Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, but the Sunday when we ask one of the most important and culminating questions of the Faith – Who is your king?
Pilate had a tough job. He was supposed to be the governor of Rome’s occupation of Judea, but most of the time nobody knew who was really in charge there. Was it the wealthy and influential high priest? Herod the king? Popular prophets like John the Baptist? The religious leaders were highly organized with their own powerful council, called the Sanhedrin, who did pretty much what it wanted. And the land was plagued by extremist groups like the Zealots, who were always trying to stir up the people. Pilate’s job was to keep the lid on all this agitation, and all these competing claims for influence and power.
Maybe you know what Pilate felt like. In your life, aren’t there also quite a few competing claims for influence and power? Your workplace has some influence in your life, and it would sure love more. So would your spouse, and your kids, and your friends, and your church, and the soccer team you coach, and the aging parents who are going to need a lot more attention in the future. It’s as if you’ve got a Judean heart, filled with powerful forces that all compete for your affections. Some days it seems like there is a bad committee meeting going on in that heart. Any time you get a little spare time, everyone holds up a hand and says, “Me. Me. Pick Me!” Like Pilate, you do the best you can to negotiate your time among them all, trying to keep the peace. But trying to negotiate competing claims for power in your life might be the worst way to find peace.
Given his responsibility to govern all these factions, the thing that must have bothered Pilate the most was that the religious leaders in Judea considered him to be unclean. As a Gentile, even his home was considered defiled. None of the orthodox would enter it. It was as if he had leprosy. So when word came that Caiaphas the High Priest was sending over a prisoner, Pilate knew that he would have go outside to greet the good religious folks. Outside, Pilate asked, “What are the charges against this man? They answered simply that he was a criminal. Or as the old Revised Standard Version of the Bible says, “He is an evil-doer.” Then they threw Jesus of Nazareth inside Pilate’s home. And the King of Kings, the Savior-king, yours and mine, became defiled by entering Pilate’s house.
Now most of us would say that we don’t have this compulsive need to stay pure and avoid defilement. But I wonder if that is true. We worry a whole lot about the “them” who are defiling our lives and dreams. They are the ones, at work, who are trying to take all our time. They are the ones, in government, who are trying to take all our money. They are the ones, in the other political party, who are trying to steal our presidential election. Blame them, we say, for taking away our rights, opportunities, and piece of the American pie. Like Judea, which was being torn apart by competing factions, so is our society pulled in different directions that all too easily demonize each other.
We find this same conflict within each of our hearts that have become divided between the righteous and the sinful parts. We assume that God can only love the good parts of us. But from the beginning, it has been clear that God loves all of you. So much that he came to be with you and save you. All of you.
When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, the purity of God was stained by the reality of what it means to be divided, conflicted, sinful flesh. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). In other words, we are never made righteous or spiritual by climbing up out of the defiled, conflicted world around us. We are only made right by the Savior King who climbs down to us.
That is why the purists called Jesus an evil-doer. He insisted on compromising what was so clearly sacred and right and true for us by associating with them. The Spirit of Jesus Christ can still be found in the defiled homes of the pro-choice and the pro-lifers, the pro-gay and the ex-gay, the Republican and the Democrat, the Palestinian and the Israeli.
When you find yourself on one side of these issues that are dividing our society, a side that you believe is right, a side for which you have adopted Jesus as king, you have to wonder what is King Jesus doing in the home of “them”? Why is Jesus there? How could he defile himself by sinking to such depths? He is not there to condone or defend. He is not there in solidarity. He is there for the same reason he got defiled in your home – to make us right with God and to give us his own right, beloved, relationship with his Father. By the power of the Spirit who binds us into the Son’s relationship with the Father, we are forgiven and brought home. We are changed and begin to long for righteousness. Only then do all the competing factions of our hearts, and our society, find unity in the common need for the salvation of King Jesus.
That is at the core of the truth the church proclaims!
After Jesus was defiled by entering Pilate’s home, the two of them got into quite a discussion about truth. Jesus told Pilate, “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” That means the truth doesn’t belong to you, or to your side of the current debates in society. You belong to the truth! Even if you don’t like it, or understand it, you still belong to this truth that is King of all.
In Kathleen Norris’ book, Amazing Grace, she describes a heated exchange between a seminary student and an Orthodox theologian. (page 65) The theologian had just finished his lecture on the development of the church’s creeds. The student asked, “What can one do when one finds it impossible to affirm certain tenets of the Creed?” The Orthodox priest responded, “Well, you just say it. It’s not hard to master. With a little effort most learn it by heart.” Thinking he had been misunderstood, the student tried again, “What am I to do when I have difficulty affirming parts of the creed like the Virgin Birth? He got the same response. “You just say it. Particularly when you have difficulty believing it. You just keep saying it. It will come to you eventually.” The student raised his voice. “How can I with integrity affirm a creed in which I do not believe?” The priest responded, “It’s not your creed. It’s our creed.” It belongs to the Body of Christ.
Nothing could be further from the experience of contemporary culture than to commit yourself to something that does not well up from your heart. Why do we stand in worship and repeat the confessions of the church? Why don’t we all say whatever we are feeling in worship? One person could stand up and say, “I’m feeling self-actualized today.” At the same time another could say, “My parents weren’t very nice to me.” Somebody else could be saying “I don’t much care for the electoral college.” At least that would be relevant. But the purpose of truth is not to be relevant to you. The purpose of truth is to make you relevant to the salvation of King Jesus.
In facing Jesus, Pilate was standing at the crossroads of his life. Everything else in life, from this point on, would depend on how he responded to the truth. For so long he had focused his life on the soul-depleting busy-ness of appeasing the competing factions of life, that he had completely forgotten about the truth. “Truth?” he asked. “What is truth?”
Even as he asked, Pilate was staring at the truth. “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Amen.