It’s Reigning Love
A sermon based on John 18:33-37
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 25, 2018 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Today’s Lectionary text depicts a portion of Jesus’ trial before Pilate with some religious elite serving as prosecutors. The story comes up today because it’s Reign of Christ Sunday the end of the church calendar where Christ’s elevation to sovereign in our lives is celebrated– because in the end what matters for Christians is that Christ reigns in our lives.
And the lesson ties in to all that because there’s much discussion about Jesus being a King. As John tells it the religious elite appointed by Rome to run the Temple have just shown up with Jesus in tow seeking to have him tried, convicted and killed. The elite represent power in Palestine appointed and controlled by Rome. In the eyes of the very oppressive Roman authority and its elite figures Jesus was a subversive who challenged Rome’s way.
Under Jesus’ Way God is the sole sovereign– and all God’s subjects are valued and loved equally. Justice and love are what matters. Under Rome’s way the vast majority of people were not valued, but expendable and certainly not equal. Power and wealth for Rome and its elite were what mattered. And under Rome’s way of thinking Caesar is the only king, the only leader– and only his appointed Temple elite are supposed to be leading religious movements.
We are meant to hear in this story that Rome’s elites sacrifice God’s way of love – and God too – in their lust to achieve and maintain power. The text is not anti-Jewish. Jesus and his following were Jewish. It is not anti-Jewish. It is anti-oppression. It is anti-hypocritical elites.
In our day and age religious and secular elites of many stripes sacrifice God’s way of love in their lust to achieve and maintain power. Elites find ways to claim piety and still be part of the uncleanliness and ungodliness of oppression. And here’s the thing, if we encounter a lack-love religious message from any person or faith it is plain as day that the God of the Bible, the God of Jesus, the God who is love IS NOT being followed. They have not made God sovereign in their lives. It’s that simple. And that’s a point the author of John is making.
The Roman aligned religious elite are portrayed in John as asking for oppressive justice from the ungodly Roman governor Pilate against Jesus. And we find Pilate running between the holy and unholy and we are to figure out which is which, who is God really speaking through. Just before our scene from the Lectionary verses these legal hijinks are reported:
[the religious elite] took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The [religious leaders] replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” (John 18:28-31)
As we heard in the lesson a very summary trial scene ensues. Pilate in those verses comes off pretty goofy questioning Jesus on what – to the story hearers is obvious– Jesus is King – he is the Holy one. Pilate lets Jesus actually turn the tables and interrogate him “Do you ask this on your own or did others tell you about me?” Jesus inquires. This is a dig at how the Temple elite –Pilate’s minions– are not telling him what to do. And then Jesus says:
“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 . . .. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
Pilate – looked at what must have seemed to him a nobody expendable wretch of human and mockingly asks “So you are a king?” Jesus is so clever. He doesn’t let up or bat an eye at the mockery. Instead he takes the question and tweaks Pilate’s nose with it claiming Pilate called him a king: “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.” 1 This has to have sounded absurd to Pilate and the religious elite who pursue earthly ways over heavenly ways. Rome’s rules are followed . . . not questioned! There is no way Jesus is king to their way of being and thinking. The ultimate king for them is an earthly one, Caesar. The way they follow is man’s. It is a way of obtaining and holding power and getting “peace” through violence and oppression. For them “might always makes right.” Power rules.
And we see that power putting love on trial in this story. During the first Holy Week we see that power convicting love, trying to crush love. For Caesar and Pilate and their cronies, prophets who preach power vested in a reign that is not Rome’s must be stopped. Those prophets, like John the Baptist and Jesus, are rebels. They and their rebellions had to be eliminated. Rome’s power, Rome’s way, must reign supreme and is the means by which secular elites and their appointed religious elites thrive in the story as John tells it.
The names for earthly power have changed over the years, but the likes of Caesar and Rome and Pilate and power hungry religious elites willing to sacrifice God’s loving way, and even God, have continued to exist. They existed when Jesus lived and they exist now. And Jesus’ Way back then – and now– presents a whole different choice. It’s a simple choice really. We can choose earthly power as what reigns over us; or we can choose Heavenly power as what reigns over us. Is it going to be Caesar or Christ, the one we know as God incarnate on earth now? It’s a multiple choice test.
The answer, of course, is given in the title “Reign of Christ Sunday,” also known as Christ the King Sunday. We have such a day at the end of the church calendar because as the Feasting on the Word commentary puts:
On this Sunday, the church proclaims Christ the King. The church announces that it bows only to Jesus the Christ. The church declares that it does not give allegiance to any other person, principality, or power claiming to be sovereign. 2
We may think kings are old fashioned but another commentary Texts for Preaching for today notes:
The category of King may seem remote to most contemporary congregations . . . yet as a political term it retains amazing relevance. So often the issues that demand decisions of people and communities are political in nature, and in the final analysis boil down to a choice between Jesus and Caesar. 3.
There’s Divine justice in the fact that both Rome’s chosen secular and religious elite mock claims of Jesus as King and kill him in hopes of getting rid of him and his Way of love. The justice that plays out is that, instead Jesus becomes the King to so, so many over the years as they reject Caesar’s way and follow God.
As I said, the lesson puts before us a simple choice. We can choose earthly power as what reigns over us; or we can choose and accept Heavenly power as what reigns over us. Is it going to be Caesar or Christ, the one we know as God incarnate on earth now? The right choice has been made by many a saint, including saints of this church and saints in our lives. And today it is a tradition in this church that we not only proclaim Christ King, but also honor the saints of this particular community. We remember them. And we lift up by name those who have passed away over the last twelve months.
On this Thanksgiving weekend it is right that we should do this as an expression of thanks and remembrance of our saints. It is also right that we give thanks for Jesus who dared to place love as paramount in his teachings and in his life, so much so he was willing to be hauled before Pilate and tried and convicted and executed as a rebel for the cause of heaven’s reign on earth. His cause provides a Way to peace that is decidedly not Caesar’s way, where might doesn’t makes right, but rather God’s way of love and justice for all is right 100% of the time for 100% of the people. Heaven’s reign is Christ’s reign which is love reigning day and night all the time on all of humanity. The promise of that reign is something for us to continuously give much thanks for!
* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2012
1. I got this idea of Pilate mocking from Chapter Six on “Good Friday” in the book The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. The chapter mostly tracks Mark’s report of Jesus’ trial, but it seems to fit well with this portion of John’s report as well.
2. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol4, p 335, homiletic note by Pete Perry.
3. Texts for Peaching (CD Rom version), p. 605
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