That’s My King!; John 18:33-37
Plymouth First United Methodist Church; November 21, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer
I know, it’s an odd text for today, isn’t it? Not one we would expect on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, as we’re thinking ahead to Advent and beginning our preparations for Christmas. We’re thinking about giving thanks. Maybe we’re thinking Baby Jesus. But today’s scripture takes us to one of the last conversations Jesus will have before he’s crucified.
It’s a courtroom scene, really, with Jesus standing before Pilate, the representative of Rome who ruled over Judea. Jesus has been arrested, questioned by his own Jewish leaders, and then brought to Pilate’s headquarters for sentencing. Jesus has been a problem for some time now, and this claim of “kingship” is the last straw.
Pilate is interested in civil law and not concerned about religious disputes, but Jesus’ opponents are persistent. Pilate doesn’t want rioting in the streets or a phone call from his boss in Rome, questioning his ability to keep the peace among his charges in this desolate—and what Rome would consider a backwards place. So, Pilate calls Jesus to him and begins questioning him.
Pilate’s first question addresses Jesus’ identity as king of the Jews. The title of “king” is loaded with political and mutinous meaning for the Romans, who have little tolerance for any king but Caesar. As Rome’s chief authority in that territory, Pilate is pressing Rome’s full authority against Jesus when he asks the question. But Jesus isn’t intimidated and he doesn’t answer the question. Instead, Jesus challenges Pilate with a question of his own. He takes control of the conversation, asking the source and motivation behind Pilate’s question. Pilate’s response is revealing.
In verse 35, Pilate emphasizes the fact that he’s not Jewish and doesn’t have a personal interest in Jesus’ status among the Jews. He isn’t concerned about Jewish kings and messiahs. He basically asks Jesus, “What have you done to offend your people?”
It seems that everyone is aware of what Jesus is doing except Pilate.
Jesus again, doesn’t answer the question, but instead begins talking about kingship and kingdom. At one level, his words are assuring: his followers aren’t a threat to Roman rule, and yet what the religious authorities and the followers of Jesus have come to see is that his rule is profoundly subversive to any worldly authority that demands allegiance over loyalty to God.
“So, you are a king?” Pilate asks.
“That’s what you say,” Jesus responds. “It was for this I was born, and for this that I came into the world: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.”
So, you are a king” Pilate wonders…
As Christians, we would say that Jesus is king, ruler of the world, ruler of our lives…Lord, Messiah, Savior.
But what does that mean? What difference does it make? How does that change our world? Our lives?
It’s Christ the King Sunday, which is a relatively new festival in the Christian year, dating back to the late 1800’s when the world’s great empires—British, American, Spanish, French, German, Russian, and Japanese—were all at war or about to go to war somewhere.
The pope of the Roman Catholic Church at the time wrote a letter in which he dedicated the world to Christ the King. In the letter, he reminded the empires that God is present with the whole human race, even with those who do not know God.
After World War 1, another pope designated the last Sunday of October as Christ the King Sunday, a day to remember that Christ received power and honor from God and was made ruler of the universe. Eventually, the day was moved to the last Sunday of the church year, which was a time when the church was already accustomed to reflecting on Christ’s return at the end of time to rule over all creation.
And so today, even though at first glance this scripture may seem out of place, I think it is a profoundly important question for us as we prepare to step into the season of Advent…as we make a way for Christ’s coming…as we get ready for Christmas.
Who is Jesus? What difference does it make that he was born/that he came into the world? Is there meaning beyond the parties and the presents and the sweet little baby in a manger? How has his coming changed our lives, our attitudes, our behaviors? Do we submit to his rule over all other rules? Is our allegiance to God first and foremost in every decision we make? Do we rely on the truth of scripture, or are we more inclined to accept the truth of the voices around us that seem to speak so loudly, so convincingly, and with such self-proclaimed authority?
Whose voice do we listen to?
It’s hard to decide sometimes, isn’t it? Sometimes it feels as though the world is unraveling around us and we want to protect ourselves from all that evil. Shouldn’t we do whatever is necessary to ensure that bad things don’t come our way?
What do we do? How do we decide? Who do we listen to? Who can we trust?
Are we willing to listen to/to trust the one whose kingdom is not of this world? The one who came to testify to God’s truth?
Scripture teaches us/offers us lessons:
What does Jesus tell us as he talks to the woman in Samaria, at the well, considered an outcast, off-limits to most proper Jewish men (John 4)? What does Jesus say about welcoming the stranger, about loving one another, about the joy in heaven in the recovery of one lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son? What does Jesus say about washing one another’s feet, about following him, about bearing fruit, about being his disciples?
Do we only listen when it’s convenient? Only when it’s easy? Does his word only stand true when the other person we’re talking about looks like us, believes like us, lives like us?
Jesus said, “It was for this that I was born, and for this that I came into the world: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.”
How can you not think about the interchange between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men”? Can we handle the truth?
The truth, for those of us in this world who are Christian, is found in Jesus. He is the one who we know as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Christians believe that ultimate truth is found in Jesus Christ and is recorded in the gospel accounts of his life. We also believe that the Holy Spirit has inspired the writers to include everything in scripture about the truth that we need to understand. It’s all contained in the Old and New Testaments; but we have pruned that body of knowledge down to something that is more palatable, manageable and believable.
Maybe you’ve heard the story of how Thomas Jefferson longed to separate the authentic words and actions of Jesus from what he imagined were the “elaborations” of the Gospels. In 1803, soon after he became our 3rd president, he created his own New Testament. He sat down with 2 Bibles and a pair of scissors, cut out the passages he believed in and pasted them into the pages of a blank book. The virgin? Gone. The miracles? Gone. Christ’s divinity? Gone. The resurrection? Gone. He called his book “The Philosophy of Jesus,” and he read from it every night. It ran to all of 46 pages. A bit of a paring down, wouldn’t you say?
When I read that, I was surprised at Thomas Jefferson’s arrogance. Wondered how he could presume to know what belonged and what didn’t. But when we’re honest, we’ve done the same thing. Maybe not with scissors and glue—but we’ve edited our Bibles to what we can believe in. We pick and choose among the passages for what makes us comfortable. We edit out the parts that are difficult, obscure, or unlikely. We edit out the law and the wars, leave out God’s judgement of some people, or acceptance of others.
We create our own versions of truth.
What is truth?
Can we handle the truth? God’s truth?
Are we willing to listen to it? To let it guide our decisions, our lives?
Is Jesus truly the king of our lives? The one whose truth guides us?
Just beyond our reading today, Pilate asks that question of Jesus: What is truth?
And Jesus just stands there. He doesn’t answer. He just stands there…