Reign of Christ | Proper 29

John 18:33-37

33 Pilate went back into the palace. He summoned Jesus and asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own or have others spoken to you about me?”

35 Pilate responded, “I’m not a Jew, am I? Your nation and its chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”

36 Jesus replied, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.”

37 “So you are a king?” Pilate said.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.”

Reign of Christ

A world-famous archaeologist who once said, “Archaeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it’s truth you’re interested in, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.”

Ok, so, that was actually Dr. Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Harrison Ford was right. Even for a movie-archaeologist. There is a difference between fact and truth, and there are differences between kinds of truth.

We talk about facts as those empirically verifiable objective things. Facts exist in reality. They can be observed and proved by the senses. If I have two apples and add two more, I have four apples. If I mix hydrogen with oxygen and then light it with a match, I’m going to get a really big explosion…and water.

Truth is, seemingly, a little more difficult to nail down. Truth can have the quality of being more subjective than objective, it can be relative or universal. Truth is sometimes defined as what an individual person has come to believe about the state of something or someone. That’s relative truth, and it’s not the same for everyone. My wife and I still disagree about the temperature. In summer, she’s fine with scorching heat in the house so long as it’s not too humid, so I roast. But, in winter, she’s like an arctic fox who needs to feel the cold, so I freeze.

On the other hand, logic requires us to admit that universal and absolute truths exist. After all, if anyone who believes that all truth is relative and thus states, All truth is relative, there is no such thing as absolute truth, then that person has already contradicted themselves by stating the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth.

John’s theme of truth is a central point in this text. When Jesus encounters Pontius Pilate, it’s an encounter between an intellectual understanding of truth, which we find in Pilate, and truth as divine revelation, which we find in Jesus. Years after this encounter, one of the early Christian Fathers named Tertullian would ask one of the most enduring questions in Christianity: “What, indeed, has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” (Prescription Against Heretics, 7). Athens represented philosophy and empirical truth. Jerusalem represented the truth of divine revelation. John tells us that Jesus is identified with God’s truth (c.f. 1:9, 14), and is, himself, the truth (c.f. 14:6).

God’s truth speaks of God’s reign and rule over all creation. It points to an authority that is above all earthly authorities, powers, and political entities. For those who belong to this truth, it speaks to a way of life that is different from the way the rest of the world lives, and values that are different from what the human world values. This truth requires us to look beyond what we believe so that we can hear what God has declared.

This truth is absolutely transforming if we seek it through discerning obedience. But discerning obedience is difficult because it means we must try to live—beyond our individual selves—into something that isn’t necessarily comfortable for us. This truth asks us to look deeply into ourselves: who we are and what we have become, in order that we might live into what we can and ought to be as citizens of God’s dominion. If Jesus Christ is our king, if the reign of God is a truth above all truths, then Christians bow only to Christ. We give our allegiance to Christ above and before any other person, nation, party, power, politic, or authority. And, we seek to understand what God values and requires even as these earthly persons, nations, parties, powers, politics, and authorities are clamoring for our attention and our allegiance.

 

One of the difficulties for American Christians who read this text is that our very mindset is so different from the people of the Ancient Near East. American culture values the idea of individualism. And not just individualism, but rugged individualism. We tend to think of ourselves wholly as individuals, apart and distinct from other individuals to the point that the idea of community, itself, is almost thought of as a weakness or, at best, an appendage that’s nice to have on occasion, but we like that it’s something that we can easily cut off—at least temporarily—so we can be our true individual selves. Especially if things get too deep or too real for our rugged individual comfort.

We United Methodists have largely forgotten that the glue that held Methodism together from the earliest days was Christian community. Methodists were organized into small groups which met weekly where the members encountered each other in community that was authentic and life-giving. In those small community-groups, they shared their lives with each other: their faith, their struggles, their hopes, their prayers. That kind of thing scares the snot out of most Americans because we’re so deeply trapped in the cultural value of rugged individualism that we can’t allow ourselves to experience the vulnerability of community. We don’t want other people to see our true selves because they might see that we’re not so rugged or so individualistic after all. They might see that we need them, and that’s terrifying for an American.

Maybe that’s the challenge for us, because another theme that’s central to this text is that of belonging. Jesus told Pilate, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37b CEB).

The reign of God is larger than any individual. The reign of God creates a new community. John the Seer wrote of Jesus, “…by your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they will rule on earth” (Revelation 5:9-10 CEB).

