November 25, 2012/Christ the King Sunday
When I was about 12 or 13 years old I went with my class to see the play Inherit the Wind at the Nashville Children’s Theater. If you’re not familiar with this play it’s based on the Scopes Monkey Trial which took place in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. John Scopes was a science teacher and coach in Dayton, and he decided to challenge Tennessee’s new anti-evolution law that prohibited any school that was funded primarily by state tax dollars from teaching evolution as opposed to the story of creation found in the Bible. He taught evolution. He was arrested and was brought to trial.
Scopes primary legal defense was Clarence Darrow, one of the most famous attorneys in the country at the time. William Jennings Bryan, another of the country’s most famous attorneys, represented the prosecution. The two men were fierce political rivals and history records that their rivalry influenced the proceedings in Dayton.
The play was not a completely historical record of what happened in the actual trial. My memories of the details of the play are sketchy as well. But I do remember one particularly dramatic scene of the trial itself. Darrow, in response to an argument for the literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis, gives a passionate rebuttal, asking the question that still remains with me today, couldn’t seven days in God’s time really be seven billion years?
This is not a direct quote, and as I said, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the play. But that scene has remained with me, I think, because it was one of the first moments in my life when I realized that truth and fact were not necessarily synonyms. I was not shocked by these words. In fact, I embraced them. I remember running the idea of a week to God looking very different than one of my weeks over and over in my head and thinking that it made perfect sense.
That may sound simple enough to you, but I was seeing this play in Nashville, Tennessee. Some may consider Oklahoma to be the buckle of the Bible belt, but I tell you what, if Oklahoma is the buckle then Tennessee is the first loop. I don’t think I had fully encountered evolution in my studies yet, but I would have been VERY familiar with the story of creation in Genesis. So hearing these words of Darrow’s, whether they were really his or just a creation of the play’s author, opened up a new realm of thinking for me. It was a new and different kind of truth.
While on the surface John Scopes was on trial for breaking a law, at a much deeper level Scopes was on trial for trying to teach a different kind of truth; which is what I see taking place in the trial we read in John’s gospel.
Jesus is also on trial. He’s on trial for sedition – which is inciting resistance to authority and potentially overthrowing the government. Jesus is on trial for religious heresy. And, quite frankly, Jesus is on trial just for making all of the religious and political leaders so angry.
But the charge of sedition is the most serious. So when Pilate comes back into the headquarters and summons Jesus again, asking “Are you the King of the Jews?” he wants to know if Jesus is trying to usurp the Jewish leadership. Because not only will this affect the power of the Jewish leadership, it will affect the power of the Roman government as well.
In typical fashion Jesus answers Pilate’s question with another question. “Are you asking this question on your own, or have other people told you about me?”
Now Pilate was not a nice man. What we see and learn of him in these and other verses is sort of a gentled version of Pilate. According to commentators, other historical documents paint a picture of Pilate as a bully at best. I doubt that he appreciated being questioned by this common prisoner. And I’m sure that Jesus’ questions get under his skin. So his retort to Jesus’ question is, “I’m not a Jew, am I? Your own people have handed you over. What did you do?”
Now Jesus begins to talk about his kingdom. “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.”
Okay, so now we’re getting somewhere. Pilate does not get what Jesus is saying at all, but he does pick up on one word – kingdom. He’s still trying to figure out what Jesus has done and if he’s guilty of the charges against him. So with the word “kingdom” clutched in his fist, he asks again, “So, you are a king?”
Again Jesus frustrates him with his reply. “You say that I am a king. This is why I was born; this is why I came into the world, to testify to the truth. The ones who belong to the truth, listen to my voice.”
Here’s where our part of the story concludes. But if we were to keep reading just one more sentence, we would hear the question that Pilate is probably best known for. “What is truth?”
What is truth? I suspect that Jesus and Pilate have a very different understanding of that word. I suspect that Pilate understood truth as gritty. Truth is not something that most people can handle. Truth can be manipulated and exploited. Truth is just another ploy in the political maneuvering that happens in this dog-eat-dog world.
But the truth that Jesus refers to is another animal altogether.
When Jesus speaks of truth he is speaking of divine truth. He is speaking of a truth that is not born of people, but truth that comes from God. And Jesus isn’t just speaking about some ideal or theory, some outside of reality kind of truth. Jesus is telling Pilate that he is the truth. He doesn’t just represent truth. He is the truth. That’s why he was born, that’s why his life has led him to this critical point in front of Pilate, to witness to the truth of God which he embodies.
Jesus is king, but he’s not a king in the way that Pilate understands. Jesus tries to tell Pilate this, but Pilate just doesn’t get it. Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world. Jesus isn’t trying to commit an act of sedition. As he told Pilate, if his kingdom were of this world, if he were trying to usurp the resident government, then his followers would be leading a revolt. There would have been fighting in the streets to keep him out of Pilate’s hands. But that wasn’t happening. Jesus is before Pilate. His only act has been to witness to the truth.
And what is that truth? The truth is that God’s kingdom made manifest in Jesus has come into the world. God’s kingdom has broken through and it has broken in. Jesus has been witnessing to the kingdom all along. He’s taught it, preached it and demonstrated its power in every act of healing and every miracle he’s performed. That is the truth.
But the world has turned a deaf ear and a cold shoulder to the truth. That’s what’s brought Jesus before Pilate. The powers that be could not bear the truth. To quote a line from the movie, A Few Good Men, they couldn’t handle it.
So Jesus is on trial. The truth is on trial.
One commentator states that even though to our eyes it is Jesus who is on trial, it’s really Pilate and the Jewish leaders and the entire world that’s on trial. It may look like Jesus is the one receiving judgment, but just as everything else is reversed in God’s Kingdom, this is reversed as well.
Pilate will bear the judgment of his decision. The leaders and the people who turned away from Jesus will bear judgment. The ones who follow Jesus and belong to the truth know and understand the real outcome.
One of my preaching professors in seminary used to say that the tough part of any sermon was figuring out what this means for us on Tuesday. So what does this passage mean for us today and on Tuesday and every day?
Are we wiping our brows and saying, “Whew! It’s a good thing that’s not us. We know the truth.”? Or do we see a little bit of Pilate in ourselves?
I realize that speaking of truth is tricky. Trying to testify to it, even more so, because I know that my truth is in many ways is unique to me. My truth comes from my experiences, my decisions, my choices, my own particular journey through this life. Your truth is based on your experiences and decisions and journey as well. So what is truth? What is the truth that Pilate put on trial in the form of an itinerant preacher and teacher who refused to fight back?
I think that truth is love. It is as simple as that. Yet loving, really loving is also the greatest challenge any of us undertake. The truth of Jesus as King, the truth of the Kingdom Jesus ushered in is love. It is embodied, incarnate, active love. That’s why Jesus is the truth. He is incarnate love. But what monarch do we know of represents that kind of love? The best monarchs, the best leaders, the best elected officials that we can point to do not completely represent that embodied love. Certainly there were none that Pilate could point to. Jesus was a king that Pilate could not understand or comprehend. And if we’re honest, it is a comprehension that often confounds as well.
Jesus is the truth and that truth is love.
Today is the last day in our church calendar. Next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, begins our new year. We end with Jesus as King. We begin waiting for a child. At the beginning and at the end there is love. I believe that was the truth that Jesus testified to. That was the truth Pilate chose to overrule. His decision was based on political expediency. And we know the rest of the story. However the choice before Pilate is a choice that stands ever before us? Do we choose the kingdom of God or the kingdoms of this world? Do we choose a life of convenience or a life of love? As we move into this season of love and peace and hope and joy, what will we choose? What will we choose? Amen.