Text: John 18:33-37
There is a saying in the business world and in political circles that “Perception is reality." Very often, to what extent how you and your actions are perceived are more important than your actual motives or actions. Perception becomes more important than truth and influences how much or little power or influence you are able to wield. The power structures of the world are often tied to and feed off of how much potential capital is to be gained and spent as much as actual financial capital.
Power can be seductive. It seems to be one of the keys to success and happiness, but as we know everyone who attains power of some kind learns its limits. Take the example of the President of the United States, who is arguably the most powerful person on the planet, but even he is limited in what he can do by laws that are passed in Congress. On a more mundane level, when I am the dispatcher for the Old Town Trolley, I can direct the Trolley Drivers what to do and when to do it, and I basically run their life from the time they call in their first radio check until I tell them good night, and I can make their day as long or as short as I want, but I am limited by labor laws and safety regulations which serve to protect them and their passengers as they do their job. In my former life as an executive secretary at an Investment Bank in New York, I worked with some very wealthy people, and nothing mattered more to many of them than amassing more and more wealth, having all the right things, going to all the right places, being seen at all the right parties, and their children going to just the right school, all for the sake of power and prestige among their peers and not because they want to do good things or visit exotic places or even have fun for their own enjoyment.
Today, we see the classic scene of Jesus before Pilate as given to us in the Gospel of John. Pilate is the governor of this corner of the Roman Empire and represents the most powerful institution on earth at the time. He would have access to mass amounts of wealth and could call on his political and social connections if necessary by virtue of who he was and what he did. Jesus has been brought before Pilate and has been accused by the religious leadership of proclaiming himself a king not answerable to Ceasar, and of being a rabble-rouser and a blasphemer. He is seen as a threat to their entire way of life and their own power and control, so they begin to pressure Pilate to do away with this meddlesome troublemaker. They want to make Jesus an example during a time when tensions in Jerusalem were already running high, and they are determined to use Pilate to make sure his blood is not on their hands.
Pilate is representative of a person or an institution who is faced with a critical decision, and he is pressured to move in a direction that all of his instincts tell him, “Don’t go there.” He begins the scene in a position of power and strength, but as things progress, we see that he is really getting himself boxed into a corner, and all of Pilate’s power and prestige is shown for what it is, an illusion. For all of the trappings of his office, Pilate actually has no control of the situation at all and try as he might, he can only play out his part in history.
When they are alone, Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king, and Jesus’ response is rather typical. He seems much more interested in wanting to know what others say about him than he is interested in talking about himself. In a way, when Jesus says “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” he is also asking the same question he asked of Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Now eventually, Jesus does admit to being a king, but it is made perfectly clear that Jesus operating on a totally different level than what Pilate is used to. In his conversation with Pilate, Jesus is offering him a chance to know God, to show him that there is a place in the Kingdom of Heaven for even one such as he, to throw off the shackles that enslaves him to his wealth and prestige, to live a life as part of something bigger than himself.
In the verse immediately following our passage today, Pilate dismisses Jesus’ with the off-handed question, “What is truth?” As in today’s world, Pilate operates in a realm where perception is reality, a web of carefully maintained illusion. When faced with one who says that he doesn’t play those games and his entire mission is to reveal truth, he also reveals that he is a threat not only to the religious authorities trying to maintain control of a restive population, but to Pilate himself and the world’s entire way of doing business.
The Kingdoms of the world’s highest values include the accumulation of influence and wealth even at the expense of others … it’s every man for himself … you’re on your own. Oh, to be sure, if you’re a success whether it’s in business or in public service, you’ll be hailed as the next best and biggest new thing. But, if you fail … you may as well not even exist. I mean, everyone likes a winner, right? But losers … not so much.
But in the Kingdom of that Jesus proclaims and where he is reigns is one where it is not every man for himself because we all belong to each other. This is one reason why one of the greatest commandments is “Love your neighbor as yourself” because we are all in this together. None of us can turn to the other and tell them, “I need you not.”
Truth can be very threatening when your life is based on an illusion and you find yourself face to face with the One who calls himself “The Way, the Truth and the Life.” Jesus, even though he is standing in chains before Pilate, is the one who is in the real position of power here because the Kingdom of God is not based on the world’s fallen system of illusion, domination, violence and exploitation. The power of the Kingdom of God flows from love, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation and justice. It is a love that brings life to the dead as we read about in cases of Jairus’ daughter and Jesus’ own friend, Lazarus. It heals the sick, brings good news the poor and releases the oppressed. It is the light of truth causing hearts of stone to melt and opens the eyes of those who cannot see and the sound of justice which causes the deaf the hear. As Christians, we live as people of hope and as we trust in the One whose love for us is so strong and so powerful that not even death can overcome it, and that is why today we proclaim Christ is King.
The holidays are upon us, and beneath all the illusion of merriment and laughter can be found the hard truth that all around there are many people who are hurting inside because they lost a loved one, they are out on the streets, they are enslaved to their addictions, they feel so lost and alone, or is recovering from a debilitating condition and life as they know it is over. The Good News I have for you today is that because we proclaim Christ is King, we can trust in the hope that says “For to your people O Lord, life is changed, not ended.” No matter how dead and cold we feel inside as we deal with everything life throws at us, we can remember that in the stories of the Bible, every time Jesus meets a dead person, that dead person gets up and walks.
Jesus said, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify of the truth” May we always hear the voice of Jesus, our King, and be continuously transformed by the Way, the Truth, and the Life that is the Incarnate love of God.