John Michael Gutierrez, PhD
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters* again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate 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?’ 36Jesus 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.’ 37Pilate 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.’John 18:33-37
The Gospel of the Lord
For the last few weeks, I have been pouring over the twelve sentences in our Gospel lesson. Notice our lectionary architects stopped short of Pilate’s most famous, most distracting question in all of Western philosophy “What is truth”? (vs.38). Absent that distraction I found myself considering a dramatic political confrontation, the darkest, most troubling series of religious, political events in world history – Jesus’ tug-o-war clash with Judean religious leaders and Pilate over two kings and two kingdoms, and the allegiance they each solicited.
In 1925, still under the dark shadow cast by WW1, Pope Pius XI observed Christians were being influenced and drawn away practically and theologically by increasingly progressive political/militarist activism. As a witness against this destructive cultural force rearing its ugly head in the history of nations, he inserted the Feast of Christ the King into the lectionary to close each liturgical year providing a platform to proclaim a biblical kingdom message.
In the same year, 1925, related, but 6300 miles away, a young Mexican priest, Fr. Miguel Pro, chose to resist Mexico’s rising political/militarist aggression against the Church. He was finally caught, arrested and sentenced to death on a trumped-up charge of attempted assassination. Led to execution in Mexico City’s police courtyard, with arms outstretched like a cross, as the volley of bullets tore into his body, he shouted VIVA CHRISTO REY! which translated is “Long live Christ the King”!
As we prepare to begin a new church year – Advent – revisiting the coming of Jesus, not only to Bethlehem, but in the Second Coming, as well, we pause on Christ the King Sunday. We do this in the spirit of Pius XI to reflect upon the kingship of Jesus in our progressive political setting. To challenge our thinking, we turn to the trial of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. There we will look upon this lowly prisoner, reflecting on Pilate’s skeptical comment “So, you’re the “King of the Jews”.
Find, if you will, in your Bible, John 18.33-37 where Jesus has been forced by Judean religious leaders into the presence of Roman political/military authority in Jerusalem. Let me pause to set the stage with some of this Gospel’s theological ideas. First, here is the Word who was in the beginning, who was with God, who is God, the only begotten Son who was born in an earthen jar/ a clay pot to reveal to men and women – God. He now stands in the presence of religious leaders and a militarist politician in apparent weakness. After all, he is YHWH’s servant who will be lifted up (crucified) to draw everyone to himself and the Father (Jn. 12.32-33). Humanly speaking there is nothing darker than a traitor, religious conspirators or a militarist politician brutally mistreating then killing Jesus. But second, allow me to highlight a thematic verb in chapters 18-19, the “handing over” of Jesus implicating several characters responsible for his death. Although Judas Iscariot is widely recognized as the one who “betrayed”, that is, “handed over” Jesus to the authorities (cf. John 18:2, 5), the same verb “handed over” also describes the actions of the religious leaders and Pilate. In John 18:35, Jesus has been “handed over” by the Judeans to Pilate. At the end of the trial, Pilate “hands over” the most certainly innocent Jesus to be crucified (19:16). Thus, the responsibility in Jesus’ death does not rest with Judas alone but is shared through betrayals captured in the verb “handed over”. Are you still with me? Well, the same verb also describes the action of Jesus. On the cross, Jesus, in an act of prayer, in an act of worship, in an act of allegiance “hands over” his spirit to the Father (19:30). In the end, it is Jesus, not Judas, not the Judean leaders, not Pilate, who exerts authority over his death. So lastly, let’s keep this in mind. Jesus did this for you and me. Let’s review Isaiah writing about the Suffering Servant. “But he was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was on him and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray. Each of us has turned to our own way. And YHWH has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53.5-6). These couple of ideas, then, should change our perspective about our Gospel lesson. Jesus is not the hapless victim of others. Nothing in this series of events narrated in John 18-19 occurred accidentally, outside of divine purpose and intention. The Father’s plan included the suffering and death of Jesus on our behalf. Behind every movement in these events is YHWH’s opened arms.
