If we could just do a bit of time travel back to the time of Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus, we might appreciate the questions. “What is truth? What is reality?” and the implied, “Who is this Jesus?” Perhaps if we had sat in on the questioning we might better understand what is at stake in that scene in John’s gospel. Jesus is on trial – and yet it is Pilate who fails a test. Jesus tries to explain that what Pilate thinks of as power, what Pilate thinks of as kingdom, has no bearing on what Jesus knows. It is a test for allegiance between realms – and Pilate has no clue that the realm of God, full of non-violent love and power that is founded in love and forgiveness, even exists. This is a test for us as well. How will we answer what is truth? Will we allow ourselves to stake a claim on a realm or world that is largely unseen in this one – where beauty and truth and goodness dwell, peace and justice kiss each other, and Jesus is Lord?
Jesus is Lord. (Who’s on first?)
This scene with Pilate has a kind of Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first” quality to it, without the comedy. Pilate never does understand what Jesus is saying. It is as if their main ideas, their foundational understandings about the conversation are so different that they are not communicating at all. “Who’s on first?” “What?” “No – What’s on second.”
“Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks.
“Is that your own idea or have other people been telling you about me? Jesus replies.
35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
38 “What is truth?” retorted Pilate.
Do you see what I mean about the “Who’s on first” quality of the conversation? Pilate has no earthy idea what Jesus is talking about – perhaps because it isn’t the earthly that Jesus is describing! This Jesus, whom we usually describe as Lord, has a very different idea about power. He didn’t seem to care who was in power or out of power in Judea – there is nothing about him that says he would have wanted either a first century equivalent of a “selfie” with Pilate or a debate about constitutional authority. Instead, he’s challenging the very IDEA of power. It is consistent with the attitudes he expressed in his teaching ministry: people with money didn’t have influence with him – he told them to give it all away, embrace the caravan and follow him.
INSTEAD – THIS POWER that Jesus had reveals him after his death as exalted Lord over all of earth’s kingdoms. He insisted that was mattered was in humility to serve (the first shall be last), etc. and that the power of God is revealed in human weakness (St. Paul says it in 1 Corinthians 1), but we see it through the disciples in all of the gospels, perhaps particularly in Mark. Power looks very different as it is located in this Jewish man who was convicted as a criminal and executed by the lawful government in a shameful death. More than just a Jewish carpenter from the hick town of Nazareth, he is revealed as the Christ of God who is exalted and will reign over ALL the earth!
And all those who thought they had all the power: Pilate and the Roman Imperial government, Herod and the Jewish collaborators, even the religious leaders who were in power because they would work with the Romans – they were all wrong. Their whole understanding of power was altogether wrong.
The Feast of Christ the King was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI as a way of “combating the destructive forces of this age.” We celebrate it as the last Sunday of the liturgical year as a way to orient our lives towards Christ as “the goal of human history, the focal point of the desires of history and civilization, the center of mankind, the joy of all our hearts, and the fulfillment of all aspirations….(as) we press onward toward the consummation of history which fully corresponds to the plan of his love: ‘to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.’ (Eph. 1:10)”[i]
**Pilate never understood that the trial wasn’t about whether or not Jesus would be found guilty of a capital offense. It was about whether or not Pilate and the religious leaders would be judged by Jesus’ word.**
No wonder Pilate didn’t have a clue what they were discussing! He couldn’t have even imagined that God’s realm was already breaking in to this world through this humble teacher with a talent for ticking off people in authority.
This gets political. We’re talking cosmic politics here – there’s nothing red or blue about it. But this passage in John, and the one from Revelation, point to a cosmological Christology, a political overturning of the kingdoms of this world. The real question is, as Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza notes, “Who is the true Lord of this world?” If the answer is Jesus Christ, that is a deeply political matter indeed! The rulers of nations would feel very challenged by that answer – because it means that they ARE NOT the Lord. This title of “Lord,” is “a thoroughly cosmic title.”[ii] And he is depicted as “coming with the clouds” – on other words, visible to all and particularly to those who oversaw his crucifixion. He will judge all rulers, all nations, all people. This is clearly a threat to the powers and governments of the world. A VERY political statement indeed!
