This sermon is from Sunday, November 21, 2021 and it was originally preached at St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, FL. where I serve as Rector. You can listen to the sermon here.
Let’s be honest: Christians have always found it hard to “fit in” in popular culture. Sure, we have had positive moments of creating beautiful art, music, and literature, particularly during the Renaissance, but “pop-culture” and Christianity are hardly synonymous.
There was Rollen Stewart who showed up at sporting events throughout the 80’s with his rainbow wig and “John 3:16” sign…only to have a 8-hour standoff with police.
We had the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelets…only to discover that “what Jesus would do” looked exactly like what everyone else did.
Then Christians started putting the fish symbol on their cars…only to let everyone on the road know that Christians were bad, anger-prone drivers and then the Darwinians outwitted us with their evolved-animal-eating-fish decals.
About 10 years ago, t-shirts, hats, and bumper stickers emerged with the same letters plastered on them: “NOTW.” Standing for “Not of this World.” It was a reference to Jesus’ remark to Pontinus Pilate about the origins of Jesus’ Kingdom. While I may have adopted the old mantra of “D’s get degrees” while taking Greek senior year of college, the slogan really irked me. I knew enough about Greek to know that Jesus’ statement about his kingdom in John 18 should not be translated as “of this world” but rather “from this world,” as the NRSV has translated.
This difference may seem inconsequential to you, but it matters because Jesus’ kingdom is coming from the Father and it is utterly for this world, in this world, and even of this world because Jesus is for, in, and of this world. The “NOTW” crew seem to believe that this earth is just our island home, a temporary holding tank until we ascend to the heavenlies from whence Jesus’ kingdom came…WRONG!
Today, the last Sunday after Pentecost, is lovingly referred to as Christ the King Sunday. Before we turn the year over and begin Advent anew, we are reminded that Jesus is the King reigning and ruling over all things. The lectionary gives us three distinct lenses through which we view Christ’s kingship.
Year A depicts the King who has come to serve as the Shepherd of his people and who identifies with the “least of these”
Year C portrays the “King of the Jews” who forgives his murderers and promises paradise to a thief, all while nailed to a cross
In Year B, however, we are given this rather fascinating albeit brief and obscure interaction between Pontius Pilate and Jesus. Despite the fact that we so regularly cast him as villain, we rarely discuss Pilate.
Born Marcus Pontius Pilate, he served as prefect (not like the prefects in Harry Potter) or governor of Judea from 26-36AD while Tiberias was Caesar. What we know about Pilate comes from descriptions by Josephus, Eusibius of Caesarea, and the New Testament.
Josephus describes “a headstrong strict authoritarian Roman leader who, although both rational and practical, never knew how far he should go in a given case.” Pilate had powerful friends in Rome, namely the Chief Administrator, but he did not ingratiate himself to his hosts in Judea. He sought to abolish Jewish laws and “incurred the enmity of Jews in Roman-occupied Palestine by insulting their religious sensibilities, as when he hung worship images of the emperor throughout Jerusalem and had coins bearing pagan religious symbols minted.” (Both quotes are from Brittanica…still working on adding footnotes)
Pilate doesn’t know what to do with Jesus. He vacillates between the whims and fancies of the religious crowd and his own fear of political insecurity. Pilate wanted power and he wanted to make sure he didn’t wasn’t the odd-man-without-a-chair when the music stopped.
By the time we get to our passage this morning, Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet, prayed his high priestly prayer in the Garden, was arrested by the cohort, put on trial before the Sanheddrin, found guilty of blasphemy, and handed over to Pilate for sentencing.
The crowd takes Jesus from Caiaphas, the high priest, to the outside of Pilate’s headquarters. They do not enter because they don’t want to defile themselves before Passover. Pilate tries to push the matter back on the Jews, saying, “Use your own law to judge him” but the priests remind him that they cannot institute the death penalty.
In my sanctified imagination, I envision Pilate placing his head in his palms and sighing in exasperation. I imagine him being filled with a gut-level irritation directed at the Jews and a baseline anxiety over how he is going to handle this situation. I can hear him muttering to himself on his way back into the headquarters, “You had one job!”
The job in front of him is simple-but-not-easy: to ascertain whether or not this itinerant preacher has committed any crime worth dying over. Oh, and by the way, Passover is just a day or two away so the atmosphere is charged with an electric political-religious tension.
