Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (John 18:28-19:11) transports me to the choir loft at Gashes Creek Baptist, where as a youth I sat on the back row in front of the baptistry, in the bass section between my Dad and Mike Morningstar. I should have been sitting in the tenor section between Andy Wilkerson and Bernie Frady, but I kept thinking my voice would change any day. We would usually sing a “city church” hymn for the call to worship, like Come Thou Almighty King, as opposed to the “country church” hymns we sang along with the congregation, like At the Cross. Then there would usually be a soloist or trio interpreting a gospel favorite like Jesus Savior Pilot Me. It was a good place to be on Sunday mornings, if you enjoyed singing and hearing good harmonies. Little did I know how much theology was creeping in through those hymns. I found out one day after church when I heard my Dad talking to some folks who were mighty worried about the state of our nation, and the poor leadership they thought we had. They were thinking the country was about to go down the drain, if their man didn’t get elected into office. Daddy patiently listened, and when they asked what he thought, he suggested that maybe they should go back and listen to the hymns we had been singing. They looked a bit confused, until he started referencing lyrics that had to do with God’s sovereignty, like the line from the call to worship – Thy sovereign majesty may we in glory see, or from the offertory hymn – alas and did my Savior bleed and did my Sovereign die? Daddy wondered if it didn’t ommunicate a lack of faith in God’s sovereignty to worry that the country would not survive any particular potentate who might get elected into office. That didn’t mean Daddy didn’t vote or care about politics; he was a staunch Democrat. I always wondered if that might have been a way of rebelling against his own father, who had been a severe conservative. At any rate, Daddy never worried that if his preferred candidate didn’t get elected, that the country would be thrown into some kind of apocalyptic chaos. He trusted God, the God who held the whole world in his hands, the God who called people like the pagan ruler Cyrus of Persia his anointed. Daddy talked a lot about God’s direct will and God’s permissive will. He did his best to live his own life according to God’s direct will, as best as he could discern it. As far as worldly power, he understood that all the rulers of the world held their power only by the permissive will of God. Any sovereignty they claimed was an illusion at best.
Daddy could have also referenced many scripture passages dealing with God’s sovereignty, such as this encounter Jesus had with Pontius Pilate in today’s passage. Pilate was the representative of Roman sovereignty in the Palestinian corner of the empire. The passage indicates that he made attempts to govern fairly and justly, but it also indicates a curious twist of sovereignty that foreshadowed European political philosophy hundreds of years away – the concept of shared sovereignty and the need to rule by consent of the people. Pilate’s fear of the people demonstrated that he was probably more cut out to be a democratically elected Congressman that a fierce Roman ruler. At any rate, this passage reveals an astounding and most unlikely conversation on sovereignty between a powerful Roman governor and a country carpenter turned itinerant preacher who had raised the dander of the local religious leaders. Jesus intimidates Pilate by refusing to play his game, by claiming to be from another kingdom altogether, and by claiming that anyone on the side of truth was a follower of his. Pilate, flabbergasted and not sure what to do, tries to break him with torture and then with the promise of freedom if he will simply answer his questions, and death if he refuses. Jesus then gives him his final lesson on sovereignty: You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.
What I learned singing in the church choir, and hearing Daddy talk about passages like this, I would later re-learn in my college political theory class, where we read about the French philosopher Jean Bodin who developed the idea of sovereignty that would be used by monarchs, then by parliaments, and ultimately, by the collective “people” of democratic republics like ours. Any perceived infringement on this sacred cow ideal of national sovereignty is met in every nation with extreme resistance, which is why the League of Nations and the UN have always been somewhat suspect institutions. They require a certain sacrifice of sovereignty in return for cooperative efforts at peacemaking and peacekeeping. I would loved to have had Daddy sitting with me in that class, as I would love to have him around today, to remind people of where true sovereignty lies. I doubt he would have much patience for the kind of hand-wringing apocalyptic fear-mongering among people who believe our country won’t be able to withstand this or that leader. I imagine he would simply start humming, wondrous sovereign of the sea, Jesus savior pilot me. And then he’d go vote, without a bit of anxiety over the outcome.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc