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?’
Welcome to the last Sunday of the Christian year – a day traditionally referred to as the feast of ‘Christ the King’.
I appreciate that there are probably not many here that manage their schedule according to the ecclesiastical calendar, yet I’m sure w are all familiar with the way in which different countries and cultures celebrate the New Year at a different times. Culturally we celebrate New Year on January 1st, whereas Chinese New Year is celebrated at a completely different time, and the church New Year is celebrated next Sunday, which means that this Sunday is the last Sunday of the old ecclesiastical year – a day when, traditionally, we remember the kingship of Christ.
Now, I say ‘traditionally’, but it’s actually only a tradition that goes back some 80-odd years – to 1925, when the feast day was proclaimed by Pope Pius IX.
1925 was a very interesting time for our world. We had only just emerged from the war to end all wars, and the signs were everywhere that it was hurtling towards another. We were in the grip of a worldwide economic depression, and desperately looking for answers.
And of course there were some outspoken leaders who believed that they had answers to those questions. One was the Italian leader, Mussolini, who had just celebrated his third year in office. Another was a young rabble-rouser by the name of Adolf Hitler, who had been out of gaol for a year by that stage, and whose Nazi party was rapidly growing in popularity across Germany.
The world was watching, waiting for answers, and listening to these powerful men competing for the limelight, and so the then Pope felt that it was time to remind Christian people everywhere that our allegiance is to Christ and not to any of these worldly rulers.
And so we have ‘Christ the King’ Sunday, and so we are presented with this Gospel reading too – an excerpt from the dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate which I guess is meant to tell us something about the way Christ interfaces with the power-players of this world.
“Are you a king?”, Pilate asks of Jesus. “I’m not that sort of king”, says Jesus. “I came to bear witness to the truth”. “Hah!”, says Pilate. “What is truth?”
That’s the heart of the dialogue, I would suggest, and it reflects the vast gulf that lay between Jesus and Pilate.
Pilate had an agenda, and you don’t need to have a doctorate in Ancient Near Eastern history to work out what Pilate’s agenda was. Pilate’s agenda (and indeed his whole life) was about getting hold of and maintaining power.
“Are you a threat?’ he asks Jesus, because he’s been told that Jesus is a player, a competitor, a political power-monger in his own right.. “I’m not that sort of king” says Jesus. My Kingdom has to do with truth and not power, He says. And Pilate immediately loses interest. He is out the door, saying to Jesus’ accusers, ‘I’ve finished with your king. You can have Him back.’
The important thing to realise with this dialogue, I’d suggest, is that Jesus and Pilate really had absolutely nothing to say to each other.
Christians have often made the false assumption that the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate was somehow meaningful and that Pilate must have at least come out of it with a lot to think about. Indeed, there were stories circulating at one point in Christian history that Pilate and his wife became secret converts after this conversation, quietly won over by the words of truth that Jesus spoke to them. This is almost certainly complete rubbish.
Most likely is that Pilate learnt absolutely nothing from Jesus that day as Jesus had absolutely nothing to offer Pilate that was of any value to him.
Now, admittedly, we do see Pilate making an effort to release Jesus, and it may be tempting to assume that this was because Pilate was somehow touched by Jesus’ innocence, but when you look at Pilate’s broader history of dirty deeds and mass violence, it would have been out of character for him to have tried to free Jesus out of any pious concern for justice.
Far more likely is that any attempt Pilate made to free Jesus was more a by-product of either his sincere dislike of the Jewish leaders, such that he would have loved to have annoyed them by leaving Jesus as a thorn in their side, or that it was because of some superstitious fear that he held, such that harming Jesus might have caused him harm – a belief that could well have been based on a dream that we are told Pilate’s wife had.
Read the dialogue: Pilate asks very little of Jesus because Pilate has nothing to gain from Jesus, and conversely Jesus has little to say to Pilate because Pilate has nothing to offer Him that He values.
Pilate had assumed of course that Jesus would be very keen to dialogue with him – “Do you not realise”, he says to Jesus, “that I have the power to kill you and the power to set you free?” (John 19:10) but Jesus tells him that he doesn’t have as much power as he thinks he has. “You have no power except that which is given you from above”, and indeed, Pilate knows full well that just as it was given to him from above, so can it be very easily taken away.
