Sermon for CHRIST THE KING Sunday 25 November 2012
CHRIST THE KING, 2012 HIGH MASS
Readings: Daniel 7.9-10,13-14; Revelation 1.4b-8; John 18.33-37
Down the ages the Church has sought to communicate the meaning of Christ’s passion and death not just in words and ideas, but through drama and music. The liturgical singing of the passion Gospel we are familiar with here in Palm Sunday and Good Friday lay behind Bach’s great Passions and Handel’s Messiah. Medieval mystery plays and the devotion of the Way of the Cross were sorts of street theatre. The mystery plays were revived in the 20th century and inspired by them there were radio plays like Dorothy L. Sayers’ “A Man Born to be King.” Dramatised passions are now a regular feature of the Good Friday TV schedules.
All these have their roots in the Gospels themselves. They draw on all four accounts to produce as rich a storyline as possible. But even if we look at just one, that of St. John which we heard a section of this morning, we see that there is dramatic intent from the beginning.
John tells the trial of Jesus before Pilate as a courtroom drama with two main acts. He divides the whole trial into 7 exactly alternating outside/inside scenes:
- four outside where Pilate and the religious leaders exchange brief, staccato speeches.;
- three inside, where Pilate and Jesus exchange graver and usually more extended remarks, especially about truth and power.
Our Gospel passage today is Act 1, Scene 2.
We are inside the Praetorium, the Roman Governor’s residence, the centre of political power. Roman governors did not live in Jerusalem most of the time. They came to the city during the great pilgrim festivals like Passover because they knew the capacity of religion to stir up nationalist and anti-Roman feelings. Pilate was there to demonstrate and if necessary exert power. Political theatre was key in this. The Romans knew that their troops could not be everywhere at once, so they had to create an impression of overwhelming force to cow their subject peoples into submission. One of the ways they did this was by that gruesome piece of political street theatre called crucifixion: not only physically cruel, but also humiliating and shaming in a society in which honour and respect were everything, and the loss of them disastrous.
Pilate puts a question to Jesus, one which appears in all four gospel: “Are you the King of the Jews?”
What Pilate gets in response is hardly the standard response of a prisoner being interrogated by such a powerful figure: “Do you ask this one your own, or did others tell you about me?” Even in this opening remark, Jesus is beginning to sound like a king.
Responds with another question: “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
We can sense something of the proud Roman’s contempt for a provincial people and their stubbornly non-conformist religion here. So, having failed to get an answer to the “Who are you?” question, Pilate changes tack and asks “What did you do? What has made the leaders of Jesus’ own people so angry that they want to kill him?
But again Jesus seems not to answer the question. Instead, he tells Pilate of the special nature of his kingdom. In a sense, this is a response to Pilate’s first question. Jesus is controlling the agenda.
“My kingdom,” three times in the space of three brief sentences, is meant to draw our attention. Jesus is clearly aware of having a kingdom which is unique to himself: “My” is emphatic in the Greek: He Eme –literally, “The Mine” – my particular kingdom. It is like no other. Other kingdoms are rooted in this world, they come from down here. Not Jesus’ kingdom. As Jesus had said in the priestly prayer at the Last Supper, he and his disciples are not of this world; not rooted in this world.
Pilate has heard Jesus speaking of his kingdom, so like an interrogator or a prosecuting counsel who seeks to trip up the prisoner in something which contradicts a previous answer, he thinks that he has caught him out: “So then you are a King.”
For the second time in this brief scene, Jesus corrects his judge: “You say that I am a king.” The emphatic “You” addressed to Pilate echoes the emphatic “Are you the king of the Jews?” addressed to Jesus.
For Pilate and for the religious leaders, violence is a mark of kingship. Kings reflect violence and they generate it. In an era of constitutional monarchs such an association may seem strange, but that is because constitutions have effectively disarmed monarchs, and the power lies elsewhere – hopefully in channels less open to capriciousness and corruption. However, from Israel’s first experiments with monarchy until the Roman emperors and their client kings the Herod dynasty, the experience of kingship was often devastating. It is allegiance to Caesar on both Pilate and the religious leaders’ part that will bring Jesus to the cross.
So who is really on trial here? Who is the judge? Who is the accuser and who is the accused? John tells this courtroom drama to get us to ask these very questions.
Then we are plunged into the heart of the matter. Jesus’ tells Pilate that his whole reason for being born and coming into the world is to bear witness to the Truth; that truth which is humankind’s deepest legitimate quest. This is Jesus’ reason for existence. His words echo the very beginning of the Gospel:
- “For this I was born” underlines his humanity;
- “Coming into the world” his divinity, his origin outside this limited visible world.
On the basis of this other origin he announces that he witnesses to the truth and that those who are of the truth hear his voice. In hearing Jesus, people are gathered into a place or realm of truth: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
As with “kingdom” there is a triple use of the word “Truth” in a short space. This points us to the part of the Gospel in which truth is most mentioned: the last discourse of Jesus in the Upper Room; and especially to another triple reference to truth in the high priestly prayer: “Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they may also be consecrated in truth.” (John 17.17-19)
So Jesus is referring to that kingdom or realm which he has announced in the last discourse; a realm which stands in contrast to the hatred of the world and the violence of his accusers. Jesus’ brief speech to Pilate encapsulates that kingdom of which he has spoken at length: the realm which is prepared for by his humble washing of feet, develops into the union portrayed by the true vine, and culminates in the truth that sanctifies.
The voice of Jesus is the vehicle of the truth about the world and about the God who made that world and who continues, in spite of everything to love it, and who intends through Jesus Christ to save it. Truth-seeking disciples will listen to this voice.
He is, as the opening of the Book of Revelation says, “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
All human authority will be judged by the one “they have pierced.” He will judge not only the great tyrants of this world, but also those who claim to listen to his voice and yet distort the truth they have heard to justify oppression and murder, torture and humiliation of Christ in God’s children.
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses