I may have told you this story before, but if you’ve already heard it, please bear with me. My friend Jane died a year ago on November 11th. Jane was 98 and had lived a marvelous life. The day before she died, her daughter Bonnie went to see her and Bonnie said that Jane was dillusional, she was no longer making sense. Bonnie said that she knew that something was very wrong because Jane got very, very insistent and needed to explain to her that she had seen the King. Bonnie’s interpretation was that Jane was losing her mind.
But when Bonnie told me about that interaction with Jane, I looked around at the other people who were in vigil with me at Jane’s bedside and we all smiled, because we know who the King was. I tried to explain to Bonnie that I believe that Jane had seen the King of Glory. It makes sense that Jane saw the king on her passage to new life. Jane was an art historian and her work on religious art focused on images of Jesus that depicted his kingship. As she was transitioning from this world, Jane was following her King as she did her whole life.
I find it very comforting that Jane was following her King. But I also realize the images that I engage when I think about Jesus are rarely a “kingly”. Jesus for me is a teacher, a servant, a healer. He is out feeding and helping. Somehow I have trouble with the idea of God the ruler. Which is interesting because I have no problem with the Kingdom of God. I think I have trouble with the image of Christ the King, because I generally have trouble with earthly rulers. So many powerful rulers have done terrible things to people who lived under their rule. Today, I look around at the rulers of this world and I wonder who is good—certainly a good ruler would not allow people to go hungry, would not create war, would not discriminate between groups. How can I trust our rulers here? Even political rulers who I like very much—some of our local mayors, our state representatives or even rulers around the world whom I admire, I fear that they may be corrupted, or may make a wrong decision.
So as I struggle with this concept of king and particularly the idea of God as my King I think todays passages offer us an opportunity to challenge both our understanding of earthly kings and rulers and to look to Jesus for new models for our citizenship—for if there is a new King then there is a new Kingdom and we are this kingdom’s citizens.
In this passage Pilate is the figure opposite Jesus. Pilate challenges Jesus with the accusation that he has put himself in the place of the Emperor. This is the crime for which he will be executed. Pilate asserts that Jesus has held himself out to be King of the Jews. In this trial, the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus presents us an opportunity to explore the contrast between earthly kings and the heavenly King.
First in verse 36, Jesus responds to Pilate's king question. But Jesus does not own up to being a king. Instead, he i speaks not about himself but his community, calling it a kingdom (some prefer the word "kindom"). Here he contrasts himself with Pilate.
What are the points of that contrast?
First there is the question of the use of power: Pilate uses his authority to build up his own power and authority not for the building of community, and certainly not a community guided by love and truth. Pilate and the other rulers of his time hoards power and lords it over people even to the point of destroying them, on a cross or otherwise. Jesus empowers others and uses his authority to wash the feet of those he leads. He spends his life on them, every last ounce of it; he gives his life to bring life. Instead of amassing power for himself, he is giving his power to others, encouraging his disciples to go out and teach and heal and serve.
Second, there is the question of what effect this rule has on the people under these two. Pilate's rule brings terror, even in the midst of calm; Jesus' rule brings peace, even in the midst of terror (John 14:27; 16:33; 20:19-26). Pilate's followers imitate him by using violence to conquer and divide people by race, ethnicity, and nation. Jesus' followers put away the sword in order to invite and unify people, as Jesus does when he says "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself" (12:32).
And then there is the source of power: Pilate's authority originates from the will of Caesar and is always tenuous. Jesus' authority originates from doing the will of God, and is eternal.
In Jesus’ response to Pilate’s accusation, he gives Pilate an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about what Jesus is really about and what it means to be a King anointed by God. But Pilate can’t engage that way. Instead, Pilate is so threatened that he responds, "So you ARE a king?" Jesus again pushes deeper to the heart of the matter: Truth itself is on trial. Jesus is the witness for truth. For this I was born, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
So citizenship under Jesus’ rule is determined by whether people are willing to know the truth. This is a stark contrast to Pilate’s rule. People are citizens under his rule by virtue of their status in society, their ethnicity, their birthright or by conquering power. It is all about the rules for who is subject to the Emperor and Pilate. Whereas with Jesus, it is not about human made boundaries and rules, it is about a willingness to know the truth, a listening to his voice.
In the end, Pilate attempts to crucify the Truth. He places the sign, Jesus as The King of the Jews. The irony is thick, of course, because Pilate has unwittingly announced the truth. There on the cross the King is crowned with thorns. The rule of Truth is declared. In his death, the Church is born and God’s Kingdom in the world continues with the Risen Christ. Because Jesus does not die forever, but is resurrected, the Truth prevails. The Kingdom that Jesus points to with Pilate, is the Kingdom that triumphs against Pilate’s power.
And so in a careful reading of this passage, we see that Jesus is indeed King, but not a king like any we have ever known among earthly rulers. His power is the power of the community. His authority is the truth which comes from God. His will is to serve all of humanity, creating peace not conflict.
Thinking about what this Kingdom means, what Jesus’ rule as our King means helps me to look our place in the world differently. While I am paying my taxes and obeying the traffic laws here, I am trying to follow a different kind of ruler. I worship a King who loves us and seeks community with us. I worship a King who hopes with us for peace, for equality, for justice and love among all people. When I see situations of injustice and conflict, I know that these are of human creation. This is what human rulers have done. When I see truth—people caring for one another, loving one another, working for peace, building up community that includes everyone, this is when I know that Christ is King and that his rule prevails.
In this season of Thanksgiving, let us look at the world through Jesus’ eyes not Pilate’s. Let us look with compassion on our brothers and sisters here and everywhere. Let us give thanks for all that God has given us. Let us recognize that the bounty of this earth is not of our own making, but is a gift from God meant to be shared in community. Let us worship the King who rules only for our sake, creating a peace and prosperity that will prevail against the petty power of our earthly kings. Amen.