On the feast of Christ the King, we are called to acknowledge that Jesus is, in fact our King. It is one thing to say that he is our King because the song in Church we sang said that, or the preacher said that, or the Bible says that. Yes, faith does come by hearing. But there also comes a moment when WE must say that Jesus is our King. When we must personally affirm what the Church has always announced: “Jesus is Lord, and he is King, he is my king. He has authority in my life.”And this must become more than lip service. It must become a daily, increasing reality in our life.
Kings take care of us, but they also have the authority to command us. Can Christ command you or me? Or are we more typical of the modern person who doesn’t like to be told what to do? Or perhaps we suffer from the more mild form of this attitude that reduces and trivializes Jesus to being the “harmless hippie” who just says pleasant things about peace and flowers, but would never rebuke us or command us to repent.
And so, again the question for us: Is Jesus Christ your King?
And that brings us to the Gospel for today’s Mass. Now, 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.
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 the spotlight moves to Pontius Pilate. And the Lord asks the critical question of him (i.e. us) that we are here pondering. And we cannot simply wait to see how Pilate answers that question, WE have to answer it. Consider this Gospel in three stages.
I. INDECISION – In a remarkable display of literary artistry, John and the Holy Spirit vividly depict the vacillation of Pontius Pilate. For in this Gospel passage of the trial of Jesus, Pilate goes in and out of the Praetorium (i.e. the Governor’s palace) more than a bell-hop through the revolving door of a hotel. Indeed he goes in and out seven times. Note the text with the texts describing his motions highlighted in bold text:
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! Such a picture of indecision an vacillation! He’s trying to please the crowds, he’s trying to please his wife (who had 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. We are often locked in indecision, we vacillate, trying to please the world, trying to please others and to please God.
Is Pilate really so different from many of us? Faced with a crucial decision, he weighs the consequences that choosing Jesus will have on his career, his future, his family, his loyalty to country and Caesar, his access to power, and so forth. And while we may rightfully criticize Pilate for his choice, is it not easy for so many of us to make compromises with the world for the sake of similar things? How often does Jesus our King take a back seat to career, politics, convenience and so on? And so easily we stay rooted in vacillation, compromise and indecision.
II. INQUIRY – And now, in the midst of all this indecision comes 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, I have to answer it. Do not wait for Pilate, he has already made his answer and he has faced his judgment centuries ago. But YOU, and ME, how do WE answer the question?
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: “I think, or suppose, that is I infer that Jesus is Lord because my mother said so, or my pastor said so.” This is a good beginning, for 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? As we have already discussed, 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? How do I answer? Is it more than a slogan or is his Kingship real? Let the Lord ask one more time:
Are you saying I am a king on your own or have others been telling you about me?
III. IMPLICATION – You have to answer. To refuse to answer, IS to answer.
A fascinating and wondrous literary device is employed by John and the Holy Spirit in this Gospel passage. We have already seen how Jesus, who was on trial, has turned the tables, and it is now Pilate who is really on trial. Pilate who has the duty to question Jesus is now being questioned by him. And it is Pilate who must now make a decision, not so much about Jesus, but about himself. He has been asked a question he cannot ultimately avoid and now it is time to answer. And here is where the ingenious literary device comes into play. 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!” And historically that might have been true. 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 revealed. 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.
From this context it is Jesus who sits silently upon the judgment seat. The verdict is in. In deciding to hand Jesus over, in deciding to favor himself and the crowds over Jesus, Pilate has brought judgment on himself.
Too many of us have cartoonish notions about our final judgment. Many today conceive of that judgment as either a benign Jesus giving us a great big hug, or for the condemned, an angry Lord gleefully passing judgment on his “enemies.” Perhaps too there is some notion of the repetition of our deeds, good or bad, and the pronouncing of some sort of verdict, while we cringe and wait. But Jesus is not a King who imposes his Kingdom. He is one who invites our entry into his Kingdom. So ultimately judgment is about our choice, not His.
And. thus what if judgment is finally this: the Lord, who suffered for us, respectfully and quietly seated on the Judgement seat, accepting our final choice, a choice that is the cumulative sum of all our choices, a choice that is now and forever fixed? Isn’t that what really happens here?
The Lord has called the question for Pilate, as he does for us. But the choice is for Pilate and the judgement he brings on himself. A choice either to accept the Lord’s kingship, or to reject it and see the Lord led away, while he (Pilate himself) stands alone, the judgment having been rendered by his own choice.
Yes, there are implications as to whether we accept the Lord for our King or not. Today the Lord asks us all: “Will you let me be your King?” And to those of us who say, “yes,” the Lord has this further question, “Are you saying this on your own or is it just that others have been telling you about me?” Is he really our King? Think about it. There are implications.
The question that we cannot fail to answer has now been answered by Pilate. What is your answer? What is mine?
There is an mp3 of this sermon recorded Saturday night here: King or no