John 18:33-38New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters[a] again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 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?” 36 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.” 37 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.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
What is truth? And, more importantly, can we handle the truth?
Let us pray.
Loving God, help us to be present with you and to be open to your truth. Help us to listen with open hearts that we may truly embrace you with our whole beings. Amen.
Some of you may remember a movie from some years back called “A Few Good Men.” The movie was a legal drama based in the military. Tom Cruise is the Navy JAG officer, Lt. Kaffee, who is defending several Marines. In one of the courtroom scenes, he is questioning the commanding officer of these Marines Col. Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, and, as sometimes happens, the exchange is getting heated. Lt. Kaffee is rapidly firing questions at Col. Jessup and demands the truth. Jack Nicholson’s character famously says, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth?”
I reference this movie because I believe that we are like Lt. Kaffee when it comes to our faith. We want answers and we ask for truth. But I am not sure we understand the truth or that we can even handle it when we get it. Our scripture lesson this morning also deals with truth. Some of you may think it a little odd to hear a scripture passage dealing with the last week of Jesus’ life just as we are getting ready to start Advent, which celebrates Jesus’ birth. But today is Christ the King Sunday and this passage deals with the truth of Jesus as King.
So, what is Christ the King Sunday? It is the day when we celebrate and acknowledge the full authority of Christ as King and Lord of the universe. Christ the King is a title for Jesus. It refers to the concept of the Kingdom of God where we imagine Jesus seated at the right hand of God, unlike the title that was mockingly given to him at his crucifixion, King of the Jews.
So this is where our scripture has us with Jesus before Pilate. The night before is when Judas betrayed Jesus and Jesus was arrested in the garden. Now he is before Pilate and Pilate is questioning him. Pilate is an earthly fellow. He knows how the world works. The strong rule the weak; the powerful judge the actions of lesser; some things you learn by investigation, interrogation; some things are too philosophical to know with any certainty. Pilate knows that this weak, beaten man before him is no ruler. And yet, he continues to question him. He asks whether Jesus actually claims to be a king. Talking about kingship and kings causes an intersection of religion and politics. This is a threat to Pilate’s power. Pilate has authority and he does not want to give it up or have it threatened. He certainly doesn’t want someone else claiming to be king. This is what has him questioning and that is what the main issue is.
Pilate begins a series of questions with Jesus, almost trying to trip him up and get him to admit to something. As is common with Jesus in the Gospel of John, when Pilate asks a question, Jesus answers with a question of his own. And then Jesus seems to speak in what appears to be some sort of rhyme to Pilate. He talks of his kingdom not being of this world. That is enough for Pilate to believe that Jesus is claiming to be a king and so he asks him again. Jesus again poses a question as his answer and talks about belonging to the truth. Almost in exasperation Pilate asks, “What is truth?”
For Pilate, truth could not exist apart from the power interests that backed it up—himself, those he oversaw and those in authority over him. Truth was always a strategy game in Pilate’s world, changing with the winds of power. When Pilate says, “What is truth?,” he implies that it makes no difference whether we cheat or act with honor, whether we act out of self-interest or for the greater good. What matters to Pilate is who you are not what you do. He wants to know who Jesus is, period. That is the only truth he wants. He is not worried about what Jesus has done.
For you and I, the world we live in is not very different from that of Pilate, unfortunately. We want things simple and given to us, not really having to figure it out. And people still like to be thought of as important and popular. People still want to be powerful and influential. People are still judged on who they are, their title or role in life, and not on the things they do. But the truth of it is, when we claim Jesus Christ as our Lord and King, there are things we must do differently. This truth eluded Pilate.
When we are talking about Jesus as King, we are talking about a Greek word, basileia. The meaning of basileia is royal power, kingship or dominion. The better word for us to use in understanding this passage is kingship or reign. And in using this word, we are talking more about the nature and function of Jesus kingship, not a place. Jesus has dominion over us, not a place.
When questioned by Pilate, Jesus speaks to us with directness about his kingdom. He says it is not of this world but of the world to come. Jesus makes it quite clear that he claims to be a king and equally clear that his kingdom is not based on force but is a kingdom in the hearts of men and women. For Pilate, who wanted control over people, you can understand why this concept of ruling people’s hearts might be confusing. Jesus would never deny that he aimed at conquest, but it was a conquest of love; God’s love for us and our love for God. Jesus also tells us why he came into the world. He came to witness to the truth; he came to tell people the truth about God, the truth about themselves and the truth about life. Proclaiming the truth, being the truth is what makes him a king.
