Pilate said to Jesus,
“Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own
or have others told you about me?”
Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I?
Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me.
What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.
If my kingdom did belong to this world,
my attendants would be fighting
to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.
But as it is, my kingdom is not here.”
So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say I am a king.
For this I was born and for this I came into the world,
to testify to the truth.
Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” [John 18:33B-37, NAB]
I believe strongly that words matter. And I believe that we are reminded of the importance of such a truth on days such as these.
And when I refer to days such as these, I’m not only referring to the terrorist attacks that occurred in France last weekend. Or the attacks that have happened throughout the Middle East. I’m not referring to any specific incident or tragedy or atrocity. To do so accurately and appropriately, to be truly comprehensive, would require a much longer reflection than I am prepared to give.
In many churches, this Sunday is set aside to mark the solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.
I am troubled with such a name for the celebration of the last Sunday of the church year. And I think Jesus would be troubled to.
In this Sunday’s reading from John’s gospel, it is clear that Jesus hesitates when those who are trying him for sedition bring forth the charges. First of all, it the most powerful authorities, the Pharisees and Sadducees, those for whom John generalizes by referring to Jews, that are calling Jesus king of anything.
As Christians we have an understanding of the Kingdom of God which is indeed different than what we understand to be a monarchical government here on earth. While God’s Kingdom can certainly be understood to be present, at least partially fulfilled here, we understand that the Kingdom of God is not yet realized fully.
But we also live in a world that is growing more and more religiously plural. The last thing that world needs is one faith that believes it rules above any other. The Catholic Church officially rejected that view at the Second Vatican Council and many Christians would agree that there are indeed many faiths and many paths to God and salvation.
The last thing our world needs is Jesus who is lifted high above as king of any worldly jurisdiction, let alone the universe.
In the hours after the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, I found myself on the air, anchoring continuous live coverage at a radio station in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, my hometown.
I remember looking out the studio window as people began to gather in the park across the street for an impromptu prayer service. We played Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA just about once an hour until someone finally was able to find a few other patriotic CDs in the basement.
As the afternoon turned into evening, I decided to begin to take calls live on the air, to allow listeners to engage in some sort of community dialogue about what had happened. The first few calls were thoughtful expressions of pain and doubt and even fear.
And then a barrage of calls from angry listeners began to fill the studio lines. Call after call angrily called out people of the Muslim faith with racial and religious slurs, calling for immediate bombings and bloodshed as retribution.
I stopped taking calls and went back to live coverage from CNN.
As news broke late last Friday of the attacks that shook Paris and the world, similar views began to be shared with me and on social media networks that I monitor regularly. Fear and anger are natural reactions to acts of violence such as terrorist attacks and other atrocities.
Fear and anger are natural. Prejudice, hate and generalizations are manufactured.
We know that there are indeed many images of God found throughout Scripture and throughout broader Christian tradition. One such image is that of Christ as king. Many find this image to be spiritually nourishing.
However, the world today needs the Jesus that we find in this passage from John, a Jesus that rejects attempts to make him a king of this world. Our world needs a Jesus that walks alongside it and brings understanding, compassion, mercy and justice.
And the world today also needs those of us who follow Jesus to follow through on what he asks of us in the last line of the passage, to testify to the truth.
That is much more difficult than we think it is. In order to testify to the truth, we must first carefully discern what that truth truly is. Such discernment can’t be done in the emotion-filled moments found in responding to new bulletins on Facebook and Twitter, it must be done in the quiet of time set apart, alone or in the midst of community.
The truth can’t and won’t be found in our constant digital culture, moving from outrage to outrage to outrage, pausing occasionally for commercial breaks or sports scores or cat videos.
We need time to pray, to think, to remember and to engage.
“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” Jesus says. Today, we are called to proclaim that voice. Not only in our preaching from our pulpits and in our churches, but we proclaim it with everything that we say and do and all that we don’t do. We who have listened now proclaim.
But what is the world hearing from us? Is it truth or what we have been led to believe is true? Is it that which we have discerned to be true through lived experience and the experience of God working in others? Or is it instead a gut reaction based in fear and our own ignorance?
The world has enough kings today. Just as political forces sought to challenge the mission of Jesus in his time on earth, we find similar attempts to set aside the common good in service to the politics of fear and division. Just as Jesus rejected the crown proposed to him in the midst of trial, we must reject the shiny crown of quick conclusions and eager retribution.
At the same time, it isn’t a simple matter of choosing tolerance over fear and anger. I cannot reject racism and religious intolerance while not also rejecting acts of terrorism. My disappointment and rage toward those who don’t understand the Muslim faith or who are quick to generalize is just as unhelpful as the prejudice and fear itself.
The truth is much more complex than any of us want to take the time to admit. And yet that is exactly what Jesus is calling us to in John’s gospel and what God asks of us throughout Scripture. The truth is only found in the midst of a global community that takes the time to discern it together and then that goes out to the world.
And when the world hears our voice raised as one, may it be one of hope and peace, not of anger and fear.