Answering Pilate (John 18.33-38a) [Christ the King 11-22-2015]

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November 20, 2015 by jmar198013

Manuscript for Sunday Sermon 11/22/2015. Christ the King. Scriptures are 2 Samuel 23.1-7; Psalm 132.1-12; Revelation 1.4b-8; John 18.33-38a.

An audio of the sermon may be found here.


 

Are you the king of the Jews?

I suspect Pilate was annoyed when they shuffled a bloody, battered Galilean man into into his courtroom. Maybe he thought to himself, I hope he doesn’t mess up the rugs. Blood doesn’t clean up easy, does it?

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The tattered and battered man they brought him was accused of anti-Roman activities. Conspiring to overthrow the government. The leaders of his own people had apprehended him. A suspected terrorist—one of those ungovernable Middle Eastern types—he had been subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. But no one had gotten anything out of him. Like a lamb being brought to slaughter, like a ewe silent before her shearers, he didn’t open his mouth.

Unable to beat a confession out of him, the local authorities bound him over to the district jefe, Pilate. And that’s where our Gospel lesson today picks up.

Pilate sizes up this supposed revolutionary. This dangerous radical. This terrorist threat to the empire. Chatter was, he was taken down without much of a fight. That this Galilean peasant had so confounded the local officials must have irritated Pilate to no end. This guy wasn’t worth his time. He had better things to be doing on a Friday.

Are you the king of the Jews? I’d wager that Pilate asked that with a smirk and a chuckle. You’re the cause of all this ruckus? You?

You might recall that I’ve spoken a few times about how we need to understand the term Jew in the Gospel of John. Jew referred to Judeans—the wealthier, more sophisticated people living in Jerusalem and its suburbs. Jesus was a Galilean, not a Judean. Galileans were the rednecks of ancient Palestine. Judeans hated Galileans, and Galileans hated them back.

In all the Gospels, the major conflict up to this point has been between Jesus and the Judean establishment: the Temple, the scribes, and the meddling Pharisees. So you’re basically seeing a fight over the heart and soul of Jewish religion.

Not here. As soon as Jesus enters Pilate’s chamber, it’s a whole new story. Pilate is Rome’s man. It’s not a territorial beef anymore. It’s Jesus against the empire. Jesus against the world.

Pilate just can’t believe that the Judeans, who are supposed to be helping him keep the rabble in line, can’t deal with this blue-collar Galilean on their own.

Are you the king of the Jews?

Later, Pilate had Jesus hung up on the cross with a sign that read: Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews (John 19.19). John reports that this really toasted the Judeans. The Judean authorities protested. To name an unwashed Galilean yokel their king was an insult, and it set the outrage machine in motion. Pilate just told them, What I’ve written, I’ve written (John 19.22). He liked his little joke.

What have you done?

Here’s the thing you have to understand about Jesus’ “trial” before Pilate. This wasn’t the kind of trial where evidence is presented to determine whether or not someone is guilty of a crime.

He just needs Jesus to say something—anything—that could be used to justify whatever he decides to do with him.

And Jesus knows it. When Pilate asks, Are you the king of the Jews?, Jesus replies: Do you say this on your own or have others spoken to you about me?

His question to Pilate isn’t really a question. It’s cutting to the chase.

He’s saying: I know what you’re doing, Pilate. You’ve already decided who I am. They’ve already told my story for me, and nothing I can say is going to make you think any different. You’ve already made up your mind.

Pilate admits that Jesus is right. The Judean authorities have already told Pilate everything he wants to know. He has already made his mind up. And he just wants to get it over with.

I’m not a Jew, am I? he scoffs. Your nation and its chief priests handed you over to me. Pilate is only doing his job. The Judean leadership says Jesus is a troublemaker. Pilate doesn’t need any more trouble on his watch. Jerusalem is swelled to the point of bursting with cranky holiday travelers—remember, this was all happening during the Passover. This was hardly the time to parse out who is wrong or who is right. Whether or not the Judeans had probable cause to arrest Jesus. They can argue about that amongst themselves in private later. Pilate wasn’t about to have a riot on his hands.

Your nation and its chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?

Not, Have you done anything wrong? Not, Is what they are saying about you true? No weighing the evidence. No cross-examination. Just, What have you done?

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Pilate is not interested in allowing Jesus a defense. But he could be swayed one way or the other if Jesus says the right words. Assures him that he’s not dangerous, after all. Maybe the Judean authorities who arrested Jesus were overreacting. They were always pretty tightly wound. How big of a national security threat could this Galilean redneck preacher actually be? Even if people were calling him King of the Jews?

Then again, you might remember that just a few chapters back, in John 6, after Jesus fed the 5,000, the crowds were about to come and force him to be their king.

Maybe the chief priests who handed Jesus over were right, after all.

Not from this world

When Pilate says: Your nation and its chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?, he’s kind of giving Jesus a way out. I’m not a Jew, am I?, he asks. If this is some religious squabble among your people, it’s no business of mine. I don’t have a dog in that fight. Convince me you’re not dangerous. That this has all been a big misunderstanding.

