Theme: Jesus is king of the universe
Let us pray.
Most holy, Lord God, you sent your son to us to begin a reign that is not of this world – to lead us from the values of this world to one where Jesus reigns with love: love of you and love of all others; we dedicate this day to remind us to whom we belong, your son, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we pray. Amen.
Recently I heard someone tell a story about the experiences of the Freedom Riders in the American South during the ‘50s and ‘60s and their struggle for civil rights. The story was a vivid illustration of how life changes when Jesus has the last word, when Jesus is King.
When the Freedom Riders traveled through the South staging their sit-ins and marches and protests, they were often arrested and jailed. The guardians of racial segregation and the status quo were not going to let them have the last word. While in jail the Freedom Riders were often treated poorly and brutally in order to break their spirits. They were deprived of food or given lousy food. Noise was blasted and lights were flashed all day and night to keep them from resting. Sometimes even some of their mattresses were removed in order that all would not have a place to sleep.
For a while it seemed to work. Their spirits were drained and discouraged, but never broken. It happened more than once and in more than one jail. Eventually the jail would begin to rock and swing to sounds of gospel singing. What began as a few weak voices would grow into a thundering and defiant chorus. The Freedom Riders would sing of their faith and their freedom. Sometimes they would even press their remaining mattresses out of their cells between the bars as they shouted, “You can take our mattresses, but you can’t take our souls!”
The Freedom Riders were behind bars in jail, but they were really free. They were supposed to be guilty, but they were really innocent. They were supposedly suffering, but they were actually having a great time. They were supposedly defeated but they were actually victorious.
Why? They may not have said it, but they could have: because Jesus has the last word, because Christ is King!
Our gospel story today is in the middle of John’s passion. Jesus’ story of his trial demonstrates Jesus’ kingship and how Jesus influenced the Freedom Riders. Jesus is arrested. He is tried by the religious authorities. They then take Jesus to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. They are not specific about the charges against Jesus. In ancient times, governors or heads of state, or kings not only ruled, but they were also judges.
When Pilate expresses a distaste for dealing with a Jewish religious dispute, he asks the religious authorities to deal with Jesus themselves. They reply that they are “not permitted to put anyone to death.” John gives us the impression that Pilate wants to do what is right. But Pilate’s view of what is right revolves exclusively around what is best for the empire. Pilate does not see Jesus as a threat to the state.
Pilate returns to the inside of his headquarters and calls for the defendant, Jesus. John gives more emphasis on Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate then on other parts of the passion story.
Jesus’ trial is powerful. It is powerful in its telling. It is powerful because the Son of God is on trial. It is powerful because the judge, jury, and executioner represent the most powerful man in the world and the most powerful empire in the world. It is powerful because it is a contest between God and humankind.
Pilate begins his questioning of Jesus with the key question that matters to him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” In other words, are you assuming a ruling authority in a province of the Roman Empire?
Again Jesus typically replies the way he usually does by answering a question with a question. In effect Jesus is asking, “Are you really concerned that I am a threat to Rome, or has someone else put you up to this?” Jesus gives Pilate the opportunity to be authentic with Jesus. Is Pilate looking to justify the death penalty? Is Pilate trapped by political realities? If Pilate cuts Jesus free, does he have the troops to quell an insurrection? If the religious authorities cause trouble, will the emperor think that Pilate can’t control this backwater province? It appears that Jesus is the one in control of the situation. Pilate is trapped.
Jesus suggests that Pilate is being manipulated into investigating a charge for which he has no evidence. John is also telling us that Jesus is in control of the situation. If Jesus is to be executed it is only with his consent, even if someone else gives the order.
In John 10:17-18 Jesus says, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
Pilate objects to Jesus’ question by saying that he is not a Jew and that it was Jesus’ own people who turned him over to Rome. Jesus then answers Pilate’s question, “If I were the kind of king that you have in mind, my followers would be revolting and trying to effect my release.” Pilate’s political antenna perks up – so he thinks himself a king! Jesus then tells Pilate that it is Pilate, himself, who says Jesus is a king.
Now, we too say Jesus is a king. What does that mean for us? I think it means that Jesus is over and above any earthly government or authority. We may claim to be citizens of the United States, but that pales in comparison to our citizenship in heaven. If our government or any government commands or compels us to do what we believe violates our faith, then the government is in the wrong and must not be obeyed.
Of course, there are consequences to this. That is why many Christians were killed for their faith and continue to die for their faith. We belong to Christ. We live in the United States. Fortunately, for us we have an amendment to the Constitution that guarantees that we may express our faith freely.
Jesus tells Pilate, “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.” Jesus offers to be the Good Shepherd to Pilate. When the sheep listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, the Shepherd will lead them to life everlasting.
Jesus’ place in the world begins to dawn on Pilate, but events are spiraling out his control. Jesus must die. In the end, Pilate declares Jesus as king of the Jews and his execution is ordered. Pilate never grasped what we know – Jesus is king of the universe. Jesus is king of a place where he cannot stay dead.
The world throws all it can at Jesus. But Jesus remains unfazed and triumphant. Jesus gives us a glimpse of how we can be transformed by the Holy Spirit. We can be more present to the horrors of the world – to the suffering of the world – to the inhumanity of the world. With God’s help we can confront the evils of the world and not be defeated. Then we will be known as citizens of the King of the universe.
We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts, we give you thanks for the gift of citizenship in your kingdom; be ever present with us, so that, strengthened by the Holy Spirit, we may work harder for the completion of your kingdom here on earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Text: John 18:33-37 (NRSV)
33 Then Pilate entered the headquartersi again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 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?” 36 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.” 37 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.”