St Thomas', Salem & St John's, Centralia--John 18:33-37
We probably associate this conversation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, recorded for us in John’s gospel, with being in church during Holy Week—Good Friday, to be specific. So it’s interesting—at least I find it interesting as a preacher!—to encounter it in a completely different liturgical context, as we come together to celebrate the conclusion of this cycle of the church year, the Last Sunday after Pentecost, the feast of Christ the King. But, in the gospels, there really isn’t much to go on by way of material that would help us celebrate the kingship of Christ in an obviously appropriate manner—you know, with crowns and scepters and thrones … that sort of thing. Instead, we’re left with passages like this one, where the words “Jesus” and “king” occur in close proximity to one another, but in an ironic, counter-intuitive sort of way.
Today’s gospel is one of the most familiar in all of literature—not just the Bible, but, really, all of literature. Pilate is trying to figure out what to make of Jesus, and how to navigate through some very politically precarious territory that he has been maneuvered into. He has certain obligations to Caesar as the appointed governor of the Roman province of Judea. But it’s also in his best interests to remain on good terms, to the extent possible, with the leaders of the Jewish people, the population among whom he and his troops are seen as an occupying force. It was a delicate position. So, with the clock ticking, as it were, he has to figure out who this Jesus character really is, and how best to play the difficult hand that he’s been dealt.
Figure out who Jesus is. This is, of course, the question of the ages: Who is Jesus? Who is Jesus for me? Of what relevance is he for my understanding of the world and my place in it? In many ways, it’s not any less delicate for us, as 21st century Americans, to deal with that question than it was for Pontius Pilate. We live in a culture, we swim in an ocean, that idolizes the autonomous individual, the freedom of each person to, in the language of the Declaration of Independence, engage in “the pursuit of happiness,” so long as that pursuit doesn’t impinge on the freedom of anyone else to exercise the same freedom. And, since our economy is generally ordered according to free market principles, when you combine that with our attachment to individual liberty, the result is that we also swim in an ocean of consumerism. We often don’t notice it because it’s just always, literally, all around us. We cannot help but define ourselves as consumers. I remember an ad jingle for a cable TV company from back in the ‘70s, when that industry was still in its infancy: “It’s not just more choice; it’s your choice.” 35 years later, that jingle has finally become a reality for me, as I almost never watch a TV program when it’s actually on, but later, when I’m ready for it, “on demand.” My choice. Of course, the very technology through which I exercise my freedom as a consumer notices and records the choices I make, and is constantly telling me, “You might also like …” this or that.
Now, I’m not generally one of those doomsayers who constantly points out the shortcomings of our culture. But, as I speak to a community of Christians, I cannot avoid making the observation that the hyper-individualistic and consumerist ether in which we live poses some very serious risks, because it encourages us in the notion that we can design God to our personal specifications, that we can have access to God “on demand,” and, significantly, be able to turn off that channel when we’re not in the mood for it. Now, those of you who are my generation or older have some small degree, at least, of immunity to this tendency, because we were raised in an era when there was a widespread belief that objective reality actually exists, and means something. If I say the sky is green and you say it’s red, we can’t both be right. We could both be wrong—the sky might actually be blue!—but we can’t both be right. That sort of rationalist attitude has its own problem with regard to Christian faith, but now we’re in a time when the generations younger than we are—I speak to my fellow Baby Boomers—have a mindset that is described as “post-modern,” in which objective reality isn’t really a thing anymore. It’s all subjective perception; it’s all a matter of whether something “works for me.” If you try and tell someone they’re objectively wrong, you’re just being judgmental, or bigoted. Who is Jesus? Jesus is whoever you want him to be, whoever you need him to be, whatever “works for you.”
One consequence of this post-modern understanding of Jesus—ultimate truth, ultimate reality—is fragmentation. There is no underlying common narrative about what’s really real that people can tap into unconsciously. When it comes to religious truth, each individual is his or her own Pope. A second consequence, following on fragmentation, is frustration. Most of you are probably on Facebook; a handful, maybe, on Twitter. Just look at your feed. Don’t you see constant frustration about the diversity of experiences and opinion? “Why doesn’t everybody else see it my way?” we constantly wonder.
It was hard for Pilate to get Jesus to help him with his political quandary. Jesus wouldn’t give anything that Pilate would recognize as a straight answer. Similarly, it’s hard for us to get past Jesus with our narcissism, our self-absorption. Jesus tells us exactly what he told Pilate: “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
So, we are in the same boat with Pilate. All we are left to work with is that that Jesus claims to bear the revelation of the God who is, the God who objectively is, the God who is himself Author of reality as it is, whether it works for me, or not, whether it works for you, or not. I don’t have the individual liberty, the personal autonomy, the freedom of choice, to design my own God, to confect my own narrative of Ultimate Reality, my customized account of what makes the world go ‘round, why everything is the way it is, and what it all means. “For this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth,” Jesus says. “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” So says Jesus. So says Christ the King.
And then, when we make that move, that surrender of the heart and mind to the Lordship of Christ, that laying-aside of the freedom to define ourselves on our own terms, to define God and the service of God on our own terms, it then becomes suddenly clear that we have all along been blind. It’s like the scales fall off our eyes and we see ourselves for the first time as we really are: a gathering of rebels, an assembly of outlaws who need to bend the knee to our true Sovereign. And as we do so, he leads us out of our self-absorption and syncs our fragmented and frustrated egos with his redemptive purposes. Praised be Jesus Christ. Praised be Christ our King. Amen.