‘What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.’
Many of us think of Francis Bacon’s famous words when we read this account of Jesus before Pilate. But we have a problem: the Lectionary omits verse 38 where Pilate says, ‘What is truth?’ for reasons that are beyond me. Well, unless it is to do with the political correctness that afflicts the Lectionary in some places. Maybe Pilate has to be rehabilitated.
But aside from strange editorial decisions in the compilation of the Lectionary, this is a difficult passage, however familiar it seems. We read it today, because today, the Sunday before Advent, is the Feast of Christ the King, also known as Stir-Up Sunday, from the famous collect
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And hence Jane’s piece at the beginning of the service with the cake! If today were just about cake, we’d have few problems with it – maybe it would be suitable for Back To Church Sunday!
But the kingship of Jesus is a problem. It’s a problem throughout the Gospels, and it’s a particular problem here. The kingship of Jesus is a problem for everyone who encounters him. By considering how King Jesus is a problem for different people, we shall see how his kingship challenges us all.
Firstly, and obviously, King Jesus is a problem for Pilate. To return to Francis Bacon’s words, I don’t think he is ‘jesting Pilate’ at all. Pontius Pilate has a serious political problem here. As a Roman Governor, he is used to being able to throw his weight around, using the occupying army to subdue the locals. His trouble is that he has done it too heavily-handed once too often, having desecrated the Jerusalem Temple. The Jewish leaders had sent a deputation to Rome to protest, with the result that Pilate was on a final warning. However aggressive the Roman Empire was, they saw no need to cause what they believed to be unnecessary provocation in the lands they conquered.
So when the Jewish leaders hand Jesus over to him, Pilate has a big problem. Yet to be fair, he starts from a position of justice: ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ (verse 33); ‘What have you done?’ (verse 35)
Yet by the end of the interview, we know Pilate, like a politician today, will cave into compromise and short term expediency. Throughout the conversation, he can’t get a handle on who Jesus is. He doesn’t fit his categories. Because Pontius Pilate only understands one language: the language of politics. He’s expecting Jesus to be a revolutionary. Well, he is, but not in the sense Pilate expects: Jesus is no terrorist. Not only does Jesus’ lifestyle deny such an idea, he contradicts it in his reply:
‘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.’ (Verse 36)
Some people seize on this as a sign that obeying the kingship of Jesus means we don’t get involved in politics. They quote it as ‘My kingdom is not of this world’. Therefore, they argue, since we are part of that kingdom, we should not get embroiled in dirty, everyday politics: that’s a different kingdom.
But what Jesus says is perhaps better rendered, ‘My kingship is not from this world’. He’s not advocating withdrawal from the world, he’s saying that he does things differently. His kingship comes from heaven, where justice is not established by force or violence. His kingship is therefore radically different from the tactics employed by Roman Emperors or Jewish Zealots.
Jesus doesn’t bail out of politics: it is about the common good, and he cares about that. But his kingship redraws how his disciples will get involved. They will do so peaceably, not forcefully.
What does that mean for us? Not all of us are directly involved in politics. Apart from anything else, I believe it means that if we live under the reign of King Jesus, we conduct ourselves in public in a peaceable way. We do not shout, scream, demand, manipulate and scheme. We speak up more for the poor and the voiceless than for ourselves. We do so passionately, but without aggression. Is that possible? Jesus managed it.
Secondly, King Jesus is a problem for the Jewish leaders. There’s a lot of reference in John’s Gospel to ‘the Jews’. Tragically, down the centuries some Christians (and others, such as Hitler) have used it to justify prejudice and violence against Jewish people.
However, John does not use ‘the Jews’ to mean the entire Jewish race at the time. He normally uses it to refer to a distinct group, and he is clearly aware of other people in the story – not least Jesus – who are also Jewish but are not included under ‘the Jews’. Mostly, it stands for the religious authorities who are in opposition to Jesus and his ministry. It is these people, designated ‘the Jews’, who have handed Jesus over to Pilate (verse 32).
