A Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King
Proper 29 – Year B – 22 November 2015
by John Edward Miller, Rector
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.”
– John 18:33-37
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Pontius Pilate knew about kings, all right. He was Caesar’s man in Judea, the imperial governor of a conquered territory. As Caesar’s representative, Pilate wielded the power of Rome with a vengeance. Although there was a puppet Judean government in place, everyone in knew that they were merely figureheads. Judea was Pilate’s place; his Roman authority was firmly, and often brutally, in control.
He had heard the hoopla about a would-be “king” who had entered Jerusalem on Sunday last. The people had lined the streets hailing him as “the son of David,” and that gave him pause. Pilate knew about the Jewish hope of a coming “messiah,” the chosen one who would rescue them from oppression and lead them to a new kingdom of prosperity and peace. Their expectation was that God’s messiah would be like the heroic King David of legend. David was the ideal type of Jewish king – a charismatic figure whose combined gifts made him larger than life. David was a man of intellectual, artistic, political, and military strength. During his reign as king, Israel was powerful and wealthy. The kingdom was at its the high water mark with David on the throne. Thus it was natural for first-century Jews to yearn for another David to come, and restore the kingdom to Israel.
It was also understandable that anyone who reminded the people of David would be someone with whom Pilate must reckon – and remove. So, when he learned that the man had been captured and hauled into his headquarters, Pilate anticipated a showdown with a strongman. All that he imagined quickly vanished when he beheld the prisoner before him. His name, according to the arresting centurion, was Jesus of Nazareth. The charge against him was sedition – rebellion against the Roman government. But Pilate knew immediately that this couldn’t be possible. The man was no super hero; he had been mocked, beaten, and abused by his captors. His garments were as rough as his carpenter’s hands. He wore no breastplate or military garb, and there was nothing about his appearance that suggested anything regal about him. He looked like a peasant from the hill country. And yet, the locals had called for his arrest because they claimed that he was pretender to the throne of Judea.
None of it made sense to Pilate. The bedraggled prisoner was clearly no threat to Roman rule, but the Jewish leaders – the chief priest, scribes, and Pharisees – were convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was someone who had to be eliminated. What was so dangerous about him that his own people were giving him up as a traitor, and begging Rome to convict him?
Pilate was never shy about being direct. In fact he was notorious for going for the jugular, using brutal force and executions as regular tools of control. So he didn’t mince words when he asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” The question was designed to intimidate, putting heavy pressure on Jesus. A straight yes-or-no answer could either convict him of plotting to overthrow the government or discredit him in the eyes of his so-called revolutionaries. Pilate expected that either answer would lead him to death or ignominious shame.
But Jesus was never one to take the bait, or fall for the traps set for him. He wisely responded to Pilate’s question with a question, saying, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” This deflected Pilate’s attack, and the angry Roman blurted out, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
Pilate understood people who used clout to get things done, and to achieve victory. He was a man of power – coercive power, the kind that forces outcomes. Tiberias Caesar, the emperor of Rome, was his boss. The whole imperial system was built on this same kind of power. Intercontinental provinces were held under the threat of coercive retribution if any of them dared to challenge Rome’s authority. So, for Pilate, brute strength was the only form of power to trust. Social control depended on it, he thought. And kings – be they Jewish or otherwise, were monarchs that mimicked Caesar’s sovereignty.
Like every Judean under Roman occupation, Jesus was familiar with the might of kings. But he didn’t endorse it or live by it. He told Pilate, “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.”
Jesus’ kind of strength was definitely not from here. Nor was his kingdom. Both were out of this world. But the single-minded Roman heard what he wanted to hear in those words, and he smugly said, “So you are a king.” At that Jesus realized that Pilate was not actually listening. Nevertheless he gave it another try. He explained that he didn’t fit Pilate’s picture of a king. Instead, his purpose was to tell the truth, and that anyone who truly lived would hear him and understand his message. Pilate clearly did not, for in his next breath he would famously ask, “What is truth?” Then, he would wash his hands of the incident, and retreat into the darkness.
