“Are You a King or Not?”
This is Reign of Christ Sunday – the final Sunday of our Church Year before we begin a new cycle with the Season of Advent next week. And so, it seems good to remember the journey through the Scriptures that we have shared in our worship throughout the last year – the cycle that we go through each year in our life together as church.
We began with Advent a year ago – waiting and preparing for Emmanuel and then celebrating the arrival of Jesus the tiny, helpless child at Christmas.
We remembered the Baptism of Jesus – that moment when the Spirit of God descended onto him and the voice from heaven was heard declaring “You are my beloved Son.” We traveled with Jesus through his ministry in Galilee. We heard his parables. We witnessed his miracles – food multiplied, people healed, evil spirits driven out.
We heard his debates and arguments with the religious authorities of his time. We watched Jesus break the rules and turn our understanding of the world upside down. We saw him eat with the outcasts and rejected people of society. We wondered at his strange, wandering way of life and struggled with his disciples through their decisions to follow him, or not to.
As Jesus moved towards Jerusalem, we heard him predict the terrible fate that awaited him there. We saw him enter the city riding on a donkey like the anointed kings of the Hebrew Scriptures. And when he over-turned the tables in the temple and drove the money-changers out, we realized the urgency of his message.
Before everything really started to go downhill, Jesus spent one last Passover meal with his followers. Then there was betrayal by Judas, denial by Peter, and the others who had walked with him ran away. There were cries of “crucify him!” and his humiliating death on a cross like a criminal.
But then the miraculous happened once again. The tomb was found empty. Jesus’ body was raised, and he appeared to many of his followers. They touched him, and they ate with him, and he told them that he was going ahead of them to God.
And the Church began to form. Those who had followed him and heard his teachings and witnessed his resurrection began to tell the stories about him. Those who listened and believed began to meet together and learn about Jesus and form their lives around their new faith in Jesus the Christ. They were Christians.
These were their stories of faith, and they are our stories of faith. They are the stories that we repeat year after year. They are the stories that tell us about God. They are the stories that tell us about a man called Jesus of Nazareth. He lived more than 2000 years ago in a place called Galilee and his life and his death changed the world forever.
This is Reign of Christ Sunday. The question for today is this: “So, was he a king or not?” Now that we have heard the stories, we should be able to make a determination. Who was this Jesus guy?
That’s the question that Pilate is struggling with in our reading from the Gospel of John. Who is this Jesus?
Put yourself in the place of Pilate, the Roman governor at that time. He is going about his business, when early one morning, a bunch of people show up at his palace with a prisoner – and they seem to be asking him to crucify this man.
They don’t even seem to be able to tell Pilate what Jesus has done wrong, but they’re asking him to judge him guilty and have him killed. What a position for Pilate to be in! He has to figure out who this Jesus guy is, what he’s done wrong, and then decide what to do with him.
It seems that Pilate has heard about Jesus before. Perhaps he’s heard rumours about Jesus being a charismatic leader of the Jewish people. Maybe he knows that some people were calling Jesus a king.
It seems strange to call Jesus a king. He didn’t live in a palace. He wasn’t rich. He had no power and no subjects and no land and no army. He doesn’t sound like a king. But Pilate still asks him, “Are you the ‘King of the Jews’?”
The model for a king that Pilate may be thinking of is the one that King David demonstrated. David did not become king because he belonged to the right family. It wasn’t because his father was the king that he became the next king. David began as a nobody. He became king because he manoevered his way into the job. He impressed people with his cunning and he had a charismatic personality that got people excited about him. He was a king by popularity, not by genetics.
So perhaps Pilate thinks that Jesus could be this sort of king for the Jewish people. Perhaps Jesus has been working the crowds and making himself popular. Maybe Jesus has made himself the popular king of the Jews, and the plan is to lead them in some sort of revolutionary movement against their Roman occupiers.
I imagine Pilate thinking, “Hey, I’m not the one who got you arrested. I may have heard some rumours about you, but I don’t even know who you are. I don’t know what you’re accused of doing. How am I supposed to decide what to do with you when I don’t know what you’ve done? If it were up to me, I’d just let you go so I wouldn’t have to deal with all this.”
