Sunday, November 22, 2009

So You Are a King?

John 18:33-38 Then Pilate entered the headquarters 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?"

This conversation between Pilate and Jesus is full of humor – that is, if you step back a moment from the situation itself. In the story, Pilate is examining Jesus, looking for a way to get off the hook, to let Jesus off the hook, to avoid execution. But Jesus doesn’t get it, or doesn’t cooperate, or Pilate really wasn’t working that hard, or he felt himself under pressure, or he wondered if Jesus really might be a threat to Caesar . . . or, something. Because he ends up handing Jesus over to be crucified and publishes the charge: "King of the Jews", even though the religious establishment, which was clamoring for Jesus’ execution, insisted that Jesus only "claimed" to be King of the Jews, and even though Jesus didn’t really speak of being "king of the Jews".

So, the situation aside, there’s some humor here.

There’s the humor of two parallel conversations. You know what I mean – you take turns speaking, but you aren’t speaking about the same thing. Or, if you are talking about the same thing, the logic, the thoughts don’t necessarily connect.
   1: What happened to all the eggs? That was my breakfast!
   2: The dishes in the dishwasher are clean.
   1: I guess I’ll have cereal again. I could swear there was a dozen yesterday.
   2: We’ve got a party at work today.
   1: And we’re out of corn flakes! I wonder if there’s anything for lunch!
   2: You can take a deviled egg. There’s some in the fridge.
   1: A deviled egg? So that’s what happened to the eggs!
   2: I told you we’re having a party!

And, there’s the humor of the "snarkiness" of the conversation, which I exaggerate:
   P: Are you the King of the Jews?
   JC: Who told you that?
   P: They’re not my people! No skin off my back! What did you do to get yourself into this mess?
   JC: If my kingdom was of this world, my followers would be going to war to prevent this.
   P: So you ARE a king!
   JC: I didn’t say that. That’s what you said! I’m just speaking the truth.
   P: What truth?
So, for Thanksgiving, I’m thankful that the Bible is chock full of great story material.

For all the humor, however, this short selection is remarkably dense. What’s up with the "king" and "kingdom" talk? While Matthew, Mark, and Luke give us lots of "kingdom" language, John gives us very little, only 18 verses, and the focus is different. And, what’s this talk of "the world", as in, "my kingdom is not of"? John actually uses the Greek word "cosmos", rather than another term that more properly refers to the "earth" or any of the words that refer to people in general.
Jesus’ kingdom is not only "not of this earth" but "not of this universe". No wonder the spirituality of John’s gospel is so cosmic!

In this meeting of Pilate and Jesus, there are two conversations because there are two kingdoms. There are two kingdoms because there are two stories.

Think of a two-story house. Upstairs you find the bedrooms and the showers. You might be invited over to watch the ballgame, have a cookout, enjoy dinner. But that is not the same as being invited upstairs. Sometimes, before folks come over, we remind our kids: "No one goes upstairs without OUR permission." Come on, if we didn’t make the bed today, we don’t have to let anyone see it.

In Jesus’ mind, in John’s gospel, we live in a two-story universe. On one story is what John calls the "cosmos", usually translated the "world", and the other story is simply "above". It is a common feature of biblical apocalyptic, and the John writings are full of apocalyptic imagination.
At one point, Jesus declares, "You are from below, I am from above; you are from this cosmos, I am not from this cosmos" (John 8.23). Two-story universe! And our expression "the man upstairs" fits it to a "T".

Except that "the man upstairs" doesn’t bother to come down, or to invite us up. Yet, Jesus is "sent into the world" (10.36, 17.18). Jesus "comes into the world" (11.27, 12.46). "God so loved the world that he gave [Jesus]" (3.16) And, Jesus invites us to join his kingdom: "No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above" (3.3).

There are two conversations, two stories, two kingdoms. Once, at least once, folks were confused about the two kingdoms. They wanted Jesus to be king of one of their kingdoms, the kind of king who eliminates and condemns their enemies, which isn’t much of a problem if we share the same enemies. They wanted to force him to become king (6.15), but he withdrew just in time. Jesus will not become king by force, but by faith. That’s why he tells Pilate, "If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over" (18.36). But Pilate immediately concludes, "You’re a king then!" thinking that Jesus is a king like all the other kings "from below", rather than recognizing what Jesus is saying in that parallel conversation – that he is a king "from above". Jesus will not become king by force, but by faith. And his kingdom will not be defended by force but received by faith.

Just a few days before this conversation with Pilate, Jesus had entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey and welcomed by the pilgrimage crowd as King (12.13,15). But the image of a king on a donkey is drawn right from the prophet Zechariah, and it is not what we expect from the kingdoms of this world. "Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, HUMBLE and riding on a donkey .... He will cut off the chariot ... and the war-horse ... and the battle bow ... and he shall command peace to the nations (Zechariah 9.9-10).

His kingdom is from above, and it doesn’t work by the rules or logic of the kingdoms of this cosmos. Nevertheless, he comes to save the cosmos (John 3.17). In fact, Jesus declares, "I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the cosmos, but to save the cosmos" (12.47). "The man upstairs" doesn’t come downstairs to this story with a superior air, with a judgmental attitude. His judgment is directed against the evil ingrained in the cosmos and the one he calls the "prince of this world" (12:31, 16.11, 17.15).

For us, he doesn’t bring lightning bolts and thunder. He brings an invitation. You know that off-limits second story? You’re invited. You know that kingdom of peace and justice? It’s yours to receive. You know that crazy disconnected conversation? Once we get our stories straight, we won’t have that trouble with the King of kings.

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