Power and Fear: John 18:12-27

March 27, 2022 (Lent 4)
John 18: 12-27

In today’s reading we have a hearing, of sorts. It’s not an official one or a legal one, but Jesus is brought before the high priest for questioning. Annas asks Jesus about his disciples and his teachings and Jesus says, “It’s all on the record. Just look at what I’ve done. Ask the people who have been there.”

The police officer standing nearby takes offense at Jesus’ words or his tone or something and goes on the attack: “How dare you!”

And through it all, Jesus remains calm and reasonable.

I don’t want to claim too close of a parallel here, but this scripture does bring to my mind another hearing that happened this week. Maybe you watched part of it, or read about it. It was also a hearing where someone was asked ridiculous questions and attacked (though not physically) unjustly. Through it all, Ketanji Brown Jackson, like Jesus, remained miraculously calm and level-headed.

Like I said, I don’t want to claim too closes of a parallel here. Obviously Brown Jackson is not Jesus, and the senators who questioned her aren’t the high priests. Still, this parallel is helping me picture the biblical scene a little more vividly; it’s helping me feel the tension in my gut—the urge to turn off the tv or switch the radio station because it’s all just too much. Because it’s all so unfair and this person is being treated so poorly and you wish they would just tell off the people questioning them–but you also know that they can’t tell them off because there would be pretty severe consequences if they did.

Of course, Jesus gets killed anyway. We don’t yet know the fate of Brown Jackson; hopefully she will fare better.

But what I’m thinking about, really, I guess, is power. Who has what kind of power and how that power gets used and how people with less power claim power for themselves in unconventional ways. The recent confirmation hearings are a fascinating study in power dynamics.

And so is the scripture passage we read today. Both the scene with Jesus before the chief priest and the scene with Peter outside by the fire.

Technically Jesus is the one without power in this situation. He is bound and physically moved by the soldiers and police. Annas, as a former high priest and father-in-law of the current high priest, has all the trappings of power: the wealth, title, connections. In this scene we witness, he is the powerful one. And yet he fears the greater power of Rome. He is afraid—and not unreasonably so—that if Jesus causes too much of a stir the Roman authorities will crack down on the Jewish people. So Annas uses his power to question an innocent man—to work toward having that man executed. Annas uses his political power, as so many powerful people still do, to maintain the status quo, because that’s what feels safe.

The police in the room also have power. They have weapons, which grant them a type of power. They have authority and connections. And the police officer who hits Jesus also uses his power to protect the status quo. Those, like Annas, with political power are the ones who grant the police power, so in defending the high priest, the police defend the source of their own power. Power systems today still rely on people with less power being willing to exercise the power of physical violence to protect people with more political power. We see this on a grand and horrific scale in Ukraine right now. We see it on a smaller scale all over the place.

And for all of the power the police officer has, he seems to have little power or control over himself. Some of the violence people will inflict on Jesus later is pre-meditated and intentional, but this slap across the face seems impulsive, ill-advised, like the police officer just couldn’t control his emotions or his actions.

There are also power dynamics going on outside that room as well. Can we talk about the gatekeeper? The “woman who guarded the gate.” I’ll admit, I was surprised to read that this task was done by a woman, because women weren’t generally in positions of power in the first century. And yet there she is, with the power to determine who gets in and who stays out of the high priest’s courtyard.

Of course, I’m sure she’s just following orders; not making the rules, just enforcing them. Still, she at least has the power to make Peter nervous: “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?”. Her power comes not from who she herself is, but from who she is connected to. I doubt that Peter is afraid of what she would do if he said “yes,” but he is clearly afraid of who she might tell.

The slaves and police gathered around the fire hold more physical power than the gatekeeper. The police likely have weapons and, as we’ve seen with the police officer and Jesus, they feel authorized to use physical violence. Plus, it’s “them” against “him.” People power is a real thing—a unified group holds more power than individuals in that group have on their own. We see it with labor unions. It’s the basic principle behind the work we do with Justice Matters.

