“You are a king then!” said Pilate. John 18:37
With the passing years, the church has become more difficult to cope with. Sitting at meetings of committees which seem to have the same agenda as the last meeting and the one before and the one before; pondering the workings of central heating boilers; wondering about the church hall; there is a sense that something got lost somewhere along the way. Assurances from friends from other traditions, that similar things happen in their own churches aren’t really much comfort.
The readings on the Sunday before Advent, the Sunday when we remember Christ the King, are an antidote to the frustrations of the church. The story of a Friday in Jerusalem brings us back to what it is all about.
“You are a king then” says Pilate. What a strange sort of king Jesus is. He stands before Pilate. He stands before the man who represents the Roman Empire; he stands before the man who can call on the power of the greatest empire in history; he stands there as king. Pilate has no worldly reason to fear this man, but Pilate is terrified. Pilate wants nothing to do with this case against Jesus. Read on through Saint John and there is rising fear and panic in Pilate’s voice. Pilate tries to humiliate Jesus, the crown of thorns and the purple robe, and Jesus is even greater.
And we have to ask ourselves, do we believe in this Jesus? What would we be prepared to leave behind for faith in such a man?
Pilate tries to bargain with the crowd, he is desperate. It is Pilate who becomes powerless. He has not the courage to stand for what is right and true against what is wrong and lies. “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate knows what a monstrous deed this is.
Then Jesus is brought to Golgotha, the place of the skull, the legendary burial place of Adam. The people understood the meaning of the place, they understood how humanity had fallen from God’s purposes into death and destruction. Adam the first, Jesus the last, the Omega, the one who comes at the end of time as judge of the heavens and the earth. Do we believe in this Jesus? When we try to understand the cosmic meaning of these events, doesn’t a preoccupation with church affairs seem trivial?
Jesus is brought to the place of the skull and here he is crucified. Pilate prepares a notice and has it fastened to the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”. The sign is in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. This is a king for all the people. Aramaic was a popular form of Hebrew, it was the language of God’s own people. Latin was the language of the Empire, the language of the rulers and those in high office. Greek was the language of everyday life and trade around the Mediterranean. Jesus is a king for all the people; for the Jews and the foreigners; for the great and the good; for the common and the ordinary.
How often at church meetings do people even take on board these things? How often is there thought given to a God who is more than a Sunday morning presence for our own group of people?
The soldiers divide Jesus’ clothes between them. A common enough thing to do, a scant reward for a gruesome task. The linen tunic is woven in one piece and they don’t want to tear it. Such a garment was worn by the Jewish high priest. The high priest went into the Temple on the most solemn day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, to offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people. Jesus offers himself on the Cross as an offering for the sins of the people, one and for all time.
How often do we think about Jesus’ self sacrifice and ask what response that demands from us? Surely, it demands more than committees
To the end Jesus is the master of the situation. He is concerned for his mother and asks John to take care of her. Fulfilling Scripture he receives a drink before crying out, “It is finished”. Saint Matthew includes an account of events that we usually leave out: the curtain in the Temple is torn in two; there is an earthquake; and many holy people are raised to life. I suspect most of us, including myself, would be uncomfortable with the description of such events, they don’t sit easily in our modern rational minds.
The readings for today are a test of faith. Do we believe in this new man, this Jesus, who comes to succeed where the old man, Adam, failed? Do we believe in this high priest who offers a final and complete sacrifice, offering us a place in heaven through what he has done? Do we believe in this king, this king for every sort and condition of person?
And if we believe in these things, should it not make for a very different church?
Believing means letting go of things as they are, to become the people that God wants. What does believing mean for our church?