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Sunday, March 26, 2017 | 8:00 a.m.

Lenten Sermon Series:
Following Jesus through the Gospel of John

Paradoxical Truth

Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 23
John 18:28–38

We are called . . . to witness to the One who demonstrated power through weakness, who manifested strength through vulnerability, who established justice through mercy.

David Lose

“Are you the King of the Jews?” This is the first and central question Pilate asked Jesus in his trial. “Are you the King of the Jews?” It is a strange question, because Jesus never referred to himself as King of the Jews. In fact, in the New Testament this title is used for Jesus only a few times and then only by Gentiles, or non-Jews.

Pilate seemed unclear about who Jesus was and of what he may be guilty. He may have inquired about the title of King of the Jews because the opponents of Jesus accused Jesus of wanting to make himself king. They wanted to make Pilate feel threatened about his own power and empire. Such an accusation would rile Rome and certainly get Pilate’s attention. Otherwise Pilate may have simply dismissed accusations against Jesus as a petty religious squabble for the Jews to sort out amongst themselves. But the term “king” was sensitive, for it implied possible rebellion against the Roman Empire. The title of king was loaded for the Romans, who had little tolerance for any king but Caesar. Using it against Jesus portrayed him as a rabble rouser, a threat, a revolutionary encouraging war—or at least having enough of a following to carry off an insurrection. False labels can ignite people’s fears and animosities even against people who pose no real threat. We certainly see this when people are branded enemies as communists or terrorists, traitors or illegal aliens, or even “undeserving poor.” 

Claims about Jesus’ power and reign had threatened a ruler prior to Pilate. In the birth narrative in Matthew, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” When King Herod heard this, he was so frightened that he ordered that all the male children around Bethlehem who were two years old or under be killed (Matthew 2:1–3, 16). Tragically, too often in the history of humanity, political leaders afraid of losing their power have suppressed, oppressed, and even killed others.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” It is a strange question, because it was asked by Pontius Pilate, who considered himself the most in-control person in Jerusalem. He was “the local representative of the greatest world power of that time” (Lamar Williamson Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John, p. 254), Rome’s chief authority in Palestine, and he was backed by the huge forces of Roman occupation. Pilate asked this question of a prisoner who stood alone before him, a member of an oppressed religious minority who had been betrayed by leaders of his own people, arrested and bound, humiliated and stricken by a high priest. Jesus didn’t appear to have anyone who “had his back.” He was completely vulnerable, his fate in others’ hands. What kind of king was that?

”Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus doesn’t answer yes or no. He neither claims nor denies this title. Instead he responds by asking Pilate a question: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Jesus takes control of the conversation. He turns the table. He challenges Pilate to name the source and motivation of his inquiry. Jesus seeks to encounter the true person who is Pilate, inviting him to be transparent, to share how it is with him, to utter the truth of his own life.

But Pilate doesn’t take up Jesus’ invitation to be authentic. Instead he asks, “What have you done?” Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting to prevent my arrest. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

“So you are a king?” Pilate asks.

“You say that I am a king,” Jesus answers. “For this I was born, and this is why I came into the world: to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to my voice.”

“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice”: that sure sounds like someone with a lot of power, to have others listen to him—not just a few, but everyone who belongs to the truth, people from many places and backgrounds, people of many eras of history, down through the generations. With all those people listening, Jesus Christ guides and influences millions of people in how to live their lives, how to treat one another and build just societies. Because Jesus testifies to the truth, he draws people toward that which is life-giving and healing, that which restores abundant life and rings true with enduring authority. The truth reveals God’s sovereign ways and God’s eternal love. Christianity has claimed Jesus Christ as King, not just King of the Jews, but King Eternal. The church declares its allegiance and bows down not to any other person, principality, or power claiming to be sovereign but only to Jesus the Christ.

But what a different kind of king Jesus Christ is. He is far different than what Pilate or Herod or even most of us understand. As Jesus himself said, he is not the kind of ruler who, upon getting arrested, has supporters fighting to free him. He is not the kind of king who resorts to violence to protect himself. He is not the kind of leader who uses power over others, forcing people to submit to his rule. He is not the kind of person in charge who seeks attention and prosperity for himself and ignores the needs of those struggling financially or with poor health or seeking a safe home. Instead Jesus welcomes the outcasts. He heals the sick. He brings good news to the poor. He advocates for justice and sets captives free.

