Tuesday, November 28, 2006

"So, you're a king, huh?"

Text: John 18.33-37.

Movies and television shows about lawyers are nothing new. They've been around since at least Perry Mason. The climax of the bestselling novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is a murder trial. And think of the popularity of John Grisham’s books, all of them having to do with lawyers and trials. On television we have Law and Order and Boston Legal among other shows that deal with lawyers.

There's something intrinsically dramatic about confrontation in the courtroom, especially if it's a criminal trial. There's a mystery. Did the accused do it, or didn't she? And there's the excitement of the head-to-head contest between two skillful lawyers.

Today's gospel reading takes us back to perhaps the most famous trial in history -- the trial of Jesus before Pilate.

"Pilate entered the praetorium again and called Jesus, and said to him, 'Are you the King of the Jews?'"

You can't beat this scene for drama. The representative of human justice confronts the representative of God's justice. The Divine Lawgiver himself is put on trial. God's dynamic and creative Word is tried by God's creatures.

The charges were serious. In asking Jesus if he were a king, Pilate was implying that the charge against Jesus was treason, a capital offense. Someone who claimed to be a king was a threat to Rome. And Rome was known to punish its enemies swiftly and decisively.

But we know how this trial came out. Injustice prevailed, and an innocent man went to the gallows.

Although Jesus' trial before Pilate took place two thousand years ago, I want to suggest that in a sense it continues.

The title of a collection of C.S. Lewis' essays is God in the Dock. In a way, Jesus is always in the dock, on the stand, and never more so than on the last Sunday in Pentecost which we keep as the Feast of Christ the King.

Christ the King Sunday brings Jesus before Pilate again. Once again we hear Pilate ask, "So, you are a king?" But Pilate is not the only one asking. I have to confess that sometimes I find myself on the side of Pilate, wanting to ask Jesus, "So, are you a king? If you are a king, where's the evidence, because the world shows very little evidence of being under your rule and authority."

Tell me, Jesus, I want to say, do you reign in hospitals and nursing homes where the elderly die of lingering diseases?

Do you reign in sub-Saharan Africa where some countries may lose as much as 50% of their population to AIDS?

Do you reign in the Middle East when states assassinate the leaders of neighboring states and facilitate the sacrilege of "holy war"?

Do you reign in Darfur when so-called civilized nations stand by and allow genocide to take place?

What kind of king is Jesus to let things like this happen?

But the trial continues, and Pilate again asks, "So, you are a king?"

What is there to be said in defense of Jesus?

I recently read the story of a terrible incident that happened at the height of the war in the former Yugoslavia: a three-year-old girl in Sarajevo was hit by a sniper's bullet while playing outside her home. They rushed her to the hospital, of course, and the television cameras captured the scene, including her father bursting into tears, overcome by crushing grief. A reporter asked the father what he would like to do to her killer. And his response was that he would like to have a cup of coffee with the sniper and ask him what could cause a human being to do such a thing to a child, and he concluded by saying, "One day her tears will catch up with him". (Miroslav Volf, "A Cup of Coffee", Christian Century, Oct. 15, 1997,p. 917)

When that grieving father overcame hatred and expressed his willingness to sit down with his daughter's murderer over a cup of coffee, the kingdom of God briefly but brilliantly appeared in the very heart of the kingdom of violence and evil. Jesus reigns wherever love overcomes hatred and mercy conquers revenge. He reigns in the heart of a father who can forgive his three-year-old daughter's killer.

The late British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge was the correspondent of England's Guardian newspaper in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. He went there idealistic about the so-called "workers' paradise" being built in the USSR and left completely disillusioned. In his autobiography, Muggeridge relates the story of coming across a little church in the wood outside Moscow.

In the woods there was a little church, of course disused now. The fronts of such churches, like the Greek ones, are painted with bright colours; blues bluer than the bluest sky, whites whiter than the whitest snow. Someone... had painted up the one in the Kliasma woods. Standing in front of this unknown painter's handiwork, I blessed his name, feeling that I belonged to the little disused church he had embellished, and that the Kremlin with its scarlet flag and dark towers and golden spires was an alien kingdom. A kingdom of power such as the Devil had in his gift, and offered to Christ, to be declined by him in favour of the kingdom of love. I, too, must decline it, and live in the kingdom of love.

Jesus reigns when we decline the "kingdom of power" and "live in the kingdom of love". He reigns when authoritarian regimes come crashing down and when we stand with those who in our time are still persecuted for the Kingdom's sake.

I have to admit that the evidence is not entirely convincing, but nevertheless I must choose to stand with Jesus, not Pilate. I choose to believe that Jesus is king in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.

And perhaps what Jesus meant when he said to Pilate that his "kingship is not of this world" is that his kingship is utterly different from human kingship. He rules not by coercion but by love. He comes to us as he came to Pilate, unarmed and defenseless, to ask if we will enlist in his kingdom.

Perhaps Jesus is on trial not because of anything he has done but because of what we have failed to do. The evidence for Christ's rule may be faint and fragmentary because we do not let him reign in our hearts and lives. It is up to us to plant the flag of God's Kingdom by what we do with what God has given us.

When we forgive someone who has wronged us, we have brought the kingdom a little closer. When we put aside our schedule and take time to visit the sick and the elderly, earth begins to resemble the Kingdom a little bit more.

In an autobiographical book Frederick Buechner vividly related the story of hearing George Buttrick preach a sermon about the reign of Jesus in the hearts of believers.

It was around the time that Elizabeth II was crowned at Westminster Abbey, and the preacher played variations on the theme of coronation.... He said that Jesus Christ refused a crown when Satan offered it in the wilderness... He said that the kingdom of Jesus was not of this world. And yet... Jesus was crowned in the hearts of those who believed in him... this coronation of Jesus in the believer's heart took place among confession... and tears... [and] great laughter... Jesus is crowned among confession and tears and great laughter, and at the phrase great laughter, for reasons that I have never satisfactorily understood, the great wall of China crumbled and Atlantis rose up out of the sea, and on Madison Avenue, at 73rd Street, tears leapt from my eyes as though I had been struck across the face. (Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace, pp. 43-44.)

May Jesus be crowned in our hearts with confession and tears and great laughter, and may we plant the flag of the kingdom of God's love in all of earth's dark corners by each of our words and deeds.