Last Sunday before Advent: Christ the King
St Barbara’s 22.11.15
Rev Dr Richard Cooke
Jerusalem, the eve of Passover, AD33. The setting is the Roman Praetorium or headquarters.
Two men face each other. One is the divine agent upon earth. You might not think so to look at him,
for today he is dressed modestly in working clothes. But he is able to command everyone around
him if he wishes to. At his word power can be unleashed to accomplish things that others can simply
dream of. It’s not too much to say he is the saviour, who deals in good news of another kingdom, a
kingdom which, if they become citizens of it, will deliver the people from the petty squabbles of their
former lives, a kingdom of peace and tranquillity, the kingdom of the king of kings.
His name is Pontius Pilate.
He is the Roman Governor of Judea, backed by all the power of the divine Roman Emperor who is
king above all other kings on earth. The Roman Empire boasts that it has brought, through the wise
rule of the divine Lord, salvation in the form of peace and deliverance from the chaos of former
rulers who struggled for power. Now power is guaranteed by the Roman legions, fearsome, hard-
faced fighting men whose working uniform Governor Pilate wears today. The uniform is modest but
highly symbolic. It speaks of military might, of the massive power that lies behind the Jewish Temple
authorities who rule Jerusalem as puppets. It speaks of the price of Roman rule, the burden of taxes
from a subject people which sustains the costs of legions far from home which impose peace,
whether it is desired or not, on the Emperor’s terms. It speaks of the power which you could have a
share in yourself, if only you become rich enough and find favour enough to be invited to be a citizen
of Rome – so long of course as you are male. It speaks of the Governor’s casual capacity, at the click
of his fingers, to crucify whoever he might reckon to be a threat to the peace of Rome.
Before Pilate, the divine agent, stands the other. A slight figure, pitiful in his apparent insignificance.
Almost certainly crazy, Pilate thinks, a carpenter turned preacher, another muddled messiah
amongst so many others. Pilate probably yawns. He is barely a man, this creature, really a piece of
meat and not much more, as far as Pilate is concerned. He has no rights or claims on the puzzled
governor who looks at him wondering how this man – this man! – can be considered worthy of
attention. For Pilate he is not the subject of the story here but its object, not doing but merely done
to. How has he not simply been brushed aside by the juggernaut of Roman power that lies behind
the Jewish authorities? Why on earth would anyone – anyone? – consider him a threat to the Empire
and the imperial king of kings?
Ah, Governor, the voices in his ear have said, do you not know, have you not heard? This man has
dared to challenge the good news of the divine Emperor’s kingdom with a story of good news of his
own version of God. A kingdom of nobodies which everyone can belong to without price and
regardless of gender. A kingdom whose ramshackle army does not fight back, whose soldiers turn
the other cheek if you strike them. A kingdom which does not exact taxes or demand tribute, but
instead whose citizens share what they have and astonishingly find that God multiplies it until all
have enough and there is plenty still to spare. A kingdom in which sick people claim to be returned
to health simply through prayer, in which those who need forgiveness can find it without paying for
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sacrifices, and can go free. How ridiculous! the voices around the Governor have said. Did you ever
hear such a thing?
So Pilate concludes that this man – this pitiful wretch from the back end of beyond – must be
claiming to be a king, or at the very least, like Pilate himself, the agent of a divine king. Yet his divine
king, the God of Israel, has surely been thoroughly discredited, reflects Pilate. It beats the Governor
why any of them still take him seriously when this God’s power has evidently been so slight that it
could not prevent the Romans swooping in and taking the kingdom for themselves. So why take this
character seriously as a royal pretender? he wonders.
Pilate peers at the man in front of him. He never uses his name when speaking to him. He is just the
criminal, one of thousands that have come before him in his years in authority. He asks him directly:
‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ He doesn’t get the answer he expects. Instead there’s a question for
him: ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ What self-conceit! The man
answers back! As if they were equals, or even as if he, the man, had the upper hand despite his
chains. ‘Look’, says Pilate, ‘it’s your own people have handed you over. What have you done?’ ‘My
kingdom is not from this world’ comes the reply, as if he actually has one.
Where is it from then? Surely kingdoms only come from this world, thinks Pilate. Power is
guaranteed by money and soldiers, intimidation and violence, and fear in the struggle for survival
where you protect what you have and hold it tight as you can so no-one can take it from you. That is
the kind of kingdom Pilate knows and serves.
But it is not Jesus’ kind of kingdom. He has shown in what he has already done that his kingdom is
just as practical in the real world as Caesar’s. Jesus has fed the hungry, healed the sick and forgiven
the guilty as a Roman ruler might promise but has never actually been able to deliver. His is a
kingdom of gentleness not fear, where nobodies have a place and somebodies are challenged to give
up their wealth and status. This kingdom has a real effect on earth, it deals in the reality of everyday
life, but it doesn’t stop there. It comes from somewhere else.
