The Sunday before Advent is traditionally the Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday for churches that follow the liturgical calendar. King is a title I think Jesus would refuse. Pilate’s exchange with Jesus is a perfect illustration of Jesus being indifferent to this title.
John’s Gospel is an epic love poem about Jesus. John is a mystic at the limit of his language trying to explain what Jesus means to not only the world, but the entire cosmos. Here at the end, Jesus meets Pontius Pilate during his trial. Up until this point, Jesus’ only antagonists have been “the Jews.” An unfortunate broad-brush label that caused a lot of antisemitism in the church. Pilate’s introduction here at the end is significant.
Pilate’s decision here could free Jesus. What Pilate says goes. Pilate is the governor and not Jewish. The Anchor Bible says that Pilate’s responsibilities would include being the head of the judicial system, collecting tributes and taxes, and commanding the city troops.
Ancient Roman Historian Josephus states that Pilate has “full power” which would include power to execute. That also means the power to pardon. Pilate meets Jesus and asks all the wrong questions. Doesn’t listen. Pretty much writes Jesus off, without ever bothering to listen to him. The scene ends with Jesus saying, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Pilate asks, “What is truth?”
I feel like Pilate reverted to acting like an stubborn teenager. He doesn’t want to listen or learn. He has the power not to. He shrugs his shoulders and sends Jesus to his death.
It’s not just the religious people who don’t know what to do with Jesus. It’s also Pilate. Pilate who represents “the world” and “empire.” Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Pilate doesn’t understand. “So you are a king then.”
“That’s your word for it.”
What does Jesus mean with all this?
I think if we compare and contrast the ways of empire with the ways of Jesus, we can see what John is trying to tell us.
Empire is about accumulation. Jesus is about giving it all away.
Empire is about division, separation, and hierarchy. Jesus is about inclusion, welcome, and equality.
Empire will kill for its belief. Jesus will die for his.
Empire says power is about control of others. Jesus says there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Empire is about domination. Jesus is about liberation.
Empire is about violence. Jesus is the prince of peace.
Empire is about accumulation of wealth, power, and privilege. Jesus is about giving all of that away in service to our neighbor. And who is our neighbor? Every. Body.
No wonder Pilate doesn’t understand Jesus. Jesus doesn’t fit into any of his categories.
“Are you the king of the Jews?” From that first question, Jesus knows that Pilate isn’t interested in anything Jesus has to say.
“Is that your own idea or did you get that from others?” Jesus asks. Jesus knows Pilate has only talked to the Temple authorities and will ultimately side with them as it’s politically advantageous.
But Pilate deflects. “Am I a Jew? It’s your own people that handed you over. What have you done?”
This is the Pastor Luke translation of what Jesus says back: “Yeah, I’m not operating by your rules or theirs. I’m ultimately unconcerned with the temple or your empire. I’m about something else and that’s where I rule.”
But Pilate can only see what he wants to see and hear what he wants to hear. “Oh, so you are a king then!”
Jesus states, “Those are your words. I’m about a bigger truth and everyone who is about truth gets what I’m trying to do.”
Pilate then says, “What is truth?”
I think Pilate asks that in the most cynical of ways. If Jesus were to tell him what truth was, he would poke holes in the logic. He’s not interested in learning. But what is truth? For the Process Theologians, they say that truth is inherently relational. We only know things as they relate to other things. We know who we are in relation with our family and friends. That’s how we understand who we are.
Even in the hard sciences like math and physics, we know 1 and 1 make 2. It’s objective, yet it’s also a relationship.
Here is truth incarnate standing in front of Pilate who has no interest in a relationship. His relationship is with his title and position. Sin, for Process Theologians, is a denial or rejection of relationship. Or when a relationship is one-sided. If I only like you for what I get from you, that’s not a relationship.
Pilate only cares about relationship that furthers his power. That’s not relationship, that’s extraction.
Over the years, I think the big C, institution of Church has morphed into the image of Pilate. The institution only seems to care about how much is in the rainy day fund, and not how much they can give away to better the community.
When I was interviewing at churches in 2016, I made sure to ask two questions. The first question is, “If your church closed tomorrow, who would notice?”
One church replied, “Our members would be sad.”
Another church replied, “That wouldn’t happen because we have a lot of money in the bank.”
The church I ended up going to replied this way: “The food bank would miss us. We have a whole list of people we help with rent, utilities, and food, they would miss us. We host a lot of recovery groups. They would miss us. Our Elementary school two blocks away we help with would miss us. We build homes in Costa Rica, they would miss us.”
That sounds more like the way of Jesus. Truth is relational. The type of King Jesus is, is like the anti-king. It’s about what you give away that matters, not what you can accumulate. That church was in relationship with the community. That church knew that we don’t exist for ourselves or our power or our position in the community. We exist to spread love in the world. Love looks like feeding people. Love looks like helping folks. Love looks like recovery. Love looks like people gathering and sharing their stories. Not just any story, but that bone deep level of sharing.
The next question I asked to get at that level of sharing was, “When was the last time you cried in church?”
One church looked baffled. Another, there was a long stretch of silence and then asked, “Funerals?” Like they were looking for the right answer. The church I ended up going to there was a brief moment of silence… and then people offered stories for 30 minutes about the last time they cried. And as they told these stories, they cried again as did people in the room.
If you want to get a job, cry at your interview and bring everyone with you.
That church was this church. That question showed that you like each other. That you trust one another enough to show emotion. That you trust that others can handle and hold you when you’re feeling a strong emotion.
What is truth? Truth is relational. It’s crying in church. Or laughing. Or lingering after a service just because you want to. You might not have anything left to say. You might have to be somewhere else. But after the week you’ve been through or the week you’re facing, you need to wring all the holiness and love you can. This time and place is where you see people you love. People you love but can’t tell them that cause that’d be too forward and make things awkward, so we say things like, “Hey neighbor! Peace be with you.” Or “How are you today?” Or “God be with you until we meet again.”
Pilate’s encounter with Jesus is telling. Pilate loves and benefits from how his world is set up. Jesus is in complete contradiction to his values. “You’re a king, right?”
“Yes, but not in the way you’re thinking.”
Pilate reveals who he is and what he’s about. We make Pilate our king when we don’t want to learn. When we resist relationship with others because of the label someone else put on someone. We make Pilate our king when we scoff and cynically ask, “What is truth?”
We make Jesus our king when we do the opposite.
The last time I cried in church was last Sunday. We made over 1,230 period packs for 11 area schools. There is a stigma around menstruation. Something in our society says that we don’t talk about this monthly truth that happens to women. That’s a denial of relationship. That is sinful. Our church gathered and packed supplies to say “We see you. We care. We love you.”
I don’t know what it’s like to have a period. Middle school for me was brutal. I can’t imagine adding menstruation on top of that. I’m proud we helped. I’m proud how you all responded and how the community gave.
My heart sang when Ellen Nolan called out in the first 30 minutes of packing, “Okay group! We’re at my original goal of 250!”
My heart soars when I see a log jam of people trying to sign up to bring food for our Garfield folk. My heart soars as our mission team plans projects to get involved with. My heart soars when our Circle of Caring tries to figure out rides for folks who need it. This is the work of Christ. Being in relationship. Not when it’s ideal. Not when it benefits us. But when things are hard and messy. Because truth is relationship.
The truth is giving your love away. The truth is, that’s the only way we see God. When two or three are gathered, Jesus is in our midst. May you have the senses to perceive. May you be open to the divine in the other. May you set aside your agenda and categories and risk seeing God within and around you. Amen.
 The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 5. Pages 395-307.