And after all of it, Pilate turned and asked him, “What is truth?”
The conversation began as an encounter of the legal system. It’s Friday morning of Holy Week, and the religious leaders bring Jesus to Pilate, the Roman prefect, the governor. He pulls Jesus into his office. Now alone, he asks: Are you the King of the Jews? They go back and forth, but at the core of Pilate’s inquiry is a political question: Are you a threat? Jesus turns it back on him – Not in the ways you are thinking, I hear him say. My rules are not your rules. My kingdom is not from here.
Jesus is trying to help Pilate understand something important about who he is, and how the rules he plays by are fundamentally different from the rules of the world. But Pilate is still the inquisitor. So you are a king? No, no, Jesus says. "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." "What is truth?" an exasperated Pilate wonders. Yet his question echoes, through time, to us. What is true? What is real? In all of this – as wars rage, as families go hungry – as we all, in our own way, encounter suffering and addiction and pain, we wonder. What matters? Who is in charge? Is anybody?
Because questions about truth are questions about power. If you believe something is true then that truth claims you. You do what that truth leads you to do. That is at the heart of the matter on this Christ the King Sunday, the final day in the church year. Next week Advent begins with familiar stories of Mary and Joseph and angels and shepherds and a baby that changed everything. But before we remember who Jesus was when He started, we end with a celebration of who He is now. Christ the King Sunday began in 1925. The Pope – Pius XI – sent out an encyclical (a letter with binding authority for the church) instituting the feast of Christ the King, first for Catholics, then adopted broadly along with the Revised Common Lectionary. Back in 1925, and this is amazing to think about, the pope was concerned about the secularization of society. The pope was seeing shifts in the church’s role, and was concerned that the world wasn’t paying attention. Dynamic dictators rose to power.1 Pius XI wanted people to remember who was really in charge, the truth for all the world that we know in Jesus.
This Sunday asks us that question: Who is in charge? To whom do we give power? What does that say about what we believe truth is? In one sense this is deeply personal. Not personal as in ‘no one else’s business,’ but personal as in something that hits at the core of who we are. What reveals our priorities more than our checkbook? What shows what matters to us as much as an accounting of our time? But it’s deeper. If we believe that Christ is Lord of all, then no area of our life is safe. The way you treat your family is an act of discipleship; so is how you engage coworkers. In the store. In traffic. The values you teach your kids is at the very heart of your faith and shows them what you believe is true – or better yet, WHO you believe IS TRUTH, is truth made flesh and walking around, teaching us something of compassion and justice, of kindness and grace, even when we are worn. When the health concerns of someone we love loom large. When we are stressed about all the holiday details that must be tended to. Or, even more so, as we plan for a space at the table that will be empty because she has died. Or the relationship has ended. Or he has taken another drink.
But if we believe that Christ is King, then it also has something to say about the world. The world feels particularly scary right now. Unpredictable violence, deep grief. It is so unbelievably sad. But it also it saddens me that the response to the horrible violence done by ISIS in Beirut, Baghdad, and of course, Paris – Mali, too, though it seems like the source is a bit different – is the same as it always is. First the shock, stunned silence. Then we join in acts of solidarity and compassion and prayer. Then, so quickly, the same response to violence: more violence, more bombs, more troops.
We also turn and look to blame. ISIS’ ideology finds its roots in radical fundamentalism Islam, to be sure. But those ideas are far from the religion of peace that most people of the world recognize, that most of our Muslim brothers and sisters recognize. And we are churning through this week the instinct to seal the borders up, to shut out any refugees from Syria, millions of people fleeing that same terror, thrust from their homes, villages overrun, some with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, holding their children’s hands as they walk, praying to end up somewhere safe. Towards the end of the week I started to see some leaders trying to think about how we can be safe together, but earlier in the week all I saw was the scape-goating, knee jerk responses to fear, shutting the door on all "those people" who aren’t from here. Terror is so insidious. But I do not believe that safety and compassion are mutually exclusive things.
My kingdom, Jesus says, IS NOT FROM HERE. His kingdom doesn’t play by the world’s rules of vengeance and fear. We are a better people as Americans than that, and we are called to be better people as Christians. I think how we live with difference, with the ‘other’, may be the defining issue of our time, with the world getting smaller and flatter and more connected. One thing Jesus did as much as anything was welcome those others tried to leave out or push out, drawing the circle of God’s love even wider. From fishermen casting their nets to the woman at the well, to lepers and sinners, widows and orphans and aliens, tax collectors and outcasts, those whom "respectable" society, even the religious leaders of the day left out. To the Samaritan lying on the road; to the thieves on either side as he hung on a cross. IF we are to claim that Christ is Lord, then we are to seek to follow him and call others to follow, no matter what the world seems to say. So much is so scary. There are real threats from very scary people seeking to do evil things – to hurt, maim, kill. But we cannot live in fear. We cannot let fear win.
This week we’ll gather around tables and pause, for hopefully more than a moment, to give thanks. With so much scary in the world, it is an absolutely perfect time to breathe deeply and give thanks to God for the gift of the day, for people we love, for meaningful work. I am particularly grateful for you all, for the gift of community, for people to hunker down and hold hands and walk with through life’s journey. To serve others, to read and pray, to try and figure out what all this means, and how to follow Jesus in the midst of it.
We don’t know how Pilate finally answered that question, "what is truth?" But it is Jesus who pushed him to decide who was in charge of his life. And He asks us, in a world of competing demands and economic anxiety and too many reasons to be afraid: Whom will you serve? It is a terrifying question. Yet he calls us to follow, for Christ is King, Lord of all.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. History comes from www.churchyear.net/ctksunday.html