Well, we have made it through another church year. Those of you a bit surprised to see white today may have forgotten it is the last Sunday after Pentecost, also known as Christ the King Sunday. The Feast of Christ the King is a relatively new feast day in our liturgical cycle. It came about only in 1925. That is not to say that our spiritual ancestors did not believe that Christ was King of kings and Lord of lords. It means only that they did not celebrate a day of intention whereupon they reminded themselves of that reality. The feast itself was introduced to the liturgical church world by one of the Pius’. Pius XI noticed the rise of secularism and the increasing denial of Christ as King, as well as Christians’ (RC’s in particular) increasing belief that the Church could not continue Christ’s authority. So he came up with a plan. Each year, there would be a day of celebration where we reminded ourselves that Christ was King and so counterweighed the testimony of the secular world that was given the other 363 days of the calendar year! Why are you laughing? He was a Pope. He must have known what he was doing!
All kidding aside, Pius did write a document outlining his goals for the celebration. (1) He wanted the leaders of the nations to see that they owed respect, at least, to Christ, who would one Day come to judge them and their use of the power He granted them. (2) He expected the nations, or more specifically their rulers, to see that, since the Church followed Christ, churches should be exempt from being an agent of the state. Put in modern language, there was to be a separation of the Church from the State, and the State, out of respect for her Lord, would not interfere in her affairs. (3) The faithful who celebrated this day would be strengthened in their faith and reminded that Christ must reign in our minds, our hearts, our wills, and our bodies. From your laughter a moment ago, it was clearly an ambitious goal. Given the rise of secularism over the last 90 years, and the increasing pressures on churches in places that practice a separation of Church and State, never mind the ones that make no such distinction, one might say Pius’ vision failed miserably. Of course, Pius has good company. The outcome of our Lord’s conversation with Pilate, as recounted by St. John today, was one of seeming abject failure. Pilate later sentenced Jesus to the Cross where He died. That failure should have been the end of this bit about Jesus and kingship; yet here we are, two thousand years later, celebrating that truth half a world away!
Pilate’s opening question of Jesus is a loaded question. To take you back to the scene a bit, remember, the governor of an area was personally responsible in the eyes of the emperor for any alleged crime that might affect the well-being or interests of the empire or where capital punishment was required. The Sanhedrin, led by Caiaphas, has done a wonderful job of walking this minefield. Jesus has been arrested outside the view of those whom He has taught in the temple. The trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin has gone very well. They have voted that Jesus should be killed. Now, Pilate must be navigated. Pilate must be convinced to kill Jesus as a threat to the empire, but they cannot enter the debate directly, for fear of ritual defilement. See any irony there? They are plotting to kill Jesus while maintaining ritual purity.
Pilate is loathe to enter the Jewish squabble. When first engaged in the discussion, Pilate tells them that their powers are sufficient to deal with the troublemaker Jesus. They argue that it is a capital case and so must be heard by him. The threat in the words is heard by Pilate. If this Jesus was not killed and later led a rebellion, Pilate would be personally held responsible for the rebellion. His failure to hold a cognitio to determine the facts of the case against Jesus would likely cost him his life as well as his power.
My guess is that Pilate wanted nothing to do with this case. Most likely, his soldiers had told him of the great threat this Jesus was to Rome. He taught in synagogues and in the temple; He advocated putting away the sword; He advocated paying taxes to Caesar; and He claimed Yahweh as His Father. He might be crazy, but this Jesus of Nazareth was no real threat to Caesar. His question would serve to cut to the nub of the case. If Jesus says He is king of the Jews, then clearly He was some sort of crazed rebel. If Jesus said He was not king of the Jews, He could not possible be a threat.
What we forget reading this passage is that Rome had denied Judea a king since the death of Herod the Great. Herod’s sons, although they pleaded for the title of king, were allowed to call themselves only ethnarch or tetrarch, depending on the child. None of the four governors who preceded Pilate had ever had to deal with a king in Judea. From Pilate’s perspective, were Jesus to claim the title of king, then perhaps He might be a threat, however small, to the empire. An affirmative answer would indicate complicity in some sort of conspiracy to seek independence from Rome. Were He to ignore the title, then it was likely He was not. Pilate was nothing if not energetic in his apparent zeal for the empire. As a minor aristocrat, he wanted to prove his worth and rise in the rank of service.
