A Sermon for the Last Sunday in Ordinary Time, Christ the King (21/11/21): Are You the King of the Jews? What Have You Done?

John 18:33-37

Pilate asks Jesus two questions:
Are you the king of the Jews?
And then when he is not satisfied with Jesus’ first answer he asks him:
What have you done?

When Pilate asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?” it means something different for him than it does for the chief priests who put that question in his mind. And it means something different to us when we hear it asked. To Pilate that question means something like, “Are you, or do you claim to be, the ruler of the Judeans?” That is the problem which concerns Pilate. Because it is he, Pilate, who is supposed to rule the Judeans on the Emperor’s behalf. The charge which the chief priests are making, from Pilate’s perspective, is one of treason or sedition. And the chief priests knew that Pilate would take it this way. That is why they had posed the question that way. And it is this which gets Jesus killed!

Jesus replies:
My kingdom is not from this world.
Jesus does say that he is a king, but not in any conventional sense. Because if Jesus did rule in that way, Pilate would have a rebellion on his hands. The people who accepted Jesus’ authority to rule over them as king would be fighting to set set him free. But as it is they are not. So no, Jesus is not a king. Not a king, at least, in any sense which Pilate understands.

Kingship, or rule, is about loyalty and obedience. The king, or any ruler, or any government, demands loyalty and obedience. Rule only exists as long as people are prepared to accepted that claim over them and offer their loyalty and obedience to the king, ruler or government. And a kingdom is the assembly, the aggregate, of the people who accept that rule. Most often those people are of course gathered close together. So the rule of a king or a government extends over a territory, which can also be referred to as a kingdom. Such claims to loyalty and obedience are mutually exclusive. And when it comes to territory such rule is often in competition with others. And all of this is backed up with the threat of force. Max Weber, a German philosopher of politics, once called the “state”, that is the thing which demands loyalty and obedience in a given place and time, he calls the state, “the monopoly of violence.” (And he doesn’t mean that that is necessarily a bad thing!) In the end the authority of kings, rulers and governments comes down to its ability to coerce. It is the ruler’s ability to violently supress internal challenges to its authority and its ability to violently defend against external threats, that is, to wage wage, that makes kings, rulers and governments what they are. Whilst the are seldom that overt or obvious about it, that is the authority which all the kingdoms of this world rest upon.

But Jesus makes it clear that his kingdom is not from this world. His authority does not rest on the threat or the use of violence. His kingdom does not need to use violence to defend itself. It is the peaceable kingdom. Its demand for loyalty and obedience rests on something else. That demand is every bit as exclusive as the demand made by the kings, rulers and governments of this world. But it is not enforced by coercion, nor defended by war.

So Pilate says to Jesus:
So you are a king?
Pilate is experiencing a growing realisation, that despite all appearances to the contrary, Jesus is a threat! Pilate does not understand the claim which Jesus makes. Nor does he really understand the accusation of the chief priests. But he senses that Jesus and his followers are a problem. Perhaps, if he had been more familiar with Jesus’ teaching he could have put his finger on the problem more precisely. Jesus did say: You cannot serve two masters. An idea which Pilate could not not have been unfamiliar with. In the end the demand to loyalty and obedience which Jesus makes, and which his followers accept, even though it is never backed up with violence, places him and them at odds with the kings and rulers and governments of this world. Jesus’ claim to authority places his followers beyond the claims made by the powers of this world. Whilst Christians can be, and indeed usually are, good citizens of those worldly kingdoms, they cannot and should not be completely relied upon, because their loyalty and obedience lie somewhere else.

The problem with the kings, rulers and governments of this world is that they make false promises. They make promise which in they cannot or even will not deliver on. Looked at, from the distance of history, this is clearly the case with the Roman Empire, the earthly kingdom under whose rule Jesus lived. The Empire and its emperor claimed to make and to be the source of peace. They called it “Pax Romana,” the Roman peace. The truth of course was that that peace was nothing other than the violent suppression of all opposition to its authority. Which is no different from the claim of making peace made by the British and American Empires in more recent times. The Emperor also claimed a number of other titles: Lord, Saviour, and curiously “Pontifex Maximus,” Chief Bridge-builder. The last title was that of chief priest, the bridges he was supposed to build were those between the human and the divine. The claim that the emperor made that he was the the source and guarantor of security and well-being to those who offered him their loyalty and obedience. He would provide those good things to those who accepted his authority. It was a false claim, just as his titles were at best self-deception or at worst outright lies! The claims which the current kings, rulers and governments of the world still make are perhaps less brazen, less bare-faced, but they are still essentially the same.

Pilate’s other question to Jesus is easy to over look. He asks Jesus:
What have you done?
He asks it at the point in the conversation when he is most confused. He cannot think for the life of him, why it is that Jesus has been brought before him He can’t see what crime Jesus might have committed. When Jesus answers, his reply reveals the nature of his authority and the character of his kingdom. He says:
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.
Jesus’ claim to loyalty and obedience is that he is witness to the truth. That indeed he himself embodies the truth. And this claim is made against all the false claims of the kings, rulers and governments of this world. He testifies that true peace, the complete absence of violence and coercion, the presence of wholeness, is only present in his kingdom. And that God is the only king to whom loyalty and obedience should be given. Since God alone is the source of all security and well-being. And the connection between human beings and God is only made and sustained through the one whom God has sent, Jesus himself.

Pilate didn’t understand what his other question to Jesus really means:
Are you the king of the Jews?
What that question actually means both to the chief priests who prompted it, and to us who were gathered by it the this morning is: Jesus, are you the one to whom God’s people owe their undivided loyalty and obedience?
To which Jesus’ unequivcocal answer is: Yes!

Are You the King of the Jews? What Have You Done? by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 

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