Sermon of 25 November 2018, preached at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA. People are amazing teachers, if we are observant. I was always grateful to CAPT Polatty for his support of the chaplains aboard the INDY, and how he opened a whole new door to ministry for me our of our times at Captain’s Mast. And, his wife, Nancy, will always have a part of my heart for her many kindnesses to Julie.
GOSPEL OF JOHN 18:33-37 (New Revised Standard Version)
Then 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.”
Two or three times a week, during my first assignment in the Navy I would stand on the hard steel plates of the navigation bridge, on the starboard – right side – of the main bridge from which my carrier USS INDEPENDENCE was commanded. That was when and where “Captain’s Mast” was held, a disciplinary proceeding that addresses less severe infractions… such as disrespect, sleeping on duty, missing ship’s movement, minor theft, and so on. More of a hearing, my skipper would listen to the chain of command which had brought charges, the witnesses, the judge advocate, the master-at-arms, and, of course, the sailor. Judgement would be rendered, either a dismissal of charges or a conviction and sentence which might include pay being taken, restriction imposed, time in the brig, reduction in rank… all or some of them.
One of my skippers spent a lot of energy getting to what had actually happened, the plain facts, and what had gone through the mind of the particular sailor. Sometimes, CAPT Polatty set aside punishment in favor of the sailor being sent to me for counseling, so that whatever was really bothering the sailor which had been acted out in misconduct, could be worked through and not mess up their career. Extremely fair, he used the proceedings more for correction than accountability – which is why about a third of the sailors he referred me. I took note of how he was interested in the deeper truth, as we stood upon those painted steel plates.
Not everyone is interested in that deeper truth. Sometimes, we recognize that instead there is a whole other agenda in play.
WHY I BRING THIS UP
So if questions permeate the interaction between Jesus and Pilate, a scene with two distinct agendas in conflict, it’s quickly clear it’s Jesus who is running this exchange and the nature of Jesus’ kingship will take shape in truth of crucifixion rather than in deceit of political dominance.
Ever since the temptation in the desert, Jesus has been clear – he will not operate along the lines others attempted to lay out for him to follow. We may recall how in the 6th chapter, Jesus fed 5,000 in a miraculous event, and in response they attempted to seize and compel him to be their king. Not unlike the angry crowd at his hometown synagogue, Jesus simply slipped through them; holding fast to a truth they do not comprehend – his kingdom will not be in the form of this world’s expectations. Nor will he be seduced by their pleas, no more than he was by Satan’s in the temptation that he faced at the end of his 40 days of fasting in the desert.
Jesus will bring about a reign unlike any ruler they are accustomed to in the, unfortunately, checkered history of Israel’s kings and rulers. As one writer has observed, Jesus is well-aware “…we tend to enslave ourselves to cynical rulers for whom power and coercion are synonyms, so long as they satisfy our bellies and require no sacrifice.” The reign of Jesus will be different, and it’s that very difference which comes to the fore in today’s reading.
The accusers of Jesus know something of Pilate and his aspirations for power. Let’s face it, in the Roman world this was a stepping stone assignment, even for a “Friend of the Emperor.”
Too far from Rome and the true levers of power.
Too much the dubious duty of being in charge of a contentious people whose monotheistic religion had previously led them to throw off foreign rule, under the Maccabees.
Pressed, Pilate finally decides to take a hard look at whether this Jesus person is a political threat to Roman authority, as he asks the first of four very brief questions: “Are you king of the Jews?” I would imagine it would have surprised him when Jesus answers his question with a question, surrendering no ground to Pilate. It even appears to put him on the defensive, as Jesus asks: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
In effect, was Pilate set up by the religious authorities to spar with Jesus like some weird psychological game referred to as “Let’s you and him fight”? At some level, yes. In Jesus, they had encountered one who will not play by their distorted rules which makes for a disordered Creation. He’s a threat, one that they seek to use Pilate to confront, and he seems to use them right back, in the irony of his rhetorical question back to Jesus, saying “I’m not a Jew, am I?”
