Christ the King B. 25 November 2012.
Several weeks ago, we were home doing something or other and Peter started talking about someone in his class, in first grade, who was getting in trouble a lot. And Peter said that it was pretty serious, because the little boy was having to go down to the principal's office.
Do you remember "the principal's office?" And all that that meant..? I don't have any experience with the principal's office, because I never had to go. But I remember the stories about the principal's office. I remember being told that the principal had a room that was dedicated to spanking. And it had a wall on which the paddles were hung in order of the pain they produced. You had the first paddle that was solid and smallish, and then the larger one that had the holes in it, that when spanked would provide just a bit more sting. And then they increased in size all the way up to the big one with the spikes that would likely draw blood if it was ever used.
Of course, none of this was true. I think there was a paddle, but it didn't have spikes. But the story, like most cautionary tales, was given in hushed tones as Gospel truth, and I didn't need to hear it to stay out of trouble. I was already terrified of the teacher and the principal.
Maybe you remember the feeling of being in trouble. Your face feels hot; you get that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. I hate those feelings. The couple times I've been pulled over, it's like I'm five years old again. People drive by looking at you, wondering what you did. It's awful.
Whenever we'd read the story of Jesus before Pilate, when I was a kid, I always thought about him being called into the principal's office. He's been going around doing wonderful things for the people. You would think that he wouldn't have an enemy in the world after all that he'd done. But his location was given away by Judas Iscariot, and he was arrested and brought before Pontius Pilate who was the local Roman official whose job was to oversee Jerusalem for the Empire. His role was to keep the peace—or at least make sure no one could launch some sort of insurrection that would overthrow Rome's governance.
You see, Rome and the Temple had an understanding. As long as the Jews played ball and paid their taxes, they could keep to the religious traditions of their fathers. The Roman culture had a secular sort of system of virtues. We have them in America, too. In America we believe—or at least we say we believe—that all people are created equal. One of the chief Roman virtues was called pietas, which means a whole range of things. It means duty, or religious observance, or filial piety—which essentially means that it's honorable to do what your ancestors did. If they did it, you should do it, too.
And that's why Rome had no problem with the Jews, and hated the Christians. The Jews were merely carrying on with their traditions. The Christians were deviating from them. Christianity had become a kind of splinter group that claimed to worship a King, who was not a king. But I'm getting ahead of the story.
Jesus has been arrested and brought to Pilate. And the old saying applies: if you're a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Pilate is concerned with who is in power, because he is in power, and his job is to keep that power and eliminate the possible threats to him, and therefore to Rome. Managing risk and power is how he keeps his job.
So his question to Jesus is intended to figure out what kind of power Jesus thinks he has—whether or not Jesus believes that he is the King of the Jews. Of course, it's a heavily loaded question, because it's illegal to claim any kingship other than Caesar, the Emperor.
It's a yes/no question, and Jesus answers it with a question. "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Now step back for a moment and look at this question. Jesus has very subtly undercut Pilate's power. He may as well have asked, "Do you yourself want to know, or are you scared because everyone is watching how you handle me?" Another way of saying it might be, "Are you after the truth, or are you after the convenient answer?"
Pilate answers, "I'm not one of your people. It's your people who have brought you here. What have you done?" Jesus responds, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom where 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 challenges his use of "king" language, "So you are a king?" See, for Pilate the word "king" means ultimate power. It is the human embodiment of ultimate power. You don't get higher than king, unless you overthrow all the other kings and become an Emperor. But either way, it means a man who has ultimate power.
Jesus does not think in those terms, because they are limited to span of human life. Even the wealthiest, most privileged person lives but a little while. As Moses' psalm, Psalm 80, reminds us, v.10, "The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone."
It is not the king who has ultimate power. For Jesus, truth has the ultimate power. Jesus responds, "You used the word 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." It is at this point that the lectionary writers ended the lesson, but the next verse, verse 38 gives Pilate's next words, "What is truth?"
And in that question of Pilate, "What is truth?" we see with utter clarity the difference between Jesus and Pilate. Pilate reveals his craven powerlessness in the presence of Jesus, who is—even in the principal's office—completely grounded in who he is.
He is the Son of God. He is the truth, the true king of all creation. Pilate may have temporal authority. He may have a role to play in the system of government, but Jesus knows and is the truth.
The truth is that the Roman Empire is temporal. The truth is that humanity cannot maintain humanity without our Creator and Redeemer. The truth is that the person who lives in a genuine relationship with God will naturally behave in godly ways, which promote the justice, healing, and peace of the world. The truth is the power to see the image and glory of God in every human being, and to try to give every human being the wholeness and love who is God, our home and our destination.
Pilate believes that his position—a position that only lasts for a little while—is worth protecting, while Jesus—who is truly worth protecting—is in the process of laying down his life.
And in so doing, Jesus shows the truth and the power of that truth in laying down his human life, and rising again. The truth is not temporal; the truth endures for ever. Love never ends. (Long pause.)
I have marveled at this account, and all the accounts of Jesus before Pilate in the Gospels over the years. No one—at least, not that we know of—was actually present with Jesus and Pilate when they spoke. It was likely a conversation between two men that ended badly, and the church likely wanted to have some words to remember it by.
So in a very real way, what we have here is John at the height of his theological understanding of Jesus, and of the inability of this Roman official to comprehend who he was up against. The tables are turned in this interaction. Pilate goes from being the interrogator to the being the one on trial.
And with him, all the other people who would put a higher value on their own temporal position than on the well-being of the world. It is always interesting to see how these themes continue in our modern world.
Have you noticed that when a politician runs for office, he or she almost always says that the election isn't about himself or herself, but about the country, or about the world? There almost always seems to be some attempt to make it about a cosmic shift toward a better society, a better world. And that through becoming a better society, we become a model for other countries.
That's the narrative of our founding, when those rigorously devout Anglicans set sail and created a New England. New York. New Haven. New Jersey.
The idea was to show England a better society than the one they were leaving, hoping that it would become an example of freedom and peace—that reforms, both secular and religious, would make for a better world.
I think it was a noble idea, and it continues to be. The problem is that there are many Pilates and only one Jesus. There continue to be many people who want to be in positions of power who cannot, or will not, lay down their political lives or their actual lives for the true welfare of the world.
I have a feeling that that's what Jesus meant when he cried over Jerusalem and said, "42'If you, even you, had only recognized … the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43…the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.'" (Luke 19.42-44)
And yet, as the people of God today, our hope continues. Not in any temporary leader, but in the one who showed us the truth. Who is truth. And who will one day bring us to the fullness of the kingdom he preached.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.