This morning we observe and celebrate Christ the King Sunday. John Calvin originated the Doctrine of the Three Offices of Christ. In his Institutes, “Calvin says that Christ acts as our prophet, priest, and king” (Migliore 186). As Prophet, Christ comes to teach and “proclaim the coming reign of God” (ibid.). As priest, Jesus offers up “to God the perfect sacrifice of love and obedience on our behalf” (ibid.). Finally, as king, which we focus on this morning, Christ is set above all earthly rulers and “promises the ultimate victory of God’s reign” (ibid.).
It is curious then, that our lectionary reading for this morning comes from Jesus’ lowest moment. He doesn’t look like a king. He has been beaten and bloodied, his clothes torn, his followers fled, and one of his closest friends denying that he knew him. His “hands bound behind him, his lip split and his cheek puffy from where one of the high priest’s officials had whacked him (cf. John 18:22), Jesus looks nothing like a king” (Hoezee). This is the person we are supposed to give all honor and glory?
Pilate, on the other hand, is exactly what we would expect of royalty. When we read this passage, we picture Pilate as, “arrayed in his governor’s attire with a retinue of other well-dressed associates at his beck and call and with armed soldiers standing by also at his command… [he looks] vaguely bored with this little sideshow that the Jews were foisting upon him. [His] schedule was probably chock full of appointments and meetings and P.R. appearances as it was. The last thing he had time for was this pathetic little man who alleged to be a royal pretender, a usurper of Roman authority, a would be ‘King of the Jews’” (Hoezee).
This juxtaposition between Pilate and Jesus is not accidental. Here we have a vivid portrayal of the clash between earthly power and divine humility.
This morning, I would like us to pay close attention to how power is wielded in this story, beginning with Pilate.
Jamie Clark-Soles, Associate Professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas, makes a few observations about Pilate’s use of power. “Pilate uses power and authority for selfish ends with no concern for the building of community, and certainly not a community guided by love and truth. Pilate hoards power and lords it over people even to the point of destroying them, on a cross or otherwise… Pilate’s rule brings terror, even in the midst of calm… Pilate’s followers imitate him by using violence to conquer and divide people by race, ethnicity, and nations… Pilate’s authority originates from the will of Caesar and is always tenuous.”
Some readings of scripture can leave us with a sympathetic interpretation of Pilate. He didn’t want to crucify Jesus but capitulated only to satisfy the mob. Or maybe he was simply apathetic to the whole thing, and with no dog in the fight, simply let whatever would happen, happen. I admit that I have sometimes wanted to find good in Pilate, see him as simply playing a role in fulfilling what was foretold.
But this does a deep disservice to the oppressed and persecuted in first century Palestine. The brutality and ruthlessness with which a ruler like Pilate would have ruled would rival that of Stalin.
Now let’s turn our attention to Jesus. At first glance, it appears that Jesus does not employ any means of power in this story, at least not as we would typically define it. In fact, it seems like Jesus isn’t really doing much to defend himself at all. When asked if he is “King of the Jews,” he doesn’t admit to anything, but he doesn’t deny it either.
Instead, “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’” (18:36).
Take a second and think about what it sounds like Jesus is saying here. “My kingdom is not from this world.” It sure sounds like Jesus is “disavowing his connection to this worldly kingdom of which both Pilate and Jesus’ own accusers are a part. Jesus, in this sense, is asserting his independence, that this world and its powers ultimately cannot determine his fate, reminiscent of his words in John 10: ‘No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again’ (v18). Jesus is essentially saying that if this conflict were happening in his kingdom, then indeed his followers would fight, but since it was happening in this other kingdom, a kingdom that cannot keep hold of him, his followers do not get involved” (Lose).
This seems to be a pretty standard interpretation of what Jesus is saying, but I’m not sure we have completely thought through the implications this present. If we argue that Jesus’ kingdom is separate from this world, then we encounter a number of theological problems, not the least of which is resistance to God’s mandate to care for creation, the command to love and care for one another, and our commitment to see God’s kingdom imagined here on earth. If we are simply “waiting out” the world, what point is there in struggling for this world?
David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, shared some thoughts on his blog about how he was suggested to a new understanding of what Jesus is saying here, and I believe his words can help us to see anew ourselves. Lose writes that a colleague of his suggested he had been misreading this text. She offered instead that, “What Jesus might be saying… is that were he and his followers of this world, then naturally they would use the primary tool this world provides for establishing and keeping power: violence. But Jesus is not of this world and so Jesus will not defend himself through violence. Jesus will not establish his claims by violence. Jesus will not usher in God’s kingdom by violence. Jesus will make no followers by violence” (Lose).
