Christ the King
On 9th April 1940 Hitler’s Germany invaded Denmark. It was the shortest engagement of the Second World War, lasting a mere six hours. During the ensuing German occupation, all Jewish people in Denmark were told to identify themselves by wearing armbands with yellow stars of David. The King did not defy the orders, but rather had every Jew wear the star and he himself wore it too, and told his people that he expected every loyal Dane to do the same. The King of Denmark identified with his people, even to the point of putting his own life on the line.
Perhaps you have heard this story before: it’s a wonderful story with a powerful point. The only problem is that it isn’t true. It’s an urban legend. The truth, incidentally, is that German deportation of Jews came quite late, and most of them had fled to Sweden before it started. Of the initial population of 8000, ultimately 477 Danish Jews were deported, 70 of whom lost their lives. That’s seventy too many of course, but mercifully fewer than elsewhere. The story though, gives us a good image for a king, identifying with his people.
‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ Pontius Pilate asked Jesus. ‘Is that your idea’, Jesus said to him, ‘or did others talk to you about me?’ That’s how these legends get started. Other people talking about what other people have said. Jesus was essentially crucified on the basis of gossip and rumour. An urban legend had developed around his ministry that he was going to lead a revolt against Rome.
Not so, although in his conversation with Pilate, Jesus does imply that he is a king. ‘My kingdom,’ he says, ‘is not of this world.’ A King of heaven, a King of kings from some place other than this world. Which means of course that Pilate and Jesus represent Kingdoms in conflict.
First, then, there are the kingdoms of this world, which Pilate represents. But who was this Pilate, Governor of Judea? And why has the church remembered him throughout the ages? Even our creed, which does not mention any of the disciples, mentions him: ‘I believe in Jesus Christ…born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate’.
We know that he was about the same age as Jesus and probably had mixed feelings about his appointment as Governor of Judea. It was one of the most difficult places to govern because of the religious sensitivities of the Jews, and yet he also must have thought that if he did a good job, avoided making errors, he could be assured of a good future in the foreign service of Rome. But from the outset almost everything went wrong for Pilate. At first he tried the strong-arm approach with these fanatical Jews who passionately hated the Roman authorities. In an attempt to force Roman rule upon them he ordered his soldiers to carry images of Caesar into the Jewish Temple. This was a direct insult to the Commandment against idols. Caiaphas, the high priest, retaliated by ordering 2000 praying Jews to surround Pilate's palace for 6 days and nights. Pilate threatened to massacre them, and in defiance the protestors knelt down, stuck their necks out and dared him to do it. Enraged and humiliated, he ordered the images which he had erected in the Temple to be taken down.
Next Pilate tried the benevolent approach. Jerusalem needed a fresh water supply so Pilate agreed to build an aqueduct. But he funded the project from the Temple treasury. There was a riot, soldiers were called in to quell it, there were some deaths, and Pilate ended up with a scathing rebuke from Rome.
So Pilate had lost control. Caiaphas - whose house some of us have been to - he had Pilate over a barrel. So by the time Jesus is brought before him he is on the back foot, knowing that he could not afford to make any more mistakes. And then he has one of the most famous conversations in history:
Pilate asks: Are you the king of the Jews?
Jesus answers: Is that your idea or did someone tell you that?
Pilate: Am I a Jew? I don't know your customs. What is it you have done?
Jesus: My Kingdom is not of this world.
Pilate: You are a king, then!
Jesus: Yes, I am, born a king to testify to the truth.
Pilate then asks: What is truth?
He is trying to get Jesus to implicate himself but he won’t bite. He is king but not king of the Jews. Jesus’ subtle distinction puts Pilate in a difficult position. The Jewish leaders have found fault with Jesus on religious grounds, so now Pilate must find fault with him based on Roman law, but he cannot. He must satisfy everybody. And his wife has told him to avoid Jesus like the proverbial plague - for he is a good man, she has told him - have nothing to do with him, she has said.