With “Jesus is Lord” as our rallying cry, we declare a definition of truth and a primary allegiance that become our weapons against the powers and principalities of this world. Jesus was political in this sense: Christ was the beginning of the in-breaking of God’s new realm. He inaugurated a new creation – and demonstrated how prayer, love and forgiveness might form a new way to peace that took no account of worldly politics. It went beyond them entirely![iii]
To claim Christ as Lord means that we have an ultimate allegiance that holds us in the face of all of the “would-be lords of this world – and delivers us from their power to dictate the terms of our existence.”[iv]
-- This kind of politics challenges ALL world leaders, but especially those who seek sweeping power over others whether as leaders of nations or self-declared prophets –
Christ the King, ruler of all creation, challenges them all.
-- Prevailing Wisdom of finding an easy answer, the right pill, a one-stop solution to the world’s problems –
Is challenged by a word of TRUTH that tells us how things really are with us so that we understand where we CAN find hope. Christ the King, who embodies truth, challenges the pat answers.
-- Self-indulgence of commercialism, hedonistic pleasure and escalating desire –
Is challenged by the ethics of serving others and finding joy in meeting human need - If Christ is king, who loved the poor and called them brothers and sisters.
-- In times of feasting with heavy laden tables surrounded by people who overeat a bit and pack refrigerators with leftovers –
This Cosmic Christ invites us to a different table where the poor are given seats of honor and we all share in simple gifts of bread and wine.
-- In our world where some lives are more highly valued than others - where skin pigmentation has more of a determining factor on survival than actions or words - so good guys serving their country are shot and killed by police when home for Thanksgiving if their skin is dark, while even bad guys actively shooting manage to live through arrest processes if their skin is light enough --
This Jewish, brown man is the Lord of the earth. And he said that he came “as light into the world.”
Yes, the church, the community being-formed by the in-breaking realm of God, is a new polis – a God-centered community with new understandings of leadership and what it means to be a “body politic.”[v] The church is called to become “a colony from another realm, representing the rights of its sovereign Lord. So our politics are embodied in the life that we’re called to live out together as God’s people – as the church.”[vi] But even more than a new kind of body politic, the church is to become an embodiment of the nature of the Prince of Peace – an example of what God intends for all of humanity and, indeed, for all of creation.[vii] SO WE – embodying the values of our Lord, become a challenge to the policies of ruling bodies at every point that they do not align themselves with the politics of Christ the King! When we are living in Christ – or Christ is living in us – we just don’t fit well into any existing political categories or power structure. We challenge them. For the Christ whom we worship is the Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end, the one who will rule at the end of the age and within each child of God. This is a political truth claim. This is political talk – cosmically political claims of a different allegiance than is culturally understood or politically correct. “Jesus is Lord” – that means that no one else is Lord. It means that Jesus rules over all the earth: all nations, all rulers, all people. And we are claiming his authority over all the earth until the day when EVERYONE will acknowledge it – when every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord!
Boom! Mic drop.
This means us. It doesn’t stay on a cosmic level – it gets right down to us. The power that raised Jesus from the dead, exalted Christ to reign over all nations, over all peoples, over all the earth – wants to work through us. The Cosmic Lord of all Creation seems to prefer to fight the battle for the hearts and souls of people through US.
And the battle does continue. There are still little powers, wanna-be dictators running around doing their level-best to squash the people that THEY don’t think matter. We live in a very unequal world and it is getting more unequal all the time. Some folks get served the best of everything with lots of personal attention. And other folks are kicked to the curb, drummed out of the line to even cast a vote for those in power. Money magazine recently reported on the growing disparity of wealth.
“The global economy created a record number of billionaires last year, exacerbating inequality amid a weakening of workers’ rights and a corporate push to maximize shareholder returns, charity organization Oxfam International said in a new report.
The world now has 2,043 billionaires, after a new one emerged every two days in the past year, the nonprofit organization said in a report published Monday. The group of mostly men saw its wealth surge by $762 billion, which is enough money to end extreme poverty seven times over, according to Oxfam.
