Sermon

John 18:33-37

The Royal Triumph

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

The Gospel according to John is loaded with irony, and never more so than in the encounter we just heard about between Pilate and Jesus.

Jesus is a prisoner on his way to death. Pilate is Rome’s representative, the governor, the boss of the entire capital.

But look what happens! Pilate keeps asking Jesus questions and in doing so loses his grip on the situation.

One might well ask who is on trial here and who the judge is. Or better yet: Who is in charge of what goes on in Pilate’s headquarters? Who is it that has authority?

John’s Gospel is loaded with irony. It is also loaded with references to kingship. In fact, the whole Bible is. And the reason the Bible talks about kings is not simply that it is a library of very old books. It is because there is something perennial, indeed eternal, about kingship. Have democracies all you want,  have bureaucracies, have anarchy, still there is something deep inside us that we can understand only in terms of kingship.

Kings can be good or bad. Let us put aside bad kings for another time, and today consider what good kingship involves. And let us recognize that women as well as men can manifest what I call kingship, although certainly a different term may be in order when a woman demonstrates royal character.

The Washington National Cathedral, which is the cathedral church of our diocese, is a treasure house of images. Within that cathedral at the west end corners are statues of American presidents: Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Why are they there? The church does not recognize them as saints. Why are they there and not other presidents? Because these men, each in his own way, were kingly.

It’s not that they held the title of king. Indeed, Washington refused it for himself immediately after the Revolution. But both Washington and Lincoln manifested that reality. Each of them demonstrated  the energy of a good king during a critical season in our history. What characterizes such a king?

The energy of a king helps the realm to hold together, whether that realm is a nation, a business, or a family. The realm holds together, but not too tightly, not in a way that suffocates. The good king, the true king, holds the realm together so that everyone can breathe, everyone can prosper.

Something the king must accept is that it’s not all about him. The true king does not have a small soul, but readily serves something greater than himself.

The king must understand also that excellence and loyalty are more important than success.Success is beyond even a king’s control, but loyalty and excellence are matters of character; they are available to anyone who is willing to pay their price.

This raises the question of who qualifies to be a king. Kingship such was Washington and Lincoln demonstrated is in fact democratic. It is possible for us all, though the realm available to most of us is far smaller than a nation. Still, opportunities abound in these small yet significant realms, and we never seem to have enough kings of the right kind.

So everybody’s eligible. The royal character in most people, however, becomes manifest only with the passage of years, if it ever does. Through hardship and struggle a good king enters into his own.

This hardship, this struggle may kill the king, but it does not break him. He does not shrivel and shrink, but becomes more truly and deeply himself.
A king who suffers goes from being simply a king to becoming the beloved king of his people.

Today’s first reading and psalm refer directly to Israel’s most unforgettable king: David. The biblical portrait of David is complex, but certainly he is at times the ultimate fair-haired boy, the chosen one of the Lord. This by itself may make us weary, for many of us never get to be the favorite, the popular one, and hardly anyone is in that position all the time.

We find relief, therefore, in episodes where David gives credit to God. And we find greater relief when David suffers like we sometimes do, and he gets through it all.

Consider the opening verse of today’s psalm: “Lord, remember David, and all his affliction.”(Psalm 132:1)

So he had his hardships too, like the rest of us! May God remember him, but even more may we remember him, this fair-haired boy who suffers yet remains a king, who does not always succeed, but stays with God and God with him. This is a king who cannot, who must not be forgotten, for in him we find hope, even for ourselves.

• Yes, it’s good to recognize the kings in our lives who do not wear royal robes, but have royal hearts.

• It’s good to recognize kings in our national history who knew it was about something greater than themselves, and so were able to lead and serve.

• It’s good to recognize Israel’s king David, a man after God’s own heart who was not exempt from suffering.

But above all these there reigns a king whose return we await and whose gracious rule is in the end our reason for hope.

He is the one who as prisoner reveals the weakness of Pilate, and by rising from the dead defeats the pretensions of every empire.

Today’s gospel is set only hours before his death.

Today’s reading from Revelation tells how he will return to earth: “Look!  He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him.”

His coming is shown at the National Cathedral in the majestic sculpture set above the high altar that dominates the onlooker’s attention. There the King returns, and the scenes surrounding him in that sculpture illustrate works of mercy whose doers he will bless when he sits in judgment: such works as serving meals to the hungry, offering drink to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, giving clothes to those who need them, caring for the sick, and visiting prisoners.

This Christ our King is pierced, he is wounded and bears the marks of an ignominious end. Yet he is alive and reigns forever.

This king drinks to the dregs suffering’s bitter cup during his earthly life and passion. It kills him, but it does not break him. Through torture and death he does not become small and shriveled, but enters into his own as the source of eternal salvation for those who put their trust in him.

Thus Jesus is revealed not only as king, but as our king, and not as that alone, but king of kings and lord of lords, reigning over those who are themselves lords and kings.

In the liturgy of our Church, immediately after the new Christian has been baptized with water, an anointing takes place, an anointing with the Holy Spirit.

The newly baptized is marked with the sign of the Cross, addressed by name, and told, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” This anointing recalls how kings were made in the Old Testament, only now this happens to all God’s people.

So, sisters and brothers, each of you has been anointed by the Spirit of holiness as a royal person. Each of you is a king under the lordship of Christ the King of kings, the one pierced and put to death who now lives forever.

• When you go forth from this place, remember that you are to live your royalty in the world, and that you are to do so in obedience to Christ.

• Like every true king, remember that it is not all about you, but is a epic far grander and more generous than that.

• Remember that success remains outside your control, but excellence and loyalty and a host of other noble characteristics are yours to choose time and again.

• Remember to seek healing and new life, but do not fear how you are wounded; your wounds do not spell the end, only a beginning.

• For remember above all else that Christ our King comes, himself wounded, not expecting us to be whole and unhurt. He comes looking to find precisely in our injuries a royal triumph and the source of a life eternal like his own.

Copyright 2015 Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.