The Gospel Truth

John 18.33-38

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “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.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

I don’t know if any of you remember this but, a few years ago there was this very contentious presidential election. Someone named Hillary Clinton and someone named Donald Trump both really wanted to be president. More money was spent during that election than any other election in history (until the most recent presidential election). Families were divided in a way that they never had been before, or so said the talking heads on all the news channels every night.

I, myself, tried to bring some semblance of fidelity to the season by hosting a prayer service in which I sought to remind people that, through Christ, we have more in common than our political proclivities would allow us to believe. I planned to break bread with all who gathered so that, no matter what happened with the election, we would remember that we belong to the kingdom of God and that we, together, are disciples of the King of kings.

“Welcome!” I intoned from the pulpit to the crowd. “Welcome to our church for our worship service. However, before we begin, I would like all of the Republicans to sit on the right side of the sanctuary, all of the Democrats can move to the left, and anyone else can take a seat somewhere in the center aisle.”

No one laughed.

Apparently, the presidential election wasn’t funny, not even in church.

Well, when the day of the election arrived, I made my way to my voting location which just happened to be the local Seventh Day Adventist Church. I pulled into the parking lot and witnessed Red Hats screaming at Blue Shirts and Blue Shirts screaming at Red Hats. Yard signs adorned every available spot on every available yard. And I can distinctly remember all of the poll workers looking decisively dreadful.

I ascended the outdoor stairs into the church’s fellowship hall and took my place in line. I waited patiently for my opportunity to fill out my vote and did some people watching. I saw slumped shoulders, furrowed brows, fidgeting fingers, and it was as if the previous months of political vitriol had sucked the very life out of our community. 

And then it was my turn.

I filled out my form, brought it over to a machine that promptly consumed it with a ding, and sighed a relief knowing that it was finally over.

Then I looked up.

And right there, stretching across the wall of the Fellowship Hall was a mural of Jesus.

It wasn’t Jesus dying on the cross.

It wasn’t even Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Instead it was a mural of Jesus laughing his butt off.

And it was perfect.

The disciples have betrayed, abandoned, and denied Jesus. Arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, dragged before the High Priest and scribes, and now he stands accused before Pontius Pilate.

“Who are you exactly?” the political occupier intones. Mind you, when Jesus entered the city on the back of a donkey, surrounded by a modest crowd, Pilate was also entering the city, but he came with pomp and circumstance, imagine horses and soldiers and banners and such. 

And now, a few days later, the two of them sit face to face.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” As in, “Are you a threat to my emperor’s empire?”

“Do you really want to know, or did others tell you about me?”

“Look, why do you keep answering all my questions with questions? It’s your own people who have delivered you to my throne, so tell me, what did you do?”

“My kingdom,” Jesus says, “is not from this world. If it were, my disciples would be storming the gates of your palace and doing everything in their power to take your power away. But, as it is, my kingdom is different.”

“So you are a king then?” Pilate asks.

“If you say so. But it really doesn’t matter. For this I was born, for this I came into the world. I’m here to tell the truth. And everyone who belongs to the truth listen to my voice.”

And Pilate says, “What is truth?”

That’s where the text for today ends: this unanswerable question dangling in the air.

But I want to remind all of us what happens next, for I believe it actually answers the question…

After this, Pilate goes out to the religious leaders again and tells them that he finds no case against Jesus. And yet, Pilate knows there is a custom every year on Passover during which the empire’s representative would release one person from captivity. So Pilate goes to the crowds and he says, “Do you want me to release Jesus, this so-called king of the Jews?” And they yell in response: “No! Give us the insurrectionist Barabbas instead!”

Pilate let the crowds choose who they will save, Jesus is beaten and bedraggled, he is adorned with a crown of thorns and a purple robe, he carries the instrument of his own death to the place called The Skull, and they put an inscription over him that says, “This is the King of the Jews.”

Why was Jesus killed?

That’s almost as difficult as a question to answer as, “What is truth?”

After all, wasn’t Jesus just trying to get us all to be a little kinder to one another? If the Gospel, and the ministry of the Lord, is merely, “Treat others as you wish to be treated,” then why did Jesus end up on the cross?