When Jesus uses the word king and kingdom, here, he gives them new definitions. Belonging to the community of God’s dominion, a community over which Jesus Christ reigns, means we belong to a truth that is not bound to earth. Yet, this kingdom-community is not some esoteric, imaginary thing, either. Jesus came from and belongs to a different kind of kingdom: the dominion of God.

There are times when we test our belonging to community. Children test their belonging to family. I vaguely remember when I got mad at my parents and decided to run away. I climbed a tree behind our house and sat there until I got cold and hungry enough to decide that, whether I liked my family or not, whether I wanted to belong with my family or not, I really did need them.

Communities of faith are no different. Members and non-member constituents test their belonging to our congregation. Sometimes they deliver ultimatums. Sometimes they drift away quietly to see if anyone will notice. Others talk it out with church leadership or other persons and decide whether to stay or leave based on the response they get. All these tests of belonging are based on each individual’s own decision-making. Yet, in the Ancient Near Eastern sense, belonging isn’t really up to each one of us alone. We belong because we belong. We belong because the community knows us, loves us, and claims us. When Jesus tells Pilate, “Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37b CEB), Jesus is offering Pilate an invitation to be a part of this community that transcends the individual self.

 

But, how do we listen to the voice of Jesus? It requires a relationship with Jesus in which we constantly look beyond ourselves. When I do premarital counseling with couples, I use a tool called a Marriage Covenant which has all kinds of questions that are designed to force communication to happen. I remind couples that sometimes marriage is work—hard work—precisely because it’s a relationship. And relationships transcend individualism. Relationships require constant communication about everything. So, working through the Marriage Covenant is practice for the kind of constant communication that will foster growth and depth in their relationship as a couple.

When Joy and I were in our first ministry appointment in Terre Haute, we met this couple named Herb and Jerri Redman. They were the sweetest, kindest people you could ever know. Each of them, in their own way, was just a hoot. When you settled yourself on the couch or glider across the living room from Herb and Jerri and started chatting with them, you quickly found out that Jerri did all the talking. Those two loved each other so deeply, knew each other so intimately, that only one of them ever needed to talk.

Now, Herb usually got one or two words in on the edges of the conversation, but Jerri would even answer questions that you asked to Herb. And if you looked over at Herb when Jerry was answering for him, he would just get this big knowing grin on his face and nod his head. And Jerri knew full-well she was talking for Herb. She would even occasionally preface her comments by saying, “Now, I’m going to answer for him.”

Jerri was like the main character carrying on the dialogue of a story. Herb was like the narrator, occasionally throwing in little tidbits of background or corrective information. That’s how I hope my relationship with Joy is when I’m 80. When we have visitors I’ll just sit back and let her go, confident that she’ll say what I would have said anyway because she knows me that well.

Building up that kind of relationship doesn’t happen overnight. Like the couples I counsel before their marriage, like Herb and Jerri Redman practiced for 65 years, all of our relationships require commitment, work, constant attention, and accepting the possibility that there’s still room to grow, that we don’t yet know it all. The way we listen to the voice of Jesus is by getting to know him so well that you could almost say he lives in you. In fact, when we enter into that kind of loving relationship with Jesus Second John, reminds us that the truth “abides in us and will be with us forever” (2 John 1:2, my trans.). When we accept the truth and listen to the voice of Jesus, we cannot help but follow the truth that takes up residence inside of us.

There’s another aspect to being in relationship with Jesus that we might overlook. You see, having a relationship with Jesus is not a one-on-one, individual thing. It requires community. Jesus had disciples, and Jesus founded this thing called the church. The church isn’t a building, though that’s often how we think of it. The church is a community of people who are in a relationship with Jesus and with each other. Look around you. We who belong to Jesus belong to one another.

In this new community of God’s dominion, we don’t so much follow in the footsteps of Jesus as we live a life infused with his presence, in sync with the Holy Spirit, and governed by the truth Jesus reveals to us. I think that’s what it means for followers to follow truth. We follow by living Jesus-infused lives, by living in such communion with Jesus—and each other—that he lives in us and we in him.

We have the invitation. But we must be willing to listen to the voice of Jesus and look deeply into ourselves. Followers follow truth, even with the truth tells us we need to change our hearts and minds in order to live more fully into the dominion of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

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