My father was a very smart man. Well, he was very smart about most things; some things, not so much. Like fashion and modern music and movie stars and what a teen-ager would think matters. And since he had at least one teenager in the house from 1964 until 1978, and most of that time he had two or three, well, this blind spot caused him no end of grief. But, as I said, he was a very smart man.
And the way he got so smart was by asking questions. Up until his death at the age of 80, he never stopped asking questions about things that interested him. This was a habit that irritated my very active mother and frightened his children. Sometimes Mama told him he thought too much and we children just tried to avoid one of his Socratic “teachable moments” at the dinner table. There we would be, happily digging into our usual meat and potatoes when he would say, “Delmer, have you ever wondered why a car leans over to the side when you go around a curve too fast?” Well, no, I hadn’t. I was 8 years old. Centrifugal force as a scientific concept had not intruded into my peaceful and playtime-filled existence, until now. From this opening he went around the table, questioning and teaching his five little Chiltons. For him, it was fun, for us, it was agony. It was also very formative of our characters. We are all question-askers to this day, which is a good thing. Questions are important.
The Gospel reading is full of questions. It is only five verses long. In English, only 147 words. Yet there are five questions in those five verses. Sixty-one of those 147 words are tied up in those questions; the rest in the answers. And the text leaves us with more questions, which only we can answer.
The setting is the trial of Jesus; the characters are Pilate and Jesus; the question is the nature of kingship. This really is a question about power and its use and abuse. It is striking to note that the person in this story who should be confident and full of power, Pilate, is the one who is hesitant and almost comical in his desperate maneuverings while the one who should be anxious and afraid, Jesus, is the person who is cool, calm and collected.
Pilate is trying to figure out what level of security risk Jesus represents. Is this just a little squabble among these annoying Hebrews; or is there a terrorist cell lurking behind this mild-mannered rabbi? Is he the head of a group that might erupt into a fighting unit, leading a rebellion against the power and prestige of Rome; or is he just another wingnut, spouting off about some eccentric political and spiritual philosophy? What’s the true level of danger here?
Pilate is worried about the power that comes from force; that results from having more soldiers and spears and battering rams than the other guy. In modern terms, Pilate is worried about the kind of power that comes from the barrel of a gun. When Jesus says, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over,” he is trying to tell Pilate: “That’s not the kind of power I have, nor is it the kind of power I want or need.”
But Pilate can’t hear him. Trying to talk to Pilate about Jesus’ type of power is like talking to an 8-year-old farm boy about centrifugal force. Went right by him. Pilate responds to this with, “Okay, so you are a king, or, you’re not a king? What?”
Jesus tries again. “You say that I am a king. 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.” And as we know from the fact that Jesus was crucified, Pilate still didn’t get it. He never saw Jesus as a threat, but, politics won out. He thinks, “It makes the Hebrew leaders happy for him to be dead, so, I’ll make that happen. But just in case there is a terrorist group ready to pounce, I’ll make sure the Hebrew leaders get the blame.”
Pilate never did understand what sort of king Jesus claimed to be. The question for us today is this: do we? What sort of king is Christ for us? We don’t have kings in the modern world, not really. A few ceremonial heads of state, flitting about the world and getting their pictures in the papers. But no one with any substance or real power or authority. So what does it mean for us to call Christ our King?
Jonathan Sacks was once the head rabbi of Great Britain. He says that the world was caught off-guard by the rise of ISIS, the Islamic state, because the world believes that secularism will eventually prevail over religion. He says that science, technology, free market economics, even liberal democracy have failed to recognize that humans are meaning-seeking creatures who ask basic questions of identity: Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live?” (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 2, 2015)
The young people of ISIS have found an answer to those questions. It is a horrific answer, a violent and short-sighted answer, but it is an answer, forged in a world which offered them nothing else but meaning-free progress.
The world forgot that underneath our façade of seeking power and possessions, most people really are trying to find out two basic things: what is the nature of life and where do I fit in. In religious terms these questions are: “What is God like?” and “What is godlike?” Christ is ourKing because in Christ, God has answered both our questions.
What is God like? God is like Jesus. God is like Jesus loving, healing and teaching. God is like Jesus suffering. God is like Jesus dying on the cross for us. God is like Jesus being raised again.
What is godlike? How should we live because of what God is like? We should live like Jesus. We are called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, to go where Jesus went, to do what Jesus did, to become, as the people of God knit together across time and geography, the body of Christ; loving, healing, teaching, suffering, dying and being raised again.
And that love of God in Christ is a force that will not only cause the powers of the world to teeter over as they careen through life; it is a force that will throw the powers of the world off the tracks, so that all God’s people can stand together and sing with the psalmist “The Lord is King” (Psalm 93:1).
Alleluia and amen.