Sermon - Sunday, 25 November 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 25 November 2018.

Scripture:  2 Samuel 23: 1-7 / John 18: 28-40

Text:  Pilate then when back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, are you the king of the Jews?                                                               (John 18: 33)  


If the opening lines of this morning’s hymns suggest something of a royal theme to the service you are not mistaken.

Let me warn you however that unlike all the pomp and ceremony witnessed at Windsor’s two royal weddings earlier this year, with their horse drawn carriages, soldiers on parade, union flag waving crowds and star studded celebrity guest lists, it is a royal theme with a twist.

Today is the last Sunday in the calendar of the Christian year and since 1925 it has been known as Christ the King Sunday.

Christ the King Sunday was introduced by Pope Pius XI in the dark days following the Great War and against the rising tide of fascism sweeping different parts of Europe.

It was introduced to call Christian people everywhere to declare their allegiance not to the power of the state or the might of its army but to a very different type of king and a very different type of kingdom.

So what kind of king is Christ the King - and what kind of kingdom?

Beginning with their accounts of the Magi who followed a star in search of the child born to be king of the Jews, the gospels trace something of Jesus’ ministry through the towns and villages of Galilee.

It is a ministry full of surprising twists, unexpected turns, not without its moments of controversy and it reaches its climax when welcomed down the Mount of Olives by a palm waving crowd, the donkey-riding king enters Jerusalem in regal splendour.

As you know, the cheering soon ended.

Denied, betrayed and abandoned by even his closest friends, Jesus is arrested, paraded before the Sanhedrin, taken to Pilate, mocked and scourged, and then led out to Calvary where along with two thieves he is crucified.

And for the avoidance of doubt, a sign was posted declaring the one nailed to the cross, broken, bleeding and dying, was the self-same king of the Jews.

Abandoned and humiliated, there is nothing very royal and nothing very regal about the gospel narrative and its crucified victim.

And that is just the point, a point made explicit by Pilate when he summoned Jesus back into his palace and asked, are you the king of the Jews?

As Roman governor in Judea and Samaria from AD 26 to AD 37, Pilate earned lasting notoriety by presiding over the trial of Jesus and handing him over to be executed.

Nothing is known of Pilate’s career prior to his appointment as governor of Judea and such information we have, comes from the four gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, 1st Timothy as well as the Jewish historian Josephus and Roman historian Tacitus.

From this we learn Pilate’s headquarters were established not in Jerusalem but in the coastal town of Caesarea.

And from a letter written by Herod Agrippa to the Roman emperor Caligula in which Pilate is described as naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness, [1] we glimpse something of his personality; a hard man for a hard posting.

As you know, Jesus was paraded before Pilate accused of being a king, a charge as politically threatening to the governor as it was spiritually threatening to the Jewish authorities.

Yet from the gospel account, it appears Pilate was far from convinced of Jesus’ guilt.

I find no basis for a charge against him, he told Jesus’ accusers.

Was Pilate forced against his better judgment to send the hapless prisoner to his death?

And as the narrative of the conversation between the two men unfolds, what tone do you hear in Pilate’s voice, anger, frustration, a degree of worldly weariness?

Every lawyer who stood before him claimed to be speaking the truth.

The Jewish authorities who had brought Jesus claimed to be speaking the truth.

Doubtless Pilate’s superiors in Rome claimed to be speaking the truth.

So given the delicate political, military and religious situation in which he found himself – his overriding concern being to maintain the peace – what was Pilate to do with the Galilean shackled and chained before him?

Was he or was he not the king of the Jews?

Where did truth lie?

What is truth?

Pilate’s question echoes down the centuries, as urgent for us today in all the competing claims of national and international affairs – Brexit, the Middle East, global warming, immigration – as it is in the opportunities and challenges of home and family life.

There was a day when the church claimed to have a monopoly on truth but since the time of the enlightenment that monopoly has been challenged.

Although we hold to our faith in God being the source of life, evidently the universe and the existence of life is capable of many other interpretations and explanations.

Where once it was the priest, today it is to the physicist or the biologist or the cosmologist or the psychologist or the sociologist people turn to for an understanding of reality, the truth about how things really are and how people really are and what society is like.

We live at a time when religious truth has been largely discredited in public discourse and reduced to the realms of private belief.

We don’t do God was one Prime Minister’s spin doctor’s famous dictum.

Thankfully plenty of people still do and if one of the things people of faith have learned is to hold to their faith with a little more humility, another thing we have learned is that far from being in competition with one another, at its best the varying insights of science and religion are both concerned to explore the big questions of life, its meaning, its purpose, its beginning and its end.

Reading the gospels you discover when Jesus spoke about these things the images he used were enigmatic and elusive.

Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God being like the little mustard seed that bursts forth into a great towering tree in which the birds make their nests.

He compared the kingdom of God to an inconspicuous pinch of yeast that leavens and transforms the dough or to being like a priceless pearl but one easily passed over by others in their ignorance or unwillingness.

He suggested the kingdom was like a secret treasure hidden in a field which demands everything from those who have the wit to notice it.

And he imagined the kingdom of God as a fisherman’s net into which all are included and welcomed.

And when his disciples dared to ask who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus took their breath away.

Rather than naming one of the great heroes of their faith, an Abraham or Moses or David, or better still one of them, Jesus took a child and said a child would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

And unless disciples trusted and believed and loved like a child, Jesus made it clear they would not enter it.

Enigmatic, elusive, evocative, Jesus spoke to a different reality, not one which can be reduced to facts and figures, not one which can be examined on a laboratory bench, a reality which does not deal in objective and verifiable fact yet a reality as meaningful and important and powerful as anything you can see or measure or touch.

Compassion, kindness, generosity, friendship, forgiveness, sacrifice, loyalty and love; this is the reality to which Jesus spoke, these were the gifts and qualities people found in him and these are the hallmarks and characteristics of the kingdom he proclaimed.

You cannot buy them, you cannot hold them, you cannot possess or examine or order them from Amazon - and yet without them we all know life is devoid of meaning, empty of purpose and not worth living.  

Surprising, not what was expected, as unnerving as it is disturbing; as the gospel reaches its climax a man stands before Pilate.

He was born in impoverished circumstances.

He lived an unconventional life.

Some people gave up everything to follow him.

Many recognised in him an authority they did not find anywhere else.

Others found in him healing, hope and the birth of new life.

And now shackled before a Roman governor he is about to be sentenced to a humiliating and painful death.

Is he the king of the Jews?

Rather than being found in an answer, an equation, a calculation or a theory, the Christian conviction is that the deep truths of life are found in a person, Jesus of Nazareth.

And on Christ the King Sunday it is to this unlikely king and his kingdom we are invited to give our allegiance, our hope and our trust.  

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen 


[1] Reader’s Digest Who’s who in the Bible, Pilate, p358