Christ The King Sunday, November 25, 2018
Year B, Last Sunday after Pentecost: 2 Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132:1-13 (14-19) ; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37
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Someone asked me earlier this week about this Gospel passage. He found it rather ironic that we should have this particular reading from John as the Gospel lesson for today. We’re a week away from Advent, and a month from our celebration of Christmas, and yet here we have a lesson from what is decidedly near the end of Jesus’ life as he was arrested, right before his crucifixion and resurrection. It’s a lead up to Easter, not Christmas.
Perhaps even more ironic is that this is the day in the church year, the last Sunday of Pentecost, that we celebrate the feast of “Christ the King” or the “Reign of Christ” especially as Jesus for the entirety of his conversation with Pilate, specifically dodges Pilate’s questions about his kingship. “Are you the king of the Jews?”, asks Pilate. Jesus replies, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
It is an extraordinary scene. Of the four Gospels, the Gospel of John provides the most detailed account of the encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea from about 26 to 36 in the Christian era. Pilate was known for his cruelty and oppression; he was eventually recalled to Rome for trial for cruelty and oppression a few years after Christ’s crucifixion. But when he meets Jesus, I can imagine that he strutted into the room as THE representative of the dominant nation on earth, wearing a uniform that spelled power and authority. If you could choose your judge you would not want it to be Pontius Pilate, but Jesus cannot choose.
Pilate: “So you are a king?”
Jesus: “You say I am a king.”
If you’ve ever been in a courtroom listening to lawyers and judges parse words, it sounds a bit like this repartee. There was a complex power dynamic happening between Jesus and Pilate, much like the power dynamic that existed between Judean religious leaders and the Roman governor who was the only one who had the power to pronounce the death sentence.
And, of course, Passover was always an explosive time. It always is when thousands gather for any occasion. I’ll put that in some context.
The City of Harrisonburg in 2018 has a population of 54,215. James Madison University students make up 22,686 of those residents, or 42% of the population. A few years ago, there was an off-campus block party. Police were needed to disperse a group of 8,000 individuals at the party that had become loud and unruly.
Pilate’s job was to make sure that didn’t happen in Jerusalem. He always brought in extra military power to handle the large crowds of Passover pilgrims coming to the temple. The presence of Roman legions, along with his own no-nonsense reputation, had generally done the job.
This is a troubling passage. Unfortunately, in John’s gospel, the accusers are always called “the Jews” and the animosity toward Jewish people infected John’s gospel with language that accused Jews of condemning Jesus. I cringe when I still hear people suggest this even though it has been repudiated time and again.
In recent years, Jewish and Christian scholars have sought to reach a better understanding of the events of the passion narratives in the Gospels—and in John’s Gospel in particular, because of its language about “the Jews.”
When we read the Gospel of John we need to keep in mind the animosity brewing between an emerging Christianity and the Jewish community out of which it had emerged. It’s a form of animosity we need to be aware of and steer clear of in this passage. The two disagreed, sometimes bitterly, about who Jesus Christ was and whether or not he was the Messiah, a theological disagreement that influences the way historical events were remembered.
What we have in John’s passion narrative is a complex web of theological and political reflection, written in the context of a highly charged argument between a local Christian community and the synagogue down the street. At least as John tells it, two worlds collide. Outside are Judean religious leaders who want Jesus killed but lack the power to do it themselves under Roman rule: inside is Pilate’s prisoner, brought early that morning from Caiaphas. Outside the religious leaders and crowds shout their demands up to Pilate: inside Pilate and Jesus engage in rational, even philosophical discourse. John shows Pilate’s indecision by having him move back and forth between the two worlds: outside and inside, outside and inside.
The first conversation between Pilate and Jesus does not go well. Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Some commentaries stress “you”, reflecting a tradition that Pilate is not impressed by Jesus’ appearance. Perhaps Jesus isn’t much to look at, or perhaps this insult is a form of intimidation since Pilate is considered a bully.
Jesus answers Pilate’s question with a question: where did he get his information? Pilate implies that others have told him about Jesus. Why should he care? He’s not Jewish. He asks, “What have you done?” Jesus again does not answer Pilate’s question, instead stating twice that his kingdom is not from this world: if it were, his followers would be fighting for him. Pilate, who only knows of one world, can hardly appreciate Jesus’ argument, but he grabs hold of what he can understand: “So you are a king?” Once again, Jesus and Pilate are talking past each other: Jesus responds, “You say that I am a king.” The implication: what I say about myself is, “for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Jesus seems to be engaging Pilate and where Pilate is. Perhaps Jesus is using Pilate’s own tactics to get through to him. Or perhaps Jesus is simply telling the truth.
Jesus says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” So close your eyes now and listen for Jesus’ invitation to you to enter his kingdom. Listen for Jesus’ truth.
The truth is that two thousand years later no one knows exactly what was on Pilate’s heart or mind. Or on the hearts and minds of faithful Jewish people. It is virtually impossible to recall centuries later, with almost no written materials that can be characterized as unbiased, the events leading up to Jesus’ death under Pilate.
What we do know is that the truth of which Jesus speaks is not generally the truth of the world. Jesus is a king in the world, but not the kind of king that was expected or the kind of king we are accustomed to.
What kind of king is Jesus? We certainly find Jesus in places never expected of a king.
Jesus is a king who bends down on the ground to be with a woman accused of adultery. A king who leans in close to hear her voice when nobody else bothered to listen. A king who puts a towel around his waist and then kneels on the floor to wash his disciples’ dirty feet.
Jesus is a leader, a king, who never rose so high that he couldn’t see those who weren’t leaders and king. Today, we see Jesus throughout the world in places and with people others don’t want to see. He is with those who are helpless and powerless. If we look for Jesus, we will see him in places when we look in places kings seldom go.
Do we live out the reign of God as Christ did seeking to serve the least and the lost? Do we seek to serve rather than be served?
Christ’s kingdom is all around us – in our community meal at Emmanuel on Thanksgiving. At our monthly community meal at Saint Andrew’s. In the food pantry. In Light Up, Woodstock. In ringing bells for the Salvation Army.
How we respond to Christ’s coming depends on whether we see and hear those around us, especially those in need. Next week we begin our Advent anticipation of the birth of Christ and the coming of the kingdom. We will remind ourselves and proclaim that Jesus is coming and that Jesus comes again to us throughout the year. Amen.
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