Christ the King, B
Revelations 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37
Sometimes the most important question is the question not asked. Maybe it’s not socially acceptable to ask it. Too probing or not politically correct. Maybe it seems like everybody else knows the answer already, so you can’t quite bring yourself to speak up. Or maybe, like me, the really crucial question doesn’t even occur to you until hours or days or weeks later, usually in the middle of the night, accompanied by a smack on the forehead and a profound sense of “duh”.
The Gospel reading today is composed almost entirely of questions, but (in my opinion) we didn’t get to hear the most important question. It’s not because the question didn’t get asked. Pilate asked it. The arrangers of the lectionary left it out.
Pilate and Jesus are going back and forth; ostensibly a trial, although it’s not always entirely clear who is trying whom. “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.” There ends the lesson. The passage, however, continues. “Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’”
The bible doesn’t give us tone of voice, so it’s not entirely clear if Pilate asks this question dismissively, ironically or contemptuously. You know how people do. With the corner of one lip turned up just that little bit and that sneer in their voice. Or maybe (and this is not a popular notion, you understand), maybe somewhere deep inside Pilate responds to something in Jesus that turns the world as Pilate has always known it upside down. Pilate is a powerful Roman ruler of a notoriously difficult to control part of the world. The rules he lives by are brutal, but quite simple. If a man claims to have any power which the empire did not give to him, that man is subversive and a danger to the empire. Kill him. If a man upsets the delicate balance of power-sharing with the local authorities, he is a danger to Pilate’s control. Kill him. These are the truths that Pilate knows. Still, over and over he tries to find a way out of killing Jesus. What if the truth that Jesus offered; offered freely to his prosecutor and judge, made Pilate ponder the validity of the truths he’d always known?
“What is truth?”
Such a simple question, but people spend lifetimes looking for it. Scientists, theologians, philosophers, poets, students, and those of us who just live our ordinary lives from day to day. Religious institutions used to serve as a bastion of truth. The priests or rulers in power declared “Truth” and everyone else adjusted their world view around that. Some religious groups and people still operate that way. For most of us our day to day truths have been adjusted by science – the earth is round and revolves around the sun, gravity, speed of light, conservation of energy and matter – that sort of thing. Science’s burgeoning understanding of the world has given us a great gift. That gift is limited to facts and theories. It is true. It is not Truth. Truth, with a capital T, includes these facts, but is not limited to them. As poet and priest John O’Donahue says, “There is a relentless search for the factual and this quest often lacks warmth or reverence. At a certain stage in our life we may wake up to the urgency of life, how short it is. Then the quest for truth becomes the ultimate project. We can often forage for years in the empty fields of self-analysis and self-improvement and sacrifice much of our real substance for specks of cold, lonesome factual truth.” It can be frightening to move on from those cold, concrete, verifiable, secure facts to delve into the depths of the truth that Jesus offers. Neither science nor religion are truth, in and of themselves. They are human constructs designed to help us understand the underlying truth.
This last week after Pentecost, the end of our church year, marks Christ the King Sunday. The Feast of Christ the King was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI to remind Christians that their allegiance was to their spiritual ruler, Jesus the Christ, as opposed to their earthly ruler, a post claimed in Pope Pius’s neck of the woods at that time by Benito Mussolini.
Last week, as we brought ordinary time to a close, we heard about apocalyptic visions. Next week gives birth to Advent and the sacred cycle begins anew with the new church year. To celebrate the promise of the new year we will hear about, you guessed it, apocalyptic visions. To quote Suzanne Guthrie, “Apocalypse, although associated with the sun darkening, the moon not giving its light, the stars falling, earthquakes, and fire and destruction, literally means “unveiling.” The lifting of the veil, opening the curtain. Revealing. Revelation… At the heart of the apocalyptic season Jesus reigns from a cross. It is the end. It is the beginning. His death is the catastrophic end that begets new life.”
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come.” Christ Jesus reigns eternal, but what is this strange kingdom? Jesus indicates that his kingdom, his truth is present in everyone who listens to his words. The kingdom lives where Jesus’s truth lives. Jesus offered Pilate the chance, offers us the chance, to face the truth, about ourselves, our relationships, our world, our faith, and ultimately our actions. In the end Pilate took the expedient way. He took the sensible, practical path, following brutal, merciless rules – just like everybody who was anybody always did. Will we take the easy way? Or do we dare to lift the veil, open the curtain, face truth? God’s truth.
We’ll continue the service in a few minutes with the words of the Nicene creed, a statement of faith. The first Christian creed was much simpler. It said, “Jesus is Lord”. Those words got early Christians killed. Chances are at least fair to middlin’ that they won’t get us killed. Nonetheless, if we would live the words – not just speak them, but live them – we must be open to the transformative nature of truth.
Later we will come to this table together and pray, “Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the Bread” We must know as we pray, that we do not choose the simple path. We are joining our lives to that of the servant King, Jesus. We are asking to help bring forth the kingdom of truth, love, and justice. It is not the way of the world, but it could be….
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was, and who is to come.