Pilate wants to know what Jesus did that got his own community so mad. But instead of answering his 2nd question: “What did you do?” Jesus goes back to Pilate’s 1st question: “Are you the ‘King of the Jews’?”
Essentially, Jesus says, “Yes, I’m a king – but not like you think.”
Kings have power. Even if there are other kings who are more powerful than they are, they at least have followers or subjects who will fight for them. If the king is captured, they will try to do something about it. Jesus is not this kind of king.
Now Pilate seems to be more confused than ever. Yes, he’s a king. But, not really like other kings. What is he? Who is he?
One of the main themes in the Gospel of John is “recognition”. It is full of stories about people recognizing who Jesus is. Jesus is out there proclaiming the good news of God and telling everyone who he is, and people are deciding what they think about Jesus. Who is this guy, and do I believe him?
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is completely open about his identity. He identifies himself as coming from God into the world. His purpose is to testify to the truth about God. What the people have to do is listen to him and decide whether or not they believe.
Now, I looked through the Gospel of John and tried to find out who Jesus was claiming to be. I found that he claimed many titles: Lamb of God, Messiah or Christ, Son of God, Son of Man, the True Vine, the Light of the World, the Testifier to the Truth, the Good Shepherd, the Resurrection and the Life, and the King of Israel.
This is who Jesus claims to be. Now the people must decide what they believe.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They answer, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” And then Jesus asks them the more important question, “But who do you say that I am?”
This is what Pilate must struggle with – his answer to that crucial question. Pilate must answer it for himself. “Are you the ‘King of the Jews’?” he asks. But Jesus’ response is “You tell me.” – “Who do you say that I am?”
Perhaps the most difficult thing about being a Christian is that nothing is for sure. We have no proof. We can’t prove that God exists. We can’t prove that Jesus was anything more than an influential preacher. We can’t prove that some Holy Spirit is with us, or that any of these ideas are real at all.
Studying theology makes this all the more evident. When you begin to look at the biblical text with critical eyes, when you study its history, when you hear about how it developed through oral tradition, when you realize that the texts were copied by hand over and over, and how they were translated from one language to another… When you see all this, the Bible begins to seem less certain. When you realize that the stories recorded in the Gospels are stories of faith rather than statements of fact, everything becomes a little more foggy.
There is no evidence that Jesus was God’s Son. What we have is not historical evidence, but stories of faith. What we know is not that Jesus did X number of miracles and that he was raised from death. What we know is that his life and death changed people’s lives. What we have are the stories of the communities of people who said, “This is not just an ordinary man. This man is from God.” What we have are the stories of their experience of who Jesus was. What we have in our Bible is their response to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”
Son of God, Good Shepherd, King of Israel?
Jesus is not the type of king who has many riches, who lives in a palace, and rules over many people. If he were that type of king, his followers would be coming to rescue him from his captors. Jesus describes himself as a king who is a testifier to the truth – the truth about the love of God – the truth about his own identity as Son of God – the truth about God’s abiding presence in the world. Jesus is the kind of king who does not gain power and authority by conquering cities and taking control. He doesn’t give orders and he doesn’t enforce laws.
Jesus is a king whose purpose is to testify to the truth. His followers are those who care for the truth. His subjects are those who listen to him – those who recognize his voice.
So, is he a king or not? The question is passed on to each one of us to answer for ourselves. Who do we say that he is? We are not forced into service of the king. We will not be thrown into jail if we reject him. We will not be conquered by his great armies and made to kneel before him in reverence. We become his followers, not by force, by the fact that we listen to his voice.
Christ is a different sort of king. He is the kind of king who tells us the truth – who tells us about God, and hopes that we will begin to live as if God exists. He is the kind of king who gives us good news, and lets us decide for ourselves if we will hear and believe it. He is the kind of king who arrives in the form of a child, and leaves as a prisoner condemned to death. He is the kind of king who is abandoned by all his followers, and yet never abandons them. He is the kind of king who wants to have many followers, but stoops to serve them and to wash their feet.
This is Christ the King. So, is he a king or not?
“You tell me”, Jesus says. “Who do you say that I am?”