by Ellen Sims
The weight of today’s brief Gospel text falls on the last question Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, posed to Jesus during this portion of his interrogation: “What is truth?” Pilate’s question, whether evasive or pensive, is complexly philosophical, theological, and political.
Given our own political leaders’ propensities for untruth, and given our president’s unprecedented tally of documented lies, it’s timely to recognize the original political context for Pilate’s question. Jesus, of course, was not living in our political reality. He was NOT in a democratic republic. Jesus was NOT calling on the subjugated Jews of his day to fact-check the political news being reported or elect leaders who would be accountable for honest words and dealings. But even though the specific political contexts differ significantly, I suspect the Jesus interrogated by Pilate would, all these years later, urge us to participate politically in ways that work for justice, especially for the least among us. Trump’s “truthiness,” coupled with his threats to a free press, endanger a free society and make it easier to place power in the hands of an elite minority. That kind of society would be at odds with the liberation for all and an elevation of the lowliest, which Jesus preached.
You might wish I weren’t dragging current US politics into a 2000-year-old Near Eastern text. But the Jesus Gospels were rooted in a specific political reality and, as we hear clearly in today’s reading, Jesus was addressing a political leader and offering an alternative to the empire of Rome that diverged greatly from the Kingdom he envisioned and preached. So Jesus got political. At great personal risk.
When today’s Gospel text says that Jesus, on trial before Pilate, declared his very purpose in life was “to testify to the truth,” we know there’s a political context. Jesus was on trial for political reasons. He was a threat to a small corner of the enormous Roman Empire. He had been testifying to the reality of God’s kingdom that he believed could, if implemented, bring down any empire erected by might and force. I also believe in that Kingdom he preached, which some call the Kin*dom of God. The heart of the Gospel is about a kin*dom that could have transformed the Roman Empire if its practice had spread. Further, I believe that the Kin*dom of God could in our time transform any empire, nation, regime, alliance, or hegemony—if you and I and others will live out its tenets faithfully. The “truth” of God’s Kin*dom is a power the world has not yet concertedly tried and applied. The “truth” Jesus proclaimed could and will be world altering.
In today’s Gospel text Jesus elaborated on the power of God’s truth: “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 18:37). The implied question for Pilate, the questioner, is whether or not HE will truly listen to Jesus’s voice. And the implied question for you and me, as modern readers, is whether or not WE will truly listen to Jesus’s voice.
A lot happened in John 18, from which today’s brief Gospel reading is taken. Since the lectionary drops us into this chapter with no lead in, let me recap. Just prior to the interrogation by Pilate, Jesus left his final meal with his disciples and was arrested in a garden that night as Judas, the betrayer, stood by. Jesus then was taken by soldiers and “the Jewish police” to be interrogated by Jewish authorities: first Annas, then Caiaphas the high priest, while Peter stood outside the gate, denying he even knew Jesus. He was then taken to the Roman governor, Pilate, who initially denied having jurisdiction over him.
Pilate finally consented, reluctantly, to participate in Jesus’s trial. He asked three questions of Jesus in the part of the trial we are interested in today, a trial that soon resulted in his crucifixion. To the first question, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus responded, “My kingdom is not from this world.” The second question, framed as a question but really an accusation, was “So you ARE a king?” to which Jesus responded, “YOU say that I’m a king.” The third question by Pilate, “What is truth?” went unanswered. It hung in the air as if it were unanswerable.
“What is truth?” is a question philosophers have probed for thousands of years. But that question is rarely posed by political leaders, like Pilate. “What is true” is a question we as citizens should be asking of our political leaders and the news media. “What is truth?” is a question with many more layers.
