Today is the last Sunday of Pentecost and it’s also known as the feast of Christ the King – which is the reason why I am wearing white, and the reason why we are using white linen on the altar as well. This is the end of our liturgical year, and next Sunday we will start the season of Advent. Not everybody enjoys referring to Christ as a king though, and it’s not only because a lot of people don’t relate to monarchy as a political system. I have a friend who is also a priest who gets very upset with this feast each year because it carries with it an image of God that is, according to her, very “dominant male” oriented. And so, for all those reasons, as we prepared the bulletin, we agreed with Catherine to refer to the feast as the “Reign of Christ” instead of “Christ the King”, the way many churches do now. Yet, if we get nervous when Jesus is referred to as a king, we can see that the Gospel we have just read gives us an understanding of kingship that is very different from the one we have immediately in mind when we generally refer to kingship. In our Gospel, Jesus is standing in front of Pilate after having been arrested and brought to the high priests, his hands are tied and he is waiting to be flogged and condemned to death. We need to know that the feast of Christ the King is actually rather recent and was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in response to the growing nationalism in Italy and Mussolini’s politics. This passage from the Gospel of John is supposed to embody two different understandings of power: the one claimed by the world, with Pilate, and the one claimed by the church, with Jesus.
This text works indeed as a confrontation, and it is only a short extract of Jesus’s whole interaction with Pilate – an interaction that functions almost like a play. Over the two chapters 18 and 19, Pilate goes back and forth seven times between Jesus held inside the headquarters and the crowd waiting outside with the people and the religious leaders waiting for Jesus’ condemnation. It is very dramatic as we awaits Pilate’s final decision. Sometimes I watch old movies and each time a tragedy happens, I can’t help having a part inside of me kind of hoping that this time, things will turn out differently, although I perfectly know the outcome. You look at the actors and you think; “Don’t do that”, because you know the terrible consequences of their actions. For us Christians, it can be the same feeling when we read the Passion, and maybe you have wondered what would have happened if Pilate had made another decision. If he had decided to release Jesus.
Can you imagine what Christianity would be, if we didn’t have the cross? In John, there is a sense of fate, even if it is divine fate. In his Gospel, John keeps on saying that it was “Jesus’s hour”. Interestingly, I read recently a book by a veteran who explains that on the battle field, soldiers encourage one another by saying their lives are in God’s hands. According to this author, it helps soldiers to cope to believe that the hour of their death is already written. John was very young when Jesus was put to death, and he saw all of it unfold before his eyes, he was at the foot of the cross and saw Jesus’ heart being pierced. It must really have been traumatizing. Maybe there was nothing that could have been done to prevent that, yet we can also wonder: “What if?”. As we see Pilate pacing back and forth from the crowd to Jesus, it his decision that is suspended in the air, and we are all catching our breath. Everything is in Pilate’s hands and he must make up his mind. I can’t help thinking that he could have put Jesus in prison and wait, maybe write to his superiors, ask for advice…But I think that what John wanted to do is to show us Pilate caught with his own conscience. Pilate is lonely and pressured. He seems to believe that Jesus is innocent but he is also very concerned by what people will think of him, by his ability to contain the crowd and to make himself respected. Ironically, he gets so afraid of losing his power that in the end he will cowardly surrender in doing what he does not want to do.
I think we can all recognize ourselves in Pilate. Of course, his experience is one of a kind, but he embodies all our struggles between the loneliness our conscience feels when we must make a decision in spite of the pressure around us, when our desire to please or our desire to stay in control or our desire to preserve our comfort stands in the way of us doing the right thing. We we don’t know what to do and we can’t decide, and like Pilate our mind paces back and forth between possibilities, yet if we are honest with ourselves often we know what to do, it’s just that there is something we don’t want to admit because it bothers us – This is at least my experience. Of course, I was not there the day Jesus was condemned to death but I know that, because I didn’t want to lose my friends at school, I haven’t stood for a few students they used to make fun of. According to Jesus, all we have to do is to witness to the truth but Pilate will ask him: “What’s the truth?”, bringing confusion in a situation that is in fact very clear: the truth is that Jesus is innocent, but it is easier for Pilate to charge him guilty.
Making moral choices is not about getting up early in the morning to go to work or to exercise, sticking to our diet or even to our prayers or not using our neighbor’s parking spot. All those things, this is what nice, healthy or disciplined people do. But this is not what it is about to live as a Christian. Being a Christian is all about the way we treat people, and not so much our friends or family or even people at the other end of the world, it is about how we treat the ones we have in front of us in their powerlessness. Moral life is about how we renounce to our own power to make room for others or how we cling to our power in a destructive way treating others as if they were less than us. I remember this comment I heard once from a woman who was abused by her husband. She said: “When we’re at home, he makes me feel like I am another piece of furniture”. We are not only violent in our acts or in our words, we can be violent in our indifference and in our lack of concern. We have to look at the one standing in front of us, and let our hearts be touched and act according to the truth we believe in that we are all children of the same God and all deserve to be treated well. Kant, who is known as a major philosopher in Ethics, used to summarize all moral rules like this: “Never using another person as a means to an end”. Violence is not about using physical force, sometimes we have to, violence is about using people, diminishing or destroying someone so we can assert our own power. But Jesus shows us another kingdom, another realm than the realm of this world where we try to have dominion over one another: Jesus’ kingship is to renounce all forms of violence once for all. It is in fact interesting that in our Gospel Jesus mentions that his followers won’t fight for him, when in fact he stopped Peter from using his sword towards one of the soldiers who came to arrest him. Jesus does not need any form of coercion, he only invites Pilate to acknowledge what he already knows to be true and to do the right thing he knows he needs to do. But of course, we know what happened. Could Pilate have made another choice, or was everything written from the beginning? We don’t know about that, nobody can tell if Jesus indeed had to die in this terrible way. One thing is sure, is that there can be another end to Pilate’s story, to our stories, because of the forgiveness that is always offered to us. So even if our conscience feel trapped, if we are pressured to do something wrong and if we end up caught in our own mistakes, Jesus’s kingdom is a place where there is always a possibility left to do the right thing whatever bad choices we have previously made. I had fun recently re-reading a book imagining Pilate’s later conversion to Christ. But who knows?
So today is the last Sunday of Pentecost and it’s also known as the feast of Christ the King – which is the reason why I am wearing white, and the reason why we are using white linen on the altar as well. This is the end of our liturgical year, and next Sunday we will start the season of Advent. Not everybody enjoys referring to Christ as a king though, but for me I don’t think of Jesus as carrying any image of God as a dominant and powerful male who rules an army, I think about the king with his hand tied, I think about Jesus’ majesty revealed as he stands in front of Pilate, I think of Jesus’ dignity he kept to the end, in suffering and death – even death on the cross. In a strange reversal of situations, as he clings to power, Pilate becomes powerless, yields to pressure and loses his ability to make decisions, when Jesus as he shows himself so vulnerable seems to be indeed the one in charge of his fate. Even in the worst circumstances, Jesus remains unafraid and free. And that’s why he is the king. May we also, in participating in his kingdom, become unafraid and free. Amen.