Trial by Fire

Trial by Fire

Text: John 18:33-37 NRSV
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”


I want to begin by talking about something of which I have no first hand experience, that is the fear a soldier faces before going into his or her first battle. While I was in the draft for the Vietnam War I was never drafted, nor did I volunteer. So what I have to say comes from things others have said or written.

While there are as many versions of this story as there have been warriors there seems to be a common experience – that is fear. It would not be surprising to hear about the fear of being hurt, or even killed. It would not be a surprise to hear about the fear of having to kill another human being. But while these fears may be a contributing factor, it is the fear of cowardice that is most often expressed by soldiers before entering combat. As far as I can tell the question, “will I have the courage to face the enemy, or will I turn and run?” is a universal common experience of all those entering combat for the first time.

During training there is usually a lot of bravado, chest thumping, and claims of invincibility. After all, firing weapons at targets that are not shooting back is relatively easy.  The use of the intoxicating destructive power of modern weapons creates a sense of invincibility in most, if not all, recruits.  The truth of the matter is that no one really knows how he or she will react to combat until they come under fire. This moment of existential truth is called a "trial by fire."

It is one thing to think about or to commit to the potential or theoretical sacrifice of combat while swapping lies at the barracks or the local tavern. It is quiet another to actually face an enemy who is trying with all of their might, their skill, their training, and their luck to kill you.

It is also hard for those of us who are parents, spouses, or friends of those who face this trial by fire. When my son Jesse deployed first to Afghanistan and then to Iraq, I had to live every day with the real possibility that Jesse would not survive his tour of duty in these two war zones.  I was not consciously aware of how much anxiety and fear I was actually living with until I experienced the overwhelming sense of relief, shared in common with the other families gathered, when Jesse finally made it home safely to Fort Bragg. The trial by fire that family and friends face is the realization that there is nothing they can do to protect their loved one.  The only weapon a mother or father, wife or husband, sister or brother carry is their love, their hope and their prayers for their loved one living and fighting in harms way.  For many left behind, they are left fighting great battles of despair, anxiety, and depression. that is only relieved when their love one returns home.

One of my favorite lines from a movie about World War II comes from the movie “Big Red One”. Netflix describes this movie as: "One of the great, unsung war films, (that) follows four comrades – members of the 1st Infantry Division, called the Big Red One – from the invasion of North Africa onto Sicily, Normandy, and to the liberation of the Nazi death camps".   At the end of the movie the survivors are trying to sum up the war they have won. As they reflect on all the horror they have survived the subject of glory comes up. One of the characters responds by saying something I believe to be very profound and the point of the movie "The only glory in war is surviving.”.   Given the reality of the everyday life we live in the Kingdoms of this world, survival may be the best we mortals can realistically expect.  Yet as a people of faith we hope and long for more than a life of survival.

Peter and the followers of Jesus were hoping for much more than survival. Even though, in the time of the Roman occupation of Israel and Judea, survival was not something to be taken for granted. The people of the land of Israel were looking for the restoration of the Davidic dynasty. From childhood, as soon as they were old enough to attend synagogue they had heard the words of Psalm 132 drilled into their heads, placed in their hearts, as they sang the Song of Accents: "The Lord swore to David a sure oath from which he will not turn back: 'One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne. If your sons keep my covenant and my decrees that I shall teach them, their sons also, forevermore, shall sit on your throne.'”

There were many pretenders to the throne of David, but Jesus, an heir to David’s throne by birth, had proven for those with eyes to see and ears to hear that he was the true Messiah, the Christ.  Peter, a simple man of great passions and hope, had chosen to be a follower of Jesus. We can only imagine what it meant for Peter and the other disciples as they accompanied Jesus into the capital city of Judea, the city of David, Jerusalem on that day the Church now celebrates as Palm Sunday. The crowds that had gathered to welcome them must have been encouraging. The way Jesus had confronted the Chief Priest, the Sadducees, and had purified the temple surely emboldened and encourage the disciples as they began to have visions of the restoration of the Davidic Kingdom, with Jesus as King.