What’s their problem? Simple. Jesus doesn’t fit their expectations. Jesus is at odds with most of the major groupings in the Judaism of his time. He won’t cosy up to the Roman authorities like the wealthy Sadducees and some of the priestly classes. He won’t use the Scriptures as a weapon to exclude people in the way the scribes and Pharisees do. He won’t retreat to a secluded, pure community like the Essenes. And as we’ve already noted, he rejects the violent revolution of the Zealots. He just doesn’t fit.
So what are you going to do with a misfit who keeps causing you trouble? You’ll try to get rid of him. The traditional Jewish punishment of stoning was still sometimes spontaneously used, as we see from the story of the woman caught in adultery . But around AD 30, Rome took away the Jewish right to execute someone. But it further suited the purposes of the religious establishment to have Jesus crucified, because then by being hung on a tree he would be subject to a curse, according to Deuteronomy. It’s sobering what lengths human beings will go to in order to exclude someone they regard as a misfit.
I’ve talked before in sermons about the way we wrongly fit Jesus into our own preferred image and can’t cope with the fact that he won’t be confined to it. Recently, I read something helpful that a friend posted on Facebook. Pam is an American Christian (a Methodist minister, in fact) who recently returned to the USA from the UK. She has obviously been listening to the famous American radio show ‘A Prairie Home Companion’, hosted by the author Garrison Keillor, author of the well-known series of books that began with ‘Lake Wobegon Days’. Keillor, a Christian of Lutheran and now Episcopalian background, tells fictionalised stories based on life in rural Minnesota. They often draw on his My friend Pam quoted a gem from a recent broadcast by Keillor:
Jesus came to earth and disappointed a lot of people.
When you follow Jesus, he will disappoint you. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were quickly disappointed by him. He won’t conform, and life with him will not always go the way we want it to. For he is king, and it is his rule that matters.
The question therefore comes, what will we do with our disappointment? Will we attempt to banish or exclude him, like the Jewish establishment of two thousand years ago? Or will we continue to follow him, mixing joy and disappointment? It’s a hard choice, but let’s remember that only those who continued with Jesus through disappointment got to see him in his risen glory.
Thirdly, King Jesus is a problem for us today. It’s simply this: even if Jesus radically reinterpets kingship into a peaceful form, it’s still a reworking based on a notion of kingship that has very little equivalent in our world today. We may still have a monarchy, but our Queen is meant to act on the advice of her ministers. Largely, therefore, she gives Royal Assent to Bills in Parliament that have been shaped by politicians. She retains certain powers, but they are much diminished. She is no absolute monarch. Long gone are the days when we spoke about ‘the divine right of kings’.
And in other cultures, the gap is even greater. How do you think about King Jesus when you live in a republic with a President as head of state? The American Christian author and speaker Brian McLaren has spoken of his cultural struggle with the biblical references to kingship and the kingdom of God. He suggests an alternative. We should refer to ‘the revolution of God’.
I think that’s helpful! If following King Jesus joins us up to the revolution of God, then one thing is certain: we are not in for a quiet, cosy time, at least not in the way some church communities seem to envisage. We are called instead to a dynamic, challenging, risky way of life.
A risk-free existence can look very attractive for a while. Although the fine line between risk-free and unbearably boring is easily crossed. But those who want risk-free should never become Christians. To follow Jesus means risking all to follow him. I was recently reminded that the Church of Scotland report ‘Church Without Walls’ says that the essence of church is ‘People with Jesus at the centre, travelling wherever Jesus takes us.’ The whole fresh expressions initiative is about allowing Jesus to take us to those whom our existing churches do not reach, and working with him, as he forms a new group of people, who are willing to go wherever he takes them. That inevitably involves risk.
Because that is the logical conclusion of the other two issues we have thought about. Risk. It will be risky to follow King Jesus in the ways I have suggested. People who campaign for the poor in public life and do so in a peaceable way may end up on crosses. People who are willing to keep following Jesus even through disappointments are not signing up for a safe and quiet life, even if they do live with the hope of resurrection. But we remember how Jesus finally answered Pilate:
‘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.’ (Verse 37)
Nothing else is the way of truth.
 Richard Burridge, John (The People’s Bible Commentary), p215.