Jesus also took severe suffering upon himself on behalf of others. He bore heavy burdens. He was betrayed, denied, abandoned, and killed. He ended up looking like a failure by the world’s standards. Christ’s kingdom is indeed different from the kingdoms of this world.

Reformed theologian William Placher reflected,

Most people, in cultures where Christianity has been the dominant religious influence, assume that they know roughly what the word “God” means. Whether or not they believe in God, whether or not they find God an attractive notion, they do have an idea of God, an idea that tends to center on power. God is all-powerful, omnipotent, in charge. . . . Even the classic conundrums posed about God—if God is all powerful, why is there evil . . . —take God’s power for granted as central to the setting of the problem.

But Placher reminds us, “The Christian gospel . . . starts its understanding of God from a different place. The one who is presented in the Christian gospel as God’s self-revelation wanders with nowhere to lay his head, washes the feet of his disciples like a servant,” and is despised and rejected by others (William C. Placher, Narrative of a Vulnerable God, p. xiii).

Pilate, and really most of the world, including the church, have difficulty conceiving of a realm in which true power is not political or military might but vulnerable love. Vulnerable love is the power of Christ as King. God is willing to be vulnerable for our sake, to put down all the accoutrements of power as the world defines it and to take on the mantle of sacrifice.

Theologian Dorothee Soelle described an experience she had as a young, shy theology student: She asked a man at a construction site a simple question: “Do you happen to know what time it is?” He answered, “What do you think? Am I Jesus?” At the time Dorothee was completely speechless. But even later, when she reflected upon who Jesus was, let alone who this Christ is supposed to be for us today, this man’s questions always got in her way. “Am I Jesus?” For the construction worker, Jesus was from another world, a heavenly being who had nothing to do with him, or her. An omniscient, floating figure who sees, hears, knows, and can do everything. But Jesus was not a heavenly being who, on a Sunday outing, stopped by for a short visit in Bethlehem (Dorothee Soelle, Theology for Skeptics, pp. 88–89). He was God-with-Us, the Word Made Flesh, who came into the world to show us the face of the Divine by being fully human, sharing in all the uncertainties, the joys, and the sorrows that we know.

Jesus Christ embodies paradoxical truth. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, but it is in this world. While Jesus appears powerless before Pilate, he is also majestic beyond Pilate’s comprehension. He lived in the body of one particular person for a short time on earth and rules eternally over all. Christ demonstrates power through weakness. He manifests strength through vulnerability. He establishes justice through mercy. He triumphs through the cross. Those who try to gain their own life will lose it, but those who lose their life for God’s sake will gain it. The mighty are brought down, the lowly raised up; the last are first, the first are last; the least are greatest, and the one who reigns is the one who was willing to become “acquainted with all our griefs” (Isaiah 53:4). Paradoxical truth.

So who is the God we know through Jesus Christ? God is here, in our midst. God cares about us intimately, suffering in our suffering and celebrating in our joy. God call us to do the same for one another—to love our neighbors as ourselves. The truth is that the way beyond suffering is by taking on suffering on behalf of others and moving through it, not avoiding it. Betrayal is overcome only through forgiveness. Death does not have the last word. The power of God’s vulnerable love is stronger than any other force on earth. The truth that Jesus embodied was succinctly summarized by Bishop Desmond Tutu: “Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours through [God] who loves us.” Christ is King Eternal.

We honor and try to follow a very different kind of king. That may be most apparent in the season of Lent, when we focus on Christ’s suffering and crucifixion. Lent underscores how much our Lord’s use of power is in sharp contrast with the world’s. It is the power of costly love that appears to face defeat. We who seek to follow Christ also face defeat. We are going against the grain. The world’s ways are not God’s ways. We fight uphill battles and don’t always see victories. Yet as French philosopher Michel de Montaigne said more than 500 years ago, “There are some defeats more triumphant than victories.” Christ our King testifies to eternal, paradoxical truth. Amen.