Daniel P. Strandlund
St. John’s Episcopal Church
November 22, 2015
Proper 29B, Christ the King Sunday
A Game of Chess
Today is Christ the King Sunday. Jesus’ people, the Israelites, have a complicated history with kingship. For generations they lived in slavery under the oppression of the Egyptian kings (Ex. 1:8-14). Then God lead them out of Egypt and through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land (Ex.-Joshua). Joshua, the successor of Moses, leads Israel’s military conquest of the Promised Land, and after Joshua’s death, the Lord leads Israel by raising up Judges amongst them during times of crisis (Judges 2:16).
But as time goes on, the Judges of Israel get less and less competent, and things start to go awry. The Israelites are at war with the Philistines, and things go so badly that the Philistines actually capture the Ark of the Covenant (1 Samuel 4:10-11). So the elders of Israel gather together and they plead with God’s prophet Samuel, saying, Appoint for us a king to govern us, like other nations (1 Sam. 8:5). Appoint for us a king.
This is a bad move. Samuel warns the Israelites that the kind of kingship for which they are asking, the kind of kingship the nations around them have, will inevitably lead to corruption and oppression (1 Sam. 8:8-18). But the people are stubborn and they persist.
Samuel anoints Saul as king over Israel (1 Sam. 10:1, 10:24). Of this whole tragic turn in Israel’s history, of their demanding a king like the nations around them, God says, they have rejected me from being king over them (1 Sam. 8:7). God desires to be Israel’s king directly, but God’s kingship feels too uncertain, too distant, too strange compared to the nations around them. So the Israelites settle for Saul.
Fortunately, God has a way of redeeming humanity’s blunders, and so God raises up his servant David. David’s reign is the glory days of the Kingdom of Israel. The tribes are united; Israel’s foes are kept at bay; the land itself seems to flow with milk and honey. For centuries to come, the reign of King David dominates the Israelite imagination of what kingship should be, and the phrase ˜House of David’ comes to stand for Israel (Is. 7:13, 29:3; John 7:42, etc.). But after King David dies, his son Solomon comes to the throne, and corruption sets in. The House of David begins to fall through a succession of increasingly incompetent or disreputable kings, and good kingship is rare. (Exceptions: Hezekiah, 2 Kings 18:3, and Josiah, 2 Kings 22:1-2).
In rejecting God as their king over them and asking for a king like the nations around them, the Israelites have willfully stepped into the arena of global politics and power-grabbing. When you’re a king in human terms, the only way to hold onto your throne is to be stronger than the guy next door. It’s like a big game of chess: the only way to win is to capture the other king, or to decimate his army until he surrenders. Eventually, the Israelite kings are no longer as strong as the kings next door. In the seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, at least six different empires invade the Jewish people of Israel.
I’ll spare us the details, but the order goes like this: first, it’s Assyria. Then Babylon destroys the Temple and carries the Israelites into exile. Third, the Persians march through. Fourth, Alexander the Great conquers the known world with startling speed. Fifth, Alexander dies before his kingdom is secure, and his generals carve up the territory and start fighting each other. Finally, the eagle of Rome ascends, capturing kings left and right. Rome conquers more squares on the board than any kingdom that has gone before. So long as a local king pays his tribute and taxes, and so long as a local king doesn’t rebel against the emperor or his officials, then so far as Rome is concerned, let that king keep pretending to be in control. Rome turns monarchs into pawns.
This brings us to Christ the King Sunday, and Jesus’ conversation with Pilate. They’re in Pilate’s headquarters, so Pilate moves first.
18:33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ˜Are you the King of the Jews?’
Let’s set the scene. Pontius Pilate is the governor of Judea. He represents the Roman Emperor and his interests in the region. This conversation with Jesus takes place in the Praetorium, which is Pilate’s official headquarters as governor. The Praetorium is only a quarter of a mile from the Temple. That’s an important symbolic move by Rome: the Temple is the religious and cultural center of the Jewish people, and Rome puts its outpost right next door. The tension is palpable: who is king? Is it God, or is it the emperor?
