusalem and the Cross, we also consciously sacrifice our old lives in order to embrace the new one which shares in Christ’s resurrection.

Nothing ever remains the same throughout life. But while changes constantly occur, we can be unaware of it – as we do while we age from one stage of life to another.  As mature adults, we can recognize the dynamics of change, make deliberate choices when they arise, and (to the extent humanly possible) shape our own ends.  I seek this Lent to enlarge my spiritual journey to include many other aspects of self-awareness and identity which constitute both our daily life and our life of faith. Since I have always believed that the division of our life into spiritual vs. secular is arbitrary and artificial, I want to take this season of Lent and use it as a time to take stock of the whole of myself, so that the upcoming changes will become the means for me to set out on the next leg of the journey even more firmly rooted in the Lord.

All journeys involve change—external and inner change—and change is always difficult. I desire to embrace this conscious choice to journey and to seize the opportunity of change to evaluate my current life and to prepare for my new identity in the next phase of my life.  I will remain a husband, father, and priest; I will become a grandfather, possibly a retired person or someone who must adapt to another new context for ministry. In the process, I must leave behind nearly 30 years in Michigan, the friends I have made here, and the loving relationships which have characterized our life together in community.  Nevertheless, I want to use this Lent to focus not only on the separation and loss, but also on the blessings I have received with all of you.  My personal Lenten journey will also involve using my critical resources to assess and understand this move as its own sort of “call” or vocation.

The road lies ahead of us and the journey will begin.  The diocese is there to support you and offer guidance.  Jim Gettel, Canon for Congregational Life, will have the first meeting with those members of our congregations who wish to begin the transition on February 28th at 7:00 PM at St. Luke’s.  In addition to making my own spiritual journey as described above, I will continue to be there as your priest through Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and beyond.  Know that the spiritual gifts which have served our two churches so well over all these years are still there to serve you on the journey.  I have often bragged that what I found so remarkable about Christ the King and St. Luke’s is the way in which ministry has always been a shared venture, with me doing what a priest was called to do, but knowing that so many other parts of the total ministry and life of our parishes were taken care of by you and all your gifts.  I recognize your strengths and your faith, and with the continued presence of the Holy Spirit, I look for good things to come as our journey takes us to God’s appointed place.

 

Fr. Bill