He continues: “Rather, Jesus has come to witness to the truth, the truth that God is love (John 3:16), and that because we have not seen God and have such a hard time imagining God (John 1:18), all too often our imaginations are dominated by our experience. So rather than imagining that God is love, we imagine God to be violent because we live in a world of violence. Rather than recognize the cross as a symbol of sacrificial love, we assume it’s the legal mechanism of punishing Jesus in our stead because we have way too much experience with punitive relationships. Rather than believe that God’s grace and acceptance are absolutely unconditional, we assume God offers love, power, and status only on the condition that we fear, obey, and praise God- and despise those who don’t- because so much of our life is quid pro quo” (Lose). But because Jesus is not of this world, we are not called to “fight for him because to bring the kingdom about by violence is to violate the very principals of this kingdom and cause its destruction” (Lose).
This past week we have seen a “typical” response to acts of terror and violence. France has responded to the horrific attacks in Paris by dropping more bombs on ISIS controlled areas of Syria. In Nigeria and Mali, similar attacks have claimed even more lives, and our response is to increase military pressure through force.
In the days after 9/11, when then-President Bush declared war on terrorism (an ambiguous statement that I’m not sure still anyone clearly understands), and we invaded Afghanistan, I remember thinking, ‘Have we learned nothing from the 20th century?’ According to The Guardian, “The 20th century was the most murderous in recorded history. The total number of deaths caused by or associated with its wars has been estimated at 187 [million], the equivalent of more than 10% of the world’s population in 1913” (The Guardian).
Yet we continue to respond to violence and bloodshed with more violence and more bloodshed.
Does this mean that we are called to be pacifists? “Some traditions- particularly Mennonite, Quaker, and Church of the Brethren believers- have given vivid testimony to the power of Christian non-violence. These courageous and counter-cultural witnesses have at times shaken the powers that be and cannot and should not be quickly discarded” (Lose).
I think it probably comes as no surprise to you that I am in my heart a pacifist though I admit, in the face of such appalling violence as is perpetuated by ISIS and Boko Haram, I lamentingly admit that “the perpetrators of [this type of] violence… everywhere should be opposed vigorously, fought tirelessly, and brought to justice whenever possible so that there is less such violence in the world” (Lose).
At the same time, I recognize that by responding in violence, we are confirming the warped world-view of these radical fundamentalists, that we only are interested in their blood. Are war and violence ever necessary? Perhaps… but it should never be entered into lightly, or without recognizing that even as “necessary” as it might be, it is still a failure.
Martin Luther King, Jr. may have summed up best Jesus’ message from our text this morning in “Where Do we Go From Here?” These words may sound familiar; really, I believe they are gospel truth.
He writes, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
I believe this is what Jesus’ message is to us this morning. In response to Pilate’s overwhelming, terror-laden power, “Jesus empowers others and uses his authority to wash the feet of those he leads. He spends his life on them, every last ounce of it; he gives his life to bring life… Jesus’ rule brings peace, even in the midst of terror… Jesus’ followers put away the sword in order to invite and unify people, as Jesus does when he says, ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’ (12:32)… Jesus’ authority originates from doing the will of God, and is eternal” (Clark-Soles).
In the 20th century, Karl Barth, one of my favorite theologians, reimagined the three offices Calvin developed in his Doctrine. He “imaginatively [wove] them together with the classical doctrines of the two natures (divinity and humanity) of the one person of Christ and his two states (humiliation and exaltation)” (Migliore, p. 187). Three themes emerged for Barth: “The Lord as servant; The Servant as Lord; The True Witness” (ibid.). God through Christ acts as our priest to redeem us, as prophet to witness to us, and as king to be exalted BY us, all of which serve to liberate us from our depraved state of sin (ibid.).
This morning we focus on the Kingship of Christ, his rule that will never end; yet at the same time, we recognize that all three of these offices are at work at the same time. And in them, we are acted upon, but we are also moved to action. What is our response? What will we do? Amen.
Clark-Soles, Jamie. “Commentary on John 18:33-37.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 25 Nov. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2015 <http://www.workingpreacher .org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1490>.
Lose, David. “Christ the King B: Not of This World.” …in the Meantime. N.p., 16 Nov. 2015. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <http://www.davidlose.net/2015/11/christ- the-king-b-not-of-this-world/#comment-169479>.
Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991. Print.