Jesus, naturally, does not answer the question directly. Instead, Jesus probes the source and intention of the question. If Pilate is asking “Are you here to lead a revolution against Rome and Caesar,” Jesus’ answer would be no. But if Pilate is asking the question on behalf of the Sanhedrin sycophants, then the question is something more along the lines of “Are you the Messianic king of Israel.” That answer, of course, would be yes. In essence, Jesus is asking Pilate to consider his question. Pilate is being forced to evaluate the threat of Jesus; it seems only fair that Pilate then know what and who it is he is evaluating and by what standards he is doing his evaluation of this accused seditionist.
Jesus’ response, “Do you ask this on your own, or did someone else tell you about Me?” forces Pilate to do a couple things. One, Pilate must acknowledge that it is quite possible he is being manipulated. Second, if this really is Pilate’s question, what does he mean by asking it. Pilate naturally seems indignant about the idea that he is being drawn into a Jewish religious squabble. Pilate is the representative of the might and force of Rome, Pilate is the representative of Caesar in Judea, why would he care a fig about internal Jewish religious quarrels? Worse, Pilate’s power is as much a threat to them as it is to Jesus. Still, Pilate needs to fulfill his duty in case this carpenter’s son thinks Himself a ruler.
“Are you a king?”
Before answering, Jesus describes His kingdom and affirms that it is not of this earth. We might say this is Jesus’ way of reminding Pilate that He is not a threat to Rome, for now. Jesus’ kingdom is not even of this earth. Were it, His servants would be fighting for Him even now.
Luckily for Pilate, he has an answer. The guy before him is a nutcase. Who says, “My kingdom is not of this world?” Where else are kingdoms going to be, but in this world? Jesus is, of course, testifying that His kingship does not come from this world; it comes from Heaven. He is ruler of this world because He made this world and all that is in it. He is ruler of this world because the people of this world were made in His image. Pilate, as we might expect, knows none of this. Looking around, he would see no fighting. Heck, Jesus’ own people have turned Him over and demanded He be executed. Whatever this nut thinks He rules, His servants are not acting against the interests of Rome. So he asks Jesus again, “So You are a king, then?”
Jesus responds with a different affirmation than Pilate or we might expect. “King is your word, not mine.” More importantly, Jesus goes on to describe His mission in great detail. We make a terrible mistake in thinking that truth here in John and in Jesus’ mouth is a philosophical or ethical term. John relates that Jesus is concerned with far more important matters. Jesus has come into the world to unveil (apocalypse) the truth to the world. What is the truth that Jesus unveils? Jesus has come into the world to unveil that His words are God’s words, that His voice is God’s voice, that His face is God’s face, and that He is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to humanity! Truth in this understanding put forth by John is the reality we experienced lived out in full communion with God. Jesus, the Son of God, already shares that full communion with the Father. All that He does, all that He says, all that He teaches comes from that amazing relationship with His Father in Heaven. And He has come into the world to open that relationship up to all of humanity who will hear His voice. John will remind us that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. God will affirm all this by taking what the Sanhedrin and Pilate meant for evil and using it for the greatest good possible. Through Jesus’ suffering and death, our sins will be forgiven. Through His Resurrection, we will be raised into the possibility of that true relationship with the Father. Yes, we will fall short in this world, but one day, one glorious day in the future, we will share in that same abiding as our Lord Christ! It is an amazing and glorious promise and thought. It is a thought that Pilate cannot grasp because he is not given to Jesus by the Father.
What does it mean to be one who calls Christ the King? What does it truly mean to be one who claims that true relationship with the Father in Heaven? We have seen what it means in the life and ministry of Jesus, who lived as the Father’s only Son. Our King placed His faith in the Father and the Father’s will, eventually at great cost to Himself. He did not rejoice in His sufferings; indeed, He asked the Father to let that Cup pass and even sweated blood. Still, His commitment was to do the will of the Father.
