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.” John 18:33-37.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Psalm 19:14.
When I first read today’s reading, my initial reaction was “Pilate! What are you doing here? It’s not even Christmas, and the Lectionary has moved us straight past the Nativity and on to Easter! It’s not time for you yet. Go away and wait your turn! You’ll get your moment in Holy Week.”
Then I looked at the calendar. Today, as some of you may know, we celebrate The Feast of Christ the King.
Christ the King. Not The Feast of Jesus of Nazareth. Not The Feast of The Messiah, The Lamb of God or even The Feast of the Prince of Peace. Now Jesus is all of these things, of course. But not today. Today, he is Christ.
And this is why we need Pilate in the story today, months before we normally hear from him. Because if we know who Pilate is and what he represents, we can come close to answering the two big questions that today’s reading poses. What kind of King is Christ? And what kind of Kingdom does He rule over?
Pilate, we know, wasn’t a king. But he was a prefect, a governor who had jurisdiction over Roman-occupied Judea at the time of Jesus’ ministry. Clearly, he knows a thing or two about power and authority. However, he only has authority because Emperor Tiberius has given it to him. So long as Pilate keeps the tax money flowing back to Tiberius in Rome, he has a job. To do that, he has to keep threats to his authority and the Roman Empire in check, by whatever means necessary.
So it’s not surprising that his first words to Jesus in this passage are pretty blunt and direct. There are no pleasantries or greetings–Pilate gets straight to the point. “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate needs to know whether the man standing in front of him is an impostor, some kind of joke, or the real deal.
Jesus’s answers to Pilate are at once clear yet mysterious. Not once, but twice, he tells Pilate that his Kingdom “is not from this world,” that “it is not from here.”
It is at this moment that the contrast between the two could not be greater. Pilate’s authority, remember, comes from Rome. His is a human authority, founded on human weakness and pride. All we have to do is turn on the day’s news to see where rulers like that get us.
Well, Jesus’s answer is not the answer that Pilate wants. He still needs to know who he’s dealing with. So Pilate forces the issue and tries to put his words into Jesus’s mouth: “So you are a king?” he asks.
Jesus responds by saying that “You say that I am a king.”
Now why would Jesus say that? He’s just referred to a kingdom as “His.” Not once, but twice. By definition, that makes him a King. But now he doesn’t want to call himself a King. What’s going on?
I think the response says a lot about Jesus’s attitude to power and authority. He will not call himself King, because to be a king gives one an experience that is at once separate from this world and above it. Unlike Pilate, Jesus doesn’t see himself as ruler in the earthly sense. I don’t think he sees himself as above us, as in charge of us, as someone who can place undue burdens on his subjects, who can be blind to their problems or punish them even when they have legitimate grievances. I don’t think the man who ate loves and fishes with his followers would be found at a sumptuous banquet while starving people waited outside. I don’t think that the man who encouraged his followers to sell all they have and give to the poor would strut around in expensive robes and fine jewels, paid for by unjust taxes, while people around him lacked homes and adequate clothing.
So if Christ the King is not the kind of king we’ve been used to in this world, it goes without saying that His kingdom probably looks very different from the kingdoms history has told us about. His very next words to Pilate tell us something about what it might look like: “For this I was born,” he tells Pilate, “and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Unfortunately, today’s reading breaks off at the wrong moment. In the very next verse, Pilate asks the question that begs to be asked: “What is the truth?”
If we are to be honest, it is the question we would ask as well. Because, let’s face it, we all want the know the truth, right?
But truth can be a very slippery thing. I may state the true fact that it is 68 degrees in the church today. But I may also say that I am warm, where Hannah may say she is cold. Both statements contradict each other, yet they are both true. And some truths may be true, but only for a certain time. Most people in Jesus and Pilate’s time would have told you that the sun revolves around the earth and that the earth is flat. And they would have been right at that moment in time. But not now.
So maybe if human truth cannot be trusted, we need to think about truth in a different way, and think of truths that, like the kingdom, are “not from here,” that are “not from this world.” William Blake, the eighteenth century poet and artist, called these “Eternal Truths,” timeless ideals that define what we know is right and good.
But we don’t have to look beyond this world to find them. They are within us, in our hearts and souls, in the “better angels of our nature,” in acts of kindness large and small. They are found throughout the gospels, in Jesus’s commandment to love God and to love one another as we love ourselves, in the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. And Eternal Truth is found in William Blake’s own realization: “For everything that lives is holy.” Eternal Truths are in us and around us if we just take the time to look.
Next week begins the season of Advent, when we are called to prepare ourselves, not just to celebrate the first coming of Christ, as a real child in a very real world, but for His Kingdom that is “not from this world.” Let us prepare the way by looking into ourselves and living our own Eternal Truths. And let us show a world that is hungry for the truth that, yes, we can handle the truth!