We’ve jumped from Mark’s Gospel over to John’s Gospel for this week. John seems to get the high holy days. You can’t help but wonder why they didn’t do a four-year cycle for the lectionary, so that John could have his own year. But instead, we get sprinkles of John here and there throughout all three years. Maybe that’s a good thing, giving us these shifts of emphasis and characterization from one gospel presentation of Jesus to another. It helps us round out the picture of Jesus in significant ways. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus strains to accomplish mighty acts of healing and exorcism. In John, Jesus is more fluid and almost ethereal, certainly more philosophical, and he seeks to describe himself to the incredulous disciples.
This text, however, isn’t a convoluted philosophical debate with hopelessly outclassed scribes and Pharisees, nor is it yet another attempt by Jesus to define himself to his followers in terms that revealed more than they were able to comprehend. No, this is a surprisingly profound conversation between a prisoner in chains and his jailer holding all the keys, and yet you can’t help but wonder where the power resides.
The prisoner has not yet been flogged nearly to death; he’s not yet been dragged out on display to a bloodthirsty crowd and heard the words, “behold your king!” sneered in full sarcastic voice. He’s not yet been dismissed as an irritant that the Roman occupiers could no longer ignore. Yes, he was smacked around by a jumpy temple guard who heard what he thought was sass toward his boss, the high priest. But that swollen lip and bit of dried blood under his darkened nose was nothing compared to what was coming.
You would be excused in thinking that this was a conversation between rival authorities, jockeying for their place on the stage. The prisoner had been left cooling his heels in the governor’s mansion while Pilate went out to play chess with the temple authorities. Here’s where the jockeying took place, the political one-upmanship, or exchange of favors and who owed who what after this. You can’t help but feel like no one came out on top on this one.
Nonetheless, Pilate sweeps back into his offices and eyes the source of all their woes for a moment. Then he shakes his head and with a sly grin says, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He waves his hand in Jesus’ general direction as if to say, “I see nothing kingly in this sorry excuse for a holy man.”
Then Jesus takes control of the conversation, as he has done throughout the Gospel of John. Those who thought they had him were left floundering; those who wanted him to leave them alone were surprised at the depth of his caring; those who thought flattery would get them everywhere were challenged to think differently; and even those who gave up everything to follow him were left open-mouthed at a glimpse of a reality they had no idea even existed.
Roles were swapped before all the participants knew what was happening, and Jesus the prisoner became the judge, and Pilate the key holder knew there was nothing he could unlock in this mess of a moment. “I’m not a Jew,” Pilate protested, throwing up his hands and backing away as if that could keep him safe.
“My kingdom is not of this world.” What did he mean by that? Is our faith, in the end, about getting out of the world as unscathed as we possibly can? Is it about some spiritual reality that has nothing to do with the flesh and blood and bone of the existence that defines us now? Are we simply passing through, waiting for something somewhere else? Because it kind of sounds that way. Any many of his followers throughout the centuries have placed their bets on that truth.
But what if he wasn’t trying to spiritualize faith in that moment? What if, instead, he was trying to describe a new way of living in this world? What if he was setting aside centuries of power politics wielded at the end of a sharp stick? “If my kingdom were of this world,” he goes on to describe, “you’d have a war on your hands, an insurrection designed to get what we think we deserve. But that’s not how we make our way in the world. The revolution I’m leading is like nothing you have ever seen; the kin-dom I’m proclaiming, the kin-dom I’m leading reworks human relationship at its most fundamental level. It’s a whole new world.”
All of which flew over Pilate’s head like a low flying military drone. But he grasps at the only straw that makes sense to him in that confusing conversation, “so you are a king?” Kin-dom, kingdom, who can tell the difference? Maybe there is insurrection here, maybe there is something worthy of destroying this vision of how the world could be, should be, maybe was created to be.
“You say I am a king.” Again, with the Zen-like remarks. Who knows what this means? I’m sure Pilate had no idea. You say I am a king, because you think in kings, you think in power, you think in conflict and authority and rule.
This is “Reign of Christ” Sunday. It used to be called “Christ the King” Sunday. But maybe we’ve been listening to this conversation long enough to recognize that we’re being challenged on the whole “king” idea. Don’t misunderstand. It isn’t that we no longer want to claim that Christ is our guide, our example, our savior and friend, that all true authority rests in him. It’s just that history tells us that a king rules by fear, by threat, by military might, and that maybe we’ve been doing a disservice to the one who came to live among us and be God with us by calling him king. In this conversation, Jesus seems to want to avoid the nomenclature. So, what is left? Where do we go from here? We follow Jesus.
“You want to talk about kingdoms, I want to talk about truth.” That’s where Jesus went with this king idea. “I have come to bear witness to the truth.” The truth about living, the truth about faith, the truth about meaning and purpose. The truth about grace and reconciliation. This is the truth that Christ came to testify to. And everyone, hear this, “everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
A life that matters is a life that belongs to the truth. A life of truth-telling and truth-living. We cannot be sustained by a lie. We cannot be redeemed by a lie, even a beautiful lie, even a longed-for lie. To claim the reign of Christ is to put an end to untruth, which is harder than we want to admit. Pilate’s reply to all of this is conveniently left out of the lectionary text for this week. He shambles off and mutters, “What is truth?” Then he goes and says he finds no case against Jesus but has him killed anyway. He claims to not be acquainted with truth so that he can perpetuate a lie.
Today is a day for declaring our intention to live a life that matters, a life of radical generosity that holds all our possessions and our very lives lightly. It is a life of taking the long view, and while living fully in each moment, not letting this moment define all of existence or to shape our hope. And now a life of belonging to the truth, a truth that transcends individual limited perspective and allows the community to hear the voice of Christ as the guide and hope for living a life that matters.