Discovered amongst the papers of an eighteenth-century landowner and Member of Parliament named John Ward was a prayer that he had written himself. The prayer of John Ward MP runs as follows:
O Lord, Thou knowest I have mine estates in the City of London, and likewise that I have lately purchased an estate … in the County of Essex. I beseech Thee to preserve the two counties of Middlesex and Essex from fire and earthquake, and, as I have a mortgage in Herefordshire, I beg of Thee likewise to have an eye of compassion on that county; [as] for the rest of the counties, Thou mayest deal with them as Thou art pleased.
Which probably tells you all you need to know about Members of Parliament and their priorities. Although it did also remind me of that apocryphal farmer’s prayer that you may have come across (it exists in various versions), the gist of which is: ‘God bless me and my wife, my son and his wife. Us four – no more.’
I have to say that, when I first came across that prayer by John Ward MP, I didn’t know whether to laugh (because it is actually quite funny) – or to groan (given the recent revelations about the self-serving conduct of some of our own MPs – regardless of whether or not they actually breached any rules – that is not actually the point!) – or whether I should weep (because John Ward’s offering is so far removed from a true prayer of faith).
Just to focus on the third of those points for a moment: one of the most important things of all about prayer is precisely that it is there for exactly the opposite purpose than that to which Ward puts it. We are constantly reminded in the New Testament and throughout much of the Christian spiritual tradition, that in order to deepen our own relationship with God, we must look not only inwards but outwards – outwards to the needs of our world and those of other people; indeed, we should remember that Jesus charges us to pray above all for our enemies and for those who would cause us harm.
Prayer, properly understood, helps us to focus upon those things that lie beyond and outside our own immediate personal concerns. And it is essential that we do so in order to cultivate the kind of mindset that is true to our calling as Christian disciples. The exhortation that we hear at the start of Choral Evensong every Sunday specifically entreats us ‘to pray as well for others as for ourselves, that we may know more truly the greatness of God’s love and show forth in our lives the fruits of his grace.’ If you want to grow inwardly turn your attention outwardly.
People argue endlessly about whether or not prayer actually works. (I have to say that based on forty years of lived experience, I increasingly believe firmly and unequivocally that it does – but that is a subject for another sermon.) And one of the things that can be very readily demonstrated is its power to change us: to change the ways in which we view the world; to change the ways in which we relate to other people; and in the process, to change for the better who and what we are. And the longer I am in ministry, the more firmly convinced I am by the reality of that.
Today’s Gospel reading depicts a moment of high drama in the Gospel of St John: the encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. The power and intensity of their confrontation is so extraordinary that it really does reach out from the pages of the Gospel to seize us.
We have Pilate, the Governor of Judaea: a man who is the very embodiment of secular power and military might; a man who represents the oppressive and intimidating presence of an invading force: Imperial Rome. And this is a man who holds the power of life and death over those whom he governs.
Surprisingly little is known about Pilate’s outside the New Testament – although the ancient historian Josephus records that Pilate’s brutal repression of an armed uprising by Samaritans at Mount Gerizim eventually caused him to be recalled to Rome. He was clearly a man who had no qualms about using force.
And standing before this powerful, brutal man is Jesus. A carpenter’s son from Nazareth, captive, unarmed, and alone. His supporters have fled and abandoned him. He is weak and vulnerable and at the mercy of his captors.
So, as we look on this scene, we find ourselves confronted with the question, which of these two men holds the power and the authority? Who is the real King of the Jews?
Not only is the answer that we are given the exact opposite of the one we might naturally expect, but even more extraordinarily, it is Pilate – the very man who, in that particular encounter holds all the cards and who has all the power – it is Pilate himself who recognises the truth: ‘Are you the King of the Jews? … So you are a king?’
There is something utterly extraordinary going on here: a total transformation and subversion of authority that overturns absolutely everything. And it is an encounter that reveals a truth that takes us to the very heart of the Christian Gospel and, indeed, the theme of today’s service: Christ the King.
Because God in Christ comes to us in weakness, not in strength; he transforms lives not through coercion, but through love; he seeks out and calls into his service not the strong, and the able, and the powerful – but the weak, the vulnerable, the rejected, those on the margins. Why? Perhaps also because any life that is already full to overflowing with self-importance will never have room left over to accommodate anything else; because those who fall prey to the myth of their own self-reliance will never recognise their need of God; and because those who regard themselves as above contradiction will never feel the need to know repentance, or to seek forgiveness, or to know the wonderful gift of reconciliation.
In that extraordinary moment of encounter, Pilate recognises the truth that stands before him, manifest in human form. For that Roman governor it is a moment of reckoning: will he embrace that truth? Or will he turn back to his life of wealth and status and secular power and try to forget that it ever happened? He turns. He washes his hands. And so Jesus is consigned to his fate: humiliation, and torture and death.
I have observed before now how Jesus divided so many of the people who encountered him very radically: there are those who drop everything to follow him; and there are those who find his very presence so disturbing and unsettling that they resolve to destroy him – and so intent are they in this mission that they never raise their eyes long enough to see what is really going on in their very midst:
To quote a verse from one of our most famous Passiontide hymns written in the seventeenth century by Samuel Crossman:
Why, what hath my Lord done,
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run, he gave the blind their sight.
Sweet injuries, yet they at these
Themselves displease and ‘gainst him rise.
But therein also lies the true nature of love. A love that is boundless and all embracing and freely given – a love that brings healing and hope. A love that is there for us all. It can be hard, sometimes, for us to pause long enough to recognise that marvellous truth – a truth that is staring us in the face, just as Pilate recognised it in that fleeting moment. But when we do, it is a gift far beyond our imagining.
In the words of the closing verse of Crossman’s extraordinary hymn:
Here might I stay and sing
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King,
Never was grief like thine.
This is my Friend,
In whose sweet praise,
I all my days could gladly spend.