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.’
What Does it Mean to Be Of the World? John 18:33-37
Today's Gospel text is usually a text that we would read during Lent. It can be surprising to come upon this description of Jesus' trial on the last Sunday before the new year starts. What does it mean for us to hold up this story right next the stories of Advent, stories that build up expectation and hope for the coming Savior? What is the message that we need to hear today in this story of conflict, betrayal, and local politics? Jesus said that he came to testify to the truth. What truth can we learn from his trial?
In John, we have a vision of Jesus as one totally in control of every situation, even when others technically have more power and authority than he does. In this Gospel, Jesus is rarely, if ever caught off guard. The description of his trial is one of the best examples of how confident and competent he is, especially if you compare him to the community leaders around him. First he is interrogated by the most powerful leaders in his own religious community. They question and question him about his teachings. He is never once shaken in his resolve, and simply responds to them that he has never tried to hide what he teachers. He has always taught in the open. He told them to ask the people what they heard. They will confirm his teaching.
Because these leaders wanted Jesus dead, but had no authority to put someone to death, they give Jesus over the Roman officials. While the Jews were permitted to follow their own religious law, in the end, Roman law was the ultimate law of the land. Even their so-called Jewish king was really a puppet of the Roman Empire. If they wanted Jesus to die, only Rome could kill him. Pilate, as Roman governor, was the one who could make that decision. As Roman governor, Pilate was likely the most powerful person in Judea. And, yet, even he seems unable to successfully complete an interrogation of an impoverished itinerant preacher.
We see Pilate going back and forth between Jesus and the community leaders. First, he asks Jesus a question that seems to have come right out of the blue: "Are you the King of the Jews?" Now, at this point, the word king hadn't been used very much to describe Jesus. The only people who have claimed that Jesus was king seemed to be the 6,000 hungry people he fed way back in chapter 6. The things is, though, he never claimed that he was their king, even though he did seem to call himself Son of Man on occasion. Could Pilate have heard that some people had wanted to make Jesus king? Or, was he just being brutal, trying to find the quickest way to dispatch this problematic peasant? He knew that there were few quicker ways to end up dead in the Roman Empire than to threaten the emperor. If we need this man dead, let's see if he's willing to claim to be the emperor. That will get him killed quickly.
Jesus quickly flips the whole line of questioning around, shifting into the role of interrogator. He asked the governor if he came up with that question on his own or if someone else had told him that Jesus had claimed to be the king. Pilate quickly goes on the defensive, a surprise given that, as I have mentioned before, he is the most powerful man in Judea. He says, "I'm not a Jew, am I? Your own people turned you over. What did you do?" What kind of judge doesn't know what the accused is actually accused of? Admittedly, the people who turned Jesus over didn't actually have any accusations, they just said that he was a criminal and needed to die. But, still, Pilate, it's not much of a power play to admit that you really don't know what is going on. Then, Jesus goes on the offensive again, without directly answering Pilate's question. He said, "My kingdom is not from this world." Comparing his own followers to soldiers from an embattled kingdom, Jesus pointed out that if he had a kingdom like everyone else, he would have soldiers fighting for him. And, yet, here he was alone. When he did have one follower stand up and try to physically defend him from the authorities, Jesus told him to put his sword away. No, this isn't any regular kingdom. We can see that Jesus' reign is not like any kingdom that Pilate knows.
Pilate thought he caught Jesus when Jesus began to talk about his Kingdom. He said, "So you are a king!" Once again, Jesus shifts the conversation. He said, "You say that I'm a king. That's what you're interested in talking about. I am here to tell the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." At this point, completely rhetorically out-maneuvered, all Pilate can ask is, "What is the truth?" Had he just been paying attention, he would have seen the truth in Jesus' actions. But, he couldn't listen. He couldn't understand. He was trapped in the world that he knew. And, Jesus said that his power doesn't come from this world.
Pilate was looking for a king who wielded power the way Rome wielded power: that is, with little mercy and great bloodshed. The violence of the Roman Empire pervaded every part of the average Jew's life, from the taxes they were forced to pay to the presence of Roman soldiers in Jerusalem during Passover, the most holy time of their religious year. This is how Pilate understood the role of the king. And, Jesus did not live that way. Jesus didn't even function that way in their short conversation. Perhaps it comes from Jesus' Jewish roots where the king was assumed to be installed by God as a public servant to help his people. Perhaps Jesus' quest for the truth had simply shown him another way, a way that resisted violence and brought peace even in the midst of terrible times. We can see this better way throughout the book of John. For example, when Jesus described his mission to his followers, he told them, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid (John 14:27)."
What else is evident throughout the Gospel is that to be a disciple means that you are able to listen to Jesus when he shares the truth. While some in Jesus' religious community are able to hear the truth, most of the people aren't. It is these people, people who are trapped in the violence of the empire that they are threatened by his ministry, who turn him over to be killed. It is these people who will cry out for his crucifixion in the verses that follow today's reading. Pilate will also latch on to their fear and use it against them. Sure, he'll be willing to turn Jesus over for execution, but he does so only after the religious leaders admit that they have no king aside from Caesar. That's right. These people who have such a proud history as the people of God, have forgotten that God will bring them a leader. They are so wrapped up in their fear and anger that when faced with two choices, Pilate who is a tool of the empire and can only bring death and Jesus who is the word of God made flesh, that they chose death. They chose to align themselves with the empire rather than the one who could show them the truth.
I think this is a powerful way to end our liturgical year, with Christ's mission of peace and truth firmly in mind. Right now, many of us feel the weight of violence and death bearing down on us. We are regularly hearing the evidence Christ presents and the evidence Pilate presents about how we can live in this world. We are being asked to choose where our faith truly lies, with the coercive powers of the world or in Christ who can bring us peace. My prayer is that we will choose peace, even if we don't know what that really looks like yet. My prayer is that we can listen to Christ, the one who is poised and confident in his mission to be the actual, creative presence of the Divine in his broken world. I prayer that we can remember his power, power that not even death can erase. Our confidence cannot be in Pilate and all the earthly power he possesses. It must be in Christ, who has come to tell us the Truth and shows us peace.
Pastor Chrissy consulted these works when writing this sermon:
Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, and Gene M. Tucker, Preaching through the Christian Year: Year B, A Comprehensive Commentary on the Lectionary (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Karoline Lewis, John, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
Susan Hylen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2604
Jaime Clark-Soles: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1490
Paul S. Berge: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=420
Laurel Koepf Taylor's description of the role of king a public servant can be found in the liturgy for Reign of Christ Sunday: http://www.ucc.org/worship_worship-ways
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.