“The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John.” How do you follow that? But there it is in the Book of Common Prayer (p.277): “The Sermon follows.”
This year we’re hearing the passion narrative three days out from a bitterly contested election. The last few elections have been bitterly contested; there’s no reason to think the next ones will be different. And I’d guess that most of us feel like we have a real stake in the outcomes. And here in the middle of that narrative we hear Pilate interrogating Jesus about, well, politics. Let’s hear it again:
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. 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.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:33-38a)
To risk a summary, Jesus’ kingdom is not “from this world,” and to be king in this kingdom is about testifying to the truth. And we have a real stake in this too. This is the kingdom in the prayer Jesus taught us: “Your kingdom come.” This is the kingdom to which Jesus pointed us: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33)—“all these things” presumably including what we perceive to be at stake when we go in the voting booth.
Jesus’ kingdom: not “from this world.” You may recall the KJV translation: “Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world… my kingdom [is] not from hence.” Paying attention just to the first part, we could hear Jesus saying “My kingdom is otherworldly.” But even in the KJV he ends with “my kingdom is not from hence” (from here), so the NRSV gets it right: “My kingdom is not from this world.” Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t depend on the fighting, the violence, that underwrite the current membership of the United Nations. Jesus’ kingdom does belong in this world: “Your kingdom come.”
And Jesus, the king, here to testify to the truth—whether or not it promises to be of any use tactically.
There is, by the way, a strong echo of Deuteronomy in Jesus’ responses. Deuteronomy is the only chunk of Moses that legislates regarding the king. While kings in that time and place usually lead their armies, Deuteronomy is loudly silent about that role. What does the king do? Hear the text:
18 When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. 19 It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, 20 neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left… (Deut. 17:18-20)
The king studies Torah, and in Deuteronomy’s description, testifies to the truth by his actions, e.g., not “exalting himself above other members of the community.” (We might recall the text we heard yesterday, Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.)
“Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Jesus’ witness in today’s text in unison with the rest of Holy Scripture makes it clear that however we’re striving for that kingdom, we don’t do it with violence and we don’t do it by spinning the truth.
Oh that that were a no-brainer. But throughout the church’s history it’s been tempting to follow the apostolic example (Peter—who else?) and pull out the sword, tempting to spout Scripture when it supports us and plead laryngitis when it doesn’t.
OK, but we Christians are also citizens of this or that country, charged with bearing witness to the righteousness of God’s kingdom within the limitations of our particular context. What happens to Jesus’ example of non-violence and not spinning the truth in these contexts? Here we’re back to Paul’s “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph. 5:10). Here we’re really grateful for the witness of the saints who enrich our calendar: Oscar Romero (3/24), Martin Luther King Jr. (4/4), Frances Perkins (Secretary of Labor in FDR’s administration; 5/13), Joan of Arc (5/30), Jonathan Myrick Daniels (8/14), Thomas Becket (12/29).
On Sunday morning we’ll be renewing our baptismal vows, including “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” Today’s text is worth reflection. Jesus’ commitment to non-violence and not spinning the truth seriously limit his options, with Pilate—at least for the moment—getting the last word: “What is truth?” That’s a situation none of us want to be in. The baptismal vows can nudge us in that direction, in which case the saints—and Jesus—don’t make for bad company.