Jesus’ trial before Pilate (John 18:28 -19:1) is a series of seven start-stop “time outs”. Now we readers know the Judeans have been seeking ways to arrest and kill Jesus. So, their goal is to have him put to death for breaking religious law. Something they cannot do. So, the Judean leaders must engage the Romans to do that. Pilate tries to send these pesky Judean leaders away, but they persist. Somewhat comically he, who commands the Empire’s power, repeatedly runs in and out of the Judgement Room to question the Judean leaders and their mob in the street.
Our Gospel lesson draws us into one of the “time outs”. Standing before Pilate, Jesus is under arrest on a trumped-up charge of being a kingly threat to Rome. Sitting in the power, strength and apparent security of the Empire, Pilate tries to engage Jesus in conversation “So You’re the king of the Jews” (vs. 33). Pilate knows he’s not the king of the Jews. But he seems to fit the bill of an arrested defeated humiliated revolutionary. How perfect! But perfect for whom? Now Rome, like all authoritarian governments, is not immune to provocative threats from inside or outside.
And what does Pilate’s comment sound like? We don’t know. But we do know Jesus won’t play along. “King is your word, not mine. Did you come up with the word on your own or have people been talking to you?” (vs.34). Both know “others” have been talking. It seems to me, Pilate as a Roman official, has limited interest in or knowledge of Jewish customs or beliefs. His objective is the maintenance of Roman control, and he recognizes a threat in this prisoner’s charges. And what he does know is he has had to come from Caesarea to Jerusalem to direct his military in suppressing any rebellion during Passover. And what he also knows is he’s had to get up out of bed early in the morning because of this religious power play. If the question came from Pilate, it would be something like this: Are you claiming to be king challenging the authority of Rome? The answer is clearly, No. But if it was a Jewish question, it would be something like this: Are you the messianic king of Israel? To that the answer would be, yes. Pilate is put on the spot, and he doesn’t like it. His mouth is going dry, but he spits his scorn with the Judean leaders who wouldn’t even enter the Herodian building; “I am not a Jew am I? It’s your own people who have handed you over. It’s all part of their political-religious rubbish with self-proclaimed messiahs who were nothing but dangerous terrorists. Now let’s get down to brass tacks. What have you done”? (vs. 35). The implication is that whatever it was, it must have been bad, because the Judean leaders didn’t like the Romans, yet here they are handing over one of their own. Carefully note Jesus’ response. “OK, you want to know who I am and what I’m all about, I’ll tell you. You can call me a King, I’ll accept that, but then you must understand it by my terms, my definitions, or you won’t understand it at all.” “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my officers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over by the Judeans. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (vs. 36). Note carefully what Jesus means. Two kingdoms occupy the same temporal space. But his kingdom is not one of militarist constraint or political calculation. Biblical kingship is revealed in Israel’s covenant with its emphasis on character, relationship, and obedience. Pilate is a practical leader and the business at hand is the defense of the empire. Once again, he says shrewdly “So you are a king” (vs. 37a). But Jesus is not about to be trapped in Pilate’s politics where behind every structure, every relationship is an oppressive power dynamic that needs to be equalized. Again, Jesus counters “In a sense you’re right. Still King is your word, not mine. Because I was born for this, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth, listens to my voice.” (vs. 37b).
Like other kings in the ANE, Jesus’ kingly mission involves a journey with a mandate – deliver divine truth. Superficially the biblical kingdom may look political, but it isn’t interested in politics. In this politicized scene when Jesus talks about truth he’s not just talking about honesty or saying true things. Truth in the Fourth Gospel is a personal reality. What motivates Jesus is deeply embedded in him. His mission as the Word involves unveiling himself and the Father. He is the living, truthful Way and no one will come to the Father except through him (Jn. 14.6). Roman politicians, in fact, any politician’s thinking about kingship is way too narrow to contain the scope of Israel’s covenant kingship.
