A King for all seasons
Week of Sunday November 25 - Christ the King
Gospel: John 18:33-38
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate 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?’ 36Jesus 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.’ 37Pilate 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.’ 38Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’
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At his arrest, Jesus is in control. They came for him, and "4Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, ‘For whom are you looking?’ 5They answered, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus replied, ‘I am he.’ Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. 6When Jesus said to them, ‘I am he’, they stepped back and fell to the ground.7Again he asked them, ‘For whom are you looking?’ And they said, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ 8Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he.'" (18:4-8)
Even on the Cross, this King on the Cross is undefeated. At the end he proclaims, in triumph, “It is finished,” and gives up his spirit to God. He is still in control.
How do we understand this King, when in another telling of the story, even he loses faith and cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
These are the Gospels of John, which provides the reading for this week, and Mark, where we have spent most of our time this year. Is it the same Christ?
The old joke says that Jesus sat down on the mountain and said to the disciples, “Now listen carefully. I don’t want four versions of this going around!” Four versions is what happened, plus many more since, but together they provide us with a gospel for all seasons. They give us a place to stand and observe Jesus, no matter what is happening in our lives, and allow us to invite him into our lives (if that is the language we like) no matter who we are.
Uniting Church scholar Bill Loader says “John is a gospel of radical simplifications.” It is easy to miss this. John’s language is mystical. It is many layered, and full of allusions and symbolism. It is a different kind of language to the way we speak and think. But John is radically simple. He lays it down: Christ is the King. You either see it or you don’t.
John is like the Bach Proof for the Existence of God.
The Bach Proof goes like this.
There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Therefore there must be a God.
You either see this one or you don't.
When I first met that proof I stopped in surprise. Then I saw it. The wonderful, glorious music of Bach! How can there be music like this except that there is a God? But if you can’t see it, the proof is pure foolishness, a mere sophistry hiding behind a name.
This is the theology of John. It is the theology of the ambit claim! If you don’t see, you are blind.
That does not mean it is easy, nor that it is foolish. John realises the paradox and the absurdity of his claim. He builds it into his Gospel. It is out of the paradox that we become able to see. As Bill Loader says in this week’s First Thoughts,
Jesus was not ‘the king of the Jews’; the charge was false; and yes, he is ‘the king of the Jews’; the charge is unwittingly true. He is a mad king: weak, crucified, crowned with thorns, pathetic, defeated. Mark has been telling us about love and self-giving, a path that led him to this. John retains the stark melody. As Jesus’ life is subversive, so also is his death. It depicts in deed what Jesus taught in word: greatness is lowliness and compassion, the last is first, loving matters most. (Loader)
At the moments of life when we are in love with God, when the Bach of the Universe is lifting our souls, this high poetry works. This deluded suffering dying king is The King. Compassion, service, and love lift us into the presence of Almighty God. Can you not see how wonderful this is?! Can you not see that in this paradox lives the Truth of all things?! This is the glorious King.
You either see this, or you don’t.
Pilate asked, “What is truth?” when Jesus told him that
Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." Pilate thinks he is questioning Jesus, but actually Jesus is testing “Pilate; the judge is being judged. Pilate's response, "What is truth?" is not to be understood as a profound philosophical question. It does echo the imperiousness of the Roman when challenged (see also 19:22); but ironically it is a self-condemnation: His failure to recognize truth and hear Jesus' voice shows that he does not belong to God. [pp. 752-3 Raymond Brown The Death of the Messiah]
You either see this, or you don’t.
In my life there are too many days when Bach is not glorious music. Bach is just noise; John Cage on a bad day, and worse. There is nothing to say. There is only pain. Silence is the only response that does not mock me.
If you read me John on that day, you do me damage. You abuse me with his absurdity. There is no glory; agnosticism is the best of it, and psychic pain that too often longs for death, or at least the sleep of weeks.
We who live in the love of John, who enjoy our Bach most days of our lives, do well to remember that most people walk the path of life along the edge of the crumbling cliffs I have just described. We are all vulnerable to being pushed uncomfortably close to the precipice. Too many of us spend life scrabbling at the edge, too often trying to keep our footing. It is no choice; it just is.
You either see this, or you don’t.
For us flailing at the edge, there is the Gospel of Mark. I’m reworking words from Monday’s post:
In Mark Jesus has been coming to Jerusalem, all the while warning that he will be killed. It is a gospel with a cloud hanging over it, even at the best of times. Even God is a bit ambiguous; perhaps this is why he comes in a cloud on the mountain of the Transfiguration. (9:2ff) Even that high moment, glorious and worthy of the Gospel of John, is immediately followed by demon possession and failed prayer down in the valley of life.
At the end Mark prefigures the inevitable death of Jesus with the destruction of Jerusalem. It is as though he is inviting us to let all our religious hopes and presuppositions to be utterly shattered, as were those of Israel. Shattered they will be, for Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem rapidly turns into total disaster.
- He is betrayed.
- He is deserted.
- He is tried in a kangaroo court.
- He is executed alone.
- There is no resurrection to be seen, only an empty tomb.
- The disciples are so afraid or stunned they don’t even go to the tomb, so
- “Tell the disciples to go to Galilee,” says the young man in the tomb.
- But the women are too frightened to tell anyone.
- And the gospel ends... hanging
Perhaps worse than all this, Jesus seems to lose faith himself. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Somewhere, in this laying before us of the paradox, Life is only to be found when everything is lost. When there is total loss, there is the hope of resurrection. When we “go back to Galilee,” with what little dignity and energy we have left after our failure and humiliation, and begin life again, living as Jesus would live; when we live with compassion and in service and love to others, we will find Jesus there. We will find resurrection; we will find that like Peter’s mother in law, and the dead girl, we are being lifted up. We will find, like the blind men of Mark, that we can see clearly.
Mark tells us there is no escape. There is no avoiding the pain of depression and suffering when it comes. There is no avoiding the injustice of the world. God owes us (Wiesel) for all God does to us by putting us here. But, in a paradox as bold as that of John, if we will go through the pain, if we will march grimly into death, and we must all face it or be forever fleeing, we will find resurrection and Jesus.
You either see this, or you don’t. Except that here, you can also find it. Instead of freezing by the cliff, curling up, and refusing to move, we can risk the edge. We can get up and fall off. And sometimes we do. And when we do it because we stopped thinking only of ourselves, and begin merely to face in the direction of Galilee, we will be lifted up.
It strikes me that these are mighty fine words; preachers’ words, when the reality is miserable, shitty, desperate, and full of despair. Mark is no easy gospel.
Yet while the glory of John is a flickering glory; sometimes I see it, but often it is blown out in the wind, Mark is real. I live in Mark. And at the end of the dying, I see it. Truly this man was a son of God, the Son who did not lose faith. He did not cry out that God was gone, or that God was not. He cried out to God, “Why have you abandoned me?” This is a faith I can follow. This is a real King.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!