Pilate questions Jesus
33 Pilate went back into the palace. He summoned Jesus and asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own or have others spoken to you about me?”
35 Pilate responded, “I’m not a Jew, am I? Your nation and its chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”
36 Jesus replied, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.”
37 “So you are a king?” Pilate said.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.”
38 “What is truth?” Pilate asked.
Release of Barabbas
After Pilate said this, he returned to the Jewish leaders and said, “I find no grounds for any charge against him.
Thoughts on the passage:
The last Sunday before Advent is considered the end of the Christian year. It is also the Sunday known as Christ the King Sunday. It is a Sunday that we explore what it means to claim Christ as our king. It is a chance for us to examine historical statements about the lordship of Christ that we might take for granted. It also helps us transition to Advent because it gives a context for why we are so excited about Christmas and why we want to get ready for it.
The idea of Christ as King obviously is rooted in a historical era when everyone had a king. For those of us in a democracy, it takes on a different meaning. We are not juxtaposing Christ the King with the king of our nation. Still, I think there is value in seeing the kingship of Christ as a counterpoint or a contrast not only to historical kings, but also our own leaders who we democratically elect.
If we look at this text from John, I think we see that the image of Christ was not just hard to understand for those of us today, it was hard for Pilate to wrap his head around as well. The text comes from a reading that we typically associate with Easter. It is the questioning of Jesus by Pontius Pilate before Pilate renders his verdict on Christ. In his questioning, Pilate brings up one of the concerns that he, and others have with Jesus, specifically, the claim that Jesus is the king of the Jews.
It is not hard to see how such a claim could be threatening to those in power. At the time of this trial, Herod was the King of the Jews. While it was a hereditary title, it was also one that existed only with the permission of the Romans. Pilate is not a part of the Jewish establishment, rather he is part of the Roman empire that occupies the region. While the claim of Christ as king of the Jews was a direct threat to Herod, it was also a challenge to Roman power. Even if Jesus is ONLY the king of the Jews, that kingship would still be opposed to what was essential the puppet government that was endorsed and allowed by Rome.
What is surprising to Pilate, and important for us, is that Christ does not endorse his own kingship. He does not use the question as a chance to state his lordship. He does take it as a chance to question the legitimacy of the Roman government. Instead he starts by questioning the premise. He pushes back on the notion that he is king of the Jews. Wanting to have a clear charge with which to judge Jesus, Pilate tries to pin him down to saying that whether or not he is the king of the Jews, he is still claiming to be a king. Jesus, however, refuses to be caught in this legal trap either. Instead, he asserts that Pilate is the one that is calling Jesus the king. Jesus says he has come to testify to the truth.
Pilate is not sure what to do with his confrontation with Jesus. He openly muses, “What is truth.” He eventually reaches a decision to not charge Jesus. Instead he goes back out to the crowds and tells them there is not grounds for any charge against Jesus. Pilate has heard what Jesus has said and made a choice, for him, Jesus is not a king. Since Pilate does not see Jesus as a king, he does not see him as a threat to Rome and so is willing to let him live. His calculus will change later when he gets pushback from the crowds, but even when he hands him over to be killed, Pilate never sees Christ as a king.
I do not think that the kingship of Christ is relativistic, but I do think each of us has to answer for ourselves the same question that Pilate does. Do we say that Christ is king? Maybe this is my own post-modern and democratic values coming into play, but I think this is something powerful about seeing the kingship of Christ as a title that we bestow upon him. Christ’s ultimate kingship comes from God, but he is our king if we choose him to be.
The reality is that kingship only really works with the consent of the governed. Even though Christ is king eternal, through the power of free-will we can always choose to reject his rulership. We can choose to not let him into our hearts and lives. We can choose to ignore his teachings, break his laws, and turn away from him. Like Pilate, we can choose if we want Christ to be our king.
I for one, want to make that choice. I want Christ to be my king. In a world of imperfect rulers and tarnished heroes, I for one want to place my trust in a king who is not lacking and who is not flawed. I want to follow Jesus because he, and he alone is worthy. Whoever your idols are, I am willing to bet, that like you and me, they make mistakes, they do somethings that are wrong. I believe that like you and me, they are not perfect. I declare Christ as my king because he is perfect.
What does it mean to claim Christ as king? It means that we acknowledge that we are going to follow Jesus. It means that our allegiance is first and foremost to God. We are a part of this world, citizens of the United States, but our first loyalty is not to our temporal leaders, but instead to Jesus. Claiming Christ as our king means that we are going to seek to live our lives the way that he would want us to. It means loving God and loving our neighbor. It means caring for not only our friends and family, but also the stranger and the enemy. It means a radically different approach to the world than others might have. It is a powerful, audacious, and challenging claim.
Christ the King Sunday comes a month before Christmas because we need that time of Advent to get ready for our king to be born. There is a change that will happen in our lives if we are going to make Christ our king. As the commercial Christmas season begins, our mailboxes and emails will be inundated with suggestions of how we can focus our attention on ourselves and our needs. The world will encourage us to think only about ourselves. Instead, as we enter into the sacred season of Advent, we need to be preparing ourselves to let go of ourselves and focus on God. Instead of thinking about what we want, we should be thinking more about what God wants. When we are able to do that then we will be ready for the true season of Christmas that begins with the birth of a new king.
Today we have a chance, to declare Christ as our king. This is our chance to once more put our trust not in earthly rulers, but instead in God. We have an opportunity to turn away from the temptations and pressures of the world and instead follow Jesus. As we get ready for the journey of Advent and begin to head to the manager and the birth of Christ, let us first get prepare our hearts and minds to make room for his presence in our lives.
Questions to Ponder:
What does it mean to you to call Christ the king?
What images come to mind when you think about kings?
What are the ways you struggle to let Christ be the ruler of your life?
Wondrous God, you come into our hearts in small and simple ways, like a child, born in a manager. As we get ready to explore again the miracle of your birth among us, prepare our hearts and minds to let you rule them. Take away from us all of the distractions and temptations to follow others instead of you. Help us to be faithful to you. Amen