The Feast of Christ the King
Nov 22, 2009 – Christ the King. Year B - John 18:33-37
Pilate asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (John 18:33)
Under the circumstances it’s the right question. Essentially Pilate is asking Jesus how he pleads concerning the charge against him: Does he plead guilty or not guilty of a capital crime, treason, by claiming to be a “king other than Caesar?” Pilate is asking Jesus whether the charge against him true; are there are grounds for prosecuting him? Is he guilty of claiming that he is a king other than Caesar?
Jesus’ answer does not deny the claim.
“So you are a king?” presses Pilate.
Jesus’ answer, “You say that I am a king,” sounds puzzling to our American ears. That way of using words is foreign to our culture, but was very direct in that culture. Jesus was responding to the question like this: He says to Pilate, “Your own words, though uttered without understanding, are telling the truth.” Pressing it even further, Jesus says, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37).
In reply to Pilate’s question, Jesus accepts the claim that he is king, yet denies that he was a king in any way that would make sense to the Roman governor. “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.”
Pilate is not the only one who misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ kingship.
“Where is he who is born king of the Jews?” the magi asked.
For Herod, that question could mean only that there was a rival in his midst. To eliminate the rival he had his soldiers kill all children in an entire region of his realm.
Pilate and Herod were not the only ones who misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ kingship.
There there was the larger crowd of followers:
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. - John 6.15Jesus just couldn't get the people to let go of their persistent search for power over their enemies. He couldn't get them to understand what he was trying to teach them, and ultimately, because they would not abandon their intentions for power, he had to abandon them.
But Pilate, Herod and the crowds were not the only ones who misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ kingship. Even his closest disciples failed to understand it.
James and John wanted to sit beside Jesus in his kingdom. To “sit” was to occupy a position of power, and to sit beside the king was to share in his power. But Jesus told them that they completely misunderstood the nature of his kingship and kingdom: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.”
Pilate, Herod, the crowds, and the closest disciples of Jesus were not the only ones who misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ kingship.
Down through history, the church has persisted in misunderstanding the nature of the kingship of Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
The followers of the Crucified One overcame Rome by martyrdom, but after Constantine’s conversion, the victorious Christians started making martyrs of their former adversaries. The history of the church is spattered with blood because power requires violence to maintain itself. Christians sue one another in court, using the power of the law to settle matters of real estate. And as you know full well, to our embarrassment and shame, that continues to this very day in our own church.
We sing “All the hail of the power of Jesus name,” but depend on the power of the courts. We sing “crown him with many crowns” but wield the power of the world.
To put it another way, we use the rhetoric of Jesus but behave like Herod and Pilate.
The kingdom over which Jesus reigns still defies our understanding. He rules over a kingdom with no borders to defend, no soldiers to defend it, and no weapons for the soldiers to use. It is a kingdom that inverts our values. The one who serves is the one who rules.
We still ask the questions that the magi and Pilate asked: “Where is he who is born king of the Jews?” and “Are you the king of the Jews?”
Knowingly or not, Pilate answered his own question; the Gospel of John tells us that “Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross. It read: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.’”
The royal crown of Jesus is portrayed in that stained glass window – and that one: It is centered now on a throne but on the cross. Jesus reigns from the cross, and to share his kingship, we must also share his suffering. There is plenty of room at the right and left hands of Jesus, but those who would share his power must also share his cross.
John had already told his readers that part of Jesus’ mission was to “cast out” the ruler of this world who has no power over Jesus. Paradoxically, Jesus brought down the “ruler of this world” by submitting to his power; his death brought about the destruction of the powers that nailed him to the cross.
The confrontation with Pilate was rich with irony and ambiguity. Pilate appeared to be powerful but was really powerless; Jesus appeared to be powerless but was really powerful.
And Jesus is the King of the servants of the Lord. Which is being King in a way that makes no sense to the Roman governor, no sense to Herod, no sense to most of the church through most of history, and perhaps, no sense to us.
But here we are, back at that same old theme I've been trying to stress: The servant of the Lord makes a powerful impact in the world by refusing to use power. The servant of the Lord makes a powerful impact by letting go of power. The servant of the Lord makes a powerful impact by not fighting. By not going to battle. By not going to court. Rather than fighting the enemy, the servant of the Lord blesses the enemy. Prays for the enemy. Loves the enemy.
Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote a spectacular hymn, which we occasionally sing. Remember this?
Cure thy children’s warring madness,
Bend our pride to thy control.
Shame our wanton selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Lest we miss the Savior’s goal,
Lest we miss the Savior’s goal.