This tension is at a fever pitch during this conversation between Jesus and Pilate, because it’s the time of Passover. Jerusalem is packed with pilgrims from across the countryside. In fact, Pontius Pilate is only in Jerusalem because it’s Passover. Pilate hated Jerusalem and preferred to spend his time in his villa on the coast, sort of an ancient beach house. He only came to Jerusalem on official business, or when there was an increased risk of rebellion”like the Jewish festival of Passover, when religious zeal was at its height and the streets were thronged with people.
So, when Pilate asks Jesus, ˜Are you the King of the Jews,’ Pilate is gauging whether or not this man Jesus represents a risk of rebellion. If Jesus really is a king, then Pilate has to figure out whether he’s the kind of king Rome has to conquer, or if he’s the kind of king who will become a Roman pawn. It’s Jesus’ turn.
18:34 Jesus answered, ˜Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’
Just as Pilate is trying to figure out who this Jesus man is and what he represents, it seems that Jesus is also gauging Pilate. Jesus’ question reveals Pilate’s motives. It’s as if Jesus is saying, Do you ask me if I’m the King of the Jews because you actually care about my answer, or is this just an unpleasant bit of government maneuvering to you? For Pilate, it’s the latter.
18:35a Pilate replied, ˜I am not a Jew, am I?
In the first part of his response, Pilate essentially says, I’m not a Jew, so whether or not you’re the King of the Jews is irrelevant to me. That’s not what I’m concerned about. Pilate’s defense continues:
18:35b Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’
Here we’re getting closer to what’s at stake for Pilate. The chief priests and Jesus’ own people have brought Jesus to Pilate as a criminal. No doubt they’ve told Pilate of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In John’s Gospel it happens in chapter 12. The crowds of faithful people welcome Jesus into the city with palm branches and shouts of ˜Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”the King of Israel!’ (12:13).
This is why Pilate has had to leave his beach house and come to his official headquarters in the city: if the hundreds and thousands of people who have come to Jerusalem for Passover were to unite in rebellion under some charismatic King of Israel, then this could be a big problem for Rome. And if it’s a big problem for Rome, then it’s a big problem for Pilate, who would rather be riding his Sea-Doo. Jesus counters:
18:36 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.’
As enigmatic as this response is, I imagine that Pilate is relieved to hear it. Jesus says that he has a kingdom, but that it’s not the kind of kingdom Pilate is used to. Jesus’ followers won’t be fighting to keep him alive. This must be good news to Pilate: this strange king who stands before him has not come with a mob armed for battle.
Indeed, at the very beginning of chapter eighteen, Jesus and his disciples are gathered together in a garden when Judas and a troop of soldiers and the chief priests come to arrest Jesus. And what happens? Simon Peter, like a knight on a chessboard, tries to protect his king. Peter draws a sword, and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave (18:10). And Jesus, says to Peter, Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me? (18:11). If all of Jesus’ followers were like Peter, then Pilate would have a big problem on his hands. But Pilate’s fears are allayed: one verse after the close of our passage we read today, Pilate tells the gathered crowd, I find no case against this man (v.38). And what case could he find? Jesus is leading no armed rebellion, so why should Pilate care? Letting Jesus go allows Pilate to mollify the crowd who welcomed him into Jerusalem with shouts of ˜Hosanna!’ And if it’s one thing Pilate wants to do, it’s mollify the crowd. If their king is not of this world of sword and shield, of moves and countermoves, then let the crowd have him back!
18:37 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.’
Our lectionary stops before we get to see the endgame of this conversation, but when Jesus says, Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice, Pilate responds, What is truth? We’ve come to the heart of the matter. Pilate has asked again and again about whether Jesus is a king, and Jesus finally turns the conversation to focus on truth. The truth is that Pilate and the Chief Priests and Simon Peter and even the Crowds of People with Palm Branches are all trying to force Jesus into a category of kingship which they understand. They see Jesus as a king like Saul, or David, or Solomon”or they see Jesus as a king like Shalmaneser of Assyria, or Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, or Cyrus of Persia. They want Jesus to play their game of thrones, for him to play by the rules of strategic sacrifice, advancement, and king-capture, which are the rules they’ve learned.
