Today is the Feast of Christ the King and we find ourselves on Good Friday hearing again this exchange between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. I took the liberty of adding the first part of the verse following where our lectionary leaves off – where Pilate asks, “What is truth?” We usually like to let Jesus have the last word in lectionary readings, but today I suggest there is a good reason to give what appears to be the last word to Pilate.
Think for a moment about the setting. Pontius Pilate the Roman governor and procurator with the awesome power of empire on his side is facing off with this upcountry troublemaker from Nazareth, Jesus. Jesus appears beaten and bruised, a man who stands in the place to be judged and yet he is not impressed by Pilate’s display of power … and he lets Pilate get the last word. “What is truth?” Jesus lets that question hang without an answer.
I think this shows Pilate to be what he really is: anxious and terrified. Regardless of how much power he appears to have, he really is nothing but a puppet caught between the power of Caesar and seething anger of the Jewish people who are sick and tired of the oppression of Rome. He’s really far more vulnerable than he appears … and he’s scared.
Jesus, on the other hand, isn’t afraid. He tells Pilate about his kingdom and reminds him that if his kingdom was of this world, like that of Caesar, his followers would be launching an armed insurrection … but they aren’t. Because the kingdom Jesus is ushering in is one that does not derive its power from fear like Rome does but instead derives its power from love. This isn’t to say Jesus isn’t experiencing any existential angst of facing his own death, but it is to say he doesn’t let that get in the way of his plan – to lead an insurrection of love. I’m not talking about a love of sweet sentimentality – I’m talking about what the Bible calls a love “strong as death.” It’s a love Jesus taught in his lifetime – to love God, love you neighbor, and yes even to love your enemies. This is love which is hard but it is the only thing which can overcome anxious fear. This is the truth which Jesus embodies – perfect love which casts out fear. And this is what makes Pilate anxious enough to want to get the last word in … because for all of the worldly trappings of power, Jesus stands before him unimpressed and unafraid.
We are living in a time of widespread anxiety and fear, much of it centering on terrorism and especially the so-called Islamic State. In many ways, we are experiencing the same anxiety of Pilate. As Americans, we have all the trappings of wealth and power but we now realize this will not protect us from those who are intent on harm. Or in the words of Moises Naim, the author of the End of Power: ISIS has breached that perimeter that above all defines strong states: a monopoly over violence. The Islamic State terrorists have nothing to lose because they don’t believe this world has anything good to offer them. Terrorism is the language of those who feel like they have no other voice and so spread fear and intimidation. Fear, whether ours or theirs, is the mechanism which begets hatred, greed, and violence.
Jesus did not come into this world to create another system of domination and oppression based on fear. His entire message was that of love: love God, love your neighbor, love your enemies. He opted out of human fear based power games and launched an insurrection of love. He spoke of losing your life for his sake and the sake of the Gospel – not clinging to this life by any means necessary. Jesus knew and accepted a deep truth: we will all die. He knew his time was short, but he also knew that one day Pilate would die, as would Caesar, and Herod, and all the other tyrants who wield power through fear and exploitation. We will all die. And this leaves us with a question: how will you live in this time between your birth and death and what will that stand for? Will you live this life in a state of anxiety and fear, allowing that to warp your thinking into hatred of those who are different? Or will you live this life in a state of love, even if it means risking your life? What mark do you want to leave on this world?
Today, we are baptizing Miriam Lynne into the family of Christ. She will begin her journey like all of us did – at the font. And in this act of baptism, she will begin a journey to follow the Prince of Peace and become part of his insurrection of love. This love is demanding because when we enter it, we no longer have the luxury to choose who we love. That’s right, Christians do not choose who we love or don’t love because Jesus told us to love everyone … absolutely everyone … and this is very, very hard. We don’t just get to love those who love us back – we have to love even those who wish us dead. We can hate their actions but we cannot hate people – we have to love them. This is hard work … the work of a lifetime and we can only do it with God’s help.
On this feast of Christ the King, how will you respond? Will you join the insurrection of love or be trapped by fear and have the life Christ wants for you stolen away? Which king will you follow – the one of this world or Christ? Which one will get the last word?