When Pilate Finds Jesus

a Sermon for Proper 29B
Text: John 18:33-38a

Here Jesus stands. It is Friday morning. This is what condemning the Temple and the order of things gets you. Face to face with Rome’s appointed commander for the region: Pontius Pilate. Jesus is quizzed like a commoner.

What is truth? Deutsch: Was ist Wahrheit? Fran...
What is truth? Deutsch: Was ist Wahrheit? Français : “Qu’est-ce que la vérité ?” Le Christ et Pilate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those that attend our Good Friday worship get the whole Passion gospel from John each year. And today, the last day of the church year, we are given an interesting snippet from Jesus’s final hours. A discourse between a rebellious rabbi and Rome. Jesus is asked simply and directly about the charge brought against him: that he is calling himself King of the Jews.

And every Good Friday we are given the opportunity to explore what brought Jesus to this moment and what happens next: he is convicted and punished and killed by crucifixion. Then late Saturday night or Sunday morning, we acknowledge that Jesus has left behind an empty tomb.

Since it isn’t Good Friday, but the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, our church’s New Year’s Eve if you will, we have a different view. We have Jesus, our teacher, in perhaps his last teaching moment.

“Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus could simply say “no.” It would be honest in every way. King Herod is literally the King of the Jews. And spiritually, Jesus has spoken of a much broader ministry than that. But as always, Jesus answers in the form of a question:

“Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

Here we should acknowledge that Pilate, the Roman authority always believes he has the upper hand in a situation. And in every conceivable way, he does here. But Jesus isn’t here on accident. He put himself here. He is still working on bringing the Kingdom of GOD closer. Therefore he isn’t on trial, but working on the Kingdom. It is Pilate who has been put in the strange situation: deciding on religious and spiritual matters that aren’t his to mediate.

And yet he is there with Jesus. He is the one standing before Jesus, asking spiritual questions of the great rabbi. Did he hear the Good News? Does he know of what is happening in the world? Was he invited to the party?

“I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”

Clearly Pilate recognizes he isn’t the one to try Jesus, for this isn’t his work for the Emperor. He isn’t to mediate a religious spat. He is to keep the peace. He is curious about who this stranger is before him. He has heard about Him. But what has he heard?

“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.”

Instead of answering the question Pilate gives Him, Jesus makes a much bolder statement. He is not the leader of the Jewish people: he is the leader of all people. Instead of claiming Herod’s throne, Pilate hears Jesus claim a throne; a different one. Perhaps it is the emperor’s throne.

The lectionary tries to give Jesus the last word: that Jesus was born to testify to the truth and everyone with ears to hear it will get the truth. But Pilate responds with a provocative question

‘What is truth?’

before telling the people that he has found no reason to punish Jesus.

I don’t know if the lectionary preparers were aware of the deep irony in putting last week’s gospel next to this one. That Jesus condemns the Jewish leadership, bringing with him an anti-king self-identity. That the leader is to be the servant of all; that power is expressed through humility; that the poorest among us should be treated like wealthy benefactors. The kind of kingdom Jesus brings is an anti-kingdom that doesn’t need bankers and lawyers, but generous servants, giving not from their abundance, but out of their poverty.

That is what we’ve been talking about. Then they tell us to see Jesus as a king.

We don’t need a king.

We need Jesus.

We need the Jesus presented here. He is asked if he is a king. His response: “you say.” This is one of the few things absolutely consistent in all four gospels. When Pilate asks if he is a king, Jesus doesn’t say “yes,” but “you say.”

You say.”

We say. We make Jesus a king. Like Peter making Jesus a messiah—the sort that will lead a bloody revolution—as opposed to the sort that will lead a revolution in death.

The trouble we get ourselves into is that we think Jesus said “yes.” And some translations actually have Jesus say “Yes, I am!” We think that Jesus is a king. That if only stores were closed on Sundays or more people came to church, we’d have a better look at that Kingdom that we are called to bring closer. As if we can force the world to join our way. Or trick it. Or coerce it through legal measures. Or put it on our currency. Like any of these violent, reckless approaches moves the kingdom. They simply install Jesus in a position that He doesn’t want.

Jesus isn’t our king.

Jesus is our teacher. Our savior. Our liberator. Our guide. Our lover. Our friend. Our coach. Our inspiration. Our devotion. Our faith. Our understanding. Our Way. Jesus is all of these things and so much more. And it is in recognizing what it is that Jesus has been telling us all of our lives that we can begin to understand that very thing Pilate doesn’t get: the truth. We get there by following Him. We don’t arrive, like some all-knowing holy man perched on top of a mountain, but we journey with Jesus. We follow. We explore. We learn. We see. We listen. And we hear. We’re going to need those ears to hear in the coming weeks as we prepare for the coming of Jesus after Advent.

We don’t need the church to dominate the world: we need to be Jesus for the world. As everyone else is running around trying to buy love, we’re finding it in the one place Jesus told us to look: GOD. And we’re sharing it with everyone, not in a preemptive wish of “Merry Christmas” well before it is time, but in generous and humble service to friends, family, and strangers. This isn’t an order to go and do something for Jesus, but an invitation to follow where He is already going.

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