During the summer of 2004, I had the privilege, as I think did some others in this sanctuary, of attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona. After that conference ended, I took a little day trip; I took the train about an hour or so to the city of Tarragona. I had read in a guide book that it had a beautiful, ancient, original section. I had a wonderful day there – walking, exploring, eating. The old section of town had narrow, cobbled streets whose buildings seemed to lean towards one another across the road, second story to second story. There was a charming plaza with a gurgling fountain. There was a very old cathedral; it had a cloister with a newer plaque that bore the names of the many, many priests who had been murdered by the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. The city had a gorgeous amphitheatre, several thousand years old, overlooking the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The view was exquisite. My guidebook had also mentioned that Tarragona was the birthplace of Pontius Pilate; he was from a far-flung outpost of the Roman Empire, not from Rome itself or even the Middle East. (This is contested by some scholars.) I stood in that amphitheatre and wondered if Pilate himself had ever been a spectator there of sporting or civic events, hopefully not bloody ones. (As luck would have it, I later learned that the amphitheatre had been built 200 years after Pilate grew up there, but it was a compelling thing to imagine at the time.) I wondered if Pilate left his hometown carrying any warm memories of it in his heart – if this lovely city kept a hold on him somehow. Tarragona is very beautiful. Pilate was not.
The four gospels portray him, at best, as a poor schmo stuck with making a decision about whether or not to have Jesus of Nazareth put to death. Not a task he deserved – he was stuck in another community’s imbroglio, invited by the most powerful faction in that group (the chief priests) to decide in their favor under the guise of neutrality. Being made to arbitrate in another group’s fight is only a lose-lose for anyone. Less flattering is Pilate’s depiction in Mark’s gospel as someone who would just as soon release Barabbas, if that’s what the crowd wanted, rather than the innocent Jesus. (How many politicians since have voted or made policies to please the crowd and keep themselves in office rather than follow their conscience or sense of justice?) Eventually, the tradition of the church was to teach that Pilate and his wife later converted to Christianity, and Pilate’s wife is a saint in the Eastern Orthodox communions.
Ancient sources also tell us that Pilate was a firm and authoritarian ruler. Jews and Samaritans rioted in response to the profound insult of Pilate’s covering Jerusalem both with his troops and with symbols of the emperor. It was a direct challenge to Jewish law and privilege. After he attacked Samaritans on Mt. Gerizim (their holy mountain), Pilate was required to return to Rome – to headquarters – to be tried for cruelty and oppression. In particular, he was charged with executing people without a real trial. (How many rulers have done that since?) A later source says that the Emperor Caligula, no angel himself, in the year 39 ordered Pilate to take his own life. [“Pontius Pilate”, Encyclopedia Britannica, 2009 online, www.britannica.com]
Today is the day in the Christian year called “Christ the King” Sunday, or “Reign of Christ” Sunday. It’s the final Sunday of the Christian calendar – next week we begin a new year all over again with the beginning of Advent, and our anticipation of the birth of Christ. On this, the final Sunday of the year, we culminate all our services and reflections and cycles of biblical texts from the last 12 months with the proclamation of our hope and of our faith: Christ is King! In the last twelve months, we have been through, together, the anticipation and birth of Christ, the murder of innocent children, his family’s flight, his baptism, his transfiguration, his temptation, his teachings and ministry, his trial, crucifixion and resurrection, the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and after all of this we do proclaim: Christ is King! We’ve been through plenty of other things, too, haven’t we? Individually and together – births and baptisms, hard financial times, painful losses, illnesses, new adventures, great opportunities, hard questions, the deaths of dear ones – all the things that come to the members of a community’s life in the course of a year. And after all of this we do proclaim: Christ is King!
