Arno Michaels found himself on trial. It wasn’t in a courthouse, in front of a judge. It was in a T-shirt factory where a Jewish man named Jack Kupper had given him a job. On this day, Arno had come to work hung-over, without a lunch. At lunchtime, he was miserable in a corner. One of his co-workers, an African-American man, saw Arno and offered to share his sandwich, calling out, “Hey, Skinhead, do you want some of this? You look kind of hungry.”
You see, at the time, Arno belonged to a white supremacist Skinhead gang and was the lead singer of a white power metal band. As he tells it: “So, here I am, in my off-time, I’m writing songs about how Jewish people take all of my money to give to the lazy black people who don’t want to work, when in actuality I have a means of supporting myself, thanks to the good graces of a Jewish man who didn’t fire me for wearing swastikas into his factory, and black people actually feed me.”
At Jack’s factory, Arno began to see others differently, person-to-person. Today, he says that his boss, Jack, “changed me by planting seeds of humanity…I couldn’t suppress despite my best efforts…” After leaving the Skinheads, Arno authored My Life after Hate, and became an activist for peace and reconciliation.
When truth showed up in Arno Michaels’ life, by God’s grace, he received it and was transformed. But the moment of truth when Jesus of Nazareth came into the life of Pontius Pilate had a very different outcome. At first glance, it appears Jesus is the one on trial. Betrayed by Judas Iscariot, condemned by the high priests, Jesus is brought by his captors before Pontius Pilate, who want him to execute Jesus. But, as John’s gospel depicts Pilate, whose job is to maintain the Roman Empire’s rule in Judea, he does not perceive Jesus to be an actual threat.
Now, Pilate likely thinks of himself as the ultimate center of power and control in Jerusalem. As he later tells Jesus, Pilate has power to release or crucify him. But there are a knot of thorny issues connected to either decision. If Pilate refuses to give the Temple leaders what they want, can he maintain control if they stir up riots? If not, how will go back in Rome if things fall apart in Jerusalem on his watch? But what cost to his integrity will it be to execute an innocent man?
So, it seems that Pilate wants to sort this problem out quickly. He gets right to the point, asking, “Are you the King of the Jews?” But, N.T. Wright notes, “Pilate then discovers, as many discovered before him and many have since, that when you ask Jesus a question, the answer is likely to be another question.”
“Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” asks Jesus, and suddenly Pilate, who thought himself in control, finds himself on trial.
It’s a revealing question. To claim to be a “King” in the territory where there’s “no king but Caesar” is to ask for death, so if Jesus affirms his kingship, Pilate has an easy out. On one level, Jesus is asking, do I really look like an insurrectionist to you?
But Jesus’ question also probes on a deeper level. Jesus is asking: Where does your question come from, Pilate? What are the assumptions behind your words? Are you honestly inquiring, or are you compelled by others’ agendas and interests? Are you free to seek truth, or are you bound in fear to hide the truth of your own questions, fears and doubts because you need to maintain control at any cost?
Jesus’ question also reveals something about Jesus. Jesus doesn’t ask it, except as a genuine invitation to enter into a relationship. Even now, before the Roman procurator, Jesus cares, not about Pilate’s dominating role, but about Pilate-the-person, really wanting to know the human being beyond the illusions of power and control. Throughout John’s gospel such folks as Nathanael, Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well, have each discovered that coming face-to-face with Jesus is an invitation to come face-to-face with the truth of God and ourselves. Jesus’ person draws out our hopes and fears, our deepest assumptions, convictions, and questions about how to live faithfully as people awake in this world.
But Pilate cannot or will not receive this invitation. He waves Jesus’ question away. “I am not a Jew, am I? Your people handed you over to me—so what have you done?” It’s like a scoffing shrug—why should I know or care anything about you and your peculiar people?
It’s a means of reestablishing control over this prisoner with probing questions. But on a deeper level, Pilate is saying: That’s your world and this is mine. I refuse to enter into and share your reality.
I think that’s why Jesus makes his next statement: “My kingdom is not from this world.” Now, this statement has often been misinterpreted to suggest compartmentalization, that Jesus’ kingdom is an other-worldly, solely spiritual realm some place out there that has nothing to do with our present world. Such interpretations allow us to claim Christ as Savior on Sunday while keeping our daily lives separate from Christ’s rule.
