Christ the King Sunday (25 November 2018)
JoAnn A. Post
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.”
As a child I was taught that the adventurers aboard the Mayflower came to the New World in search of religious freedom. I was taught that those first settlers were open-minded, peace-loving citizens of the world, eager to launch a new world of religious equity and equal opportunity. I was taught that they lived in harmony with one another and with the native people whose land they shared. It was a nice story when I was nine. But now, 50 years later, we know the truth to be a bit darker. And sadly familiar.
Those whom we later named “Pilgrims” set sail from England in September 1620, many of them members of a radical religious separatist group that felt stifled by the Church of England. Ill at ease with the requirements of the King’s church, they sought to establish a new community of piety, purity and power. The so-called “Puritans” followed close on their sterns, sailing toward their own version of religious freedom. That is, freedom of religion for themselves, freedom to believe and practice as they wanted to believe and practice. In fact, they wrote their religious belief system into the first town charters and constitutions, replicating the very same stifling situation they had fled England to avoid.
Whoever thought it was a good idea to give power over both church and state to one group of individuals? Well, lots of people. We’ve been making that same mistake for centuries, consolidating control over both heart and hearth in the hands of a few. And always to bad ends.
You may be scratching your head about today’s gospel reading—the debate between Jesus and Pilate. After all, the sanctuary is already adorned for Advent. We should be talking about mangers and shepherds, not crosses and kings. But this Sunday, Christ the King Sunday, was established almost a century ago, in circumstances much like those that launched the pilgrims, those that erected the cross.
Concerned about rising nationalism and faltering faithfulness, Pope Pius XI established this church festival in 1925 as a way to re-assert the authority of God, the kingship of Christ, and the limited power of the world’s rulers.
That is why, on this wintery Sunday, with evergreen boughs above us and Thanksgiving’s feast still gurgling in us, we assert the Lordship of Jesus Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Ruler of the Rulers of the World.
Because whether we speak of tyrants in the 1st century or the 17th or the 20th, history keeps repeating itself. We continue to mistake human authority for God’s authority, shaking them together like a James Bond martini.
That is why Jesus, a Jew accused of blasphemy, was summoned to a private audience with Pontius Pilate, a political appointee who had never heard of Jesus before. Jesus’ claims to be Messiah—a religious claim—and Son of God—a challenge to the emperor who believed himself a god—endangered both secular and sacred seats of power. It would have been to the benefit of both temple and palace that Jesus be sidelined. Once he was out of the way, they could resume their complete control of the region and its inhabitants. (Cartoonish Dr. Evil hand-wringing ensues.)
But Pilate had not been read in on any of these machinations—he was the Emperor’s lackey, brought in at the last minute to do the dirty work. That is why John, the gospel writer, portrays a Pilate modestly confused about why Jesus had been hauled into his chambers.
Was Jesus king of the Jews? Unlikely, since the Jews didn’t have kings.
Was Jesus a military rival? Apparently not, since he had no army.
Pilate’s confusion is evident when, after Jesus explained it all to him, Pilate asked again, “So, you are a king?” Question mark? Question mark?
Pilate had a limited imagination. The only world he knew was a world in which kings looked like kings, and power was wielded in very particular ways. Power was housed in enormous buildings, exercised by old men in long robes, motivated by financial wealth, geographic dominance, and fear. He couldn’t quite figure out what sort of king Jesus might be, what it was Jesus wanted. Money? Land? Castles? Temples? Armies?
No, Jesus was after something even more dangerous. Jesus was after the Truth.
For some reason, the gospel reading ends before what is, to me, the most important part of the text. If we were to have added just one more verse, we would have heard Pilate scratch his own head: “What is truth?” (John 18.38)
Ah, that is the question. And what is this capital-t Truth of which Jesus spoke?
“God so loves the world, that God sent the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not die, but have eternal life.” (John 3.16)
We’ve heard the words so often they no longer startle us. But they startled Jesus’ first hearers. And frightened his enemies.
Meanwhile, those pesky Pilgrims and Puritans were committing the same sins of which they accused King Henry and his bishops back in England. They believed they were the arbiters of Truth—reading scripture in a particular way, organizing their churches in a particular way, punishing particular sins in a particular way. They pursued a truth Pilate would have understood. A truth that laid power in human hands, imagining their hands to be the hands of God.
They lived by their own sort of truth, Pilate’s truth, a manufactured truth, a truth we know too well.
The dark truth for which we have settled is that nothing is reliable, no one is to be trusted, nothing makes sense. We manufacture a truth that tries to make sense of no sense. Not unlike the collision in our worship space this morning: Christmas decorations as a backdrop to Jesus’ crucifixion, Thanksgiving gratitude wilted by funeral flowers. Which is it? Which way do we look? What is truth? Birth? Death? Gratitude? Grief?
Jesus stood before Pilate as a king unlike any king on earth, ruling with life-giving Truth. Jesus the King rules in human hearts, leads in love, welcomes even those who betray him. Jesus the King desires that we live in peace, that our lives are just, that our words are kind.
Pilate didn’t recognize Jesus or his truth, instead collaborating with the temple to kill him. The Pilgrims and Puritans didn’t recognize Jesus or his truth, oppressing both native peoples and any others who didn’t agree with them. Pope Pius XI feared fascism in the 1920’s; his successor Pope Pius XII turned a blind eye to it in the 1940’s.
What is truth? God loves the world. Jesus died to save us. We are loved beyond measure. That is the truth of this day. And of our lives.
Jesus is a beautiful savior, king of all creation, our brother and our Lord.