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The Last Sunday after Pentecost
Christ the King
November 25, 2012
The Gospel: John 18: 33-37
Sermon: "The King of Truth"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
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Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Pilate 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?" Jesus 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." 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."
John 18: 33-37
The King of Truth
This is Christ the King Sunday; the last Sunday of Pentecost. Next Sunday begins the season of Advent and soon after the Christmas season. This Sunday, though, is Christ the King; the day the Church celebrates the lordship of Christ, his reign, and his omnipotent power as ruler of the Universe. So what a strange place our Gospel lesson has us in! Jesus is standing in Pilate’s hall looking anything but kingly.
Let’s remember why Jesus is standing bound before Pilate. Christ the King Sunday is a half-year removed from Holy Week, when episodes from the Passion story were last read as lectionary texts. During the preceding night, Jesus has been betrayed by Judas and arrested in the garden by soldiers and officers of the chief priests. He has been bound and taken to the high priests, first Annas, then Caiaphas, for questioning. In the early morning, Jesus is removed from the house of Caiaphas and taken to the Praetorium (the residence and headquarters of the Roman occupation forces) for interrogation by the governor of the province of Judea.
As the Gospels indicate, the chief priests have charged Jesus with blasphemy. The matter is of no concern to Pilate. But, because it is expedient for them that Jesus be put to death, the chief priests have delivered him to Pilate in hopes of getting a capital sentence. From Pilate’s perspective, this petty matter should be returned to the local officials for judgment; he is not concerned with their religious squabbles. The Jewish people were free to worship their peculiar, solitary God as they pleased, so long as it helped to keep peace in the province. But, the ecclesiastical issue has political implications, and these Pilate is pushed to investigate. The chief priests have apparently accused Jesus of claiming to be the King of the Jews. That, if proven true, would be considered an act of treason, and that would be punishable by death under Roman law.
Pilate is no fool. In his interrogation of Jesus, he inquires whether Jesus actually claims to be a king. The only kingship Jesus lays claim to, he learns, is one of a spiritual realm. Having no jurisdiction over spiritual provinces, Pilate finds no reason to hold or condemn the man. He attempts three times to release Jesus.
Pilate is a worldly fellow. He knows how the world works. The strong rule the weak; the powerful judge the actions of lesser folks; some things you learn by investigation, interrogation; while some things are too philosophical to know with any certainty. Pilate knows that this weak, beaten man before him is no ruler; not in any sense he’s familiar with anyway. Pilate knows that he holds the power of life and death over this prisoner. He knows also that the chief priests hold a certain power over their people, but that they have proved too weak to deal decisively with this one. Then too, Pilate knows something about kings. Caesar is to be honored, even worshiped as supremely powerful. Ultimately, Caesar holds the power of life and death over all persons within his wide realm. Pilate knows that Caesar’s authority now rests upon his own shoulders. All of this he knows is true. The only thing Pilate does not know here is the answer to The great question. He voices it for all peoples of all generations: “What is truth?”
What is truth? It is a question for the ages. We might expect that in the 2000 years since Pilate voiced the question humanity might have come to some clear answers. The Dark Ages didn’t add much to the discussion, but then the Renaissance era certainly brought new human insights through art and a rebirth of philosophy and exploration. Throughout the period of the Enlightenment that followed, people strove to understand questions of nature and metaphysics. Our Modern era brought empirical tools to bear upon every question and successfully provided real answers to more than ever before.
Now we are in what is known as postmodern times. Still, we seem to have no clear perspective on Pilate’s question. Indeed, today, philosophers say that there is no such thing as a universal truth; this even as scientists search for the Final Theory, or as it is better known, the Theory of Everything. What may appear to be true for one is by no means true for another, we are told. In fact, many people hold multiple, contradictory truths, and they are not distressed by their incongruities. Like a multiple choice test, for instance, we can now believe that choices A and B and C are all true all at once, even though to believe A means that B and C are wrong; and to believe B means that A and C are wrong; and to believe C means that A and B are wrong. But hey! You can now simply believe them all, because contradiction is just one more way for one truth to relate to another truth. Isn’t it wonderful?!? If you think that such reasoning is rare, just consider some of the statements made by candidates in our recent election cycle.
When pursuing large questions, we generally use the faculties God has given us. Art, critical thinking, and scientific method: these are the means by which we make sense of the world. These have worked really well for us from the Enlightenment until now. Yet we are now hitting something of a theoretical wall. We may have found the Higgs boson, the so-called God Particle. We’re not certain just yet, but as we unpack what we’ve found this year, we are coming to know what happened one millionth of a second after the Big Bang. But we still do not know what caused it. The answer to that ought to have something to do with the truth. We have some ideas that might explain it, such as multiple universes for instance; an idea that is by its nature impossible to prove or disprove, (sort of like trying to prove or disprove God.) But, by considering that idea we must confess that we are now entering into the realm of faith. One side effect of this is that for the first time in nearly 200 years, physicists and theologians are actually talking with, instead of just at, each other.
Truth does have much to do with that which sparked the Universe’s creation. The truth is that the unexplorable, indefinable, ultimate cause of the universe is the author of life, the inventor of love, and the giver of every grace. We know this because we investigate with yet one more God-given faculty. Not just art and science, but also the gift of faith enlightened by reason. It lies just beyond the reach of philosophy and a millionth of a second before scientific inquiry. It eluded Pilate, who was too world-weary to know the truth though it walked up and looked him in the face. It eludes many who seek after truth in various and contradictory ways. Yet, it is within the grasp of any seeking mind.
What is truth? It is Jesus Christ, the ultimate cause, the cosmic will and life force who sparked all creation. The actual truth of this pronouncement escaped Pilate; it escaped the religious leaders who had Jesus put to death; and it has continued to escape most of the world ever since. What is truth? For us, it is clear: Jesus of Nazareth is the sovereign who reigns over the throne of Heaven, and will come one day as ruler over all the rulers of the earth.
There is much we still do not know about the truth, even as believers. We ask questions of each other all the time: What exactly happens when we die? What is Heaven like? (More importantly, will it have pizza, and beer, and chocolate cake; chocolate anything for that matter?) What is God’s precise will for my life? When will Christ return? And that perennial favorite WWJD, What Would Jesus Drive? We still have plenty of questions about the truth and the faith that reveals it. Like Pilate, we have questions about the truth. But we do not ask, as he did, with fatal resignation. We seek the answer by searching in the only manner it can be found. We open our minds and hearts to him who was crucified for us, and who now lives and reigns as Lord of our hearts and Ruler of all earthly rulers. What is truth? Speak O Sovereign Christ! Your very Word is our answer.