But Jesus is not content with half-hearted faith or shallow lip-service to his authority in our lives. He wants our whole hearts, minds, souls, and strength to be ruled by God’s love, that we might love one another as he has loved us.
To say that Jesus’ kingdom does not come from this world, is to say that it does not originate in or have the qualities of it. Jesus’ kingdom does not come with his followers fighting and killing for his throne. Jesus’ kingdom comes as he gives his life in exchange for the terrorist Barabbas, as he is “lifted up” on the cross and we see the glory of God’s self-giving love.
So while Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t come from ‘this world,’ it is certainly for this world. “For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son.” Jesus’ kingdom comes for a world longing for the transforming power of love, longing for freedom from the fear of death, a freedom which comes by grace when we begin to claim and trust God’s love as the bedrock Truth of our entire existence.
“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” says Jesus, making one more invitation to Pilate: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
As one author writes, “Even to Pilate, Jesus offers to be the good shepherd, the good shepherding king, who, when his sheep listen to his voice, are led into abundant life…This is always Jesus’ offer. But to receive it means facing the truth about our lives, the truth Jesus holds up before us. Pilate refuses to face the truth. ‘What is truth?” he declares dismissively.”
So what about us? How many of us struggle every day to sort through the array of claims which seek to become our truth as we watch the news, check our Facebook feeds, and go about the practical business of everyday life?
How hard it can be to experience clarity, integrity and freedom in ‘this world,’ where we so often find ourselves trapped in patterns of managing and controlling fear. How painful it can be to face the truth of ourselves and our world which Jesus holds up before us! To be truly seen as a human being, the truth of both our powers and limitations, can feel vulnerable and exposed, and it takes courage to face the truth we see in Jesus’—and in one another’s—eyes.
For it is in our person-to-person encounters with family, with friends, and with strangers alike that Christ so often shows up with his uncomfortable but liberating Truth. Arno Michaels was shown the Truth in encounters with his boss and coworkers, as they responded to him, one human being to another, refusing to fear the intimidating persona he’d put on. Everyday we have opportunities to put aside our false belongings and reveal ourselves to be God’s children with the courage to face ‘this-worldly’ hate and violence with integrity, confidence, and hope.
On Christ the King Sunday, we stake our claim in a Truth which is greater than anything which comes from the barrel of a gun. Our Truth is revealed, not in threat of violence or punishment, but in sacrificial, self-giving love, as one man gives up his life, person-to-person, one man dying and many others going free. Truth is a person, Jesus Christ, who encounters us face-to-face, who looks lovingly, seeing both our brokenness and our hope, who invites us to look at others with his eyes. The Truth is a person, Jesus Christ, “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth…him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom.” In Christ we enter a new vision, a new attitude, a new worldview, the reality, the realm and reign, of the life abundant sourced in God.
A poignant expression of Kingdom vision came to via Facebook this week, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Paris. I hope some of you saw the video clip that went viral from a French news show “Le Petit Journal,” in which a reporter interviews a young boy, four or five years old, who with his father, is visiting the floral tributes outside the Bataclan theater. The boy is aware and afraid of the “very bad” people who had guns and hurt people there. But his father comforts his son, saying, “They’ve got guns, but we’ve got flowers.” The candles are “so we don’t forget the people who have gone,” but the flowers are to “fight against the guns.” The boy is at first unsure—flowers don’t appear to do anything, but as the interview closes, there is this silent moment when the truth passes between the two, as the father gazes with such love and calm at his little son, who receives and accepts his father’s strength and confidence. “Do you feel better now?” the reporter asks, and the boy smiles and says “Yes, I feel better.”
My friends, they may have guns in ‘this world,’ but we who live in Christ’s reign of resurrection love have the much greater power of remembrance and hope, the power of compassion and courage, through which the most hateful suffering is transformed into a crowing vision of God’s love. Let us stake our claim on the Truth from which the first Christians refused to back down: “Jesus is Lord!” Let us live as wholehearted citizens of his reign which is even here, even now at work turning swords into plowshares and hatred to love. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!
image: By Dianelos Georgoudis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Sources which helped to shape this sermon include:
N.T. Wright, John for Everyone: Part 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 114.
Pete Peery, “Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Feasting on the Word, Year B. Vol. 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, 335.