John’s Gospel is full of irony.  It often has people saying things that have double meanings that they did not intend.  The high priest says, “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than for the entire nation to be destroyed.”  He thinks he’s making a calculated political decision about life under occupation, but the reader understands it as a statement of Jesus’ atoning death for the whole world.

About This Sermon

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
April 10, 2020—Good Friday
John 9:9-16a

But nowhere is the irony pitched higher than in the stories of Good Friday.  Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate, with whom he has a very enigmatic and double-meaning laden conversation about kingship and power.  He presents Jesus to the crowds, saying “Here is your king!”  They shout out “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!”  He asks them, “Shall I crucify your king?” And the chief priests answer, “We have no king but the emperor.”

And here is the irony: in the Jewish Avinu Malkeinu prayer are the words “We have no king but you (God).”  And here we have the high priests saying, “We have no king but Caesar.” The irony is that these words are spoken by people who should know better—people familiar on a direct level with what their faith requires.  A faith that declares that God is King, a faith that seeks to live out righteousness and justice as a way of demonstrating loyalty and fidelity to that king.  How could people steeped in their faith claim loyalty to the worldly power of the Emperor of Rome, a power that stands for tyranny, injustice, and oppression?  That stands against the poor and the lowly?

But is it really any different with us?


Sixteen years ago, in one of those opportunities that seems to present itself more frequently in the context of campus ministry, I took a group of thirty-one Jews and Christians to a screening of The Passion of the Christ when it was released. Now, the Jewish students were not keen on giving money to a director with a history of antisemitism, so we had an arrangement: the Methodists would buy the movie tickets; the Jews would buy the food for the conversation afterward.

After the movie, all thirty-one of us headed back to my place where we shared food and talked about the movie and it became clear immediately that the Jews and Christians had seen two different movies. The Jewish students were uncomfortable with the presentation of the Jewish leadership’s antagonism toward Jesus, seeing it in light of centuries of Christian anti-Jewish rhetoric and blame for the crucifixion of Jesus.

But the Christian students had seen something different. One of them said, “Do you think that was meant to blame Jews? When I watched it all I could think was, ‘That me nailing Jesus to that cross.’”

See, we Christians have a long understanding that when the crowds shout “Crucify him!” those crowds aren’t anybody else. They’re not just a group of Jews from two thousand years ago, and they certainly aren’t the Jews of today. Those folks are us. It’s why it’s the congregation that reads the words, “Crucify him!” in any passion plays we read. It’s why we sing hymns like “Ah, Holy Jesus” with the lyrics:

Who was the guilty?
Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason,
Jesus, hath undone thee!
’Twas I, Lord Jesus,
I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.

We Christians know that when it comes right down to it, we’re the crucifiers of Christ. It’s not some Temple priesthood two millennia ago who chose Caesar over Christ; we did that. And we continue to.


Cristo de San Plácido, by Diego Velazquez

Do we not on a regular basis choose the powers of this world rather than God? Do we not reject Christ a thousand times a day, when we put our trust in other things?  We place our trust in our work, in our degrees, in our wealth.  We place trust in our reputations, in our respectability, in our status in the community.  When we place political allegiance over fealty to the gospel? We place trust in our power and strength, in our security and stability, we place our trust in all manner of idols that are not hewn from wood or stone but are carved right into our hearts.  How many times a day are we presented with our king and do we say, “We have no king but Caesar?”

It is a sad state of the human condition, I suppose.  St. Augustine would heartily agree with that assessment.  We are broken. We are weak, frail things that choose time and time again the wrong king.


But there’s something more at work here.  The king upon the cross.  That in itself is ironic.  For we proclaim Jesus as king because we believe him to be God’s messiah.  There are a lot of things the messiah is supposed to do: get crucified was not on the list.  Crucifixion is shameful.  Crucifixion is the death reserved for thieves, and brigands, and rebels, and other treacherous folk.  It was a death for non-Roman citizens only.  A slave’s death.

What kind of king gets crucified?

Our kind.  The King we profess faith in.  A king who rules not in terror but in love.  A king who rules not in might or force, but in gentleness.  A king who stands in solidarity with the lowly, the oppressed, the sinner.

The Gospel is a gospel of inversion.  Of turning things on end.  And so we—who get things backward, who proclaim fealty to the powers of this world when we are meant to proclaim fealty to God, who put our trust in our own might and power, rather than in God; who do not commit our lives to righteousness and justice the way we are called to—we who get things backward so much, encounter a God who turns things upside down.

A God who does not stay detached and removed, but who comes to dwell with us.  A God who seeks not to control us, but set us free.  A God who does not abandon us to our own brokenness and backwardness, but who declares solidarity with us, even to death upon a cross.

What wondrous love is this?  That God should take upon Godself the death of us poor, broken humans—the same ones all to willing to reject, to deny, and to put our trust elsewhere.

What wondrous love God shows to us, so that we might know that our living and our dying take place in the presence of a loving and merciful God.  A God whose love for us is so profound that although we continue to cry, “We have no king but Caesar” we can look to the cross, contemplate the wondrous love of one who would give himself so fully for us, and behold our King.


John 19:9–16a • He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. 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?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the religious leaders cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.”

When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He 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.

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