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It is often the case that the story we hear- what it’s about and what it means- depends heavily on who is telling it. There’s a wonderful scene in the 1999 Best Picture, Shakespeare in Love, in which William Shakespeare’s company of players are taking a break from rehearsing his newest play, Romeo and Juliet. The actors are sitting around the local pub, and as actors are wont to do, one of them is trying mightily to impress one of the young serving women. The real-life actor in this scene is more famously known for his role as the butler, Carson, in the popular British TV series Downton Abbey. But in this case he plays the actor who has been cast in the role of Juliet’s nurse, since back in those days it would have been considered a scandal to have a woman on stage. Anyway, the young woman asks him about this play that they are working on. “What’s it about,” she wants to know. His answer, “it’s about a nurse.”
The way we see things, the way we understand them, the story that gets told, depends on who is telling it- and who we are telling it to. Growing up, the story that you tell your parents about what is going on in your life is far different than the story that you share with your friends, or even the story that you tell yourself. There are often multiple versions of the same events. The same thing happens in the wider world. There is the official story that gets packaged and told, and then there is what gets leaked, the off-the-record versions, the unauthorized accounts. What we hear, how we make sense of it depends on who is telling the story, and who they think they are telling it to.
The story that is before us this morning, the conclusion of John’s narration of Jesus’ passion, has its own version of this phenomenon. There are certain facts before us, a man named Jesus from the town of Nazareth, in Galilee, has been arrested, accused and brought before the local authority in Jerusalem, during the week of the Jewish Passover festival, to be punished. There is some back and forth about what his punishment should be, and in the end the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, condemns him to death by crucifixion. But all the while the question remains, “Who is he?” Who is he, really? One person says one thing, another says something else. And what exactly has he done? Why him? Why this? What we hear and how we make sense of it depends on who you ask.
If you were to ask Pilate, well, as the man in charge, as the voice of the Roman authority, his is the official story. There is no court transcript to record the particulars, only an inscription added to the cross where Jesus was hung. We know it’s the official version of the story because he took the trouble to write it out in three different languages so that there would be no confusion in the translation and so there would be no mistaking its message to everyone who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Perhaps some of those unfamiliar with with the bloodied man dying before them (which would have been most of them) read it and thought the same thing that Philip had just a few years ago when the two were first introduced, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But then, of course, they had their answer. It was hanging right in front of them. No. And King of the Jews? Please. Some king. Pilate’s version of the story is one that turns Jesus into the butt of a joke, and lifts him up as a cautionary tale to anyone who might think that anything good comes from challenging the power of the Empire and disturbing its peace. It is the story of dominance that gets told over and over again throughout history, one that makes sense of the world through the will to power and the strength to wield it. It is the story of might making right, or at least right for those with the power. In Pilate’s version of this story, Jesus died because he was a public nuisance and a potential troublemaker.
The religious authorities wanted to tell a different story, an alternative account. Not, King of the Jews, but “this man said, I am King of the Jews.” That is, this man claimed to be something that he most clearly was not, this man claimed an authority that was not his to claim. Because it was a challenge to their authority, their position. He isn’t their king. That would be an insult to all the kings that had come before. That would be an insult to their story of revolution that sees itself contending against the power of Empire for the sake of its own narrowly defined nation. In the religious version of this story, Jesus died because he was an imposter who claimed to be from God and threatened the cause by undermining its leadership. Better for him to die than to bring the heavy hand of Rome down on them all.
When the hit Broadway musical Hamilton first made its premiere at the Public Theater in New York, the playbill cover was different from the iconic star that has come to represent the show since its move to Broadway. Instead, it had the portrait most of us associate with Alexander Hamilton from the the $10 bill with the words of an important refrain that is one of the shows major themes. They are first sung by General George Washington to the young Hamilton on the eve of the Battle of Yorktown. “Let me tell you what I wish I’d known/ When I was young and dreamed of glory/ You have no control/ Who live who dies, who tells your story.”
In some ways that is what we see in Jesus’ passion. It gets told by so many different people for so many different reasons. There is Pilate, who controls the public narrative with his inscription on the cross that speaks volumes about how Rome views would-be kings. Then there are the religious leaders who try to amend the story to fit their own take on the matter. But what about Judas, who might see himself as a victim of disillusionment in his version of the story? Or Peter, who might tell you that Jesus died because he wasn’t brave enough to stand up and sustain the fight? Or the slave who lost an ear, or the woman at the gate of the high priest’s courtyard, or any number of the people in the crowd who were swept into the frenzy of violence directed at someone other than themselves?
And then there is the story that Jesus tells us about himself, that he lays down his life willingly for us. It isn’t taken from him, he gives it up. He doesn’t die because of Judas’ betrayal, or Peter’s denial. He doesn’t die because of Pilate’s fear of the crowd, or the high priest’s jealousy. He dies because God so loves the world that God gives God’s very self to all of our betrayal, our denial, our cowardice and our jealousy. God withstands the worst that we can do, even to the point of death, so that it won’t kill us. There is no greater love, says Jesus, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And that is what he calls us- friends. He doesn’t die to satisfy some problem God has with us, but to save us from ourselves and the problem we have with our own sin, our own brokenness; to set us free from it, to break the chains that bind us that we ourselves can never break on our own. The story about him being king is absolutely right even as it is absolutely wrong. Because he is no kind of king we are ever bound to know.
And his is a story that isn’t just about one of the many people to be unjustly nailed to a Roman cross, it is the story that changes to way we understand our own stories and our place in this world that God so loves. It is a story that Jesus calls “good news”, a story that talks about the kingdom of heaven not as some pie in the sky in the great by and by that we have to say magic words to get into, but rather as the present power of God at work in the here and now, all around us, all the time, if we will turn from all the other destructive narratives that control our lives. Stories of domination and revolution, stories of purity and isolation, stories of victimization and accumulation that we cling to to give our lives meaning. But Jesus talks about believing, beloving, giving our hearts to his story instead. One that isn’t framed in terms of us and them, but one in which we are all of us included as members of a beloved community, loved by God and saved from our own destruction. In his story we are no longer defined by the worst of who we are, but rather by the best of what God is and how that begins to be reflected in us as we trust and embody this wondrous love for ourselves, for each other, and for God. In his version of the story, Jesus’ death is strangely good news because the very worst that we can do is no match for the depth of God’s love for us and the power such love has to save us from every other story that the world would tell that robs us of our fearful and wonderful humanity. And to hear Jesus tell it is to know the truth that sets us free.