Well, let’s turn some of the thoughts in these twelve sentences in our direction. I’ll ask you to make your own applications. All things considered, presently Christians are in a position like Jesus – standing in apparent weakness before political/cultural authorities. So how can believing communities speak to progressive, political activism rather than mimicking it’s grouped selfies and working the room in some misguided parody? It seems to me politics only divides believers who elevate political affiliation above faith. So, I’m going to frame some applications as observations about discipleship modeled by Jesus. Specifically, if the believing community carries out the Kingdom mission in the same manner as Jesus there may come a time when we stand in the presence of cultural/political authorities.
Theologically, the Fourth Gospel presents Jesus’ mission and message within the setting of Israel’s covenant story. Israel’s God, YHWH, is the Great King and Father, the covenant maker. And Israel is his servant nation and Son. In Jesus, the servant Son, YHWH is once again demonstrating his kingship authority over Israel. In chs. 18-19, the concepts of king and kingdom are recalculated. For seventeen chapters, words for “king” and “kingdom” are virtually non-existent. Coming now to the climax of this Gospel, sixteen times the words explode on the page as John highlights in trial and crucifixion, the kingly role of Jesus as the dying Savior. When King and kingdom are bundled into the truths of covenant loyalty relationships not militarist political authoritarian power, in the incarnation not identity politics, in transformed character and behavior not social fragility then Jesus as Truth will ring true. That’s a whole different perspective on king and kingdom, especially with application to us.
Can I remind you early on John informed us that to recognize king and kingdom, we must be “born from above by the Spirit ” (John 3:3)? In his Nicodemus’ scene, Jesus invites him and us to align with YHWH’s covenant instruction and practices. By word and deed, we participate in his mission to establish YHWH’s royal rule. Unless I have experienced this new birth, I am unable to recognize YHWH’s kingship surrounding me on all sides. If I do accept Jesus as the one who has come from the Father. If I am teachable about the truth. Then I will move away from loyalty to this world’s kingdom toward allegiance to the rule of YHWH through Jesus. Remember the Judean religious leaders bowed to the empire, “We have no king but the emperor” (John 19:15). To say Christ is king is to say nothing until it is clear to which king I belong. May I point out a most subversive political act said in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If I pray and live this, then I have a loyalty different from Caesar’s political, social activism and its historical descendants for I pledge allegiance “Long live, Christ the King ”.
Now let’s reflect on how this Gospel, actually all four Gospels, have portrayed the substance of Jesus’s kingdom mission and message, his public witness, that got him, rather ironically, into this controversy. Where has Jesus taken his divine mandate to declare the truth? Well not to the structures housing political or religious authority. But to villages, synagogues, homes, non-urban places. And what has he done in those places? He has cared for folk, come alongside them, had his stomach tied up in knots at their grief, touched them, instructed them, healed them, and raised some of them from the dead. By the Spirit he preached good news to the poor, released prisoners, and brought recovery of health to the sick. Jesus, the friend of sinners, empowered the most unlikely ragtag followers and used his kingdom authority to wash the feet of those he led. He spends his life on them, every ounce of it. He gives his life to bring life. Jesus’ kingdom is deeply pastoral, practically involved in the grit of everyday life.
Jesus’ sustained, visible message and pastoral action highlights the miscalculations in this political scene. However, I propose this scene directs us to an engagement of personal, pastoral care for the good, the whole of everyone in our influence. Each of us is called to witness, to witness to the One who demonstrated power through weakness, who manifested strength through vulnerability, who showed character is more important than celebrity, who embraced a confused, chaotic, and violent world, taking its pain into his own body, dying the death it decreed, and yet rose again. Our witness is not a retreat from society, but personal engagement of society about its manner of life, establishing ourselves pastorally at the very heart of villages, urban centers, crowded apartments, and suburbs addressing the pressing need for biblical faith, engaging individuals, families offering them the suffering/resurrection life of Jesus through Word and Sacrament and folding them into close knit communities. Our witness is the poor walking among the poor, the confused, the misguided, the sick and dying for their care. And this kind of public ministry, in the current culture, may stand us in the presence of political/cultural authorities.
May the Lord richly bless us, My Beloved