John 18:33-38 (NRSV)
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?”
As far as Christian festivals are concerned, Christ the King Sunday is clearly one of the lesser-renowned and lesser-appreciated festivals. This could be attributed to the fact that it has been observed for less than 100 years, as contrasted to the festivals of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost that stretch nearly 2,000 years into history. The Feast of Christ the King wasn’t instituted by Pope Pius XI until 1925.
This festival was instituted following World War I. In the midst of the tentative peace from the end of the war, a vile nationalism and fascism was spreading like a virus through Europe. “The Pope felt that the followers of Christ were being lured away by the increasing secularism of the world. They were choosing to live in the “kingdom” of the world rather than in the reign of God.” **
Ironically, the gospel texts selected to accompany the Feast of Christ the King are various scenes from the final trial of Jesus – the trial that resulted in Christ the King being crucified as a criminal. The gospel from today comes from John, where Pontius Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” or, in other words, “Are you Christ the King?”
This is not a religious question on Pilate’s part. He doesn’t care one bit about the latest gossip from the temple. He’s not interested in having a theological debate over a glass of wine with a rabbi. Pilate is a politician. His primary concern is himself alone. And his success was dependent on whether people were paying their taxes and whether the peace was being maintained (peace at the end of a sword, as need be).
“Are you Christ the King?”
Translation: Are you a threat to the status quo? Will you lead a rebellion against Rome? Are you the one people will follow instead of me? Should I be scared of you?
Jesus responds with a phrase that would have reassured the anxious politician, saying, "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.”
Translation: Dude, look around. I’m all alone and powerless. I have no army, no weapons; I have no friends, no donors, no endorsements. I don’t have the votes and I don’t want your job. I’m no political rival to you.
Pilate is feeling very confident now. He realizes this man is no threat to him, to Rome, to the status quo. Jesus then interjects with one last disclaimer, “I am here for one reason only – to testify to the truth.”
Pilate responds, “Truth? What is truth?”
Translation: I’m a political puppet of Rome, I can’t think of anything as useless as truth.
Pilate fails to see that Jesus is, in fact, dangerous to the existing power and principalities and attempts to release him. Nevertheless, the religious leaders demand Jesus’ death. After having Jesus beaten as a punishment, Pilate turns to the religious leaders one more time to see if they changed their minds.
In John chapter 19 we read, “[Pilate] said to them, “Here is your King!” They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.”
“We have no king but the emperor.” That sentence puts a smile on Pilate’s face, but it sends shivers down my spine.
Here is a rabbi who healed the sick, restored sight to the blind, loved and lifted up the outcasts of society. Here is a rabbi who preached and lived a message of truth, peace, love, and forgiveness.
Every breath he took, every word he spoke was full of beauty and truth.
Every breath he took, every word he spoke stood in direct contrast to the worldly kingdoms of Rome and the temple society.
Every breath he took, every word he spoke had the power to bring transformative healing to the world.
This is the true King – the one to whom every knee should bow. But the chief priests respond, “We have no king but the emperor.”
Translation: We are afraid to die at your hands and we choose you over the truth. We will continue to bend the knee to Rome and let injustice run rampant in our communities and watch our people get slaughtered as long as you let us keep our positions of privilege and power.
The obvious question today’s worship raises is, “Who is your king?” Who or what determines the course of your life?
Is your king your inner demons? Those voices telling you that you are unlovable and not good enough? Does the voice of the evil one who says you’re unworthy keep you from claiming your citizenship in God’s kingdom?
Is your king a grudge you hold over someone else– an ill-advised attempt to hold power of someone at the expense of living in the midst of forgiveness and peace?
Is your king the family down the street who has the bigger home, the nicer cars, the more successful kids, the seemingly-happier marriage?
Is your king your career or accomplishments? Have you earned every gift in your life through sheer hard work and fortitude? Are you able to see gifts of unmerited grace in your life? Would you be willing to give up the good and easy life you’ve earned for yourself if it meant standing up for truth?
Is your king your political party? If it comes to it, would you pledge allegiance to your political party even if it meant disregarding your beliefs and convictions about who and what God is? Or is it your party that dictates what you believe about God in the first place?
Or is your king the Christ? Do you pledge allegiance to the one who reached out to the least and the lost regardless of their race, nationality, or culture? Do you pledge allegiance to the one who testified to the truth of God even though it meant giving up his life? It is the truth that Jesus came to the world to bring love and forgiveness. Are you citizens of that kingdom?
We have been created to belong to God, and we will not find peace, hope, joy, love, or truth until we rest in that knowledge and that citizenship.
Our citizenship is not dictated by a mark on a map; rather, our citizenship is in the Kingdom of Heaven, which is present and available now and forever through Jesus Christ.
So, my friends, be bold in the knowledge that Christ is King. Take delight in the truth that Christ’s kingdom is characterized by righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
May you and all people come to know the abundant life secure in the reign of God. Amen.