We might raise the question in this scenario, ‘who really has the power?’ Pilate thinks he has supreme executive power – the power of life and death – but it is Jesus who is really in control of his own destiny. True enough.
The more important insight here though, for our purposes today, is that the sort of power that Pilate had was of no interest to Jesus. He wasn’t interested in competing with Pilate for power at that level. He just didn’t play that game!
And this is why there can be no meaningful dialogue between the two, because they are playing different language games. Pilate is playing a power game. Jesus is playing a different game. In His own words, He’s concern is with ‘truth’, and as He points out, unless you are already of the truth, you can’t play. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice”, says Jesus. Pilate, of course, does not ‘belong to the truth’, so he doesn’t hear Jesus’ voice, and so he doesn’t have a clue what Jesus is talking about.
I was reminded, when thinking about this passage, of an old Goon Show episode where the Goons re-enacted the Roman invasion of Britain. The only problem for the Brits though, in the Goon Show’s re-telling of the tale, was that when they heard that the Romans were coming to take them on, they assume that it was in a game of soccer. And so as Caesar watches the Britons line up on the field of battle, he asks, ‘what army is this that fights with a ball at their feet?’ while the Brits quickly blow the whistle and yell ‘foul’, reminding Caesar that he’s only allowed to have eleven players on the field at any one time, whereas they had counted at least 40,000, all of whom seemed to be playing very roughly!
You can’t have a meaningful engagement unless you’re playing the same game. We Christians all-too-readily forget this as we try to engage with the world. “Jesus is the Answer” we like to say, but it’s really a stupid thing to say for it depends entirely on what the question is.
Pilate had questions:
How do I hang on to my power
How to I stick to the Jewish leaders
Jesus was the answer to none of those questions!
We make the same mistake when we try to build our evangelistic outreach by trying to scratch where we believe contemporary Australians are itching.
Of course contemporary Australians are asking lots of questions, such as
how do I get ahead in my work?
How do I invest wisely so as to get a bigger bank balance?
How can I improve my sex life?
and in each of these cases again, Jesus is the answer to NONE of these questions!
Jesus doesn’t play those games. He doesn’t answer those questions. He is not the one to dialogue with when you’re looking for more sex and wealth and power. What Jesus offers is truth, and those who are of the truth recognise it when Jesus speaks it – truths such as
that under God all people – Romans and Jews and black and white and in between – are all equally people.
That those who live by the sword die by the sword, and that the pursuit of power is a lust that is never satisfied
That a persons life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions but that self-sacrifice is the key to self-fulfilment.
And of course Pilate needed to hear those truths, but he was never going to hear them, because he wasn’t of the truth, and couldn’t afford to be, as his whole life’s focus was elsewhere.
And so here we are on Christ the King Sunday. And of course the world has changed significantly since 1925 when this feast was first proclaimed, and many things have changed, though as we all recognise, a surprising number of things seem to have remained the same.
Once again this country has just emerged from a war and is in fact getting ever more deeply embroiled in another war, and we’re in a recession and people are looking for answers. And once again there are great political power players strutting the world stage and offering to give those answers.
So how does Jesus line up alongside these power-players of the 21st century? My feeling is that with most of them, for the most part, He really has nothing to say. He does not take them on on their own terms. He does not fight fire with fire. He just doesn’t play those games at all. Instead He offers truth, and those who have ears hear.
And maybe that sounds a bit defeatist, but on the contrary, the Good News – the really Good News – is that in the end truth wins!
It always does! Look back in history at the long history of lies and violence and global deception that has been foisted on the human race – mass enslavement that has been based on the lie that persons of one skin colour are superior to persons of another skin colour. In the end truth wins!
And look at the powerful lies we labour under today and that keep us off-balance and knee-deep in endless war – lies such as the one telling us that Christians and Muslims will never be able to be friends but that we are victims of an unavoidable clash of civilisations, resulting in inevitable never-ending warfare. We know that in the end truth wins!
For He who brings down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, who fills the hungry with good things while sends the rich away empty, will see to it that in the end truth conquers all, and that the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
And until that day comes we will proclaim in faith nonetheless that Christ is King and that His truth is the future of our world – His is the Kingdom, His the power, His the glory, forever and ever. Amen!
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, November 2009.