This was the sermon from November 25th, 2012. It’s about what it means to belong to the Kingdom of God, and what it takes. The text was John 18:33-38.
Long Live The King
It is nearly over. Jesus has been arrested at Gethsemane, interviewed by the priests and the high priest Caiaphus, and now he is before Pilate, awaiting the conclusion of his trial. Pilate is at the time the Imperial Prefect of Judea. He is an ambitious local governor who longed to be away from the backwater of Jerusalem and back in Rome where his status might swell with the rising tide. If he did well he might advance his position, so his goal was to pacify the province and force it to submit to Roman Imperial authority Unfortunately, Jerusalem at the time of the Passover was a powder keg. Peasants far from home and its restrictions were arriving by the minute to blow off steam, have a little fun, and give vent to the frustrations of their life while they could. Think of it as L.A. after the Lakers have won a championship. It is a joyous occasion that quickly descends into destruction, because the celebration gives newfound freedom and anonymity, and destruction is the only power they have. Pilate sits on this powder keg of Jerusalem, with only a few hundred soldiers to keep a drunken brawl from turning into a citywide riot, and the high priests have delivered Pilate a match.
Pilate is the most powerful man in Judea, but he knows that his power is dependent on careful balance. Herodians, with their allies in Rome watch his every move to spread rumors of his failures. Money must keep flowing to Rome, and riots will only bring shame on his name. Pilate walks a razor’s edge between maintaining order and allowing catastrophe, and at the moment that razor’s edge sits right at the threshold of his door. Outside the door are the priests, the local authorities, he must keep them appeased if he is to get anything done, and they are rooting for him to fail. Inside his chamber is Jesus, a popular Galileean who he’d rather not make into a martyr. Pilate will cross that threshold 7 times over the course of his interview with Jesus as he seeks to balance the execution of a well-known holy man against the displeasure of the most powerful people in the Jewish Temple hierarchy.
The razor’s edge that Pilate stands on is one that we know quite well. We make decisions on how to treat other people, how to spend our money, and how to plan our future. We weigh our options, and we cross in and out of the threshold. Outside of the door stand cynicism, control, money, and security. On the other side sit hope, peace, healing, and wholeness, and truth. We can go back and forth across the threshold as long as we want, but eventually we will have to choose a side. For us, as for Pilate, our choice has the power to determine careers, reputations, happiness, even life and death.
Pilate knows, as he stands on the threshold that his choice will have significant repercussions. That’s why he spends so much time going in and out of his chambers, talking to those outside, and then returning to Jesus within. He wants to weight the pros and cons of his situation, to perceive which decision will be to his advantage.
In his mind, he might go either way, he might choose to spare Jesus and risk the wrath of the Temple authorities and the crowd, if he found a strong reason. But the truth is that this outcome had long been determined for him. Pilate was raised on a steady diet of intrigue and power, he cut his teeth on politics, and made battle his breakfast. He was a steeped in a culture of domination as Jesus was the opposite.
If Jesus was trying to climb the social ladder, he went the wrong direction. He hung out with tax collectors and sinners, widows, and children, people who had nothing to give him. He didn’t worry about who he offended, or what his constituents might think of his opinions. He told the truth. While Pilate dealt out injury, Jesus healed wounds. While Pilate washed his hands of the dirty affair, Jesus made mud in his hands to open the eyes of the blind. Pilate sought to rule Jerusalem through force and might, but Jesus sought to create a new Kingdom through weakness and mercy.
In short, Jesus and Pilate inhabited two completely different worlds. Two kingdoms. In the kingdom of men, where Pilate reigned, people are judged by their ability to coerce and to conquer. You are judged by the money in your wallet, the size of your office, strength of your arm, or the smoothness of your tongue. You only matter if you can be seen getting what you want. But coercion is not a part of the Kingdom of God. In the kingdom that Jesus inhabits, the meek are blessed and love conquers all. The power to love and to be loved, not the love of obligation or reciprocity, but the love that can reach down into your soul and soothe the ache of longing, the desire to be whole. That is the power of the kingdom of God. A love that goes down to the cross for you, and in the midst of its agony says “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”
The question that Pilate faces, the question that all of us face, is this: To which kingdom do we belong? And the heart of that question isn’t in what we do or the kind of person we want to be, but which, in the end, do we think is the most powerful. The powers of man, to command, control, and coerce, or the power of God, to love. The question is: who do you think is in charge?
Pilate, Imperial Prefect of Judea, representative of Roman power in the region, thinks that with all of his accumulated power he has over Jesus the power of life and death. But as he goes back and forth across the threshold, first to Jesus, and then the high priests, back to Jesus, and to the crowd, he realizes that he does not have the power over life. He only holds power over death. And anyone who saw him bouncing in and out of his headquarters in an effort to maintain careful balance would say that he did not hold that power either, but that the power seemed to have a hold on him.
It’s not the Pilate is powerless, he has soldiers to order around, money to spend, a rank to demand respect. But the power he holds brings him no closer to truth or wholeness or fulfillment, in fact his power holds him back from doing the one thing that could save him. He’s unwilling to give it up.
Pilate can bring terror in the midst of peace, but can he bring peace in the midst of terror? Pilate can clothe himself in comfort, but can he comfort someone who has been laid bare? He built an aqueduct that brought water to the people of Jerusalem, but could he slake their thirst with living waters? Pilate can order the traitor’s death for an innocent man, but can he give life to all with an empty tomb?
Jesus, on the other hand, gives up everything. And it is through that gift that we can begin to see what it means to belong to the truth, to belong to the Kingdom of God. We begin to see the power in powerlessness. Because it’s only through powerlessness that we can achieve what we truly want. If love does not come freely it is no longer love, but something else. Obedience. Payment. Obligation. A form of currency to be manipulated by the Pilates of the world into some profit or advantage.
But in the free love of Christ we are given a glimpse of the potential to be healed. Not just to heal and give life to our bodies, but to heal whatever is broken within us, and give life to whatever is dead and dying. It is a love which can reach down into the deepest depths of our soul and bind the wounds that fester there and cool the fevers that rise up against us. It is a love that hears the yearnings of our hearts and lifts us up to great heights to reach them. It is a love that understands that in spite of the way gold tends to turn to clay in our hands we want nothing more than be a part of the building of the Kingdom of God, and it calls us, saying, “Come, Follow me.”
The voice is true and calls us to testify to the truth. It says, “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.” To belong to the Kingdom of God is to belong to the truth, to hear it and to live it and breathe it and proclaim it all the days of our life.
And the truth is this: the man who died a traitor’s death is King. Long live the King.
 Buechner, Frederick. The Magnificent Defeat. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1966, 30.