You don’t kill someone for asking you to be nice.

You kill someone when you can’t handle their truth.

What happens in and to Jesus is not something that is personal or private, as we sometimes water down the faith. What happens in and to Jesus is very public and political. If the authorities wanted to be rid of Jesus they could’ve taken care of it easily and tossed his body in some random alley in Jerusalem. But they wanted to make an example of him. This is what happens for those who call into question the truth of the empire.

And yet, here on Christ the King Sunday, we confront the terrifying and life-giving reality that our King rules from the cross. Jesus’ throne is not built on the blood of his enemies. His throne is cruciform. The only blood it contains is his own. 

Notably, Christ the King Sunday is a more recent addition to the liturgical calendar. It was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in large part as a response to the horrific and murderous realities of WWI and the rise of fascism all across Europe. 

Celebrating the reign of Christ is but one way of proclaiming the gospel truth – If we believe that Jesus is Lord then that means something has to change about who we are and what we do. 

Or, to put it simply, what we believe shapes how we behave.

The salvation wrought by cross and resurrection involves making us citizens of a time and space that is in tension with all other forms of citizenship.

The world tells us to earn all we can.

The kingdom tells us we already have what we need.

The world tells us that winners finish first.

The kingdom tells us that the last shall be first.

The world tells us that we are defined by our mistakes.

The kingdom tells us that we are defined only by our King.

It doesn’t get more political than this in church. And yet, inherent in today’s proclamation is the challenge of coming to grips with what it means to pledge allegiance to our King. We live in a democracy, we don’t know what it means to have a King. 

Kings are not chosen.

So, to be clear, Jesus is not our president. And for good reason. We never would’ve picked him. 

Turn the other cheek? Go the extra mile? Take up your cross and follow me?

Those don’t make for very good campaign slogans.

Contrary to how it’s been portrayed in the church or even in our wider culture, we never really pick Jesus. When all is said and done, when the King of kings and Lord of lords comes to dwell among us, we nail him to the cross.

We, to put it bluntly, pick Barabbas instead.

Which makes some of Jesus’ final words are the more powerful: “Forgive them Lord, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Jesus isn’t trying to win an election, he’s not trying to convince us of anything, he’s not offering empty promises about the next 2-4 years. 

Instead, Jesus elects us to a kingdom that we would never choose on our own – he brings the future and the truth to us.

Some of us are here this morning because we can’t imagine being anywhere else. It is Sunday after all. But there’s a good chance that a whole lot of us are here because we are looking for the truth.

For as much as the kingdoms of the world are built on the blood of enemies, they are also founded on fabrications – the world is built and sold and traded on lies.

But not here.

Not in the church.

We are an outpost of the kingdom of God in foreign territory.

We are strangers in a strange land.

Many of us are suffocating under the oppressive power of deception. The powers and principalities of this world are constantly vying for our allegiances. They do everything in their power to convince us that power come through strength, that tribalism will rule the day, and that the most important animal is either a Donkey or an Elephant. It’s why so many of us now dread the Thanksgiving table because it forces us to confront that wayward uncle with the undesirable political opinion who, with every extra glass of wine, continues to say things that boil our blood. 

The Donkey and the Elephant can’t and won’t save us. They, in large part, exist to instill a sense of freedom that actually results in isolation. They attempt to rid us of our baptismal identities to tell us that our political identities are more important. They promise a salvation that just leads to more division.

But here’s the Good News, the really really Good News: Our King rules from the throne of the cross, the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world, ours included.

And that’s why Jesus laughs.

Jesus laughs at our foolishness in thinking that we can save ourselves, that we can fix all the problems in the world. 

You want to know what’s wrong with the world? We are!

When the bonds forged by the names on our bumpers become more determinative than the bonds that are forged in baptism, then we have fallen prey to the elephant and the donkey in the room.

But we are Jesus people! We believe that telling the truth is the beginning of a revolution of the heart. We confess Jesus as our Lord which means that the most important political animal is Lamb of God!

Jesus is the truth incarnate come to set us free. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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