April 6, 2007

Pontius Who?

This Sunday’s catechism question—the next in our ongoing work through the 1998 Presbyterian Study Catechism—will ask of us,

What do you affirm when you say that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate”?

It seems strange to admit it, but I sometimes feel bad for ole’ Pontius. After all, since about the third century A.D., on every Lord’s Day and all around the world, Christians have intoned his name in conjunction with the terrible sufferings our Lord. What a way to have your surname remembered for all posterity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Yeah!); Pontius Pilate (Boo!). If everyone has fifteen minutes of fame, Pilate is well over his quota.

And then there is the frequent befuddlement surrounding his name, especially as it sounds in worship to the untutored ear. (An old Latin name likes his is ripe for misunderstanding.) I remember as a child wondering:

Who is the Pontius dude we always talk about in church? “Pon-chus” – Wasn’t he one of the cops on CHIPS? What, did he fly airplanes, too? Maybe he flew Jesus to the wrong airport and got into trouble …

The whole thing was a train wreck in my imagination.

How quirky it is, really, as we take to our feet every Sunday, taking to our lips the most succinct, most widely-affirmed Christian creed in the history of New Testament faith, that halfway through the exercise we mention the name of an otherwise long-forgotten Roman governor assigned to Palestine—basically the backside of the once proud Roman Empire. God must have a delightful sense of humor.

But then again, maybe not. What if we were to think of Pilate not merely as a cryptic historical reference to a man now long gone, but more as a potent symbol for those peoples and powers that appear set against God’s life-giving purposes. What if our grandmothers and grandfathers of this faith, when putting the creed together some 1800 years ago, quietly slipped in Pilate’s handle because they did not want it forgotten that Jesus’ story was not one of pristine, feel-good religion or name-it, claim-it success. Quite the contrary, Jesus’ announcement was that God’s kingdom and reign (note the political edge in those words, usually lost on us) was breaking into the here-and-now. It landed him, not a peace prize, but right before Pilate and others in power—his life hanging in their judgment (see Matthew 27, etc.).

Affirming that our Lord “suffered under Pontius Pilate” is, among other things, an affirmation that both then and now, things are often not the way they are supposed to be—especially around power. Though we pray each week, just as Jesus taught us, may it be on earth as it already is in heaven, Pilate stands as an old, old reminder that not everyone or everything welcomes heaven’s reality in our midst. Some things might have to change; some people might be usurped. Perhaps the double-P name in our creed and our lips serves each week to keep our naïveté at bay, and to remind us when are discouraged that Jesus willingly stood “under” Pilate precisely for those who are themselves “under” heavy loads of difficulty, oppression, and pain.

Thank God the creed moves on: “On the third day he rose again from the dead.” Ha! Take that, Pilate! (Sorry, thinking like a kid again.) In the end, God, and not Pilate, gets the final word—resurrection.

Beloved Easter people, let us never tire of doing good in this world in Jesus’ name and in his weakness-strength, and let us not be dissuaded in our efforts when the going gets rough. Indeed, “he will come again, to judge the quick (i.e. the living) and the dead.” All will be made well in time.

Thanks be to God.