John 18:1b-8, 10-11
But the scriptures tell us that, …on the night of Jesus’ betrayal, Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.” Then Simon Peter, who had started carrying a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?”


So they take Jesus to stand trial, first before the high priest Annas, who gets nowhere with his interrogations. Then Annas handed Jesus over to his son in law Caiaphas who was not really a high priest but had been appointed high priest by the Romans. What happened between Caiaphas and Jesus is not known and would not have been considered important to the Jews or to the Christian church for whom John writes his gospel. Caiaphas then takes Jesus to Pilate’s headquarters hoping that the Roman Empire would dispose of this troublemaker from Nazareth.

Pilate usually tried to stay out of Jerusalem as much as possible preferring the civilized quiet of his Vila on the Mediterranean Sea to the petty arguments and controversies of the Jewish religious sects in Jerusalem. But as Roman Procurator over Judea, Pilate felt compelled to make a show of force during the various high festival days just to remind everyone who the real power in the Kingdom was -- Rome.

Pilate didn’t pretend to understand all of the nuances of the religious laws of the Jews. He could not have cared less. For Pilate it was a big bore. As John tells us, Jesus was brought before Pilate. Because of the religious festival the Jews would not even bring him into the headquarters and Pilate had to walk out to the gate to find out what the charges were against Jesus. All he got out of the High Priests men was that he was a criminal. Pilate irritated by the intrusion on his time says to the High Priest men “if he has violated your law you take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.”

The High Priest men then explained to Pilate that because of the purity laws of Passover they were not permitted to put anyone to death and that only Roman law could be used to try and execute this man.


John 18:33-37
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”


Meanwhile, the real trial is taking place outside by the charcoal fire. Inside, Jesus is being questioned, but it is meaningless; Jesus moves with firm purpose to his own glorification. But outside, Simon Peter and the church are being questioned, and that trial is not going well at all. Peter and the church are in full denial as to whether or not we know this man Jesus and whether or not we are followers of his truth. In this trial by fire we have more often than not proved ourselves to be cowards.

Don’t get me wrong. There is courage in abundance to find ways to take over the Kingdom of this World. While we celebrate in this country the founding fathers principle of separation of Church and State it has more to do with how as citizens we are free to practice a religion of our own choosing without interference from Government. But like Peter we see this fight as taking place within the kingdom of this world and not God’s kingdom.

But are there any here that truly believe that the world we mortals have created for ourselves, the world we live, play, and work in; is the world God intended when God created us, in God’s own image? When you get up in the morning and look at your image in the mirror do you see the image of God staring back at you? When the world passes by this church and observes how we related to one another and to the community in which we live is it able to see the image of God at work in this world? Does the world witness in our lives a people who live and act as if Christ is our King? Are we seen as being people of the sword or a people of the Cross?  

But we should be careful in how we understand these two kingdoms. For too long the idea that the Kingdom of God is not of this world has been used as an excuse by the church to separate religious life from secular life making practicing Christians dual citizens in a schizophrenic world. We have all at some time or another been trapped in this dualism, compromising our religious beliefs and practices in the secular world for the practical purpose of just being able to survive in this world. But the truth is that Christian faith is all about the life we refer to when we pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” 

But when the Gospel has Jesus proclaim that his Kingdom is not of this world Jesus is simply saying that the laws that govern the Kingdoms of this world are not the laws of God but are man made. His Kingdom is not of this world because this world is not as God made it to be. Jesus’ Kingdom is the world as God intended, as God created it to be. And, the only way to get back to the way God intended the world to be is through the cross. Like Peter we in the church are quick to pull out our swords and attack those who serve our enemies or challenge our security. But Jesus is calling us to sheath our swords and become soldiers, not of the sword, but of the cross.

The church is charged with the mission to witness to God’s Kingdom in all its glory here and now, in this time and in this place. The invitation from Christ the King is to live as soldiers of the Cross-, to take up our cross, and to follow him. Our calling is to fight for his truth, that the Kingdom of God might be established in all its glory in this time and in this place. This is our Trial by Fire!

So we pray...

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.  Give us today our daily bread.  Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.  For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and for ever.  Amen.