Australia has a Queen. And so does Britain. I have met Americans who think British people are oppressed because we are subjects of the Queen. They think their system of government is far superior to the British, because they are citizens, not subjects. They do not understand a country with a Queen. They do not know what kind of Queen she is. They think that the whole world must envy their American system of government. I wonder what they think now that they have Trump.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. Many people do not understand that. They do not like the idea of being a subject of a king, and especially not worshipping a king. If you come from a country where kings or other rulers have been oppressive, you especially might not like thinking of Jesus as a king. But it may all turn on whether we know what kind of king Jesus is.
For this Christ the King Sunday our gospel looks at just one hour in the life of Jesus, just a few hours before his death, to find out what kind of a king he is.
The time is mid-morning. The day is Good Friday. Jesus is in custody. He is on trial for his life, and his judge and jury is the Roman military governor of Palestine, Pontius Pilate.
Jesus had become a threat to the Jewish religious leaders. He undermined their authority. They had made a bargain with the Romans to keep themselves in power. The Romans wanted to maintain overall control. They were suspicious of anyone who had a following. So Jesus was being condemned for being a trouble-maker. Right away we should be asking, what kind of a king is this?
And now he has been led by his religious accusers before Pilate. Pilate did not appear eager to receive them. He told them that they should try Jesus according to their own Jewish law. Pilate didn’t want to get involved in a religious dispute. He couldn’t win doing that. The Jewish leaders replied that they were not allowed to put anyone to death, only the Roman governor could do that. Now Jesus’ fate was in Pilate’s hands. Then comes a very extraordinary conversation between Pilate and Jesus, between the judge and the accused.
Pilate begins his interrogation with a direct question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate would have heard about the Jewish expectation that a liberator would come one day and create a new Jewish kingdom. Looking at Jesus in chains he would have thought to himself, ‘This guy before me can’t possibly be a liberator. He is a nobody. He is in my custody. Where is his army?’
Jesus answers Pilate with his own question: “Is it you who are asking this, or have others told you about me?” Pilate was probably looking for a simple way to make up his mind about Jesus. If Jesus was claiming to be a Jewish king, Pilate could put him to death in good conscience as a terrorist. But Jesus makes him stop and think - he is challenging the governor. Did Pilate decide Jesus was claiming to be a king? Jesus was calling out Pilate to take responsibility for his own actions.
Pilate tries to push the discussion back on to Jesus, to keep Jesus from looking into his soul, because he had done some terrible things as governor. We often push Jesus back like that, when he gets too close for comfort. He shows us our true selves.
Pilate says, ‘Am I a Jew? Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Pilate wants to make clear who is on trial here.
What has Jesus done? That is a question we all have to reflect on about Jesus. Why should we worship him? Is he really who the church says he is? Is he really, fully and completely, God, as he stands there in the dock?
Jesus answers. He says, ’My kingdom is not from this world. If it were, those who serve me would fight. They would try to keep the Jewish leaders from arresting me. My kingdom is from another place.’
Where is Jesus’ kingdom from? It is coming to us from God. If Pilate represents Caesar and his empire, then Jesus too, even as he stands there alone before his judge, carries in himself a kingdom. But his kingdom is very different from Pilate’s.
Jesus points out something so obvious that it might not be noticed: no one is struggling to keep Jesus from being handed over to the Romans, neither the disciples nor Jesus himself. Brute force and violence are all foreign to Jesus and his kingdom. They do not bring God’s presence to be felt and seen in the world. To put this in positive terms: the power of Jesus’ kingdom is defenceless love, not armies. Those who want to use violence to solve problems will always be far from God’s kingdom. Those who use violent talk will always be far from God’s kingdom.
Jesus then declares who he is: he was born to be a king. But then he brings an entirely knew aspect to their conversation. He says he came to witness to the truth - everyone on the side of truth listens to him. Jesus in John’s gospel divides all humans into two groups: those who listen to him, and those who don’t. There is no middle ground. There is no ‘maybe I will listen to Jesus tomorrow when I'm not so busy.’
Pilate comes back with the most important question anyone has ever had to ask: ‘What is truth?’ Was Pilate trying to find truth for his own life? Not likely. He was probably being sarcastic. He had certainly not risen to the position he held as Roman governor by being mister nice guy.
World-weary people everywhere, people who feel abused by life in general, might explode with a question like that - what is truth? The question they should be asking is: what is true? What is pure and holy, and perfectly good? Who should we really be listening to? Who speaks words that give life? Who offers what cannot be bought for any amount of money?
Pilate hurried outside to the crowd at that point, and surprisingly said he could find nothing in Jesus for which he should deserve to die. But the crowd, stirred up by their leaders, shouted ‘Crucify him.’ The darkness of violence took over again. No one understood the demands of love. No one understood the kind of king Jesus is.
What do we learn about Jesus’ kingship in this gospel reading? He is a king like no other king: he has no army, and he is not fussed about not defending himself when he is accused. He goes to his death with an enormous confidence that what he is doing is right and true.
We live in a time when truth is being mangled. Do you remember what a mangle is? My mother had one. It is a machine with two rollers that you put wet laundry through to squeeze the water out. That is what is happening to truth today: its content is being squeezed out. You can see and hear mangled truth everywhere.
What is truth? Something holy, something divine. Something far beyond us, and at the same time so close inside that it grabs our heart. If we could see it, it would look like Jesus. If we would be citizens of Jesus’ kingdom, we would listen to him, because he is the truth. Everyone who is on the side of truth listens to him.