Pilate begins his interrogation by lobbing a softball: are you the King of the Jews?
Actually, we have to stop here. This is not an innocent question. It is loaded with meaning for both the Jews and the Gentiles. To trace the significance of this title for the Jews, we have to go back to that fateful moment in 1 Samuel when the people implore of Samuel, the priest, “We want a king like the rest of the nations!”
Despite the fact that God had been their redeemer in Egypt
Despite the fact that he had gave them the law at Sinai and tabernacled with them
Despite the fact that he had delivered his people again and again with the judges
And despite the fact that he had made covenantal promises with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…
The people want to have their own king in order to be like everyone else. You could add “having a king” to that failed-attempts-at-pop-culture list…
God approves their request and the time of the kings starts. First there was Saul who was good until he really wasn’t; then we get David who is profoundly flawed but a man after God’s heart and the archetype of Israel’s king; then we get wise Solomon who starts off so strong but ends by worshipping false gods.
The wheels are off the track at this point.
The unified kingdom will split into North and South. The Northern Kingdom will hang on until they are conquered in 722 BC. The Southern Kingdom would hold out for another 136 years until the Babylonians took over in 586 BC. By the time Jesus and Pilate are talking, there had not been an autonomous, authentic, independent King of Israel in over 750 years, since Hoshea. There had not been an autonomous, authentic, independent King of Judah in over 600 years, since Zedekiah. There had not been an autonomous authentic, independent King of the unified Israel in over 1000 years, since Solomon’s son, Rehoboam.
In 164 BC, the Hasmoneans (read: Maccabeans) revolted and attempted to reestablish the kingdom of Israel. They failed. 100 years later came Herod the Great. Herod was known as “King” and he would be the “King of Judea.” Though he was called “King,” Herod was still a puppet of Rome, answering to Caesar. Herod Antipas, or Herod the Tetrarch, is actually the leader over Judea during Jesus’ final days. As Kings of Judea, the Herodians were technically the Kings of the Jews….and the Herodians served at the pleasure of Caesar, the true king of everything, the emperor reigning over a vast and expansive empire.
So, when Pilate asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews…it is a loaded question. He is trying to ascertain if Jesus’ camp is staking a claim in Judea against Herod? Is Jesus claiming himself to be the King of Judah like the Southern Kingdom? Is Jesus claiming himself to be the King of a unified Israel (that’s what the people want)? Or, is Jesus making claims over and against Caesar?
That’s what is at stake for Jesus as Pilate asks the question.
No matter how you cut it, anything short of “no” would result in some form of treason or some claim against another king, prefect, or emperor.
When Jesus answers Pilate’s question with a question, a solid rabbinical practice which our Lord used throughout his ministry, Pilate responds by saying a) he is not a Jew and b) that Jesus has been handed over his own nation and priests. He then asks the question: what have you done?
As in, what-could-you-have-possibly-done-to-get-the-religious-leaders-of-your-nation-to-turn-against-you-and-attempt-to-get-me-to-sentence-you-to-death?
Before we look at what it means to be “Not From This World,” allow me to give you Jesus’ list of purported crimes, as alleged by the scribes and Pharisees. Please note that some of this is serious and some of it is satire-and-irony…
- Jesus healed on the sabbath
- His disciples do not wash their hands before eating
- His disciples break off stalks of grain on the sabbath
- Jesus cast out demons because he’s in cahoots with Satan
- Jesus had dinner with tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes
- Jesus let a woman anoint his feet with expensive perfume
- Jesus wasn’t excited about paying his taxes in a timely, joyful manner
- Jesus called the Pharisees “white-washed tombs,” “blind guides,” “a brood of vipers,” and “hypocrites”
- He touched lepers and he raised the dead
- He met with Gentiles and Samaritans
- He valued and elevated the ministry of women
- He forgave sins
- He cleansed the Temple–and not from Gentile influence but Jewish corruption
- He said he would destroy the Temple
- He said he was the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God
That is quite the list of offenses! Each one of these offenses was added to an ever-growing list and the straw that broke the camel’s back was the cleansing of the Temple. The Temple was the meeting place of heaven and earth; it was the place where God’s presence formerly resided and it was the center of Israel’s religious and political life. The Temple needed cleansing after Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated it–in fact, any would-be king or messiah would need to cleanse the Temple as part of his campaign for power. Jesus cleanses the Temple but his ire is directed at the Jewish leadership who have corrupted the entire system…not at the Gentiles/Romans who are ruling over them. Make no mistake: THOSE ARE FIGHTING WORDS.