What is the TRUTH about Jesus’s kingship and kingdom and authority? Throughout Mark’s Gospel, which we’ve been reading for most of this past year, the disciples of Jesus repeatedly failed to understand the “kingdom” he was preaching. On the Reign of Christ Sunday, we are challenged each year to imagine what our world would look like if Jesus’s way held sway, if the truth of Jesus was acknowledged and lived. We can see in the four Gospel accounts many differences in how his examination by Pilate was conducted. But the thread running through the Gospels is that Jesus believed and trusted in and points us today to a Kingdom that is realer and more urgent and more ultimate than the Kingdom that would soon take his life, would post a sign over his head mocking him as “King of the Jews.” How do we know if this kin*dom is more powerful than Caesar’s? How we can we be certain that, if we pursue Jesus’s priorities of putting the last first, then God’s kin*dom will come on earth? How can we trust such an upside down kingdom? Won’t we just trade one elite group for new one?
Not if all commit to radical love of neighbor. Not if all recognize that to lose one’s life is to find it. Of course, this kind of paradoxical truth makes sense only within community, the Beloved Community.
What is your deepest truth? What is really real to you? I’ll bet it’s something that isn’t measureable or visible or quantifiable. Your deepest truth may be a mere hunch or feeling, but your life is pointed in that direction. For me, the kin*dom Jesus preached and lived is a reality that doesn’t fully make sense. I catch only faint glimpses of it, but it looks a lot like faith, hope, and love.
It may seem strange that the last day in the church year, a day traditionally called Christ the KING Sunday, brings us the Gospel story of the last day of Jesus’s life, a story of his LOSS of power and the questioning of his authority and the doubting of his truth. But it is the countercultural treatment of his Kingship that reveals God’s now and coming kin*dom. The reign of Christ is something I want to work for and trust. Truth, after all, is not determined by decree or popularity or force or status. Truth can be as ironic as an innocent man on a cross to which a sarcastic sign has been posted: King of the Jews.
Brad Roth writes: “At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus hangs between heaven and earth . . . between the power of God and the powers that be. ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Pilate asks, thinking to work a threadbare revolutionary like a yo-yo. But Jesus knows something about questions. ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ he puts back to Pilate. Everything in the conversation—indeed, everything in the Gospel—has been pointing toward verse 36. ‘My kingdom is not from this world,’ says Jesus. If it were, his followers would take the usual steps by the usual means to rescue their king.”
“Thus it is that we witness the sacrificial regency of Christ, the one who came not to be served but to serve, the one who ‘did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped’ (Philippians 2:6). Christ’s glory comes by way of the cross. The polarities of his kingship are reversed. . . . The cross of Christ calls power into question but also serves as the basis for a different sort of power. We forget this at our peril, the way the genius of the gospel hangs together on the cross: the cross with its power that is not power, the cross that takes shape as the pattern of our lives, the foundation of Christian thought that is always also a kind of antifoundation, the disturber of worlds.”
“We see the way that Jesus the king who is crucified calls into question the assumptions of power in this scene in John 18. Who stands before who? Who interrogates who? Who is the king? Not the one who commands iron legions but the one who willingly lays down his life for the sheep. ‘Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,’ says Jesus, speaking of his kingship and more. But brutality and blood have crumpled Pilate’s sense of truth down into irony. What is truth?” he asks.
“For Christians, this means that any exercise of power that does not trace back to the self-sacrificial love of the cross is illegitimate.”
“I don’t think most of us have ever been totally convinced that we believe or want this version of power. We’re the crowd, crowing for Barabbas . . . . But the church . . . has stumbled when it’s leaned on Barabbas-power but won when it’s played the long game of faithful dependence on the Lamb that was slain. Parades of nuclear-tipped military power snaking through concrete capitals impress, but the cross in its turnabout mystery wins in the end.”
Friends, on this Sunday–The reign of Christ Sunday–we see this truth as a thread running through the Gospels: Jesus trusts in and points us to and invites us into the realer, more urgent, more ultimate Kin*dom. This world’s kingdom took his life after posting a sign mocking him as “King of the Jews” and placing on his head a crown of thorns. But God’s kin*dom continued and continues still.
Reign in our hearts, Christ Jesus. Amen