People power, of course, is not always used for good. The scripture says “They asked him, ‘You are not also one of his disciples, are you?’”. I doubt that they all asked the question in unison, but the idea is that “they” are united in wondering whether or not Peter is a disciple of Jesus. And Peter has no doubt what the safest answer is.

Finally, we have the “relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off.” He is identified as a slave, so it’s hard to know exactly what his position was or what kind of power he held. At the very least he has a connection to the high priest. And he has the power of having been in the garden. He saw Peter, which may make this slave the most threatening of all those who have asked whether or not Peter is a disciple of Jesus.

In this particular context, Peter seems to have very little power. He can’t even get in the gate without his friend’s help. But then, the other disciple who somehow knows the high priest seems to disappear. We don’t know where he is, and it seems like Peter is alone in the courtyard facing the accusatory questions. Peter is not inside with Jesus, and so doesn’t know how things are going, but I’m sure he can imagine what might happen to someone who is perceived as a threat to the high priest and the Roman authorities. If Jesus is seen as such a threat, surely his disciples will be as well.

In this dangerous situation where Peter feels powerless, he grasps at some sort of power, some control over his life by at least trying to control the narrative—that is, by lying. I’m not saying it was the best choice Peter could have made, but I do think it is an understandable choice. And I think that when people make choices that seem, to us, like poor choices, it’s always helpful to look at the power dynamics at play. People with the least power in a situation often have their choices restricted in ways that those with power do not see or understand.

All of the characters in this story hold different amounts and different types of power. They wield their power in different ways. But there is one thing in common: their power is based in fear and their attempts to exert or grasp at power are based in fear. Everyone is, at some level, acting out of fear . . . except Jesus.

Jesus presents a different kind of power.

“I have spoken openly to the world,” he says. Where Peter tries to gain power through obscuring the truth, Jesus’ power lies in his honesty and openness. “Why do you ask me?” says Jesus. “Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” Where the chief priests have power based on the people who work for them, Jesus’ power is based in people who work with him. Jesus has built power through relationships; people listen to him because they love him, because they value his words. And these people know, they will remember, what Jesus has said and will carry on his message.

Even after being hit by the police officer, Jesus remains calm, unprovoked. Jesus shows that he has more power—more control—over himself than the police officer does. Jesus continues to take deliberate actions, not be reactive to the situation around him.

It’s difficult to imagine, given the circumstances, that Jesus is not afraid. But Jesus’ power here lies in the fact that he does not let his fear control his actions.

That’s easier said than done, of course. Fear gets the better of Peter, and it’s hard to blame him. And it’s worth noting that Jesus forgives him, re-instates him, after the Resurrection. Peter’s fear-driven mistakes here do not cut him off from God’s presence and grace.

Sometimes, fear wins out—because we are struggling with anxiety, because we are too tired to be our best selves, because the word is legitimately a frightening place for many people much of the time.

And yet, as we read through the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion over these next few weeks, we can look to Jesus as a model of how to be active instead of reactive, how to acknowledge the fear but not let it control us. Here, before the high priest, we see Jesus speaking the truth despite the cost. We see him remain calm in the face of violence.

I wish I could point you toward some specific strategy, a skill, even a trick that allows Jesus to be this way. But I really can’t. The best I can come up with goes back to something Jesus says in his “farewell discourse”—the long talk he has with his disciples after he washes their feet.

Jesus tells the disciples that he abides in God’s love. And he invites the disciples to abide in him. “Abide in me as I abide in you.” (John 15:4) When we abide in Jesus, when we abide in God’s love, then we know that fear does not need to be the controlling power in our lives.  

I doubt any of us will ever have to sit before Congress in a confirmation hearing, but we will all have our moments–moments when we are fearful, when we are angry; moments when we feel attacked by people more powerful than we are. And in those moments, I pray we can be compelled by love and not by fear. I pray we can abide in and act out of God’s love for us and for all.