Our texts for today provide us with a fine chance to consider what is true kingship, and ruling in righteousness. Pilate, as we’ve seen, is not a great role model. His reign was built on occupation and domination, violence, fear and utter lack of interest in justice for his subjects. What little historians have to go on suggests that he sought power for its own sake, walked over people to get it, and still wasn’t very successful as a governor. He is remembered today because he happened to be the guy representing Rome in occupied Jerusalem when a certain man from Galilee got processed for execution. As many biblical scholars have noted, if Pilate comes across as somewhat blameless in the death of Jesus it may be because the gospels were written while Rome was still in charge of the Middle East and it was in no one’s best interest to incur more of their wrath. Just look what happened to Christ…
Our other text appointed for Christ the King Sunday is about the kingship of David, the shepherd whose courage and virtue lead him from all humility to the role of Israel’s monarch at its peak. Our verses are supposedly the very last words spoken by David himself. They announce that David’s rule had the support of God, as will the kingship of his descendants (there’s a political message here: don’t mess with our dynasty!). The verses continue, “One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of the morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the grassy land.” This is wonderful imagery (and a terrific sounding rule), but it exercises a bit of selective memory. Are David and his house truly like the sun rising on a cloudless morning? The House of David, “built on the bodies of Saul and Jonathan? David’s house, where Amnon raped Tamar (with no small assistance from David himself)? David’s house, where Absalom killed Amnon and raised an army against his father? David’s house, where the royal line will proceed through the child of Bathsheba, a woman whom David “took” both before and after killing her husband [Uriah]? David’s house, under which the people have suffered civil war already and under which they will come to suffer conquest? David may be the beloved of God, but is his house really like the sun?” [Ted Smith] The Bible is clear that David is God’s agent of destiny for Israel, and that God loves him, but also that God judges him.
There is a third ruler in our texts for today, and that is Jesus. Poor Pilate asks him a straightforward question – a political question – “Are you king?” Jesus gives him a theological answer: “Not of this world.” His answer is honest, accurate, and complete, and is no help to Pilate at all. On the one hand, Jesus is not at all ruler of this world, is he? Look at it – 20,000 children die each day around the world because of hunger-related causes. Innocent people are blown up at their market or at prayer. In wealthy countries, some people die sooner than they need to because they don’t have the money to keep themselves well. Governments sponsor torture, executions; they relegate whole sections of their population to second class status with references to “natural” inferiority, weakness, criminal propensities, and, worst of all, the will of God. No, Christ is not king of this world.
And yet we must not think of Christ as king of a world to come. I think that lets us off the hook. It means that the salvation of all people, for which Jesus testified and then died with Pilate’s go-ahead, is “out there”, pie-in-the-sky, and not a reality for which we are to strive every day on behalf of every person. Salvation – spiritual, physical, emotional, mental – this is our calling no matter who is king, someone who reigns in terror or who is like the rising sun. Christ is not ruler of the temporal world, the governments around us, but he is king of a world that is simultaneous with Pilate’s. Jesus tells Pilate that, and that the cornerstone of his own kingdom is truth. We are to live in Christ’s reign of truth now, while we labor daily in the realm of Pilate. Christ had said that if we know the truth we can be set free. We can become free. He told us that he is the way, the truth, and the life. He calls us not to some kind of divided, split, dualistic way of living. He calls us to an integrated way of living, one in which earth becomes “as it is in Heaven.” We testify to the truth with all our might while we live, move, and have our being in the reign of Pilate. We knit together the truth we know with whatever confronts us day to day. Christ is King because God made him so, but we also make him king, wherever we find ourselves, when we testify to his truth right then and there – the truth of God’s love, mercy, justice, and plan for salvation for all the world. Jesus tells Pilate, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Whatever Pilate’s world presents – dehumanization, discrimination, the use of human lives for personal advancement, killings, complete disregard of human dignity – in any situation we testify, as did Christ, to the truth – God made and loves this world, and so God gave us Christ as King – to lead us all to a new realm in the here and now. No matter what the world around us looks like; no matter what becomes or befalls us, Christ is King, and thanks be to God!
“Pontius Pilate,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2009 online, www.britanica.com – Nov. 19, 2009.
Ted A. Smith, “II Samuel 23: 1-7”, www.workingpreacher.com, Nov 22, 2009.
Paul S. Berge, “John 18: 33-37”, www.workingpreacher.com, Nov 22, 2009.