Preaching John 18:33-37
In our lesson, we listen in on a conversation in which Jesus speaks about truth. The question of truth is universally human. Yet, it is the Greek mind that the search for truth is the most conspicuous. And it is the Greek world to which the Gospel of John is addressed. Jesus’ words in this text about truth are carefully preserved by the evangelist who seeks to show the answer of Christianity – the truth of Christianity – to the central inquiry of the Greek mind, the question of truth. That answer is also for us; for people today who ask the question of truth as passionately, and sometimes as desperately, as did the Greeks to whom the evangelist wrote.
The surprise of this text is that it records Jesus’ own denial; Jesus’ denial of sovereign territory, “My kingdom isn’t from here” (v.36). From inside the governor’s house, a center of power for a defined territory, Jesus disclaims royal territory. Certainly, Jesus’ denial is on the geographical level, his royal authority lies elsewhere and it is this “elsewhere” that defeats Pilate. For Pilate – and for us – sovereignty implies a specific place, such as the British Empire which encompasses specific land throughout the world. Christ denies any claim to this kind of power or rule. This is incredible! Here is a man putting his credibility at risk by a denial of authority.
A sermon on this text might be titled, Christ’s Own Denial. Such a title may generate curiosity since many in the church are well familiar with the denial of Peter on the night of Jesus’ arrest. What is often unrealized is that on the same night of Peter’s denial, Jesus denies royalty within the categories traditionally understood by women and men. The sermon may explore Jesus’ deeper understanding of his royal authority and what that means for those who follow his rule.
I would begin the sermon with my own wrestling between Pilate’s grasp of power and authority and Jesus’ own claim to royal reign over a kingdom that “isn’t from here.” This “wrestling” of the difference is the heart and soul of this narrative. Is Pilate’s understanding of power – and, consequently our own – the ultimate authority? Or is Jesus? A careful eye will detect that John, the Evangelist, reverses the roles of these two men. Pilate is the one being judged, and Jesus is the judge. This encounter between Pilate and Jesus becomes an arm wrestling match between political power and spiritual power.
What would be helpful at this juncture in the development of the sermon would be to help the congregation to understand again that “political power” directs people’s outward behavior by fear of unpleasant consequences, “spiritual power” changes people from the inside, directing their behavior by desire for “something more.”
Easter morning, 2015, a couple spoke to me following the first service. They said they had lived “down the street” for years and had never worshipped with us before that morning. They continued by saying that though they had not worshipped before they were always grateful that the church was here. Politely and carefully, I asked, “Why?” “Why were they grateful that the church was here?” Their answer, “Each day it reminds us that there is something more.” They promised to return and then proceeded to walk down the street – presumably to their home.
Jesus’ vision for life – and the church – could not be stated more elegantly, “To be something more.” Jesus’ denial of royalty as traditionally understood is because he wants more for us; wants for us “something more” than forced compliance to the political systems of the day. Jesus declares that his authority comes from another place outside this world. His confrontation with our political systems, in the form of Pilate, however, suggest that his kingship not only challenges the political state, it judges and calls into question the ability of the state to provide the life God desires for us.
The May 29th, 2015 issue of the newsmagazine, The Week reports that the future of Christianity in America “looks very bleak.” The number of Americans who self-identify as Christian has dropped nearly 8 points, to about 70 percent while the number of citizens who claim no religious affiliation has hit an all-time high of 23 percent. One journalist suggest that the principal reason Americans are turning away in droves from the Christian faith is because the Christian right has tried to impose its harsh, Old Testament views on the entire country. Angry battles have been launched against women’s reproductive rights and gay marriage. Simply, Americans have little desire for this religious extremism. Few want to be affiliated with intolerance. Quite simply, the Christian right spoken of here seeks to exercise the political rule and authority of Pilate. Jesus challenges that rule today as he did before Pilate.
Jesus did not make the same impression upon everyone who heard him speak. Those who sought “more” heard in his preaching the refrain of forgiveness, love and acceptance. Others sought to impose by force and political might their own views of how life should be lived. People’s judgement of Jesus varied with their spiritual capacities. It would appear in the crucifixion of Jesus that Pilate won. But the resurrection remains only a few days away.