"Trials and Reign"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
November 25, 2018
2 Samuel 23:1-7; John 18:33-38a
Christ the King Sunday – or as I prefer to call it, Reign of Christ Sunday – is the newest addition to the Christian liturgical year – less than a century old. I prefer Reign of Christ because kristos simply means anointed – it is not hierarchical or gendered. It was “established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in response to the increasing threat of the rise of fascism. Authoritarian leaders of fascist regimes were being lifted up as all-powerful demigods, and the Roman Catholic Church created this holy day in an attempt to reclaim power for the church as opposed to the secular nation-state. Unfortunately, a Christian message of anti-fascism and anti-nationalism continues to be more and more relevant as fascist leaders gain power in many countries around the world. There are government officials within our own country with documented ties to White Nationalist Groups, the number of anti-Semitic hate crimes continue to rise, and [some who have the attention of the news media and social media] proudly say, “I am a nationalist.”[i] So, Reign of Christ Sunday is probably the most deliberately political Sunday of the Christian year.
I think that’s pretty ironic, because I was officially informed in my annual performance evaluation on Tuesday that some people find my preaching to be too much about politics. That’s not a surprise to me. Believe it or not, I try every week to temper my tendency to hear the Gospel speaking directly to the incarnate world in which we live. I find it really difficult to refrain from what I hear the Spirit saying about our joined-together lives. I read in scripture that none of us is free if one of us is not. And the scriptures assigned for Reign of Christ Sunday don’t help. They lead me down that same old path. King David’s final words according to Samuel are praise and thanksgiving that the God of his ancestors has promised that his descendants will once again rule over Israel. And according to John, Jesus’ trials before Pilate seems to be about political authority and influence. But, with your help and forbearance, I will try to get better.
There was another message conveyed to me in my review on Tuesday. Again, it was no surprise to me, and just as painful to hear. I could be better at pastoral care. I know that. My own self-perception is that I am warm, open, and non-judgmental. But somehow I don’t learn of the needs you have or the ways you want me to respond to those needs. Not so long ago I learned that some see me as “formidable.” Perhaps some find me unapproachable, uncaring, or even callous….
Maybe a little like Pilate.
I’ll be seeking ways to be more self-aware as well as more aware of how you want to be cared for pastorally. Perhaps you will help me be a better pastor for you. It is my hope and desire that we all will become better disciples of Jesus – better followers, more Christ-like, individually and corporately. If we could sweep away everything we do as “the church” and focus exclusively on ways that help us become better disciples – to love more people and love people more – I would do it in a flash. I want us to be unshakeable in our allegiance to the One who comes, and heals, and serves us.
What trials do we face and what does it mean for Jesus to reign? Just as it was and is countercultural for Jesus to say to the political authorities of his day and ours, “You are not the boss of me!” it is also profoundly countercultural, and at the heart of the Gospel for us to say, “It’s not all about me – it’s about us. When we belong to Christ, we belong to each other.” So much of what we experience in the world today as meaninglessness and loss is the logical extension of the idea that we are separate and discrete individuals, and that free will and freedom of choice are fundamentally about individuals rather than about relationships, connections, and communities.
One of the things that I hear in the Gospel narrative for today is that God is both trusting and trustworthy. God is committed to the working out of salvation within the parameters of creation. Jesus’ trial demonstrates that God does not stick a little finger into the course of human events to fix them on behalf of Jesus. The “trial” is not “fixed.” And yet Jesus – God’s most intimate confidante and agent in creation – can trust God to bring about salvation within the confines of our embodied reality. So how does humanity’s reputation fare in this encounter? Does Pilate represent us? Is he humanity in action? He is pompous and cruel, and yet bound by systems of injustice and compromise that are beyond the manipulation of even so powerful a man. Certainly he represents an aspect of our nature. He is vain, though more disciplined than Herod, and he seems to be smaller than the role he is trying to fill. He is caught up in a system that is larger than he is, in which his actions are dictated by powers outside his control. He sounds quite familiar. Even the most powerful among us can feel small and impotent.
While it may seem like little more than an uncomfortable confrontation over authority, Jesus’ trial before Pilate reveals some things about the good news of God’s unconditional love and expectation of shalom – or health and wholeness of the common good. It may take a little digging to find, but it is certainly there. First, there is the issue of truth. When Pilate queries, “So, you are a king?” Jesus offers a two-part response. The first part is evasive – not really an answer at all. “You say that I am a king.” This is the part we know best because it is present in the other gospels.
The second part of his response is more interesting. “I was born and came into the world for one purpose, to bear witness to the truth.” In Greek, even proper names have an article before them. So if you were to write or say something about me, you would use the article “the” – the Paul is the preacher today. But when we translate from Greek to English we need to decide when to keep the article. So we translate, “Paul is the preacher today.” dropping one article and keeping the other. I think the second part of Jesus’ response to Pilate makes more sense if we drop the article. “I was born and came into the world for one purpose, to bear witness to truth.” The truth to which Jesus bears witness here is that Pilate is not the authority. What he represents is not authority. Pilate is a sham who must derive his authority from elsewhere. Truth is when we present ourselves as we are – dependent creatures intended for compassion, inclusion, forgiveness, and charity.
Another revelation that leapt out at me from the language of this text is the underlying meaning of the word translated as “world” in English. Previously I had always assumed that the Greek word kosmon meant the whole of observable creation, as we use the word cosmos. But in fact, the origin of the word means order or system. So Jesus is saying to Pilate, “My reign is not from this system. If my reign were from this system, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over….” Jesus is saying that he is part of a system in which he has complete authority, a system based on compassion not control, inclusion not hierarchy, forgiveness not accusation, and hospitality not privilege. In effect, Jesus is telling Pilate, “We co-exist, but as parts of a completely different system. Your system has no authority over mine, even if the authority you wield were your own and not bestowed from afar.”
Pilate’s next words are illuminating. In verse 38, Pilate says, “What is truth?” He has become so bound up, so enmeshed in his system that he cannot see the deception, the lie that he is living, or the truth that is staring him in the face. This may not be good news for Pilate, but for us, who are privy to way, truth, and life through Jesus Christ, this is very good news. If we read the entire account of Jesus’ trials with Pilate, we see that at least three times Pilate tried to release Jesus from execution. Pilate declared him innocent more than once. He distanced himself from the decision, and even after the execution, he authorized a “proper” burial. But in the end, as noted in Alan Culpepper’s narrative analysis of the role of Pilate’s character in John’s Gospel, “Pilate is a study in the impossibility of compromise, the inevitability of decision, and the consequences of each decision. In the end, although he seems to glimpse the truth, a decision in Jesus’ favor proves too costly for [Pilate]. In this maneuver to force the reader to a decision regarding Jesus, the evangelist exposes the consequences of attempting to avoid a decision. Pilate represents the futility of attempted compromise. [We who try] to temporize or escape through the gate of indecision will find Pilate as [our] companion along that path.”[ii]
The decision for Christ, the decision to follow Jesus, is indeed a difficult one for both the powerful and the disempowered. It’s not possible to make that choice alone. We must do it together, in the realm in which, when terror, loss, and crisis strike, our response is, “How heartbreaking that this comes in a place – to a community – so beautiful and replete with love.” Let us then subject our very selves to the reign of the Christ who shows us what love is like.
[ii] R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design (Philadelphia: Folrtress Press, 1983), 143.