As we listen to our Gospel lesson tonight, one can almost feel sorry for Pontius Pilate. For starters, Pilate didn’t even want to be in Jerusalem. His residence as prefect of the Roman province of Judea was at the palace that Herod the Great had built in Caesarea, a city on the Mediterranean Sea.
Pilate wanted to be at the beach. The last place he wanted to be that week was in Jerusalem. Jerusalem during the Passover was a city crowded with Jews. Pilate was not a fan of the Jews – more on that in a moment. He didn’t want to be surrounded by them in their city. But a large gathering of Jews celebrating God’s rescue of Israel from a foreign oppressor was a dangerous situation, and so each year the prefect came to Jerusalem with extra troops to make sure that nothing unexpected happened.
Pilate didn’t want to be in Jerusalem. And now in the morning when the prefect did business, the Jewish religious leaders summoned Pilate to come out to them. They didn’t want to defile themselves by entering into that Gentile setting.
No doubt Pilate wanted to ignore their summons. He didn’t like the Jews and treated them with contempt. When he arrived as the prefect in 26 A.D. he had the Roman standards that were embossed with figures of the emperor taken into Jerusalem. Previous prefects had avoided doing this since they didn’t want to incite the Jews by bringing a sign of emperor worship into the holy city. Pilate didn’t care … until he realized that he had stirred up trouble that could easily turn into a revolt. So he was forced to back down and remove the standards. It was an incident that produced animosity between Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders from the start.
Pilate didn’t want trouble. There were Jews who had connections back in Rome. An embassy sent by them to the emperor with charges against Pilate could result in his removal. So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” Their response was less than forthcoming as they said, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.”
Pilate was no fool. He knew that they wanted this man Jesus dead. But they couldn’t do it themselves. Like other areas of the empire, the Romans allowed the local leaders to run daily affairs. In this case, the Jews were able to administer their religious laws. However, the Romans were in charge and so the Jews were not allowed to execute anyone.
Pilate had to play along with the Jewish leaders. But he was going to remind them who was the conqueror and who was the conquered. He said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” Grudgingly the Jews had to say to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.”
John tells us that this happened for a reason. He says, “This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.” When Jesus had entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he said, “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” Then later he added, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John explains, “He said this to show – literally ‘to sign’ - by what kind of death he was going to die.” Jesus had declared that his saving action would take place on the cross. That was the reason Pontius Pilate was involved.
It didn’t take long for Pilate to conclude that the accusation was about the leaders’ hatred of Jesus and not about anything Jesus had done. Pilate found nothing more than a deluded Jew who said he was the king of a kingdom that was not in this world – a king who had come to this world to bear witness to the truth.
Jesus had done nothing worthy of death and he told the leaders this: “I find no guilt in him.” He hoped to use a Passover custom of releasing a prisoner to take care of the matter. But instead the leaders demanded Barabbas, a robber. So Pilate had Jesus flogged and then brought Jesus out dressed mockingly in a crown of thorns and a purple robe. He said, “See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.” The leaders cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate responded, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him.”
John tells us that Pilate was trying to release Jesus. But finally the Jewish leaders pushed him into a corner by playing the political card. They said, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” Pontius Pilate wasn’t going to risk his position over some Jew. So he delivered Jesus over to be crucified.
Again and again John’s Gospel tells us that even Pilate knew Jesus was innocent. Though by no means a paragon of virtue, Pilate really tries to prevent Jesus from being killed. He finally gives up when that effort threatens himself.
Of course, Pilate did not fully understand how innocent Jesus was. He did not understand that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He did not understand that Jesus is God in the flesh. The Son of God took on flesh in order to be like us in all ways except for sin. Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He was conceived and born without sin. And then he lived without sin. He lived in order to do the Father’s will. Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.”
Jesus did this because we aren’t. We aren’t conceived and born without sin. Instead, as Jesus said, “flesh gives birth to flesh.” Sinful fallen nature produces more sinful fallen nature. That’s why no one has ever had to teach their child to be angry or jealous or to lie. It’s already inside each one of us from the moment we are conceived. And as our abilities and powers grow, so do our sins. We find new and inventive ways to reject God and harm our neighbor.
Tonight we remember that Jesus died on the cross for us. At the beginning of this Gospel, when John the Baptist saw Jesus, he said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John compares Jesus to a sacrifice commanded by the Torah. God had made a covenant with Israel and had given the sacrifices as the means by which he dealt with sin and gave forgiveness. Yet all of those sacrifices pointed forward. The deaths of all those animals and the shedding of their blood pointed to the cross of Good Friday. Jesus died as the perfect sacrifice for you, and not just for you but also for all people. The judgment of God against all sin fell upon Jesus as he hung upon the cross.
This is what the Son of God entered our world to do. This is why he became man. He became flesh to be nailed to a cross. In the Gospel lesson we learn that at Jesus’ death he said, “It is finished.” John records this in Greek using a form that indicates the present result of a past action. Jesus’ saving work on the cross stands completed. His death occurred two thousand years ago, but its benefits continue now in the present. You are the forgiven child of God because of his suffering and death.
Death by crucifixion was a slow process. It was a long, painful and humiliating death. It was not uncommon for it to last more than day. Typically the Romans left the body on the cross to be eaten by birds. It was a billboard that said to all who passed by: “Don’t mess with us.”
One thing that could hasten the process was to shatter the legs of the victim so that they could no longer bear any weight. Instead the arms and the chest received all the stress and this led to asphyxiation as the person could no longer gasp for breath.
John tells us that on Friday afternoon the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on Saturday, the Sabbath. The soldiers did this to the two criminals. John tells us, “But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness--his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth--that you also may believe.”
In death, blood and water issued forth from Jesus’ body. The Church has always been reminded by this that the water of Holy Baptism and the blood of the Sacrament of the Altar find their origin in Jesus crucified on Good Friday. The death of Jesus on the cross is the source of the forgiveness delivered by these Means of Grace. Through them there is certainty that the salvation won on the cross by Jesus is yours.