This is the sermon I preached this morning at my home congregation. I’m so grateful for the invitation to preach there, and for the tremendously welcoming and encouraging words of the congregation. My home church is pretty cool. 🙂
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“I always thought of myself as kind of a good guy,” said Walter Pavlo on a podcast I listened to this week [the link leads the a recording of the story, which was originally broadcast by The Moth]. “You know, someone who made the right decisions.” Walter was telling his story, which is what he now does for a living. It’s a story where he embezzled six million dollars from the telecommunications company he worked for. He went to prison for three and a half years, lost his livelihood, his wife, and his self-image. As he sat on the steps of his parents’ house, which he moved into after being released from prison, he began wondering: “What do bad guys look like? In a child’s dream, aren’t they witches and demons? In movies, aren’t they Darth Vader, or the guys in the black cowboy hat? Or do they look like me? I looked back over my story, and came to the realization that the bad guy in my story was me.”
There was never one pivotal moment of decision where Pavlo chose to become a bad guy. . There were small choices, all along, like snowflakes on the mountainside. No one snowflake is responsible for the moment the avalanche starts, but at the end of all the action, a mountainside is gone, a town is buried, and someone is left standing there saying, “I never meant for any of this to happen.”
Pontius Pilate is that guy in this week’s gospel. He’s walking the fine, fine line of political survival in a hotspot of the Roman Empire. He thinks of himself as the good guy: the official rep from the wise and powerful Rome, but he’s stuck in these Palestinian backwaters with a group of religious nuts who don’t even get along with themselves.
When the Jewish authorities drag Jesus up in from of him, Pilate is on his guard. First of all, it’s the Jewish festival of Passover, which means that Jerusalem is full of Jews from the surrounding countryside who have come to the Temple to worship. There’s already Jewish unrest, including a violent underground opposition movement, the Zealots, who use crowds just like the ones that are gathering to screen violent crimes and commit assassinations. Pilate does not want to start off this huge Jewish holy day by angering the Jews, and the Jews know it. So when they bring Jesus before him and Pilate asks why, they don’t even give him a reason. They just say, “If this man were not a criminal, we wouldn’t have handed him over to you.” Pilate tries to pass the buck by telling the Jews to deal with it themselves, but there’s the rub: the Jews want the death penalty for Jesus, and they aren’t allowed to administer it themselves.
The only thing Pilate needs to do is find a reason to sign an order for execution for Jesus. So he latches onto the crime of insurrection: if Jesus has declared himself the King of the Jews, thereby undermining the Roman emperor’s authority, then Pilate is perfectly justified in enforcing a swift and retributive form of the Pax Romana: the cross.
So Jesus’ trial begins, verdict already decided. But the choice Pilate faces doesn’t end up being between guilt and innocence. It’s between the truth of the world that he knows and the Truth that Jesus is and to which he testifies.
Pilate knows that he cannot free Jesus with impunity. Jesus’ liberty means Pilate’s career suicide. That’s the truth of Pilate’s world. But Jesus professes not to belong to that world. If he did, as Jesus points out, then his followers would be fighting to rescue him. But they’re not. Jesus is vulnerable. And in that vulnerability, he stands quietly before Pilate, witnessing to a life whose value, course, and import is not dictated by Rome, or the Jews, or whatever cultural voice prevails at the time, but instead derives its meaning and authority from another kingdom. There’s a clamor of voices ringing in Pilate’s ear, demanding loyalty and threatening destruction if he makes the wrong choice. And through that clamor rings Jesus’ words: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
“What is truth?” Pilate replies. What is truth? Is truth the reality that Pilate knows, the reality of political intrigue, of secrets and scandal, of violent pragmatism? Or is truth in this man, Jesus, who has run away from followers when they tried to crown him before, who seems to shun social norms to eat with outcasts and sinners, who performs signs of healing and miracles of wonder in the name of the God of Israel, who now stands captured, turned over by his own people, defenseless, but somehow still undefeated?
Pilate shuttles back and forth between the inner rooms of his palace and the outer portico where the Jews stand waiting. The gospel of John gives stage directions with care, and here in the eighteenth chapter it shows a man conflicted between two truths: the truth of Jesus’ innocence and power, and the truth of the Jews’ influence and Pilate’s love of status and security. “I find no fault in him,” he tells the Jews, but they won’t take that for an answer. “I’m willing to grant him pardon for Passover,” he tells the crowd, but they want Barabbas instead. “I wash my hands of this,” he says at last, and yet it is his hand that writes the words, “Jesus Christ, King of the Jews” on the placard, to hang above the crucified king’s head. It’s a card that says, “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.” It’s a card that says, “I’m the good guy here.” But it’s the card written in the same hand that signed Jesus’ orders for execution.
Pilate’s not the only one choosing between the truth of this world and the truth of God’s kingdom. This past week we had a special day set aside to thank God for the many blessings that we have. We met with family and friends and ate too much and felt sated, and celebrated that. And after emerging from our turkey comas, those of us who are bonded to our electronic devices (including me) went to share on Facebook the triumph that was the sweet potato casserole, and saw the Black Friday ads. The shiny, glitzy, ads that advertise a bajillion percent off of the stuff that I like, because my browser tracks my shopping preferences. I had just given thanks for all that I had, and already I felt a gnawing sense of emptiness around what I didn’t have.
How many of you have experienced sufficiency as a moving target? How often have you felt that, no matter how much you have, enough is always just a little more? Have you noticed how the more you have, the more you need? Have you looked into your attic, or basement, or closet, and thought to yourself, “How did I end up with this much stuff?”
The truth that the world speaks to us is: we are worth whatever our assets add up to, and the stuff that we buy can make us happy. The truth that Jesus speaks is that our possessions keep us from entering the kingdom of heaven, and that all we really need is our daily bread.
Materialism and consumerism are realities we can all relate to, but they are by no means the only voices in this world telling us that we are not enough. Racism, sexism, ageism, dozens of “isms” pervade our culture, telling us that “good” and “bad” look a certain way, telling us about the ways that we fail to measure up. In the face of all of that, you don’t need me standing here to tell you about how we fail because we embrace that truth instead of God’s.
And that’s surely not what Jesus does in today’s gospel. Jesus doesn’t tell Pilate that he’s wrong. He doesn’t tell Pilate what he should do. Instead, he gives Pilate a choice where Pilate only sees a corner. Jesus gives us the same choice: do we name Jesus as King, or do we name something else?
Christ the King Sunday invites us to celebrate the truth that sets us free, the truth that Christ has died for us, and for his sake, God has called us worthy. It invites us to declare aloud Christ’s kingship, because doing so is an act of freedom from those other voices that nag us, an act by which we say, “because Christ is King, nothing else is.” Christ is King, and stuff is not. Christ is King, and the “isms” are not. Christ is King, and I definitely am not.
In today’s gospel, John makes reference to a verse in chapter 12 where Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday of the church year, and it’s the one where we throw in all the apocalyptic texts—Daniel, Revelation—because of this very hope: that in spite of all our contending truths, the time is coming when the King on the cross will draw all people to himself, making all free to live into God’s kingdom of justice, peace, and Christ-like love.
Thanks be to the King. Amen.