If we step just beyond the somewhat arbitrary ending of today’s reading, we would hear Pilate asking his second rhetorical question of the day: “What is Truth?” as he takes two actions denying the Truth which is Jesus –
A robe of royal purple is ordered cast upon Jesus as a way to mock him and at the same time, mock those religious leaders who thought they controlled Pilate. He had this done on the very day before the Passover sabbath, when the attendants in the Temple would be expected to sing: “The Lord is king and has put on glorious garments, the Lord has put on his garments and has wrapped himself around with strength, ever since the world began has your seat been prepared.”
And, an ironic placard was placed above the head of Jesus. On the day when the religious leaders had declared “The emperor is our only king!” Pilate’s words would seem to ridicule them as well when he announced Jesus as “The King of the Jews,” with a crown not of gold, silver and gems – but one of thorns which do seem to echo the spirits of the religious leaders who had sought Jesus’ death.
Now if Pilate appears the bad guy, he has company in the defacto partnership with the religious authorities. This offers an insight into what happens when those of faith so confuse their faith with earthly power that they live as though “The emperor is our only king!” instead of Jesus. It’s to share the same cynical, self-absorbed perspective as to how the world should operate.
However, as scriptures don’t exist in a fixed moment of time, but speak across the centuries, on this Sunday before the start of Advent, we are confronted with these words from the Gospel of John, as to the meaning of the reign of Christ. It gives us an opportunity to step back and do some soul-searching, if we are to see Jesus as truly authoritative in our lives and ponder anew as to how that should guide us and our influence upon the larger society.
I’ll be honest, the interaction between Pilate and Jesus presents some real parallels within our own nation which cannot be ignored, and the choices of who we are as followers of Jesus. So think about this for a moment and what seems familiar in our observation of our current times… as to how life is to actually be ordered in the reign of Christ.
If Pilate would use his power and authority for selfish ends without concern for either the building up or the sustainment of community, then the kingdom Jesus proclaims creates and nurtures a community that is guided by love and truth.
If Pilate would hoard his power without concern for righteousness, even if it meant destroying another upon a cross or otherwise, then Jesus empowers his disciples, while demonstrating his authority rests in service to one another – even washing the feet of those he leads and giving the last of his life to bring forth life.
If Pilate in the midst of otherwise calm would misuse the mechanisms of the state’s military to enhance his own power, then Jesus comes to bring peace through the power of inclusive acceptance and forgiveness.
If Pilate knew that his tenuous authority came from the will of Caesar, then Jesus’ eternal authority comes from the humility of doing the will of God.
If Pilate and those who emulate him in the quest for earthly power would use words and violence to conquer and divide people by race, ethnicity, and nations, then Jesus’ followers would hold up a different vision, throwing open the doors with the invitation to the kingdom’s banquet table found by way of the door which is the very Cross – here being the place where we may live out his prayer to be as one as He and the Father are one.
So what do we make of all of this? As we prepare this week to approach the season of Advent which heralds the reign of Christ, we aren’t in trouble standing before the mast although there is a Christmas tree in the near future! But certainly we are invited to seek that deeper truth, to ask the thoughtful, discerning questions of ourselves, of the larger church, of our nation even – like my long ago skipper would ask of his sailors so they would find their footing again. If Jesus said, “My kingdom is not from this world,” we know that truth – but what that should world look in Christ then becomes our central question. We are asked to think about the way we would want our lives, our church, and yes – our society, to reflect the kindness and mercy of our Lord, the gift of God’s love and the way of life found in the servanthood of Jesus
Pastor’s Notes: My apologies for being so far behind on posting. Credit to where credit is due, I did make use of some insights from “Commentary on John 18:33-37,” by Jaime Clark-Soles. 25 November 2012, accessed at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1490
©2018 by Vinson W. Miller, Hampton VA.