“Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say 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.’” John 18: 36-37
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable to you, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
Today we come to the last Sunday in the liturgical year before we start a new year next week with the beginning of Advent. Today is known as the Feast of Christ the King and it is a new comer to the liturgical calendar being less than 100 years old.
Back in 1925 Pope Pius the XI instituted it in response to growing secularism and the rise of nationalism in Europe. Pope Pius saw that people’s priorities as well as nations priorities were badly in need of reordering.
The rise of affluence and greed, a precursor to the great depression, and the rise of despots in Germany, Russia, and Italy foreshadowing the massacre of millions of people in World War II was the backdrop for Pope Pius’ actions.
Celebrating the kingship of Christ on the last Sunday of the liturgical year brings us full circle, not only in the life of Christ, but also in the life of the world, in the whole sweep of human history.
We move from the stable to the cross, from the cross to the crown. We move from past events, to present possibilities, to future reality in one year’s time.
We start with a baby born into poverty in an animal stall and watch as the man is crucified between two criminals. We see him raised from the dead, ascended into heaven and returning at the end of time as the King of all creation. It is very appropriate that we end the year on that particular note.
It is interesting that in today’s gospel reading we have Jesus standing before Pilate on the night before he is put death. A funny place to be if you are the King of all creation! On the day we celebrate Christ’s kingship we read of a time when he was most vulnerable.
Kingship and vulnerability are not two things that tend to go together. Being a king and being vulnerable usually does not end well.
Pilate is trying to determine why this man is in front of him. Is he truly guilty of sedition, of claiming he is the true emperor of the people?
If Jesus makes that claim on political grounds than he is claiming the role that only Caesar can make and therefore is a traitor. If Jesus makes that claim on religious grounds than he is blasphemous and the penalty for blasphemy is death.
What I find fascinating about John’s account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate is that Pilate gives Jesus so much of his time. Imagine that! The Prefector of the Roman government gives literally hours of his time to a matter and a person that could have been dispatched in mere minutes. That Jesus, this itinerant carpenter from Palestine, would even be standing before Pilate is amazing.
Imagine spending half the night in Jefferson City with the Governor of the state of Missouri on a matter that involved a small religious group from Cape Girardeau. A bit absurd, don’t you think?
I can just see Pilate thinking, “Why is he even here? What does this have to do with me? They need to figure this out on their own and I need to go back to bed.”
What we don’t hear in today’s reading is that Pilate goes from the Praetorium, his headquarters, to outside of the gates to meet with the religious leaders because the leaders do not want to become ritually unclean before the Passover. And Pilate does this not once, not twice, but seven times. Back and forth and back and forth to try and figure out what this is all about.
Pilate asks him point blank, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And Jesus answers Pilate with another question, “Do you really want to know or are you asking because you heard about me?”
Pilate tells Jesus that he is obviously not one of the Jewish people so why should he care. But if Jesus was a king and his own people and religious authorities have handed him over to Pilate, surely he must have done something very grave, something very wrong. What was it?
I believe Pilate is really trying to understand the situation he is in the midst of. I think Pilate wants to know about the man standing in front of him and if he is a menace to Rome or just some poor guy who got on the wrong side of an argument and is paying a rather large price for being on the losing side of an internal dispute.
Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is a very different type of kingdom than Pilate can imagine. Jesus tells him that his kingdom is unlike an earthly kingdom where followers fight and try to grab power from other kingdoms, or fight to protect an established leader. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.
Because Jesus uses the words “my kingdom,” Pilate asks, “So you are a king?” Jesus replies, “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.”
What I don’t understand is that the most important part of this entire exchange is left out. The scholars that put together the lectionary left out the last sentence upon which, in my opinion, this whole lesson turns.
Pilate’s very last question to Jesus is what everything hinges upon and it is a question that has resounded through the ages. It is the question that Pilate wrestled with 2000 years ago and it is the question that we wrestle with today.
Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?”
The truth of God was standing right in front of him and he didn’t or couldn’t recognize it.
What is truth? Our world and our time is hungry for the answer. We are so busy trying to find out the truth that we also don’t see it right in front of us.
Is money and all it can buy the truth that we seek?
Is power and prestige and getting ahead of our neighbors what we crave?
Do we believe that our mighty military will protect us against all foes and will keep us safe no matter what?
What kingdoms have we built personally, that have pushed the real king out his rightful place in our lives?
To say that we are part of a kingdom is to put ourselves under the power of a king. When we say that Jesus is our king and that we are followers, what do we actually mean?
Are we willing to submit fully, to put aside what we want and to be obedient to what Jesus is asking of us?
I don’t know about you, but I find it much easier to say that I follow the King than to actually be obedient to him. We humans have trouble with being under anything or anyone. To give up our autonomy feels unnatural, wrong.
Do you remember when our children learned this lesson? How many of us has heard our children, in a pique of anger and frustration yell at us, “You’re not the boss of me!” To which I would usually and unhelpfully reply, “Wanna bet?”
It is hard for us to understand being under someone’s rule; after all it has been 236 years since we left England to make it on our own. It has been 236 years since we told the King “You’re not the boss of us!”
We tend to equate being under someone’s rule with being under someone’s thumb. But Jesus tells us that he is not like earthly rulers. Jesus tells us that his kingship and his kingdom are different.
Jesus tells us that to be a part of the truth of God is to be a part of something that is not of this world but of something much larger, more glorious, more cosmic in its scope than anything we could ever hope to be a part of now and through eternity.
Jesus’ truth is not something we know. Jesus’ truth is something we do. Jesus tells Pilate, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”
The fact of the matter is that we were born and brought into this world to do the exact same thing. Our lives are to show the truth of God in Christ.
Our lives are to show the caring, compassion, and wholeness that comes from aligning our words and actions with those we see in Jesus. Our lives are our testimony. Jesus’ mission is our mission.
I think Pilate really wanted to know the truth. And I think that his going back and forth from the Praetorium to the gates and back to Jesus shows not only how he wavered in knowing and wanting to do what was right but it showed his struggle with doing what was easy and expedient. Pilate’s wavering shows us how we may very well be wavering too.
We often know what is right and we also know how sometimes doing what is right is going against everything our culture tells us is ok. How many of us have made a difficult decision and taken the easy way versus the right way? All of us have done that; doing so is part of the human condition.
Proclaiming Jesus as our King means knowing that God’s truth stands right in front of us every day.
Proclaiming Jesus as our King means that we put our lives, our souls, all that we are, under his rule.
And it means that when we tell him, “You’re not the boss of me,” we turn back and say, “Yes. Yes, you are King Jesus.”
We follow a different kind of king. He is a king we need not fear. He is a king that will always welcome us back into his kingdom when we rebel. He is the true King for all creation and for all time.