Jesus’ reply to Pilate is: My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world.

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You know, that’s one of the worst translated, most misunderstood, most often misapplied lines in all the Bible. Pretty much all the older versions—from the King James to the NIV, say: My kingdom is not of this world. The problem with that is it makes it sound like Jesus’ kingdom is someplace else. Like it has nothing to do with the daily affairs of people. Nothing to do with homelessness or crime or violence or hunger or war or refugees or welcoming children into the world or who has too much and who doesn’t have enough. A kingdom “not of this world” sounds like a kingdom with no teeth.

As it is, the newer versions tend to get it right: What Jesus actually said is, My kingdom is not from this world. It’s active in this world. You can live and move and have your being in it in this world. But it’s from somewhere else.

Why else would Jesus have told us to pray, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven? The kingdom Jesus brings is for this earth, this world. It has everything to do with the stuff of earth: violence and urban decay and homelessness and refugees and what we do with our money and what we do in our bedrooms. It’s earthy. But it’s from heaven.

My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world, he tells Pilate. It’s from God in heaven, and operates completely differently from your kingdom—Rome. It works differently than Herod’s kingdom.

To prove his point, he says: If it did—if my kingdom did work like the other kingdoms of the world—my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.

The kingdoms of the earth fight for survival. Because that’s the only story they know. That’s the only story Caesar knew, Pilate knew, Herod knew, and the chief priests knew.

The fight for survival was on the minds of the Judean authorities when they met to sign Jesus’ death warrant a few chapters back. In John 11, Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead. The gathered authorities were panic-stricken: If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him. Then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our people. Their deepest fear was for the survival of their nation.

But one of the authorities—the high priest Caiaphas—blurted out: You don’t know anything! You don’t see that it is better for you that one man die for the people rather than the whole nation be destroyed.

Caiaphas was willing to kill an innocent person for the survival of his kingdom. The name for that is scapegoating.

And Pilate was working off the same script. Safety. Security. Survival.

In these unsettled times, Jesus’ words to Pilate present a powerful and challenging message to the church: The world lives by the story of survival. But survival is not and will never be the story the church is invited to live by and tell the world.

We live by the story of resurrection. We witness to resurrection. Resurrection overpowers survival. Next to resurrection, survival is weak and sick.

In a world that lives by the story of survival, resurrection is an act of defiance.

Resurrection breaks the teeth of every one of the kingdoms of this world. Rome. Judea. Even ISIS.

What is truth?

Jesus has told Pilate: My kingdom does not originate from this world. Pilate responds: So you are a king?

I wasn’t there, so it’s impossible to know what tone of voice Pilate used when he said this.

Was it a gotcha-moment? Ah-ha! So you are a king!

Was it more sarcasm: So you’re a king, huh?

Either way, Jesus is ready with his comeback.

You say that I am a king. That’s what you say, Pilate. That’s what you call it. That’s your story. But let me tell my own story. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.

Truth is one of the most important words in John’s vocabulary. He uses the words truth and true forty-eight times in his Gospel. And when John talks about truth, he doesn’t just mean factual accuracy. He’s not talking about truth in the abstract—propositions to be defended or arguments to be won.

For John, truth is about what is fundamentally real and right and solid. Truth is whatever reveals God’s deepest longings, desires, and hopes for his creation and his people.

And this is what Jesus has come to do: to testify to the truth. To reveal in flesh and blood the very heart of God. To show us what is fundamentally real and right and solid. To live out God’s hope for us, and for his creation.

Pilate’s infamous reply echoes down through the ages: What is truth?

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Most people assume Pilate’s question was meant to be snarky. Perhaps so. But maybe—just maybe—his cynical reply was an act of false bravery. A whistling in the dark. His way of redirecting a conversation that was hitting entirely too close to home.

The script Pilate lived by—the story he told—was safety, security, and survival. Truth has a way of leaving us exposed. What is most real and right and solid shows us the poverty of our lives when survival is our highest good. Pilate had to keep up appearances in the cut-throat world in which he lived. That’s the only way he could remain secure in his safe spot. That was his survival.

Truth is, What is truth? is a fine question, indeed.

Jesus had said a few chapters back: I am the way, the truth, and the life.

Christians confess that truth is the battered, tattered Galilean preacher Pilate was speaking with.

But that confession only raises more questions: If we say that Jesus himself is truth—everything that is real and right and solid, God’s deepest longing for his creation, and his people—it sounds religious. It sounds thoughtful. It sounds honest. It could probably make good greeting card theology. But what does it actually mean? What are the consequences, the risks, of embracing that truth? What costs will we need to count?

That’s crucial. That’s the thing we have to get right. Because it’s so easy to decide what feels true to us—and often what feels true is really just what promises us safety, security, and survival—and project it onto Jesus and say: That is truth.

And that’s exactly what the Jesus we meet in the Bible will not let us do. I think even Pilate knew that.

Whose truth will we tell?

Truth is—there’s all kinds of Pilates in the world today. We are confronted with all kinds of voices that ask us, What is truth?