In theological terms, we might think of this as emptying Himself. Jesus came down from Heaven not to the sounds of trumpets and angel choirs heralding His descent, but to the baying of animals and wonder of shepherds. His life was an emptying of Himself to show what the Father wanted for His people. Think how tired you and I get working forty, fifty, or sixty hours a week. Jesus was the Messiah 24/7/365 for some 33 years or so. Talk about pressure. Everyone He met had a need, and Jesus met those needs in ways they struggled and we still struggle to understand. Even those who fought Him He engaged, not to condemn, but to turn back to the Father’s intention in their lives. Always He gave of His power, His time, His wisdom, and later of His life. And to us, His disciples, He charged us only with picking up our crosses and following Him. Our lives are meant to emulate His. We do not lord ourselves over one another, we serve one another. We become great by becoming least. Talk about radical kingship!
Given that wonderful example, and the amazing promise through faith in Him, why then the fear in our lives? Why is it we trust in our accumulated wealth more than His provision? Why is it we trust in our own power and influence rather than in His providence in love? Why is it we claim to serve a God of infinite resources and power, but live as if we have more? The low hanging fruit this week, brothers and sisters, has been our “Christian” response to the Syrian refugees. Politicians who claim to be Christian are holding press releases proudly proclaiming their willingness to turn away from the plight of those impacted by wars. Pastors who are charged with proclaiming daily in word and deed the death, resurrection, and return of our Lord are shouting against the admittance of foreigners people because some among them might be terrorists. I am never one to encourage you to seek martyrdom or stupidly risk your life brothers and sisters, but I am one who will remind you that the worst thing that can happen to us in death is that we wake up and see our Lord face to face ushering us into the most amazing wedding feast ever prepared! And if that is our “worst case,” what do we really need to fear about death? Oh, one more thing, our Lord commanded us—it wasn’t a suggestion, it wasn’t a “guys, if you have time”—He commanded us to proclaim the Gospel to all people. How much easier is it for us to proclaim in word and deed when they are among us?
There are other low hanging fruits that hit far closer to home. Every time there is a shooting of some sort, who often leads the cry of “we need guns to protect ourselves?” I cringe every time I hear a pastor say it, and I flinch whenever I hear one of their flock elevate the Second Amendment to some sort of permanence like the Gospel. Jesus Himself reminds us that if His kingdom were of this world, His followers would be fighting Rome and the Sanhedrin to free Him. Heck, when Peter draws the sword and chops off the ear of Malchus, how does Jesus respond? He rebukes Peter and heals the ear. If we really are residents of somewhere other than here, why are we so jealous to protect the trappings of this life and this world? Why is it that we who claim the truth are so quick to serve a lie? Those who do not belong to Him do not hear His voice, but what is our excuse? We read it. We hear it. We ignore it.
When we consider the appropriateness of a ministry within our body, how often do we think first of its cost to us, in terms of money, resources, and time, rather than its advancement of the kingdom and of our mission in that expansion? When we consider whether to help someone in need, how often do we count the cost to us, never once thinking of the cost that was born for us by the King?
What does it mean to have Christ reigning in our minds, in our bodies, and in our wills, as Pius asked barely a century ago? What is it we celebrate? I know we should have joy. I know that you and I ought to be impelled by thanksgiving to do those things our Lord asks of us. Knowing our shortcomings, knowing how many times we would fail Him, still He stood before Pilate and the Sanhedrin and took our medicine, our punishment for us. Despite the cost, despite the pain, despite the anger and hurt, despite even the mockery of those whom He came to save, still He testified to the Truth. He lived and died and rose again, to show us that what He taught was truth, that salvation in His name was now possible for all. Brothers and sisters, throughout all time and throughout all history only one person has ever come to rule for the welfare of all. Some kings and some queens have ruled well for there people, but only Jesus Christ has come to rule for the well-being of all. We have beheld His glory, as the only Son of the Father. Amazingly, He has called each one of us to represent Him. How do we respond? Will He see us as Pilates, not really given to Him, or will He see us as disciples, frayed, battered, tattered, and dealing with our sins, trusting that the King has come, the King has redeemed us, and the king will one day restore us?