When Jesus says, ˜You say that I am a king,’ I think Jesus is revealing how small and unimaginative that kind of kingship is. The truth to which Jesus testifies is that Pilate and the Chief Priests and Simon Peter and the Palm Branch Crowds and all of us have forgotten that way back near the beginning of our story, we stopped trusting God and rejected God’s kingship over us. We looked at the nations around us and said, ˜We want a king like they’ve got.’ Indeed, in chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, a group of Jesus’ followers actually try to take him by force and make him king over them (6:15). Jesus withdraws because he knows that they want to fit him into the category of kingship with which they are already familiar.
Why do we do that? Why do we look for kings to set over us? Many in Jesus’ day grew up being told that the only way to get rid of an invading kingdom was to fight it with a kingdom of your own. But that’s playing the world’s game by the world’s rules. Some of Jesus’ followers wanted to take him by force and make him their king not because they wanted to stop playing the world’s game, but because they wanted to win that game. That’s the world’s grand seduction: that we could actually play its game of thrones and win. But the Israelites’ own history reveals how false that is: the kingdom of Saul, David and Solomon splits itself in half and is then conquered by Assyria. Assyria was conquered by Babylon, Babylon by Persia, and so on, and so on, and so on all the way down to Pontius Pilate and Caesar’s own pawns. If Jesus were leading an armed revolt against Rome, it would only be a matter of time before the next king came through.
Thorns, not a throne. It’s not simply that Christ refuses to play the world’s game, or that Christ simply breaks the rules”instead Christ actually dares to lose the world’s game on the world’s terms. The Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him (John 1:11). Only then is death conquered; only then are the thrones of the world revealed to be straw. Christ ascends to the throne of God’s Kingdom by being dethroned from our worldly seats of honor.
It’s as though at some point along the way, we cleared the bread and wine from our souls’ altars and replaced them with a chess board. We sit on one side, and Christ sits on the other, and we force Christ into meeting us on terms of our own choosing. We force him to play, and so he does, but every time he loses and ends up on the cross. He allows himself to lose because he knows that what we want is for him to win the game decisively and demonstrate to us that he is stronger, wiser, and savvier than we are. That way, we could take him by force and crown him as king. We could be assured that he would win for us the game of thrones in which we find ourselves. We could be assured that God is made in our image, essentially just like us, only bigger and smarter. We could be assured that there’s nothing broken about our engagement with people and communities around us; we just need to be better in order to win. We could be believe that we can play the world’s game without getting blood on our hands.
But that’s not what scripture tells us. Christ the King reigns not with a scepter or sword, but with nails through his palms. The wounds are still there in the resurrection; Thomas sees them (John 19-20). It’s stupid. Impractical. Disappointing. A poor strategy. We Christians are left pondering the question, What does it mean to be citizens of a kingdom where that’s what our King looks like? By any standard of efficacy or success, that citizenship is absurd. It’s so absurd that most of the time I don’t think I even understand it. And in the moments when I do understand, I want nothing to do with it.
But that’s the move the God makes, time and time again”Christ on the cross. Christ loses the game we force him to play in hopes that, one day, we’ll remember that we’re the ones who pretend the world is squares of black and white, whereas from the beginning Christ has prepared a table of bread and wine for us, even when in the presence of our enemies. (riffing Ps. 23). Thrones, kings, games of chess”I speak abstractly. What does it mean to be a citizen under a Crucified King? I expect that there are as many concrete answers to that question as there are people here this morning. I don’t know how God is calling you to answer that question. ˜God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son to live and die as one of us, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. Indeed, God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (Jn. 3:1-17). Your move.
Then 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 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.’