Sermon from Sunday 21 November

A sermon about a conversation.


Reading(s): Revelation 1.4b-8, John 18.33-37. This sermon was given by Richard Brand at All Saints, North Baddesley.

A number of years ago I was fortunate enough to have a holiday of a lifetime to Kenya. Out in the Masai Mara the animal and bird life was extraordinary, we saw three of the big 5 – as they are known – on the drive between the small airfield and where we were staying. Each was mightily impressive and everyone will have their favourites, but in terms of majesty, it was clear who is the ‘king of the beasts’. Seeing lions in the wild, it’s not surprising to know they’re given this title. They roam the land fearing none other, whilst other animals keep their distance. By fear and power they are king.

The world of nature is reflected in much of our human polity; our societal organization as well. Through the ages, those who have been king have held their rule by power and often fear; through strength and political wisdom or cunning.

In today’s gospel Pilate – who as the Emperor’s representative, knows he’s the nearest thing to a king in Israel – rules supreme; though has to employ political cunning and wisdom in dealing with the Chief Priests and Pharisees so that he can use them to keep peace with the people. In front of him stands Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus has caused some unrest, he has unsettled the careful balance of power, so has been arrested, without too much effort, but there’s something about his influence and disruptiveness of Pilate’s peace, that needs addressing and sorting. ‘Pilate asked Jesus “Are you the King of the Jews?"’

The wording has an emphasis on ‘you’, perhaps said in disbelief: ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ ‘You?’ There’s nothing regal about Jesus in Pilate’s eyes. Is this the best the Jews can do to challenge Rome’s power? But Pilate is lead, by Jesus, into a different conversation; a conversation that begins to take Pilate out of his comfort zone of political power and strength. Jesus speaks of a kingdom beyond this world, of values and things mattering beyond the realm of political and earthly power. ‘For this I was born’ he says, ‘and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.’ Rather annoyingly, the passage for today ends one verse short. v38 is that famous line, ‘Pilate asked him “What is truth?"'

The theologian Richard Bauckham points out that this isn’t a question Pilate expects or waits for an answer to; it’s his way of ending a conversation of which he’s losing control and with which he’s feeling increasingly uncomfortable. Bauckham comments in relation to Pilate’s nonquestion, ‘What is truth?’

Its tone is dismissive. The pragmatic politician thus prepares the way for his cynical surrender to the death of a man he knows to be innocent.

What is it about Jesus? What is it in what Jesus stood for, represents and offers, that makes Pilate, and so many since and still, choose to dismiss, evade and avoid, rather than face? What is truth?

Today is the last Sunday in the Church’s year. As we approach Advent and prepare ourselves for Christmas, the incarnation of God, so we’re reminded of God’s love and deep care for the world, for the earth, for us. The feast day of Christ the King reminds us that whilst holding onto this truth, we also need to hold onto the truth that God’s kingdom is not of this world. One way we understand this is to remember that God’s ways are not always our ways, and God’s will is not our will. That the values by which God calls us to live, the truths about human beings and being human, truths we still need to learn, will not all come from earthly sources. Power is not only seen in the ways the lion reigns, or the kings of this world.

Former Archbishop William Temple described the kingship of God in Christ, his authority to rule, in these words:

Its actuality is in the willing obedience of those whose love has been called out in response to the manifested love of God.

That is to say: the reality and experience of God’s reign is in our willing, freely chosen obedience which we give in response to the love of God we’ve seen and discovered and known in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps particularly in this day and age, obedience and love don’t seem to have much to do with each other; this may be because of what has happened to the word ‘obey’ over the years.

The origins of the word carried the idea of paying attention to the needs of someone else; listening well and responding well to another’s needs. In this sense, ‘obey’ does not need to mean do what someone says, instead, it should be a mutual response and respect in love. When we love someone, we should be paying them attention, noticing how they are, carefully listening to what they say and valuing them and all they offer. This is part of expressing love and part of what obedience – attending, listening to the needs of another – can mean.

Back then to keeping the feast of Christ the King. Perhaps we struggle with the trapping we associate with kingship in power and privilege and wealth. But there are two aspects to Jesus’ power and both have to do with the truth of God and how God’s love works:

The first is the power from God. Jesus sits at the right hand of God in glory. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus Christ is part of the holy Trinity, the very life and being of God; Jesus is the power of God.

The second is the power from us. Unlike earthly rulers this power is neither forced out of us nor forcible. As the Johannine Jesus makes clear ‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.’ (10.27) The sheep obey.

And as today’s gospel ends: ‘Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ We are called to obey.

As Temple said of Jesus' kingdom,

Its actuality is in the willing obedience of those whose love has been called out in response to the manifested love of God.

We may think that we stand with Jesus as he has his conversation with Pilate; but is that really true? When we look at our lives, are we perhaps more often standing alongside Pilate? When we look at our lives – who rules?

You may know the question, ‘If you were accused of being a Christian; would there be enough evidence to convict you?’ What does the evidence say?

As we consider responses to the refugee crisis. As we hear of famines in Afghanistan. As we consider the threats of climate change to the lives of so many. In our lives and decision making, who rules? Whose voice do we obey? What does the evidence say? Are we governed by politics, protection, self-interest and fear?

As we choose our next car; make our weekly shop; decide on our next holiday. What does the truth of Christ the King say to our lives? What difference does it make? Pilate dismisses Jesus to his death; he hangs on a cross with the words, ‘The king of the Jews’ over him. The question from the book of Lamentations remains: ‘Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?

The early Christians, following the death and resurrection of Jesus, grasped something of this new kingship. Of the king who came to serve, not be served; who gave his life that we may live. St Paul tells us that these early Christians chose just three words for their early creed: ‘Jesus is Lord’. ‘Lord’, a word previously restricted to only be used of God himself, now seen as the right title of Jesus. Jesus, who they now recognized as the one who has God’s authority and should rule their lives.

But they also called him King. It is Jesus' kingdom they now lived for. Jesus' truth they now lived by. Jesus' love that now shaped their lives.

‘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.'

So be it. Amen.