Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that 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."
In our on-going Sunday night adult education group we’ve come to know that the Book of John was written nearly two hundred years after the death of Jesus and far from recording historical accounts of his life it reflects theological understandings of his ministry and existence.
Sadly, as the latest of the Gospels, it also reflects the reality that by this point in history the early Christian community is becoming separate from the Jewish community that Jesus was apart of. With this separation comes persecution of early Christians and the narratives of Jesus death change in ways that blame the Jews more directly as a people for the death of Jesus, when the Romans where truly responsible.
Knowing all this we can sit back from our vantage point and see how it was that Pilate must have been confused about Jesus.
This lowly son of a carpenter was actually wildly popular with the Jewish people and word had reached Pilate that some referred to Jesus as King.
King? No, must have thought Pilate, not this man in rags who travels from town to town preaching about love and acceptance, whose message of radical hospitality upset the old guard of the established religious order who had come to serve as collaborators with Pilate and his Roman occupiers. Jesus welcomed foreigners and unclean people; he kept company with women and tax collectors. This was no king. Kings are like Pilate and Caesar, clothed in the best fabrics and men to be feared because of their authority and ability to exercise that authority with the armies at their sides. Jesus preached non-violence. How could this Jewish peasant be a king?
When Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God his words were a direct challenge to Roman authority. The Roman Empire was based on the accumulation of wealth and power to serve the needs and interests of the emperor. A peace of sorts was maintained throughout the empire – it was said a citizen of the empire could walk from one end to the other without fear of be accosted – but it was a peace maintained by fear. Those on the margins that demanded more for their communities – more food, more freedom to worship, more freedom to practice their own culture – were brutally suppressed. Jesus reached back to the words of the Hebrew Prophets and reminded the Jewish people that such a world was not what God had intended. No, God wanted a world where everyone shared in the bounty provided, and where the least of these in society came first. In the Kingdom of God, Pilate – who wielded his authority for the benefit of the empire and not the common good – had no place.
The church too quickly forgot the lessons of Jesus. When Constantine converted and declared that Christianity would be the state religion of the Roman Empire the Christian faith became perverted. At that moment, the church became an agent of the state and church officials collaborators once again. The movement that Jesus envisioned was nearly extinguished.
But the embers of the fire continued to burn in the hearts of some. Some men and women who heard the story of Jesus and who were fortunate enough to read his message for themselves kept alive the idea of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the Roman Empire, and the empires that followed. Over the centuries Christians have, following in the footsteps of Jesus, worked to heal the sick and to care for the poor. Some Christians have become great voices for freedom of oppressed peoples. Others have lead or taken part in non-violent revolutions for social change.
We spend too much time in the Christian church debating what happens to us after we die and not enough time talking about how to improve the world we live in. Jesus was never obsessed with death and salvation the way he was obsessed with building up the Kingdom in the here and now.
Here’s a question to consider: Do we want to build up our membership? If the answer is yes, the question becomes why and how. Numbers for the sake of numbers does nothing to advance the goal of building up the Kingdom. Larger numbers might create a better sense of community or create a social club but that cannot be out goal. We need to aim for something larger. We need to be evangelists for the Kingdom and work to increase our membership by drawing in people who recognize that we actually stand for something.
We pride ourselves on being places where all points of view are accepted. But I also agree with Martin Luther King, Jr. who once preached at Riverside Church that: “…I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.”
There are too many great moral issues being debated in our community today – in our state and the world – that require the attention of the church. These issues – whether it be the coming debate over marriage equality or more life threatening issues concerning global climate change – that demand that we not be silent but take stands, not just as individuals but as a church community.
What would Pilate think of us? This is a serious question. If we dropped Sunnyside Church and University Park Church through a time warp and into Pilate’s time would we been seen as a community that was at all threatening? Or could we easily be ignored? Are we speaking out as a church on the important issues of our time as churches or are we sitting in silence – perhaps acting as individuals, perhaps hoping someone else will do the work we are all called to do?
Jesus knew who he was. He didn’t need a title or throne or crown to tell him that he was God’s son called to proclaim the Kingdom. We need to struggle a bit with who we are, I think. It’s time.
We need to be marching alongside workers at Wal-Mart calling for livable wages.
We need to be demanding of our President and our Congress a carbon tax and other measures to dramatically shift the way we all live to save God’s creation.
We need to be demanding of our local community permanent funding sources to create affordable housing and standing with those facing foreclosure.
And Sunnyside Church and University Park Church should be the first churches to Oregon to publically endorse a ballot measure calling for marriage equality in 2014.
If we do these things and more, we can stop being the church of Constantine and start being the movement of Jesus. We’ll be controversial. New people will come to worship with us and others will mock us. But at least we will know who we are and can say that we are faithfully responding to the teachings of Jesus in our time and place.