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And you know what? It’s not always the usual suspects. I’m not just thinking about atheists or agnostics, skeptics and cynics, or secular humanists. It’s not really unbelievers, nonbelievers, or disbelievers I’m thinking about.

What is truth? comes to us today in a lot of different forms. We hear it from our politicians—yes, even the ones we voted for. Sometimes we hear it from our pulpits in our churches—yes, even I have been guilty. We hear it from our friends and co-workers. From our family around the dinner table. Sometimes it’s the things we say to ourselves. It sounds like this:

Some things never change.

That’s just the way it’s always been, and how it will always be.

It’s just common sense.

Well, I know Jesus said that, but we have to be reasonable and look out for our own interests, too.

Be realistic.

Those people are in the situation they are in for a reason. They must have done something wrong.

Those people will never change.

You start tracking down the logic of those statements. Look at the people and situations and systems we are usually talking about when we hear things like this, say things like this.

More often than not, they’re going to lead back to security and safety. They’re working off the script of survival. That’s Pilate’s script. That’s the script of the Judean authorities. That’s the script the world reads from, acts off of. That’s the only story our world knows. Survival.

When Pilate asked Jesus, What is truth?, he wasn’t attacking truth in the abstract. He wasn’t just being a moral relativist. My hunch is that he was afraid of the truth that Jesus came to tell. The truth his life revealed. A truth that shakes the world to its foundations. A truth that from Pilate’s perspective turns the world upside-down, but from God’s perspective turns the world right-side up.

And if Jesus is truly our king, if he we confess that he is the way, the truth, and the life, then the only truth we know is the truth he spoke, and the truth he lived. We don’t get to say things like, We have to use some common sense, if that common sense is not the wisdom and truth Jesus lived. We don’t get to despair, Ah, those people will never change, when our king, our truth, is a life-giving, healing, resurrecting king. We start saying things like that to justify our safety, security, and survival, and we’ve gone off-script. We’re no longer a resurrection people, we’re a survival people. We might as well be saying, What is truth?, along with Pilate.

The truth is, our king—our truth—came to us in poverty. He spent his childhood as a refugee, running from a bloodthirsty regime. There were times in his life he was homeless. He taught his disciples to love their enemies, and to welcome strangers. And he did that, too—he welcomed all sorts of strange, scary, disreputable people to his dinner table. Still does every Sunday. He knew the truth he lived wasn’t safe or secure. He understood the risk. He died loving his enemies. He died so that strangers could be welcomed. He has come to you and me and all of us when we were enemies and strangers and refugees, and welcomed us as sisters and brothers. We humans straight up murdered him, and he still didn’t let that have the final word over his love for us.

That’s our truth. That’s what we know is real and good and right and beautiful and holy. As citizens in Jesus’ kingdom, that’s the only story we know how to tell. It’s a story about welcome and compassion and patience and suffering and sacrifice. It’s a story about change and healing and embrace and reconciliation. It’s a story that tells us that our lives are lost if we live for survival. We live for resurrection. Our lives are lived in resurrection hopefulness. Our lives are witnesses to resurrection. Our lives witness the life Jesus lived.

So our Gospel lesson today presents us with a real choice.

Pilate’s truth was survival. Jesus’ truth challenged his story. Ultimately, Pilate followed his survival script by handing Jesus over to die to save himself.

Jesus’ truth is resurrection. Jesus was willing to die for this story. Jesus knew his death wouldn’t be the end of his life. That his life and death would bring life to others.

What is our answer? Whose truth will we live by?

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2 thoughts on “Answering Pilate (John 18.33-38a) [Christ the King 11-22-2015]

  1. Xyhelm says:

    Wow, you are spot on about John 18:36’s “from this world.” I’m amazed that Young’s Literal Translation doesn’t even get it right.

    I also LOVE what you said about kingdoms of this world being all about survival. As I read it, it made me think about how “self defense” is regarded as a right in this world, as if there was ever a justified time to do violence against someone else.

    I totally agree with you on what Jesus meant by Truth and that it is not mere relativism.

    The way you describe Pilate’s trial and his motivations for the things he said… I do not believe that is the case. The way you paint him gives him terrible credit as the governor of Judea. I do not feel that you do him justice for his sense of justice, which John portrays as solid–with the exception of his weakness to resort to washing his hands in order to condemn a man he knows is innocent. Condemning an innocent man under Roman law, even a barbarian, was a crime punishable by death. So Pilate is actually sticking his neck out for the Jews (because of their possible riot) by sending Jesus to death. There are other things I believe you have understood incorrectly about Pilate, but this whole matter is not important enough to spend too much time arguing. All trial over what is Truth and are we living by it is what matters; thanks for sharing such a powerful message! I just wanted you to be careful not to force Pilate’s intentions on him when John is implying that Pilate has other intentions.

    • jmar198013 says:

      I honestly tried to keep Pilate’s motivations ambiguous–leaning one way, then another. I think that ultimately Pilate’s resolve to survive–in this case by avoiding a riot–is what I wanted to highlight.

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