By The Rev. Sherry Deets
Christ the King, Proper 29 – November 25, 2012
Our scripture today from John’s gospel is called “the trial before Pilate”. It might better be called “Pilate on trial”, because Pilate knows that Jesus should not be on trial. Pilate likely considers himself the most powerful, most in-control person in Jerusalem. He is “the local representative of the greatest world power of that time.” In his encounter with Jesus he brags about the position and the power he possesses, saying, “do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” But Pilate, though supposedly in control, is absolutely trapped in fear. The Jewish leaders want Jesus crucified. If Pilate does not give them what they want, can he stay in control? Does he have enough troops to quell the trouble those leaders might stir up? How will it play back in Rome if on his watch he is not able to handle matters in Jerusalem?
So when Pilate summons Jesus and asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” is that really his question? Does he truly believe Jesus is an insurrectionist? Or is he trying to find a technicality on which to condemn Jesus in order to placate the leaders? Is he free or bound in an effort to stay in control? Is that Pilate’s real goal, regardless of the cost—to stay in control? Trapped, Pilate has to hide his true convictions, his honest questions, and his haunting fears.
On this Sunday, the church proclaims Christ the King. The church announces that it bows only to Jesus the Christ. The church declares that it does not give allegiance to any other person, principality, or power claiming to be sovereign.
Notice Jesus. As Pilate asks that question designed to catch Jesus in a capital offense, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus says to him, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” There, before Pilate, Jesus seeks to encounter the real Pilate, the one who in truth is utterly trapped in his desperate effort to stay in control. There Jesus gives himself to be with the true person who is Pilate. There Jesus invites Pilate to be transparent, to share how it is with him, to utter the truth of his own life.
It is exactly what Jesus does at the beginning of his ministry with the Samaritan woman at the well. And here in the very last encounter Jesus has with a human being before his death, an encounter that leads to his death, he makes an offer to Pilate. “Everyone who belongs to truth listens to my voice,” says Jesus to Pilate. Even to Pilate, Jesus offers to be the good shepherd, the good shepherding king, who, when his sheep listen to his voice, are led into abundant life.
This is always Jesus’ offer. But to receive it means facing the truth about our lives, the truth Jesus holds us before us.
How do we do that? Brian McLaren, in his book, Naked Spirituality has, in my opinion, some good, practical suggestions. The word “help” is a spiritual practice. Asking God for help represents a move from self-reliance to God-reliance. It is a step from wanting to be in control, to relying on God. That is a step in the right direction.
Prayer. Petition. Petition means, in the most general way, prayers addressed to God by me and for me. This may sound selfish, and sometimes it is; there is an immature kind of petition that renders God my personal assistant or fixer or genie, the omnipotent enforcer of my will on earth. This immature petition can become a parody of the Lord’s Prayer. “May my will be done in reality as it is in my selfish fantasies.” This immature kind of petition is to be expected from immature people, whom we all are in many ways; we want God to adjust and remake the universe for our convenience and benefit. A large percentage of petitions are of this sort:
I’m running late, most often due to bad planning on my part, and I petition God for no traffic or a close-in parking space.
My wife is angry or disappointed with me about something, so I pray that God will change her heart—that way, I won’t have to deal with whatever it is in me that’s bothering her.
I’m afraid to confront an interpersonal problem, so I pray that God will solve it for me.
I’ve said yes to too many things, so I ask God for extra strength to accomplish all of them.
I am sure that God understands these requests, and I think that some of them are mercifully granted. But I’m also sure that God is not interested in enabling me to stay immature forever by rewarding my bad planning, my insensitivity to my wife, my aversion to conflict, or my inability to set priorities and stick with them. McLaren continues: As I mature, I notice that my prayers shift more and more in this direction:
“Lord, I’m running late again and once again, it’s because I thought I could get just two or three extra things done. Please Lord, help me develop wisdom so that I won’t be so prone to tackle too much in too short a time. And when I walk into the meeting late, help me not make any excuses, but take full responsibility for inconveniencing my colleagues.”
“Lord, my wife is upset with me. Please help me to understand what’s bothering her and to respond with compassion and love. And please help me learn to anticipate and meet her needs rather than frustrate her, as I so often do.”
“Lord, I have a problem with Sam. I need to speak frankly with him about it. Please help me to tell the truth and not hold back, but help me to do it cleanly, without bitterness or hurt.”
“Lord, once again I’ve taken on too much. Now I’m exhausted. Help me, Lord, to remember that you are the God who created Sabbath, that you want me to live a life that balances good work with adequate rest. Please liberate me from the fears and insecurities that are like a slave driver, always demanding more of me, never letting me say, ‘No, I can’t.’ Help me to settle into the healthy rhythm that you set for me, for your yoke is easy and your burden is light.”
I am sure you see the difference. Immature petition tries to convince God to remake the world in our image for our convenience and ease, but mature petition asks God to remake us in God’s own image, so that we can expand our capacity to respond to the world as it is.
Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to truth listens to my voice.” We are enough. You are enough. I am enough. You are enough. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Jesus still offers the invitation to be authentic about how it is with us, and being authentic, to be led by the shepherding king into abundant life. Amen.
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