CHRIST THE KING
I have to come clean in talking on the festival of Christ the King, and admit that I’m not exactly an enthusiastic monarchist. Right to rule based on birth, bothers me, which is one of the reasons I’m an American. Here we elect our leaders and at least, theoretically, have some sort of say in the people they are.
It’s not just because I have doubts over the whole idea of Royalty, though, that I’m not really sure about this whole festival of Christ the King. It’s quite a recent one, after all. It only got into the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church in 1925, and into ours some time after that. Yet, what is good about it is that it’s a day that draws to a fitting close the Christian year, which begins anew next Sunday with Advent. We began the year by looking forward to the coming of Jesus into the world, and we end it by reminding ourselves that he is the eternal King.
But what does that kingship really mean? Our world has strong ideas of what authority is, of what power and royal splendor should be like. Pilate was very aware of these things. Jesus had been dragged before him early in the morning, with the charge against him that he was claiming to be the King of the Jews. This passage is wonderfully written, and it shows Pilate, the representative of the greatest empire of the day, commander of armies, educated and cultured, meeting the untutored Galilean Jesus. And Pilate begins full of self-assurance. You can see it in that last cynical remark, ‘what is truth?’ But from there on it’s all down hill for Pilate, until he finds himself broken.
With the help of Fredrick Buechner, let me start by sketching our Gospel lesson in a bit more contemporary clothes. So allow yourself a little room for imagination this morning and see a man who stands in front of the desk with his hands tied behind his back. You can see that he has been roughed up a little. His upper lip is absurdly puffed out and one eye is swollen shut. He looks unwashed and smells foul. His feet are bare-big, flat peasant feet, although the man himself is not big. There is something almost comic about the way he stands there, bent slightly forward because of the way his hands are tied and goggling down at the floor through his one good eye as if he is looking for something he has lost-a button off his shirt or a buck somebody slipped him for a cup of coffee.
It’s hard to see a king in that scene. We don’t think of nobility as a beaten abused prisoner. We don’t really like seeing Christ that way. There are certainly other passages which seem much more worthy for a Sunday called Christ the king. The transfiguration for instance, when Christ appears in light with Moses and Elijah and God says this is my son with whom I’m well pleased. That sounds like a scene for a king, not this one from John.
Yet, this is the Gospel lesson for the day. Christ the King. John shows us a setting that offends us-Jesus is a bedraggled, half-naked Jew, back still bloodied from a nasty whipping standing before the Roman authority. Some soldiers in mock, have forced a crown of thorns down upon his head. And now the question: “Are you King?”
We see kings as people like David – coming in with trumpets blowing. So why this passage in John 18? What is it about this trial that makes it the best portrayal of Christ as King? I think it could be the way he handles the situation-the stress and pressure. That certainly makes him kingly. He doesn’t panic and he doesn’t cower to save his skin. He is in a stressful situation, yet without coming unglued. How would you have handled that kind of a situation?
I read a study recently about how people respond to stressful situations. Quite varied responses. Some of us like to talk it out, give vent to our frustrations, some of us like to take a hike to work off the steam, some like to go out and hit the mall with their credit cards, while others prefer prayer and meditation. Other options-when all else failed-was to yell, sigh, and eat.
But to see a man courageously in the presence of his enemies yet without cowering is inspiring. I think this is a perfect image of Christ as King because he turns the table on Pilate. He is the king and Pilate is in the batter’s box:
Are you the king of the Jews?
Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me? Are you actually speaking for yourself, or as usual, have others told you what to speak?
[Pilate regrouping] Am I a Jew?
My kingship is not of your world.
So are you really a king?
You are the one who keeps saying that I am king.
Pilate tries to be in control. He keeps raving about his power, but he has very little. He thinks he is in charge, but I think this Jew is in charge. When Jesus says that his kingdom is “not of this world,” he isn’t talking about heaven or some other time. He means now, that his kingdom, unlike that of Pilate or Caiaphas is not dependent upon the methods and means of Caesar’s world. Jesus calls the shots, not because he has some certificate from Rome, but because he is true royalty.