It comes, Jesus has said, from God. The God he and his people have known for centuries in the story
of Israel, however kings and priests might have twisted and turned it to their own advantage. The
God whom he describes as the loving Father who cares for all. Unshakeably, Jesus sees that the
power of God is not reflected in who rules for now, but in a longer perspective how God’s power and
the radical kingdom of ramshackle nobodies will transform everything to make a new world.
It turns out that the Jewish authorities are right to be worried, and that Pilate is wrong to
underestimate this slight, dishevelled piece of human flotsam whom he will shortly, after another
brief altercation, reluctantly send to a cross before perhaps returning to his quarters for a bath, a
cup of Falernian wine and perhaps a game of chess with his secretary.
When we look at Pilate and Jesus, face to face that Passover as we see the scene portrayed for us in
John’s Gospel, we are so accustomed to the story that it’s easy to miss its extraordinary nature. We
know that it is Jesus’s kingdom which will win, and Pilate’s which will, ultimately, lose. We know that
Jesus is not in fact a faceless piece of meat, but that he is the real son of God here and that it is
Pilate’s claim to serve an imperial king of kings that is false. But if we saw the same kind of scene
today, what would we think? When someone – anyone – without rights stands in front of a
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privileged person of power and authority, do we see where God might be in the scene? The Christian
revolution – and it is not too strong a term – was the extraordinary leap to see that in such a scene
as Pilate and Jesus, God the Father might be on the side of the man without status, the nobody not
the somebody. Those who, like Jesus before Pilate, have no-one to stand up for them, who are
forsaken and do not matter, have God to stand up for them. He is on their side.
Hard on the heels of the triumph of earthly power, the kingdom of this world, in Jesus’ death on the
cross, came his resurrection. The tables were turned and the worst that worldly power could do was
set aside, refuted. Worldly power was not the last word. In this resurrection hope, the radical
rejection of death, the pattern of the earthly kingdoms is set aside, and Christians dared to hope for
a new world-order, one that does not come from this world – it comes from God – but has an impact
in this world.
And that new world order has come. Not in one cataclysmic upheaval, but slowly and surely we have
seen signs of it. Inside three centuries the enormity of Roman power itself, of which the mighty
Pilate was the instrument, would bow down to the nondescript Galilean who confronted the
Governor that day, and in the centuries after the logic of God’s kingdom worked through, until
slavery was abolished, women recognised as equal partners, children valued as more than a
disposable means to provide for your old age. In these and many other ways, the kingdom of
nobodies has gained ground and Jesus has come to be seen as the true king.
But this is a kingdom of consent and gentleness, not of unquestioned power and might, though
some have tried to make it so. And therefore the struggle is not over. Again and again the kingdoms
of this world fight back. The challenge is to believe that it is possible to live the way Jesus showed,
and to believe that the way he taught and acted, even to death on a cross, ultimately brings life and
freedom. And not just to believe it, but to find ways, small though they may be, of putting that belief
into practice wherever we can, and of challenging those who think otherwise in the name of Christ.
To welcome refugees because that is what Jesus would do – he was one himself; to seek restraint
and consideration instead of kneejerk reaction in our response to what is happening in Syria,
because what those who perpetrated the atrocities in Paris last week desire is to deepen the vortex
of violence which they have set in motion, and Jesus’s kingdom stands for peace and reconciliation;
to stand against welfare cuts in this country which most affect those who have the least, while
leaving many of us who have more untouched.
It is not easy for us to say these things in public, and to stand for Jesus’ kingdom. We (rightly) take
pride in our society’s characteristic tolerance and valuing of understatement. We often find it hard
to speak as Christians in case we offend, and there is good reason for this. Yet perhaps we shouldn’t
be so timid. There is a world of difference between insensitively demanding that others change their
actions and beliefs to do what we do on the one hand, and on the other stating, when the time is
right to do so, that as Christians we support a particular approach to an issue because that approach
reflects the nature of the loving God and the kingdom Jesus showed us; the response of God;s
kingdom which we can show makes sense in the long run, however counter-intuitive it might seem
at first. Daring to speak up in this way is a simple means of showing which kingdom we belong to,
which king, ultimately, we serve.
Before Pilate went off to his bath, his wine and his chess, he gave instructions that a notice be put up
over the crucified man’s head: ‘Jesus of Nazareth. King of the Jews.’ It was written in three
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languages, Greek, Hebrew and Latin, so that everyone in Jerusalem could understand, and in most
depictions of the crucifixion you’ll see it abbreviated to the Latin letters INRI – Iesus Nazareno, Rex
Iudaeorum. Despite protests against it, Pilate insisted that he meant what he had written. Of course
he meant it mockingly. He meant the people of Jerusalem to look at the king of the Jews and see
what a pathetic and pitiful figure he was, to see the display of Roman power by comparison.
But we see the irony in Pilate’s action, and recognise that he speaks the truth without knowing it.
For this king will reign from the cross, and does so still. Even in the agony of crucifixion he is still the
power that made the universe. The glory of God in the crucified man turns all we think we know of
kingship and worldly power upside down. It re-values all our values, makes the insignificant matter
and shows us the true king of kings, to whom be glory and praise now and forever. Amen.