So Pilate does not actually pursue truth, but seeks compromise. But this means finding the middle ground amid Roman law, the Jewish high council, his own position as procurator, and Jesus’ innocence or guilt. No easy task: this is politics writ large. And it is the way the governments and kingdoms of this world function. Look around at Syria, Europe, migrants, refugees, terror attacks, security, surveillance - all of these things have to be weighed in the balance, and it is all so finely tuned and difficult.
Yet in that conversation Jesus points Pilate, and us, to another kingdom, so wonderfully described by Cecil Spring Rice in the far more important second verse of the hymn:
And there's another country,
I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her,
most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies,
we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart,
her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently
her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness,
and all her paths are peace.
There is another kingdom, an alternate kingdom, the kingdom of heaven which is now being presented to Pilate.
It is this Kingdom we have been thinking of these last few weeks - even on Remembrance Sunday - and it is its King - Christ the King - whom we celebrate especially today. This celebration at the end of the year is a reminder that Christ will return at the end of time as ruler over all creation. It’s the thought echoed in the book of Revelation. St Paul’s very last words about Jesus touched upon it (2 Tim. 4:1), and it is the last concept touched upon in the life of Christ as he stands before Pilate. “You are right in saying I am a king,” he says to Pilate. “For this very reason I was born.” It is the only place in scripture where Jesus mentions his special birth, and he does so to emphasise his Kingship.
As the carol writer John Hopkins, Jnr put it:
Born a King on Bethlehem plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign.
Jesus is king at his birth and king in his death, but these things are lost on Pilate.
Back to World War 2 for a moment: Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Nazi Propagandist, took an interest in Mahatma Gandhi. Goebbels believed that Gandhi was a fool and a fanatic. If Gandhi had the sense to organise militarily, Goebbels thought, he might hope to win the freedom of India. He was certain that Gandhi couldn't succeed following a path of non-resistance and peaceful revolution. Yet as history played itself out, India peacefully won her independence while the Nazi military machine was destroyed. What Goebbels regarded as weakness actually turned out to be strength, and vice versa.
And so it is with this horrible business about ISIS, or ISIL or whatever we want to call them. I daresay there are lots of things we want to call them, that shouldn’t be said in church. For we are only human after all; and they are not, probably. We are not all Charlie Hebdo, as the mantra ran earlier this year, but this week we probably do want to say we are all Parisians. The context of the two atrocities is different - the recent victims in Paris were innocently minding their own business and had not said or done anything to provoke the hail of bullets that rained upon them. And so now we want them to know that there are more people in the world that love them than hate them. Far more.
And we might remember the words attributed to Martin Luther King:
“darkness cannot drive out darkness, but light. Hatred cannot drive out hatred, but love.”
Or Desmond Tutu’s song that says the same thing:
Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours, victory is ours
Through him who loved us.
And this is Jesus Christ. We often name the name of Christ but do we comprehend what we are saying? When we name Jesus as King, when we call him Lord, do we accept it and believe it and understand it? And do we truly get the difference between the Kingdom that is not of this world, and the worldly, power driven, self-centred, financially constructed, destructive love-lorn kingdoms of planet earth? The kingdom of God and the earthly world do not see eye to eye, especially when it comes to power. These two kingdoms, the kingdom of Pilate and the Kingdom of Jesus, are not compatible.
In the film Schindler’s List one of the many moving scenes has Schindler describing the concept of power. He says that:
“Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t… A man steals something, he’s brought in before the Emperor, he throws himself down on the ground. He begs for his life, he knows he’s going to die. And the Emperor... pardons him. This worthless man, he lets him go. That’s power. That is power.”
There is power in giving up power, in letting go. Jesus knew it, Pilate didn’t. Instead Pilate went on to ask ‘what is truth?’ - a question which Jesus did not answer. Or rather, as the writer Francis Bacon put it:
‘What is truth?, asked jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer’.
And the answer was right in front of him. There were no words, but Christ himself - the King of another world, another way, another realm - he is the answer. He is the truth: The Way, the Truth, and the Life, in fact. The truth is King Jesus Christ, who identifies with his people, loves us and calls us into his narrow way, his divine truth and his resurrection life.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 22/11/15