Pilate was face-to-face with the truth, but he missed the chance to affirm it and live it. He allowed the rush to judgment to envelope Jesus. Still, the portrait of Pilate we see in John’s Gospel contains just enough hesitation and regret to suggest that the tough Roman governor saw something in Jesus that made him wonder. Perhaps he glimpsed in the humble messiah a power that caused him to tremble, a power that connected with a part of him that he recognized but could not fit into his world of weapons and armament. Maybe he wished that Jesus’ apparent weakness was actually a deep kind of strength. We do not know. However, we do know this: Pilate ordered a sign to be placed on the cross that stated for all that gazed on Jesus’ crucified body, “Jesus of Nazareth – King of the Jews.” That sign, which was inscribed in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, was Pilate’s last word regarding his victim. “What I have written I have written,” he said.
This Sunday marks the end of the liturgical year. Next Sunday we begin again with the season of Advent. We stand today at that annual omega point, the goal of the gospel story – a goal for which that we continue to long. The message of the day is “Christ the King.” But what does that mean, given Jesus’ disavowal of the worldly title, “king”?
Well, to speak of kings in Scripture is to use an ancient symbol for power. In our day and time, there are kings and queens, but they have little effective power. Once, though, they possessed absolute power by “divine right.” To be king was to have the coercive power to rule a nation or an empire. The king’s sovereignty included the power over life and death, the power to subjugate, the power to make war, and the power to possess a land. That was his kingdom. And that is how the people of Israel remembered the good old days of David the king. He was in charge, he was their savior, he was their protector, and he gave them self-confidence as a nation among nations. Little wonder then that the people of Judea longed for his benevolent reign to be renewed by a Davidic messiah.
Jesus of Nazareth could trace his lineage through David. That gave him a royal pedigree, but he was no King David. When he entered Jerusalem he did not arrive by chariot, he wore no plumed helmet, and carried no weapons. He rode into town on the back of a donkey – without an army, and devoid of worldly power. And he rapidly disappointed the people who longed for a superman. To all outward appearances, he was the epitome of weakness; he would not defend himself; he walked straight into the heart of darkness, and went without protest to his death on a Roman cross. To the world, he looked like a complete failure, but to God, and to those who believed in his truth, he was in fact a new kind of king – one whose power was persuasive, compassionate love.
In this world, where sin and evil take many forms, including the form of fanatic terrorism, it is reasonable for us to long for protection, as well as to take steps to defend ourselves. Coercive force is often the only apparent solution to the problem of evil. However, this kind of power is useful in disciplined and limited doses. Our armed forces and our police departments use coercive force under strict rules of engagement, and within the boundaries set by our Constitution. Where there is no discipline and there are no limits, coercive force can easily cross the line, and support causes that are not only unjust, but are inherently evil.
As Christians we hear the voice of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane just as he was about to be arrested. To his disciple Peter, who brandished a weapon to protect him, he said, “Put away your sword. Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” Pacifists have seen that command as a universal norm, while others have viewed it as an instance of necessity. However, I think it can at least be understood as commending another way besides violent force, a lasting way to overcome evil with good.
The kingdom of God is notoriously short on missiles and bombs. Its power is the power of love, which can change the hearts and minds of our fellow humans with persuasion rather than by raw force of arms. Jesus the messiah is the king who leads us like a shepherd. His reign of love, though still not fully realized, is a power that creates and redeems, rather than destroys. We have seen this kingdom exert its power in ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr., who urged protest for racial justice in America in the form of non-violent, passive resistance rather than in a call to bloody revolution. We have seen the power of love redeem the Republic of South Africa, where love and not retribution guided the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as it forgave criminals who confessed to their crimes against people enslaved by apartheid. We have seen it in the mercy and restraint of President Lincoln, who forgave the leaders and the soldiers of the South after Appomattox. We have witnessed the power of Christ the King with every instance of redemption that we have received by grace, rather than by merit.
We affirm the abiding value Christ’s kingdom in the promises we make for and with the baptized (including today our brother William Wescott Jacob). After renouncing evil in tri-fold form, his parents and godparents will answer for him three crucial questions: Do you turn to Jesus Christ, and accept him as your Savior? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Will you follow and obey him as your Lord? To all of these they summon the faith to respond with the affirmation, “I do.”
These questions are our questions as well. They define our Christian life, and challenge us to carry on, with God’s help. Our task is to remain open to the grace that leads us to the truth, and then to embrace it.
May the God who has given us the will to do these things, bless and keep us close to Christ’s heart of love. His kingdom is not of this world, but it has the power to change it, and each one of us, if we will let him. Amen.