Then 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.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
My sermon from Christ the King Sunday (November 25, 2018) on John 18:33-38a. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.
There are no Republicans or Democrats in the Bible – but the Bible is full of politics. Politics, in its broadest sense, is how we make, preserve, and modify the general rules under which we live. (See Andrew Heywood’s book). These rules, spoken or unspoken, show up whenever groups of people live or work together. As human beings, we need each other. But that doesn’t mean we always get along. Our rival opinions, competing needs, and different wants leads to conflict, cooperation, and more conflict. We team up with each other, form factions against one another, and use every skill we have to “win” whatever conflict we’re in. Politics are the rules, expectations, and activities that form and shape how we work – or how we don’t work – with each other. Now as a faith community located in the United States, it’s not hard to hear the word “politics” and immediately think of political parties, recent elections, and which family members we avoided talking politics with during last Thursday’s Thanksgiving dinner. Politics is also something, we think, the church should avoid because politics feels partisan, biased by whatever political leanings and political party we identify with. We tell ourselves that politics doesn’t belong in the church so we seek out the “spiritual” meaning of every text in the Bible that we read on Sunday mornings. But when we only look for the spiritual, we miss the political realities that impacted Jesus’ life and ministry. Today’s text from the gospel according to John is a political text. And we can’t discover it’s spiritual meaning until we are honest about the political reality that informed Pilate’s first words to Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Now, if you were meeting Jesus face-to-face for the first time, what would your question be? It could be anything yet I’m pretty sure none of us would ask Pilate’s question. Pontius Pilate, as we remember, was a Roman governor who ruled Jerusalem and the surrounding communities during Jesus’ years of public ministry. Pilate was appointed by the Emperor and he embodied Roman authority, control, and military might. He was the Emperor’s representative when the Emperor wasn’t around. And when Pilate spoke, everyone in Syria, Judea, and the Middle East listened. Pilate’s governor mansion wasn’t based in Jerusalem. However, when the Jewish festival of Passover took place, Pilate moved into the city with a large cohort of soldiers. They were there to provide security, crowd control, and to keep everyone in line. Gigantic religious events had a tendency to encourage riots, conflict, and revolts. So Pilate was ready to eliminate any threat, no matter how small it seemed. Jesus had also recently arrived in the city. After teaching in the Temple and sharing a final meal with his friends, he was betrayed by Judas and arrested. After being convicted in a trial overseen by the religious authorities, Jesus was handed over to Roman power. Pilate didn’t care if Jesus was a spiritual leader. And he wasn’t looking for any religious advice. Pilate wanted to know if Jesus was a threat. And since the religious leaders had handed Jesus over to him, Pilate already assumed he was. Pilate’s first question, out of the gate, was a political one. He wanted to know if Jesus claimed any kind of authority that would challenge Rome’s rule. Pilate could only imagine the world as he knew it to be. And any king in his world needed certain things. A king needed territory, followers, and resources. A king needed an army willing to kill on his behalf. A king, in Pilate’s mind, needed to inspire fear, conflict, and co-operation in those they ruled. And if Jesus could do any of that, then he would be a king and he would challenge Rome’s monopoly on that power.
Pilate, as depicted in the gospel according to John, wasn’t interested in the truth. His questions to Jesus were not a gentle inquiry into Jesus’ life, ministry, and mission. Instead, it was an interrogation because Pilate needed to confirm Jesus’ identity as a threat. Pilate knew how his world worked and as the Emperor’s representative, the truth he knew was centered in power, control, and someone “winning” every conflict – no matter what. What Pilate couldn’t see, or chose not to see, was the truth right in front of him. And that truth wasn’t a what, an idea, or some kind of fact written down on a piece of paper. The truth was a who because, as Jesus shared in John 14:6, he is “the way, the truth, and the life.”
We tend to imagine the outcome of politics as having some kind of material shape. Politics involves people having power and that power is expressed by having authority over others. Politics is made real in a specific location – be it in a city council chamber, in a part of Congress, or even in the unspoken table seating charts dictated in some high school lunchrooms. Politics, we believe, is about controlling domains and forming our own, personal, kingdoms. Yet Jesus’ politics was, and is, different. He came to live out his commitment to a world that was already overseen by him. As part of the Holy Trinity and as the One through whom the entire universe was made, there’s no domain or kingdom or territory that doesn’t already belong to Him. When it comes to God’s creation, there’s no territory that Jesus needs to fight for to control. So Jesus chose to build personal, meaningful, and deep relationships with us since we already live in God’s world. And in the words of Rev. Karoline Lewis, “… Jesus’ Kingdom can be anywhere, anytime that Kingdom behavior is exemplified…lived out…and That Kingdom witness [is] heard and observed.” What Pilate couldn’t see was that Jesus’ kingdom was rooted not in things but in people. Jesus wanted people to connect with God’s ultimate promise to them – that we are loved not because we are perfect but because God is – and that promise…changes everything. It changes how we interact with each other. It changes how we live with our neighbors. It changes how we make, preserve, and modify the general rules under which we live. Rather than being focused on “winning” whatever conflict we’re in, our faith in Jesus compels us to realize that we – on a cosmic and divine level – have already won. So instead of competing with one another, we can choose to love each nother. Instead of seeking out victories over those we disagree with, we can chose to help them thrive. Instead of building walls to give us a fake sense of security, we can work on building bonds of friendship – knowing that those bonds take much more work to create but are the only way to develop lasting peace. We get to be honest about the ways we’ve failed to use our power for good and we get to stand up to racism, sexism, classism, and every-ism that stops us from seeing the image of God in the people around us. And because of our baptism, we get to imagine how our politics can be a way we serve God and our neighbors. Jesus as the truth means that, sometimes the truth we tell, is anything but. Yet when we cling to Jesus, listening to his voice over all others, we find ourselves testify to his truth of forgiveness, mercy, service, and, above all, love.