This week we heard of the passing of Jonah Lomu. He was a dominating force to be reckoned with on the field yet by all accounts, off the field he was a gentle giant. Although he was a spectacular player, his days of playing rugby were actually quite short and inevitably what the obituaries keep returning to are his acts of kindness and especially his loving support of children and children’s charities. There are many heart warming stories about the kindness of this humble, generous man.
Sitting alongside this local news, are the dark stories of the terrorist incidents which dominated the international news.
Today’s readings along with last Sunday’s Gospel reading have a chilling ring of relevance for us in the light of the recent bombing in Beirut, the plane shot down on its way to Moscow from Sharm el sheik and of course the shootings in Paris.
Just to refresh our memories, the reading from last week was from Matthew 13:
13 “As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’[a] and they will lead many astray.”
This week we find Jesus on trial before Pilate.
Pilate asks him: Are you the king of the Jews?
From the incident in the Garden, where Malchus (whose name ironically means my king ) to today’s passage where Jesus’ has a sustained discussion with Pilate at his trial, the word “King” occurs over a dozen times. Even on the Cross, Pilate insists that Jesus be labelled “King of the Jews.”
And it is true, Jesus himself acknowledges that he is a king. However, he is at pains to emphasise that he is a different kind of king. There is a stark and dramatic contrast between the kingship that Pilate represents and the kingship that Jesus represents. And so, in the midst of this trial, which is nothing more than a travesty of justice, a discussion occurs between Jesus and Pilate on the nature of kingship.
The kingship and kingdom that Pilate represents is a political entity. One that has evolved under Roman rule.
It is based on the principle that might is right.
It is the kind of kingdom that Jesus talks about when he says: “you know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.”
Status, power and control are all important. Fear and pride are instruments of authority. I’m sure we can all think of political systems and organisations that operate in this way. Clearly, ISIS is one such example.
Any threat to overthrow this kind of authority would be dealt with ruthlessly. And what Pilate is trying to establish is whether Jesus is a threat to the political authority of Rome. He is trying to discover whether Jesus is a terrorist and whether he has under his control, a band of well armed freedom fighters ready to threaten the authority of Rome.
On the other hand and in contrast to the kingship Pilate represents, Jesus’ kingship, his kingdom and authority, is based on entirely different principles.
He says: My kingdom is not from this world, if it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest.
He is not saying that his kingdom is not for this world he is saying it is not from this world.
The kingdoms of this world resort to violence as soon as they are threatened. ISIS is not alone in this. France, America are not alone in this. Endless wars that pepper the history of the world bear witness to this. The response of political authority to that which threatens its power, is almost always a violent one.
No Jesus says: My kingdom is from another place.
And so Jesus goes on to explain what his kingdom is not a kingship or kingdom that is based on violence. His kingdom is based on love and humility. It is motivated and enlivened by inclusiveness and forgiveness .He as the king has come to reveal the truth about the nature of God and God’s kingship and God’s kingdom.
It is significant and no accident, that this dialogue about kingship took place at a time when Jesus’ power is at its lowest ebb. He stands bound by the Jewish council before Pilate for sentencing. His very vulnerability underscores that Jesus’ kingship is not based on status or the trappings of power, but on humility, sacrifice and love. He not a secular monarch vying for rule over bits of territory nor is he building an army for conquest like ISIS. He is not in competition with worldly rulers like Pilate. His kingdom is from somewhere else for something else. It is a spiritual kingdom.
However, although his kingdom does not have a worldly origin or quality, it does have an earthly destination. While his kingdom is not from this world, it is for this world. His authority is from God who is best described as love.
He has come into the world on a mission from heaven to prepare the hearts of people to accept the reign of God in their lives.
His kingdom is to be in the hearts and minds people.
In fact the word king does not really capture what Jesus’ leadership is about. He says to Pilate: “King is your word, not mine”.
The passage from Revelation fleshes this out for us.
We are told that Jesus loved us, and came to free us and to unite the world into a kingdom serving God. He brought grace and peace into the world. And these are the hallmarks of his kingdom.
Grace being: the splendour of all the undeserved loving gifts of God and peace being: the harmony that has been restored between God and humanity through Christ.
This peace comes to us through the grace of God.
Jesus maintains that he has a divine charge, to testify to the truth. The Truth is that God is present in the world and in this sense Jesus is a manifestation of the Truth.
“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.”
At this point Pilate asks: “What is truth?”
I think this question reveals Pilate’s true position. Pilate’s worldliness renders him unable to recognise the things of God nor does he recognise God in the Jesus standing before him.
So we see two kingdoms on trial.
The one is based on earthly power and the other is based on divine truth. The earthly kingdom is as doomed as the magnificent temple which Jesus prophesies will soon be destroyed. While, the kingdom of God will continue for all eternity because it rests on the truth.
The truth is that, in reality, only love and humility can lead us to freedom from the darkness and destruction which entraps us in conflict and disharmony, both on a personal level and on a corporate level.
Only love can find the way from death back to life, from the cross to the resurrection.
Pilate’s kingdom offers a vengeful, grudge- filled, unforgiving, oppressive domination.
Pilate‘s leadership stands in sharp contrast to Jesus’ leadership. His question: What is truth? has a sinister, cynical ring to it.
What is truth? is the cynical question a politician asks when truth is the last thing they want to hear. His question reminds me of President Bill Clinton’s response when asked if he had had sex with Monica Lewinsky and he replied with the question: What is sex?
In the end Pilate represents a self-interested system filled with darkness under the guise of pragmatism and expedience. He senses something is wrong with his guilty verdict and makes gestures towards the truth, yet when the deal-makers arrive in the form of the Jewish leaders, when the pollsters reveal their preferences in the shape of the crowds baying for Jesus’ death, he does not have the compassion to act on what his better judgement is telling him:
“I find no basis for a charge against this man.”
So what is truth?
Which king will we choose here, Pilate or Jesus?
One thing that the Islamic State and Christianity have in common is that they are both interested in proselytising, spreading the truth as each religion sees it and so converting the world to their understanding of the truth. Many people in the world, including many Christians, find this evangelism distasteful. It makes them deeply uncomfortable.
Yet it is clear from the Biblical text, that Jesus sent us out into the world to do exactly that, to spread the truth to the ends of the earth.
So we also ask, but hopefully in a different spirit the question: What is truth?
I’m drawn to last week’s reading again.
Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’[a] and they will lead many astray.
Here’s the acid test for me. If the message is oppressive and restrictive is judgemental and wrathful and is based on hate, revenge and un-forgiveness, then it has to have dark consequences and whether it be a Christian or a Muslim sharing it, it cannot be the truth from God for as the Jesuits put it, it is not life-giving.
If the message promotes love, justice, mercy, humility and forgiveness, then it must be truth-filled and so be from God for such a message as the Jesuits put it is life giving and life enhancing.
But why evangelise? Why spread the message at all?
We evangelise and promote Christianity not because there is personal gain for us, but because we are obedient to the Great Commission and because we instinctively know that and believe that only the love of God can save the world that is currently drowning in a sea of hate.
Only love can cast out fear, hate and the darkness of conflict.
Only the repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, tolerance and humility that come with love can offer us the lifeline that prevents us from drowning in the destructive spirals of hate, grudges, vengeance and self-interest, which are destroying our families, our communities, our environment and our world.
Spirals that whether it be a Christian or a Muslim sharing it, are currently all too evident in Syria, Sharm el Sheikh, Parish and Brussels and Mali.
Surely any discomfort we may experience when we share this good news is outweighed by the benefits of seeing God’s kingdom of love come into this broken world and his healing and his will to save the world being done.