I sympathize a bit with Pilate here. I’ve had a number of conversations with God that go like that. I ask a question: What do I do next? And I get silence, or an answer to a completely different question: Those people are hurting. Help them.
Yes okay God, I will, but first, where am I going? Everything is changing in my life, please. What do I do?
See your friend? He’s going to be shipped off to Iraq next week. Be with his family.
Yes God, I’ll do that, but can’t you help me in the meantime?
My people are hungry, feed them.
God doesn’t like giving straight answers to any of us. It makes it a bit easier to understand Pilate’s frustration here.
And just as Jesus both rejects the word ‘king’ and yet with the same breath speaks of his own ‘kingship’, so we in the Church are using an ironic metaphor whenever we speak of Jesus as king. A metaphor is when we deliberately use the wrong word in order to reveal some deeper but less obvious truth. ‘King’ is not the right word for Jesus. He deliberately fled whenever the crowds wanted to proclaim him king. He does not employ the infrastructure of a monarchy; he does not maintain palaces and royal staff, he does not proclaim the boundaries of a kingdom and establish military forces to defend them, he does not rule with an iron fist. The word ‘king’, as it is understood in our political world, is clearly the wrong word for Jesus, and yet we continue to use it. Why?
Because in deliberately using this wrong word we create a powerful metaphor which reveals a more profound truth. When we say that for us, Jesus is King, we are saying that for us, no one else is king. In saying that we belong to the Kingdom of Jesus, we are saying that we are not submissive citizens of any other kingdom. We are saying that Jesus and his agenda sets our agenda, and that we will not give unquestioning allegiance to any other authority. We do not set out to be hostile or seditious towards the countries we live in, but neither are we willing to cooperate with them when they ask us to compromise the values of love and justice and hospitality to advance their own national interests and agendas.
There is a scene that is designed to mimic this scene with Pilate and Jesus, only with a human counterpart to Christ. In complete contrast to the trial going on inside the courtroom, did you notice the informal trial going on outside Pilate’s hall?
“You’re one of his disciples, aren’t you?”
“Are you kidding? Him?”
“But I remember you, sure you’re the one who tried to defend Jesus.”
“Listen, you’ve got the wrong guy here; I’ve never laid eyes on him.”
Peter is us-I wonder if sometimes we think that it’s just too darn dangerous to tell the truth. That’s what happens in government far too much; truth is a commodity that needs positioning and posturing and reshaping. It is seen as just too dangerous. Out there in the darkness slippage is happening-all the disciples’ courage, resolve, and determination begin to lose ground. Peter finally denies the truth of Jesus a final time and that under oath. But on the inside the one who is supposed to be on trial is asking the questions, is in control. What a contrast! Outside in the darkness, the followers of Jesus are being questioned about the truth of their lives and their world is falling apart, coming unraveled.
The Gospel that is truth is good news, but in our lesson this morning, the good news is silence first. That silences is filled with news-the evening news, television news, newspaper news-just news. The truth can be stated propositionally; the two plus two type of questions.
What is truth? Truth is that eight year old Nasra was out walking with his mother and both were hit by a sniper; the mother lived, her son died. What is truth? Truth is a bunch of answers that help us pass the test; multiple choice, true/false items. Guesswork. But in John’s gospel, truth wears a capital T; it is a question answered by silence. Jesus never gets around to answering Pilate’s question. Just silence-you can hear a pin drop. No answer is necessary.
Truth is a Life. A person who in himself contains Truth that moves us beyond propositions, words, and facts toward a King. Before this Truth we can only stand in silence, because his gaze beholds us, judges us, sees us through and through. He knows the truth about us, our aspirations, our secrets, our attitudes. And there is silence.
Jesus does not give a truth to Pilate; he doesn’t talk about the theology of salvation; he simply stands there as the embodiment of Truth. An answer does come, but still not with words, but in an Act of love. Faith and Truth will meet in a Roman execution. There, God stretches out his Truth before the world. Those who come to that Truth will find truth and life and love.
So we live our lives as if Christ the King Sunday holds reign every day. Boldly declare as truth what exists only in the imaginations of others: Christ is King. Go forth then, proclaiming the Good News that Christ is King; use words if necessary. Amen.
Rev. Cara Gee 11/09