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Christ's Kingdom--A Standard of Heaven
John 18:33-37
NW in UK

I have to come clean in talking on the festival of Christ the King, and admit that I’m not exactly an enthusiastic monarchist. I have to admit, though, that having a head of state who is chosen by an accident of birth seems better at the moment than having one, or rather, not having one, who is chosen by an accident of lawyers in Florida arguing over whether or not small pieces of paper which are partially rather than wholly punched should count as legal votes.

It’s not just because I have doubts over the whole idea of Royalty, though, that I’m not really sure about this whole festival of Christ the King. It’s quite a recent one, after all. It only got into the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church in 1925, and into the Church of England’s calendar in 1997. What’s more, we already had a perfectly good festival of the Kingship of Christ, on Ascension Day. Jesus didn’t somehow have to wait six months before he was crowned in heaven, he ascended to the right hand of God the Father and joined him at the centre of Creation. What is good about it is that it’s a day which draws to a fitting close the Christian year, which begins anew next Sunday with Advent. We began the year by looking forward to the coming of Jesus into the world, and we end it by reminding ourselves that he is the eternal King.

But what does that kingship really mean? Our world has strong ideas of what authority is, of what power and royal splendour should be like. Pilate was very aware of these things. Jesus had been dragged before him early in the morning, with the charge against him that he was claiming to be the King of the Jews. And this reading comes from one of my favourite passages of the Bible. It’s wonderfully written, and it shows Pilate, the representative of the greatest empire of the day, commander of armies, educated and cultured, meeting the untutored Galilean Jesus. And Pilate begins full of self-assurance. You can see it in that last cynical remark, ‘what is truth?’ But from there on it’s all down hill for Pilate, until he finds himself broken.

I hope you’ll forgive me, but I think that it warrants reading in full.

{Read 18:38 - 19:22)

What broke Pilate? Just that he wasn’t in the world of politics here. He asked Jesus ‘what is truth?’, perhaps just because he couldn’t imagine that anyone could be na´ve enough to think that ideas of truth had anything to do with being a king. Truth was fine for the synagogue or the university, but not in the debating chamber of real life. The real world of government and diplomacy was just a lot more messy; all shades of grey, not black and white. Not in Jerusalem. We’ve seen over the last months that in that place, of all places, reason and compromise have a hard time. How much more then. Pilate found himself caught between the irresistible force of the hatred of priests and people who’d made up their mind what the truth was and weren’t in a mood to be bothered by the facts and the immoveable object of a man who knew what the truth was because he saw it in the mirror every morning.

Pilate didn’t wait for an answer to his question. It wasn’t really meant to have an answer, certainly not one a carpenter could provide. But he was face to face with Truth with a capital T – Jesus, God’s truth in human form.

Pilate wasn’t a strong enough man to face down Jesus’ accusers over a small matter such as the complete innocence of the accused. In fact, the chief priests had already forced him to back down twice over other matters, and he was really broken by this point. But there was one thing he could do.

There’s a wonderful irony in what is going on here. The chief priests, of all people, cry out ‘We have no king but Caesar’. They had bought into the world’s idea of kingship. And in that idea of kingship, you only got to be called King if Caesar said you could be. So when Caesar’s representative, Pilate, put a sign over Jesus that said ‘the King of the Jews’, the title that Caesar had refused to Herod Antipas, the man the priests wanted to be king, it must have hurt.

But in the end it didn’t really matter. The title of King of the Jews wasn’t for Pilate to give or withhold, or Caesar for that matter. It was God’s gift. And He acclaimed Jesus as King, raising him to heaven – we heard about that in our other two readings, visions not of Jesus coming down from heaven at the end of time but of him going up to heaven at the Ascension. And this title, this crown were given to the one who was truth. As God, Jesus was the source of all truth. As man, he had lived a life guided entirely by the truth of God. That was why he was King.

So what does it mean, then, to be citizens of a heavenly King? Perhaps that we know what is the answer to that question, ‘What is truth?’. We know the answer, and we live by it. Yes, there are times when we must live in a world of shades of grey. But we know that there is truth and there is falsehood, and we know where we must stand.

When Jesus said ‘my kingdom is not of this world’ he did not mean that his rule has nothing to do with this world. He meant that his rule on earth consisted of bringing to earth the standards of heaven; truth, love and justice. The subjects of the heavenly King must live by that rule. Amen.