According to separate data compiled by Bloomberg, the top 500 billionaires’ net worth grew 24% to $5.38 trillion in 2017.”[viii]
Amid such power politics and destructive tendencies, the Power of Love which will triumph in the end -- needs allies here and now. Policies that encourage wealth accumulation by the wealthiest at the expense of their workers needs to be challenged. Fear, violence and death need continual checks – continual challenges in the name of love. And we are invited, called, challenged to become allies with the Reign of Christ as we serve LOVE in our community. When the one who reigns over all nations becomes our reference point – not any of the other voices around us – we participate in being the LIGHT of the WORLD to the WORLD – and in being the means of LOVE to those around us.
CHANNELS of love…. If we focus on Jesus we can figure out what he is doing in the world – so we can JOIN him![ix]
To forgive injuries done us and debts that chain folks
To heal the sick and provide basic health care for those who have none
To provide food and shelter to those who are homeless with PADS
To be agents of reconciliation and peacemakers
To be voices for equity in the schools so all our children can learn
To provide Christmas gifts for those living on the margins through Community Gift Baskets, Salvation Army Toy Drive, or books for A House in Austin
To be voices proclaiming what God is doing – this new order among us
We may not see God’s Kingdom – God’s Reign – come in fullness in our lifetime – but we can see it in little ways all around us. EVEN THROUGH US. David Buttrick described it like this:
“Visions of God’s future should include grand images of neighbor love and divine communion but also news of liberation from the many threats that deform human life. The threats must be imaged as well…. We modern people do not fear wild beasts as much as did the early Israelites, but we face poison gas, atomic explosion, an AIDS epidemic, as well as stock market fluctuations that never disfigured Isaiah’s world.” [x]
The Christ who will rule the cosmos is loose in the world – setting people free who were captive, offering hope to the hopeless, and inviting those who will follow to be a part of bringing a new world to birth. How can we not serve a Lord like that? How can we catch a glimpse of this radiant Lord and not offer our hearts and souls to him?
A “communist lecturer paused before summing up. His large audience listened fearfully. ‘Therefore,’ he said, ‘there is no God; Jesus Christ never existed; there is no such thing as a Holy Spirit. The Church is an oppressive institution, and anyway its out of date. The future belongs to the state; and the State is in the hands of the Party.’
He was about to sit down when an old priest near the front stood up. ‘May I say two words?’ he asked. (It’s three in English, but two in Russian.) The lecturer disdainfully gave him permission. He turned, looked out over the crown, and shouted, ‘Christ is risen!’ Back came the roar of the people: ‘He is risen indeed!’ They’d been saying it every Easter for a thousand years; why should they stop now?”
N.T. Wright, telling this story also comments: “They weren’t just whistling in the dark. The gospel message of Easter is the complete answer to tyranny.”[xi]
It always has been the answer to tyranny. It still can be – through us.
Conclusion: Pilate may never have understood – these ideas of truth and power beyond what his life experience were just too much for him. He failed his test. But for those of us who have read these stories, and gotten a glimpse of this Christ in Glory – we can begin to understand. We don’t have to fail OUR TEST.
God wants something very different for humanity than what we now see. And we can be a part of it by hitching our allegiance to the new reign. Yes --It is counter-cultural. Yes --To be a part of the polis of Christ isn’t easy. But it is a rare and wondrous thing to be a sign of reconciliation in the world, to embody compassion, to offer community. And what a sign of hope we have: at the end of the age, the Christ of God will come, vindicated and triumphant, speaking for the broken ones that he came to salvage –both in his own lifetime and in ours.
[i] Pastoral Consitution on the Church in the Modern World, cited in A. Adam, The Liturgical Year, 179.
[ii] Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, 89ff.
[iii] Heavily influenced by David Buttrick.
[iv] Mark Achtetmeier in A Passion for the Gospel: Confessing Jesus Christ for the 21st Century. 22.
[v] Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, The Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ." 118-119.
[ix] Sweet and Viola, 108.
[x] David Buttrick, The New and the Now. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1998. 123.
[xi] NT Wright, “Following Jesus,” 53.