St. Augustine of Hippo


Episcopal Church

 


“King of Kings and Lord of Lords”


by

The Rev. Dr. Nathanael Saint-Pierre


(John 18:33-37)


November 21, 2021


I have studied, but I need your strength. I have prepared, but I need your power. 

I am willing, and I want to, but only you can make me able. 

Silently now, we wait for you, ready O Lord, your will to see. 

Open our eyes and illumine us, Spirit divine! 


Have you ever worked to accomplish something and been denied the recognition for your accomplishments? If yes, you may understand Jesus’ response during his investigation before Pilate.


After Jesus was arrested, they brought him to Pilate, the Roman governor of the region. Jesus knew that would not finish well for him. But Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate, with his colonial supremacy 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?” 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.” 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.”


What were the characteristic of a king in the time of Jesus? What are the characteristics of monarchs of our day? What made Jesus a king facing Pilate? How can Jesus be the king of kings and lord of lords of our day?


Pilate and the religious oligarchy represented power. Pilate was the representative of Rome, the colonial power. The Pharisees, the Scribes, and the priests where the social and religious leaders of their time. It is also my belief that our tendency to consider Pilate an innocent bystander swept along by the will of the Jewish authorities is not accurate. Pilate goes on to play against Jewish aspirations for political independence as he taunts the Jews with the idea of Jesus’ kingship. Pilate’s mockery of Jesus’ kingship is seen in John 19:1-7, where he has Jesus dressed in a purple robe and crown of thorns (19:2). He is beaten and then displayed to the Jews. The chief priests and police, seeking Jesus’ death, demand Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate has put them in the position of demanding the death of their own king (19:6).


But for Pilate and for the religious leaders Jesus was no king: a king is not voted; his power is inherent from birth. A king is king by birthright. His kingship is not conferred by humans. We do not make the king king. We acknowledge his power. A king cannot be voted out of power. He was king, is king, and will be king forever. The power of a king is absolute. His word is law; no one can countermand his orders, negate his pronouncements, set aside his decrees, or amend his statutes. The king owns everything and everyone in his kingdom (domain of the king). The king’s decree is unchanging. In monarchies, the king decides for the citizen (in opposition to democracies in which the citizens vote or elect their leaders). The king embodies the government of his kingdom. His presence is the presence of his authority. His wealth is measured by his property.


Today, we have about forty-four monarchies in the world. Thirteen in Asia, twelve in Europe, ten in North America; six are in Oceania, and three in Africa. They differ from the time of Jesus in the fact that a monarch (absolute holder of authority in a territory) can be nowadays, head of state but not head of government. Among those monarchies, some are constitutional, one is parliamentary (Spain), and four are absolute. It might be interesting for you to know that Pope Francis is considered leading an absolute monarchy in Vatican City; Queen Elizabeth II is the Sovereign of 15 countries: Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.


A constitutional monarchy is a system of government in which a monarch (a king/queen) shares power with a constitutionally organized government. The monarch can be the de facto head of state or a purely ceremonial leader. The constitution allocates the rest of the government’s power to the legislature and judiciary.


A parliamentary monarchy is a political system where the function of head of state is vested in a hereditary or elected monarch while a government, accountable to the elected parliament, exercises the bulk of the executive powers, determines national policies, and oversees their implementation.


An absolute monarchy is a government with a sovereign leader with complete control and no limitation from constitution or law. The monarch (queen or king) is considered simultaneously head of state and head of government with absolute and autocratic power.


Jesus did not face Pilate as a king. He did not say he was a king, nor did he admit to it in Pilate’s attempt to use him as such. Part of the irony of John’s presentation of the trial and crucifixion is that Pilate uses his own authority to declare Jesus’ kingship. Pilate places an inscription over the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews” (John 19:19). The chief priests protest, asking Pilate to clarify that this was only what Jesus claimed. But Pilate refuses their request with a solemn pronouncement, “What I have written, I have written” (19:22).


As the crucifixion clarified, Jesus was not a king of his world. Kings of his time took power from people in battles and conquests, rarely from habile diplomacy. Jesus never fought and came to Pilate without a vigorous defense to offer. He offered an alternative to kinship, “I have been born and come into the world for this: to witness to the truth” (John 18:38). However, Jesus’ kingship can be difficult to see, for it is manifest in sacrifice/crucifixion rather than in political dominance.


Jesus does not face the world as a king. Today, Jesus’ kingship can be difficult to see for the same reasons. Jesus’ kingdom is here to serve in humility rather than to seek earthly power. Jesus is the king, yet he does not arrive in a chariot, but on a donkey! Jesus is a king who is killed by those with societal power, not a king who is victorious over his enemies by defeating them in war. We live in a society in which success is associated with “winning” at all costs. This passage, in which Jesus speaks to power, shows how the powerful do not like it when they do not control the discourse/narrative. The powerful elites of Jesus’ day were accustomed to controlling the ideology and the discourse, just as the powerful elites are accustomed to determining/controlling the ideology and the discourse in our day. Did Jesus respond to Pilate with “authority” or did he just respond with honesty based on his experience as a marginalized individual? Why would Pilate ask Jesus a question he already knew the answer to?


“A modern-day example would be one where police officers ask a group of young black and brown men on a street corner, “What are you doing?” That question is neither neutral nor innocent. The racist ideas about black and brown people come into play. When Jesus questioned Pilate’s motive for asking him if he was king, Pilate said, “I am not a Jew, am I?”1 This is akin to the police who question young men of color and then defend their questions, saying, “I am not a racist!” Like the Jews, our allegiances to earthly powers lead us to deny God’s kingship. We may not even be aware that we have done so.”


In allowing himself to be killed and physically defeated for the sake of truth, Jesus engages in the ultimate demonstration of the power of love. Jesus is teaching us today that the power of lies will never win over the power of love.


It is my belief that there is a difference between power and authority. Power is inflicted or imposed on people. Authority is bestowed to someone by the people in recognition or gratitude. Jesus is the King of kings and the Lord of lords because he never sought power. He came to serve and so he did. It is his service that we acknowledge. It is his sacrifice that we glorify. It is by gratitude that we see him as king. By him we stand on the side of truth although it is difficult and challenging. The celebration of Christ the King can be our opportunity as the church to reassess our values and re-evaluate how we operate in our society. Are we here to serve or are we here to rule? Are we here to collect the benefits or are we here to sacrifice even the little that we have? Are we here to lord it over those with their backs against the wall or are we here to stand with the captives? This can lead to a clarification of mission and point us in the direction Jesus intends for us, so that we may truly be the real church that our world so desperately needs.




1 Samuel Cruz Commentary on John 18:33-37 Working Preacher.