True Power: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Reign of Christ the King Sunday
Reign of Christ the King Sunday (Year B): John 18:33-37
1) This week is Christ the King (or Reign of Christ) Sunday, which concludes “Year B” of the Revised Common Lectionary. Next week, “Year C” begins with the Advent season and the first step of a year-long pilgrimage through the Gospel of Luke.
2) This is one of the rare times in the year when Christianity’s two major feasts - Easter and Christmas, Cross and Incarnation - come into close connection. The one brought before Pilate in Jerusalem is the same one born in a forgotten, backwater stable. The one hailed by angels, shepherds, and philosophers from afar is the same one eventually betrayed, abandoned, and left to die in shame. “Silent Night” and “What Wondrous Cross is This?” overlap and interweave, together creating another kind of song entirely.
3) And this juxtaposition, this creative tension, is precisely the point. To paraphrase the great womanist theologian Delores Williams, the “kingship” of Christ can only be understood through this dissonance and harmony: “King of Kings!” on the one hand, as if sung by a resplendent choir; and “poor little Mary’s boy” on the other, as if whispered by an elderly woman standing alone. These two songs, Williams contends, sung back and forth in call and response, is “the Black church doing theology.” Each song needs the other for the truth to shine through.
4) In the Rylands Library in Manchester, England, there’s an elaborate, temperature-controlled glass display case, and within that case, a smaller glass pane presenting a scrap of papyrus about the size of a business card. Known as Rylands Library Papyrus P52, this fragment is generally accepted as the oldest surviving piece of New Testament scripture (most scholars date it to the early or mid-second century). Its text? A few, broken lines from this week’s reading from the Gospel of John. Think of it! Of all the passages possible, the oldest fragment of the Gospels we have is the famous exchange between Jesus and Pilate about “the truth” - with Pilate’s notorious question, “What is truth?”, just missing making it onto the fragment.
1) A detachment of soldiers, police, and religious leaders have arrested Jesus and taken him to Caiaphas, the high priest, and now they take him to Pilate’s headquarters for questioning, in the hope that Pilate will sentence him to death. The precise charge is unclear, but Pilate’s first question - “Are you the King of the Jews?” - may indicate that Jesus’ opponents presented him to Pilate as a self-proclaimed “king” and therefore as a rabble-rouser (see John 11:47-48 for the fear that Jesus might stir a Jewish popular movement that the Romans would forcibly suppress). But it’s also possible that at this point in the story, Pilate is asking this question for his own reasons, perhaps having heard about the “King of the Jews” title not from Jesus’ opponents but from the popular rumor mill (see John 6:14-15 for the crowds’ intense desire to make Jesus their king). For after all, Pilate - both in John’s narrative and in the historical record - is a cruel tyrant, and he may see in the pathetic peasant brought before him an opportunity to mock and intimidate Jews by executing a man some are calling the Jewish king. And so he asks: They’re calling you their king - is that so?
2) Pilate is sometimes read as a relatively reasonable, ambivalent figure, only reluctantly acquiescing to the demands of others, finding no charge against Jesus, “washing his hands,” etc. But several details in John’s version of the story suggests otherwise. For example, if Pilate is so reasonable, why does he immediately have Jesus dressed (or allow him to be dressed) and publicly presented in a purple robe and crown of thorns, a barbaric, sarcastic sneer at the “kingship” claim (John 19:1-5)? And likewise, why does he insist on the inscription on the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19)? It’s possible Pilate has somehow intuited the truth; but it’s more likely, and more consistent with what we know of Pilate, to read the inscription as a way of mocking not just Jesus but all those who placed any hope in him, and indeed all those who hoped for any other Jewish royalty in the future. In short, in Jesus Pilate sees an opportunity to humiliate his Jewish subjects, forcing them to crucify not only this alleged king, but also the very idea of Jewish kingship in imperial Rome. The inscription effectively says: Behold - this is what happens to your “kings!” Thus Pilate mocks and terrorizes his subjects, pushing them - by their own logic - to declare, “We have no king but the emperor!” (John 19:15).
3) It’s true that Pilate does lapse into “fear” at one point in the narrative, and half-heartedly tries to release Jesus - but exactly what he’s afraid of isn’t clear. Is it a pang of conscience? Perhaps - but it could just as easily be self-serving anxiety about upsetting a foreign god or the unruly, capricious crowds (John 19:8-12).
4) And so Jesus’ counterpart in this week’s passage is less a reasonable, ambivalent ruler and more a cruel, contemptuous bully - and Jesus will have none of it. He sidesteps Pilate’s opening question, and throughout the exchange declines to claim the title of “king.” Jesus does refer to “my kingdom” (in John, the only other such “kingdom” reference is at the story’s outset, in Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus (John 3:3-5)) - but when Pilate seizes on this phrase (Ah! So you are a king!), Jesus explicitly rejects the title. You say I’m a king; those aren’t my words. On the contrary, I am a witness, born to testify to the truth (John 18:37). At this Pilate scoffs, contempt dripping from his lips: What is “truth”? (John 18:38).
1) On the eve of the Advent and Christmas, the season of waiting and anticipating the coming Child of God who arrives in the most humble, vulnerable circumstances (“poor little Mary’s boy”), this week we draw the creative tension tight: the humble baby in the manger, the one with a soft spot on his head and Mary’s milk on his breath - is none other than the Almighty God (“King of Kings!”).
2) And yet this kingship is something new. Far from the model of the contemptuous tyrant, Pilate, Jesus’ kingdom is “not from this world.” As we’ve seen this year throughout the Gospel of Mark, this is a “kingdom” of servanthood and neighborhood, of serving all and loving our neighbors as ourselves. And as we see in this week’s passage, what Jesus has in mind - in sharp contrast to Pilate - is a “kingdom” without a king, not an empire but rather a community of witnesses, testifying with words and deeds to the truth of God’s love.
3) Is Christ the King? In a sense, yes, insofar as no earthly royalty, no earthly power surpasses the God of love, justice, and grace. From this angle, the God of love is the ultimate sovereign, “the King of kings.” But at the same time, in another sense, no, insofar as Jesus clearly declines to take up the royal scepter - both in this crucial passage and at the outset of John’s Gospel, when the crowds want to take Jesus by force and make him king (John 6:14-15).
4) Jesus has in mind a very different form of power: not the brute, top-down power of a tyrant, the power of Pilate, but instead the true, bottom-up power of love and grace, the power of God. What is true power? The power that takes the form not of a supreme monarch but of a humble servant, a witness to the truth. The power that, faced with the world’s cruelty and contempt, takes the form of the cross - and beyond the cross, the empty tomb, the risen Savior, the comforting Spirit, and a community of witnesses and service, the church. In other words, the power that takes the very idea of monarchy and turns it inside out. It’s this power - true power - that Jesus comes to embody and declare. What is truth? Pilate asks. The answer, John insists, is standing right in front of him.