The Gospels are not theater, as though we were in the audience and watching a story unfold, a story that took place 2000 years ago. No, we are in the story. We are not just to observe what Peter, or Pilate, of James, or Mary Magdalene do. They are us and we are them.
Now, one of the things that this means is that when Jesus asks them a question, we cannot merely wait and see how they will answer as though we were watching a movie. No, WE have to answer the question.
In today’s Gospel from the Feast of Christ the King the spotlight moves to Pontius Pilate. And the Lord asks a very important question of him. Now we cannot simply wait to see how Pilate answers that question, WE have to answer it. I will share the question with you in a moment. But first, permit an observation of Pontius Pilate, then the question, then the judgment.
1. John’s Gospel describes Pilate as a portrait of vacillation. He goes in and out of the Praetorium (Governor’s House) more than a bell-hop through the revolving door of a hotel:
29So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” …..33Pilate [re]entered the praetorium and called Jesus…..” 39After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again, and told them, “I find no crime in him…..1Then Pilate took Jesus [back into the praetorium] and scourged him…… 4Pilate went out again, and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you, that you may know that I find no crime in him….8When Pilate heard these words, he was the more afraid; 9he re-entered the praetorium and [spoke] to Jesus….12Upon this Pilate [went back out] and sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend…When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and he sat down on the judgment seat…..(John 18-19 selected verses)
Did you count? Seven times Pilate goes in or out of the Praetorium! He’s trying to please the crowds, he’s trying to please his wife (who warned him to have nothing to do with that innocent man (Mat 27:19)), he’s trying to help Jesus. But he can’t decide! In and out he goes. He is like us. We say we love God, but we also love the world. We want to please others, we want to please God. We cannot do both. We have to decide. But instead we vacillate, we go back and forth. We are Pilate.
2. And now the question. Pilate begins with his own question: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33) But Jesus, who is on trial, turns the tables on Pilate and putting him on trail asks him the crucial question: “Are you saying this on your own or have others been telling you about me?” (John 18:34). A remarkable question! And guess what?! YOU have to answer it. Do not wait for Pilate, he has already made his answer and faced his judgment. But YOU, ME, how do WE answer it? Now notice what the Lord is getting at. He is asking you if you call him a King merely because you have heard others say this or because you personally know him to be King. Is he really your King or this just a slogan you’ve heard in church before? Do you believe he is King or do you merely parrot what you’ve heard others say?
There is an old Gospel song that says, “Yes I know Jesus for myself.” But is that really the case with us? Too many of us are satisfied with a kind of inferential faith. Inferential faith is based merely on what others have said: “Jesus is Lord because my mother said so, or my pastor said so.” This is a good beginning, after all, faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17). But there comes a moment when YOU have to say so. It is not enough that your pastor says so, or your mother says so. And thus Jesus is asking you and me right now: “Are you saying I am King on your own or merely because others have said so?” Answer him…..It’s a crucial question isn’t it? The faith of the Church is essential, normative and determinative, but at some point you have to step up and say, I personally affirm that the faith of the Church is true and is mine and I hereby declare: “Jesus is Lord and King.”
And what does it mean that he is King? A king has authority doesn’t he? Does Jesus have authority in my life? Do I have the obedience of faith (Rom 1:5) and base my life upon his will? A king also takes care of his people and protects them. Do I allow the Lord to feed me with the Holy Eucharist? Do I allow him to protect me from the poison of sin by the sacrament of confession and the medicine of his Holy Word? Am I willing to live within the protection of the walled city of his Church? Is the Lord really my King? Is it more than a slogan or is his Kingship real? Let the Lord ask one last time: “Are you saying I am a king on your own or have others been telling you about me?
3. You have to answer. To refuse to answer IS to answer. Jesus who was on trial has turned the tables and it is now Pilate who is really on trial. He has been asked a question he cannot ultimately avoid and now it is time to answer. Look carefully at this line from John’s Gospel and see if you notice anything strange:
Upon this [the shouting of Crucify him!]Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; every one who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar.” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and he sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, and in Hebrew, Gabbatha. (John 19:12-13)
So what is strange here? Well notice that when Pilate has Jesus brought out, “he sat on the judgment seat.” Who exactly is sitting on the judgment seat? Well, you might say, Pilate of course!” But the text is ambiguous as to the exact identity of “he” and most Scripture scholars argue that it is supposed to be ambiguous. From the standpoint of historical facts it was likely Pilate who took that seat. But from the standpoint of Divine Justice it is Jesus who takes that seat. He has turned the tables on Pilate. Pilate is now on trial and the verdict is about to be announced. Pilate will seal his own fate when he hands Jesus over to be crucified. His vacillation is over. He has made his choice. he has answered the question. Jesus sits silently upon the judgment seat. The verdict is in. The question that we cannot fail to answer has now been answered by Pilate. What is your answer? What is mine?