Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 21, 2021
John 18:33-37 Commentary
It is the last Sunday in the liturgical year and the lectionary marks it as Christ the King Sunday by bringing us deep into the Passion week narrative to Jesus’ encounter with Pilate. It can be a little jarring to just jump here from the teaching ministry in Mark, but a liturgical focus on Christ as King in your worship service, and a reminder for those less familiar about this “special” Sunday that marks the end of Ordinary Time, will help.
Here on Christ the King Sunday, we have Jesus standing before the representative of the Roman kingdom in the person of Pilate. And we can consider that the structure of the “Jewish kingdom,” the Sanhedrin, has brought him there. In other words, it is a clash of kingdoms and their powerbrokers trying to deal with the problem of Jesus the Christ.
Though he is the one on “trial” and the defendant, Jesus acts like a judge in his interchange with Pilate. He does not feel the need to answer Pilate’s questions directly and even asks Pilate a question about his personal stance about who Jesus is—did Pilate come to the conclusion that Jesus considers himself a king on his own, or was it planted by others? Jesus’ question shows how he knows how the kingdoms of this world work: we plant seeds and rumours and try to manipulate situations to get our preferred outcome; it’s war and rumours of war, backroom dealings and negotiations…
Pilate scoffs: as though he would even care! “I am not a Jew, am I?” And yet, he asks Jesus what he has supposedly done to get himself into such a mess with his own people—he is not disinterested. What has Jesus done that is so terrible and dangerous that the leaders of his community have decided he needs to disappear?
Many scholars base their view on Jesus’ posture in this dialogue as a judge on the fact that he doesn’t ever seem to offer a straight answer to Pilate’s questions. But it’s also important to note that it’s not like they are having entirely different conversations. Jesus and Pilate are both talking about what makes Jesus and his kingdom so different that it is dangerous. What has Jesus done? He has done everything differently. The Jesus Kingdom is unlike anything in this world, unlike anything fashioned and shaped and embodied in humanity on its own. Jesus doesn’t care to play games, and he is not concerned about being a wrench in the world’s kingdom systems.
The “proof is in the pudding” of the very situation: he’s here before Pilate because he’s told his people to take the path of peace. He told Peter to put down his sword and healed the injured soldier; he waged his battle against what was to come through prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (and will continue praying while dying on the cross). But this nonviolent resistance posture was not an isolated event or practice in the Jesus Kingdom. We have to keep coming back to the Jesus Kingdom way of being—the Kingdom we can only come to know through the Scriptures and the work of the Holy Spirit within us. Otherwise, we’re liable to slip into the assumption that because we call ourselves by the name Christian, what we do is what the kingdom of God is. We have to keep comparing our expectations and plans to not only the Scriptures, but the ways of the world: the strategies that dominate the marketplace and politics, social structures, and expectations of success and cost-benefit analyses…
Pilate hears Jesus describe his Kingdom and assumes that that means Jesus really does view himself as a king. The implication is that Pilate looks at Jesus and sees someone like himself: someone who is supposed to be in charge, the most important, the one with power. After all, you can’t have a kingdom without a king. Pilate cannot see that there is a different standard, higher than his own views and practices, with which this matter needs to be compared.
Jesus offers it anyway. He says he was born for truth telling. He says the reason he came into the world was to testify to the truth. Truth is the hallmark of not only God’s Kingdom, but Christ’s reign as King. It is how he chooses to describe it—perhaps making it its most important characteristic.
If I were to ask you or the members of your church, “What is the most important thing about the Kingdom of God?” How many of us would answer with something about ourselves? Many of us would quickly rattle off the no-brainer: “That Jesus died for my sins.” Some of us might take a moment and consider answering with something equally true, but which feels a little riskier because of its broad openness to interpretation, saying something like: “God is love.”
Jesus’ answer, at least in this particular instance, is “God came to into the world to testify to the the truth.” (verse 37) There is no getting around it: truth. It is a very big idea. Truth includes both that God is love and that Jesus died for our sins. Truth includes the Creeds’ statements of faith and the inner testimony of the Spirit. Jesus is stating very clearly, that more than he wants to be seen as a king (as the world might see that role), he wants the world to know that he is the living embodiment of what is true. More than he wants people to know him as a ruler, that he is able to confirm what is true for those who belong to him and listen to his voice.
It is our human predicament to tell the story as though it is about us. Even focusing on our sinfulness and need for a Saviour, which is obviously true, can make us miss hearing and knowing the bigger truth. The Creator of the universe testifies to everything that is true in the person of Jesus Christ. The sacrifice of God for us is not only about us and our need, but even more truly, about our loving God who made and sustains the world and everything in it. It is just one piece of his testimony about who God is—which is the truest truth there is.
Even truer than the fact that Jesus does what he does because of what it will do for us (the work of atonement), Jesus does what he does because of who the Trinity is. The essential nature of the Godhead is to be purely loving, perfect and holy. To join in the reign of God and the Jesus Kingdom is to always place the character of God at the center of what we witness to, and how we witness it. We are not people who need the same tactics as the kingdoms of this world. We reject fear tactics, brute force and manipulations for control. We are people who rest on the truth of God; who listen for his voice and wisdom as we witness. Instead of focusing on what might result first, the way of truth is to consider the source, which is God, and seek to tell the truth about God in how we live.
This is a witnessing life that tells the true story of the larger narrative arc of Scripture. God created the world while knowing what the possibilities and consequences would be. He knew what he was making possible—both good and bad. God did it, not because of those consequences, but because of who God is: a loving creator who cannot help but overflow with love and goodwill and life. Christ testifies to this truth and invites us to join him.
In verse 36, Jesus uses an emphatic version of “my” or “mine” to talk about his kingdom (not to mention how often he repeats the word kingdom). You get the sense that he is underscoring how peculiar and unique his way and his community is when compared to anything in this world.
It is also interesting to consider the fact that Jesus never actually affirms himself as king, though he talks about having a kingdom. He says in verse 37 to Pilate, “You say that I am king.” It’s the same sort of exchange Jesus has in the other gospel narratives—never actually calling himself king. But John’s account is the only one that includes Jesus’ kingdom and truth talk.
In his 1995 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll writes, “For a Christian, the most important consideration is not pragmatic results, or even the weight of history, but the truth.” Of course, we take our cue from God, who does it this way as well. As I noted in the comments section above, this is what Jesus Christ does by proclaiming something about the essential character of the Godhead. He sets his activity in the world in the context of its source, not the activity’s consequences.
In 2012, The Christian Century asked a number of theologians and scholars to summarize “The Gospel in Seven Words.” It isn’t quite the same as Jesus describing his kingdom, but what we choose to focus on reveals a lot about what we’ve been through and have thought about—what we’ve come to understand and cling to with hope. In the moment that Jesus speaks about being here because of the truth, I wonder if it brought him the same sort of comfort that our “seven word gospels” bring us.
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