Back to John 18.
Jesus says his kingdom is not from this world. If it was from this world, his followers would be fighting to stop these judicial proceedings, fighting to stop the Jewish leaders from silencing Jesus. Jesus is letting Pilate know that his movement is not like the Hasmoneans/Maccabeans from two centuries ago. His people are not going to take up arms and swords to fight against mighty Rome…
…Jesus is actually making a far stronger statement. Jesus is letting Pilate know that his not-from-this-world-kingdom is about to be inaugurated, that the invasion is about to start, and that there is nothing the Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, High Priest, King of Judea, prefect of Judea, or the Emperor Caesar can do to stop it.
Jesus’ Kingdom is coming to this world, on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus said it from the beginning (Mark 1): his Kingdom is coming.
Jesus said it when he taught the disciples to pray: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus said it at the end in front of Pilate: my kingdom is not from this world.
In John 18, we are presented with a poignant juxtaposition of power. The representative of the Son of God, that is, the alleged divine Augustus, examines the true Son of God, the one who has come to usher in his kingdom. The power-and-position hungry prefect of Judea, the one who is backed by Rome but hated by his subjects, is thrust into an interview with the Son of Man, the Messiah, the holy-and-anointed-One come who has come to deliver people from sin and to fulfill the promises made to David and Israel.
Do you remember Jesus’ first words spoken in Mark’s gospel? It has been almost 10 months to the day since we first read these words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
We started our trek through Mark’s Gospel with a proclamation of the kingdom and now we end the year with an announcement that the kingdom is coming.
On this Christ the King Sunday, this last Sunday of Year B, we have come full-circle.
If Christ is King, what does his Kingship and Kingdom look like?
I know I am asking you to think back to one paragraph of a sermon almost a year ago, but do you remember the meaning of the word “kingdom” in Mark 1:15?
”The Greek lends itself more to the idea of God’s dominion and rulership, the fact that he rules, or the power by which he rules. God’s dominion has drawn near. The fact and form of God’s power on earth has been made fully and perfectly manifest in the person of Jesus Christ…Jesus, the new Adam, reestablishes the authority of God on earth and in so doing he ushers in the new age, the new aeon in which God will reign as king.” (PCT, Epiphany 3B Sermon)
When Christ is King, the lame walk, the mute talk, the deaf hear, the blind see, the sick are healed, the lepers are cleansed, the demons are cast out, the dead are raised, and broken lives are made new. Christ the King, the true ruler of the universe, the firstborn of all creation, the son of righteousness, and the inheritor of the covenantal promises walks willingly and knowingly to the cross to be enthroned. The title over his head might read, “King of the Jews,” much to the chagrin of religious leaders, but make no mistake: he is exalted as King of the Cosmos.
His kingdom has come and is coming–it is inaugurated but not yet fully realized–and he has equipped, anointed, and sent his followers out into the world to work for the propagation of his reign and rule.
Surely you didn’t think you were off the hook with this one…
Friends, your participation in the Kingdom of God has been baked into the cake of the cosmos since before the foundations of the earth. God gave the stewardship of creation over to Adam and Eve–they were co-regents and co-priests in the world. God fashioned a covenantal people for himself in the dessert to be “a holy nation” and “a royal priesthood.” Jesus gathers disciples, teaching them to follow God, showing them what true ministry looks like, and then releasing them to go and do likewise. Jesus’ kingdom and kingship will be fully realized when he comes back, but until that time we have a job to do!
If Christ is King then his royal subjects–us–need to promote and proclaim a kingdom built on his principles and attributes: working for justice, peace, righteousness, stewardship of the earth, healing of bodies, minds, and relationships, the dismantling of biased and prejudice-based systems, joining Christ in his work as he puts the world to rights.
As we prepare to tell the Jesus story once again this Advent, let me remind you that Christ’s Kingdom is not from this world because it is breaking in from the heavenly throne room where Almighty God rules the cosmos, but it is utterly for and in this world because it is about reestablishing God’s dominion on earth as it is in heaven.