It’s such a weird mix of images. Today is Reign of Christ Sunday, the last day of worship before Advent begins… it is in all respects New Year’s Eve for Christians. Throughout the year we have walked through all the different seasons of the church, anticipating the coming of Christ, celebrating his arrival at Christmas… being revealed through Epiphany… sacrifice in Lent, and the glory of Easter. During the season of Pentecost is about our response to God’s grace… and just as we’re getting ready to start the cycle all over again, we have this powerful image of Christ as King.
This is all well and good… but Jesus in John’s Gospel is anything but king-like. Jesus stands before Governor Pontius Pilate; a prisoner, bound and humiliated. He awaits a horrible, suffocating death upon a bare wood cross. The only crown he will wear is one of thorns, and only stripes of office he will carry are the cruel welts from a whip. This really isn’t worth celebrating is it? The only thing the story gives us is the conversation between Jesus and Pilate, and Pilate’s haunting question of contempt, “What is truth?”
This image is so confusing… because we proclaim Christ to be king, and here he is a bound prisoner in front of a Roman official known for his brutality. Everything is turned on its ear. It’s even more confusing because of the conversation that Pilate has with Jesus, where the two of them seem to be talking past each other. And, depending on which English translation of the Bible that you read, the conversation between Jesus and Pilate could go two different ways. Maybe it’s intentional, because at the end of it all, it is reasonable to ask “What is truth?”
John’s Gospel has a wonderful way of telling the story on two levels… Pilate asks basic, straightforward questions, and Jesus replies by pointing to something far greater.
Pilate is asking about tangible, hands-on, practical information. Jesus speaks about the cosmic reality of God that surrounds us. You can hear this come out of the conversation between the two men.
This is a conversation that seems to go nowhere, or at very least, the two men talk past each other. Pilate asks Jesus not once but twice, “Are you a king?”, and twice he does not get a straight answer. He wants to know whether or not Jesus considers himself a king, and therefore, whether or not Jesus is a political threat.
Jesus answers, “For this I was born, for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” Jesus neither denies nor confirms that he is a king. Jesus claims the role to “bear witness to the truth.” But what is truth? John has some really subtle takes on it.
When it comes to reading the Gospels, usually I recommend that someone new to it should not start with John. Start with Mark, then Matthew, then Luke… then Acts… read Paul’s letters… but leave the Gospel of John until the rest of that story sinks in. Why? Because the gospel of John is full of multi-layered storylines like this: with concepts, ideas. and theology that already assumes that we know the basic plot. Jesus and Pilate are talking on two totally different levels, trying to come to an understanding of what it means to call Christ King.
Pilate is talking at this very earthly level. Either Jesus claims to be a king or not… and his only frame of reference is someone who lives in a palace, determines policy and order. Most of us are on this level… there are some English translations of the Bible that actually have Jesus agreeing with Pilate. Maybe because the translators wanted so much for Jesus to affirm a much more concrete definition of what he means…
But Jesus, as we encounter him in John’s Gospel, doesn’t work that way. Truth is not a list of independently verifiable facts… but is something much larger, something far more profound, reaching far beyond our conventional understanding of the word. This isn’t simply a statement of a particular point of view, nor is it something that can be easily defined or put into a box. Truth, at least how John talks about it, is the indefinable reality of God. Truth is the affirmation that God is present in creation with us, and nowhere is it revealed more fully than in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. How we connect to that is what reveals meaning and purpose in our lives… and how we relate that to each other.
John goes out of his way to say that simple concepts like “King” are not enough to encompass the true profound reality of God in Christ. John uses this scene to contrast Jesus next to an earthly authority who is simply not able to understand who he really is. His question of contempt “What is Truth?” is to show how completely out-of-tune and outclassed earthly authorities are when it comes to truly understanding God.
But so what? After all of this, most of us are probably still sitting there with Pilate scratching our heads. What is this kingdom that he is talking about? Why does Jesus seems so evasive to a direct question as to whether or not he is a king?
Even when Jesus appears before Pilate, bound in chains, we really get this sense that these chains can’t contain what Jesus is about. Maybe that’s the message of the story. John uses images that contrast to make his point.
Jesus stands there, bound and in chains, but in his soul, in who he is, he is free. He freely speaks about the Kingdom of God. Pilate by contrast is a free man, a Roman citizen with the authority to rule over this corner of the Empire… and yet he is shackled by his own ideas and limited understanding. He seems unable or unwilling to accept there is something new and profound standing right in front of him. When he spits out his reply to Jesus “What is truth?” He shows how much a prisoner he is to his own ideology and culture.
It is the contrast of the bound king, the free ruler… and yet who really is the one who is free?
In a very practical sense, maybe what John is after in telling this story is to warn us as to how we can become so trapped by our own culture, our own ideas, that we can actually miss God standing right in front of us. I’ve said this before that sometimes we are so preoccupied with trying to find God where we expect God to show up, that we miss the most obvious standing right in front of us. It isn’t just secular authorities like Pilate, who miss this, but people who are widely perceived to be profoundly religious can also let their own ideology bind them and blind them from seeing God right in their midst… as John’s gospel proclaims at the opening: “the Word became flesh and lived amongst us.” Yet we don’t see it. A recent example in light of the all the rhetoric around migrants and refugees is a reminder that when Jesus was a child, he too was a refugee whose parents had to flee their home. We become too comfortable in the way that we think things should be, that we miss God right in front of us.
God is encouraging us to use our creativity to innovate new ways to live out Christ’s love in action in our lives and community. Creativity and innovation can be limited, can be shackled, is that our own ideologies, culture, frame of reference puts on a set of blinders that we aren’t even aware of. Maybe Pilate remained a prisoner of his own ideas… but that doesn’t mean we are tied to the same fate. On this Reign of Christ Sunday remember the image of the bound king who is yet free, and the free ruler who is a prisoner. Who would we rather be?