“What is truth?”
The lectionary doesn’t include it, but that’s the next line of today’s gospel. And it’s Pilate who asks the question… Pilate, the representative of Caesar: the bringer of peace to the whole world, the Pax Romana—the peace of Rome, the Emperor of the World, the King of creation.
And he asks it of Jesus, a simple man, bound and vulnerable. No armies. No Imperial clothes or insignia. No overt power at all (except over demons, sickness, wind and water).
And this conversation got started when Pilate, this man who wields the power of Rome, asked Jesus. “Are you the King of the Jews?” loaded with sub-text about who was really in charge here.
And the gospel we heard this morning ends with Jesus saying, “…for this I came into the world… to testify to the truth.”
And then the question we don’t hear this morning: “What is truth?”
And it matters, because it’s only in the context of the truth that the answer about whether or not Jesus is King can make any sense.
One Lent a couple of years before I entered seminary I worked on a (very!) minor art project.
In part this project was inspired by my reaction to what is often called the Jefferson Bible in which Thomas Jefferson cut up a New Testament in order to remove anything that didn’t make sense to him—anything that seemed alien to his view of the world—which for him was anything supernatural or miraculous—and pasted what was left (mostly the bare bones of a story and a lot of ethical teaching) together into a new document that he called (appropriately) the Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.
This little art project was also inspired by the Jesus seminar a group of New Testament scholars who would meet and, using historical-critical criteria that they had developed (and color coded beads) gave thumbs up to what they like in Jesus’ sayings and actions, and eliminated anything from Jesus’ teaching and ministry that seemed alien to their understanding of him.
It was a simple art project. I photocopied pages of the Psalms from the Prayer Book and with an X-ACTO knife cut out all the words I thought someone could find offensive. ANY
word that ANYONE could find offensive or alien, and I arranged the modified sheets on a large sheet of red paper.
As you can imagine, what was left was a field of as much red background as psalm pages, and, of course, it was completely non-sensical. It didn’t say anything.
It was, as I said, a minor art project. But it made my point.
It might seem obvious to us that the words we use to understand God work this way: Something in our everyday experience reminds us about something we think (or would like to think) about God, or helps to describe our personal or corporate experience of God, and that’s where the language and metaphors about God in scripture, tradition, hymns, and so on come from.
The metaphor—the analogy—works by projecting from the things of Creation up to God.
But among theologians we hear about another kind of analogy. Another kind of analogical thinking. Something called Analogia entis—the analogy of Being.
And in this understaind, the analogy goes the opposite direction. Not that God is made up of all of our pictures and ideas of God that come from our experience of Creation, but that Creation is understood through God. That Creation’s being (and its qualities) in some way reflect and even participate in God’s own being.
So if we call God King, it isn’t because we understand human kings and so project onto God the idea of human king, but rather, God is King, and God as King reveals the true meaning of King. And all other kings are judged in the light of God as king.
“My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus said.
“So you are a king,” Pilate responds.
Christ the King:
* “Hark the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King…”
* “…praises sing to God our King, and peace to men on earth…”
* “…born the king of angels…”
* “…When the new heaven and earth shall own the Prince of Peace, their King…”
* “Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum… the newborn king to see pa rum pum pum pum…”
For Jesus to say “No,” when Pilate asks if he is a king, is a lie. He is King.
But to say “Yes,” in this context is also a lie because Pilate only knows “king” in a distorted version of king.
So in order for King to be understood correctly, Jesus must testify to the truth of what a true King is.
If we lose “King” the rest of what we say will be non-sensical and so not truthful, but if we just project an idea of king onto Christ we’re even less truthful.
We’re at the end of the Church year. Next week we begin another year. And at this time of year the Church celebrates the hope of the reign of God in Christ even as we’re about to begin Advent, the season of hopeful, joyful expectation, of waiting and preparation, of making the way straight, of truth telling and watching. A time of angels and mortals interacting. A time when God stirs up what has become too settled and does a new thing.
And what is the Church so hopeful, so joyful about? What is it we are expecting?
The coming of a King.
But is that something to hope for?
Not if Christ is just another, more powerful king among kings. Just a bigger, more powerful, more permanent example of the kinds of rulers like Caesar and Pilate and Herod who have claimed ownership of the world throughout history and who do even now (whether we call them kings or not).
But they don’t get to define what King is!
In his life, death, and resurrection, Christ testifies to what a true King is.
“If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over,” Jesus says. But his kingdom is not from this world, not created and sustained by force or threat of force.
So what kind of King is Christ the King? And over what kind of Kingdom does he reign?
* a King whose crown is made of thorns, and whose throne is a cross;
* a King whose rule is not to be served, but to serve;
* a King who dies for those in his care;
* a King who doesn’t define himself by what he claims as his own, but instead gives his creation, his kingdom, even himself for his people and to his people;
* a King who shares his reign.
This is Christ the King. The TRUE king.
Eastern Orthodox priest Father Thomas Hopko writes in his beautiful little book called Winter Pascha:
Jesus is born to bring God’s kingdom. He dies to prove His kingship. He rises to establish His reign. He comes again in glory to share it with His people. In the kingdom of God there are no subjects. All rule with the risen Messiah. He came and is coming, for this purpose alone.1
1Thomas Hopko, Winter Pascha, p. 93.