Readings: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 Psalm 93 Revelation 1:4b-8 John 18:33-37
Is Jesus a king? After Jesus had been betrayed and handed over to the religious leaders, they held a mock trial and sentenced him to death. Forbidden by Rome to execute anyone, the religious leaders handed Jesus over to Pilate for execution. Challenged by Pilate in a last-ditch effort to avoid execution, the leaders shouted, “We have no king but Caesar!” and watched Jesus handed over to his executioners.
The scene with Pilate is famous because of a ridiculous question Pilate asked in order to avoid responsibility for what he was about to do. Pilate asked Jesus some questions which Jesus answered, and then Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” to which Pilate responded, “What is truth?” He didn’t ask because he wanted to know the answer; he asked, because he did not have the courage to deal with the answer.
The truth was that he could clearly see that Jesus was no criminal. Pilate could see truth and grace and even power in Jesus, but Pilate could also see that the population of Jerusalem was likely to explode if Jesus were allowed to live. Pilate’s problem was that he could not handle the truth.
Lots of people cannot handle that truth.
People who go to church and hear the gospel preached Sunday after Sunday often claim that that they “didn’t get anything out of it.” They try to put the blame for their unwillingness to put Christ first in their lives on preachers who never entertained them enough to keep their attention. If they don’t like church and can’t identify with Jesus, then it is due to poor customer service by Christian leaders. They can’t handle the truth, so they blame the messengers.
People who believe and are baptized claim their faith with eagerness, but at some point, they see a pastor who cheats on his wife, or they discover that a church treasurer has absconded with the offering. They ask a pastor to pray for a sick child, but the child doesn’t get well. A neighbor who sits beside them in the pew on Sunday lies about them to other neighbors on Monday. People fail them, and they decide that the “religion thing” is a complete hoax. Churches are full of hypocrites, and they don’t want to be around people like that. They look out and see sinners; they look inward and see only the wounds to their own egos. They can’t handle the truth, so they blame their fellow-travelers.
The things some people say make it sound as if everything they ever heard about God, the Bible or Christ himself made less of an impression than Cinderella. Everything about religion, they say, is like a ghost story, and they don’t want to have to listen to any more ghost stories. They can’t handle the truth, so they re-characterize the truth to diminish its substance to that of a vapor.
The truth that slapped Pilate in the face that day was that Jesus actually was a king. Pilate was so busy protecting his job that he did not dare acknowledge who Jesus was, but everything he did betrayed his desperation to finesse this problem and simply make it all disappear. He knew that the religious leaders were duplicitous thugs. He knew that if they wanted Jesus dead it was not due to their excess of piety. Yet he also knew that these religious leaders would have no qualms about inciting a riot if Pilate failed to do their will. He represented the most powerful nation on earth, and he commanded a cohort of soldiers who were willing to kill women and children without compunction at the order of a superior officer. Yet Pilate’s behavior tells the reader that he was afraid of powers that could do him harm.
Pilate’s words and deeds that day reveal the fear that engulfed him as he sat on the horns of a real dilemma. If he did nothing, he knew the Jews would riot. If he killed this kingly man who had already suffered unjustly, he knew that it would haunt his conscience. He knew the truth, and when he required the executing officer to post over Jesus’ head a sign that said, “The king of the Jews,” he knew what he was doing.
At first glance that sign sounds political, of course, and certainly shames the leaders who instigated this outrage, but Pilate was trying to work through his recognition that Jesus really was a king, and that his kingdom was not of this world. Pilate could not handle the truth. On that day, the only person who ever dealt with the truth was the centurion who cried out at the moment of Jesus’ death, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
The world is full of people who cannot handle the truth of Jesus’ kingship. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is currently engaged in yet another battle to take down a cross outside San Diego, because the Foundation cannot handle the truth. The truth about Christ is so powerful and so compelling that people cannot simply ignore it and get on with their lives. The truth about Christ demands that they make a choice – submit to his kingship or really and truly reject him. The Freedom From Religion Foundation rejects him over and over and over. Pilate tried to avoid making that choice, but it was forced upon him. Neither the religious leaders nor Christ would simply disappear. Pilate washed his hands in a vain attempt to reject the necessity of being part of the assault on Jesus, but none of his efforts to take himself out of the picture worked. For two thousand years, Christians have named him and his complicity in the murder of God’s Son every time they recite the Apostle’s Creed. For that long, every culture touched by the Bible has found some way to speak of the abdication of responsibility by a phrase about “washing your hands.” For that long, Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” has been a way of describing a situation in which a harsh truth has consequences even for those who ignore it.
In today’s gospel, Christ does not look like a king to earthly eyes, but the gospel writer clearly sees Christ the King elevated on his throne, the cross, bearing the sins of the world and washing them away in his own blood. In today’s gospel, Pilate tries to sidestep the truth about Jesus and act as if he is just another bandit processed by blind justice. Pilate does not succeed in avoiding the truth about Jesus, and neither do we. How do you attempt to diminish Christ’s claim on you? What are your strategies for avoiding his call to deny self and die with him? Are you asking “What is truth?” or are you living in truth?