The Truth of Jesus, the truth of God’s reign, is unchanging and always knowable to those who know how to listen for it. Truth is God’s love of all and our love of God and neighbor. Christians believe the ultimate truth is found in Jesus Christ and is recorded in the gospel accounts of his life. When we claim and know this truth, then we are forever changed and come to know Jesus Christ the King.
What is truth? It is a question for the ages. For Christians, it is clear: Jesus of Nazareth is the King who sits upon the throne in Heaven and will come one day as ruler of the kings of earth.  It eludes many who seek after truth in various and contradictory ways. Yet, it is within the grasp of even the simplest minds, the gift of faith. Faith is that incomprehensible gift that makes the humblest person content and answers the most confounding questions of great thinkers. It is illogical, impenetrable, and not testable. Human reason cannot fathom it yet the beauty of it revealed in a believer’s heart is glorious.
What is truth? It is belief in Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, dead and buried, on the third day he arose from the dead and sits at the right hand of God. That’s what we say we believe when we recite the Apostles’ Creed, isn’t it? Truth is Jesus.
When we decide to live into this truth, it means we give our lives to Jesus. We commit to live with Jesus as ruler of our lives. In any kingdom, there are laws and ways of life the people must follow. The same is true for us when we claim Jesus and choose to live in his kingdom. There are some simple things Jesus asks of us, actually, things Jesus requires of us when we want to be his followers. These requirements are found in Matthew 22 where the disciples ask Jesus what the greatest commandment in the law is. Jesus tells them they are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
First, we are to love God. What does it mean to love God with all your heart, soul and mind? It means that we are to put nothing before or above God. All we say and do should be to honor God. Honoring, praising, blessing, imploring, worshiping—these are all forms of devotion to God. And we are to allow God to lead and guide our lives. Loving God is giving up control to God and living your life in a way that honors God.
Second, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Woah. In following truth, we are to treat others the way we treat ourselves? Yes. Jesus wants us to love one another in the way he loves us and in the way we love ourselves. And it is not just the people we like but all of God’s children.
Now I said these are requirements and they are. But I don’t want you to look at them simply as restrictions. It is a commitment to love. It is a radical love of God that is inseparable from a love of neighbor.
When we know the truth of Jesus, when we choose to follow these commandments, we are freed up to love radically. God loves us radically and we can do likewise. Throughout scripture, we see many examples of Jesus’ love for us. And we have the wonderful opportunity to show these same acts of love to others. And then we can look in our daily lives for examples of God’s love active in our world. When we are open to acts of love and kindness, we can once again see and hear the truth that shapes and changes everything. It is cyclical in nature. God loves us, we love God and one another and we see how God loves us. This is the truth to which King Jesus came to bear witness.
The truth? The truth is that Jesus is King of our hearts and lives. No, his kingdom is not a physical place. It is now and it is to come. Jesus’ kingdom is in our hearts and lives today when we love and honor God and it is to come with the promise of eternal life with God. The truth? Jesus is a King who expects unwavering loyalty to him and his followers.
On this day when we acknowledge the full authority of King Jesus over our lives, we have to think about whether we truly want to give over that kind of control. The truth is when we say Jesus Christ is King, we are giving him rule over our lives. Can we handle that kind of truth? Pontius Pilate and much of the world only give lip service to Jesus, to his kingship. Pilate did not consider Jesus a king. What about you? Can you handle the truth that comes when we acknowledge Jesus as king? Are you prepared to follow the truths Jesus gives us? As we prepare for a new Christian year and the beginning of Advent, Jesus calls us to look deeply into our hearts and ask ourselves, “What is truth?” Amen.
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O’Day, Gail R. The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume IX: Luke and John. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.
Schmit, Calyton J. “What Is Truth?” Pulpit Resource, Vol. 34, No. 4 Year B & C (October, November,
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 Schmidt, Clayton J., “What Is Truth?,” Pulpit Resource Vol. 34, No. 4 Year B & C (2006) 38.
 Schmidt, Clayton J., “What Is Truth?,” Pulpit Resource Vol. 34, No. 4 Year B & C (2006) 38.