November 25, 2012

Are you the king of the Jews?

Passage: 2 Samuel 23:1-7, Psalm 132:1-12, Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37

Then Pilate entered the headquarters* again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’


I answered a telephone call not long ago. “Dr. Clubine”, the voice on the other end of the line began.  It turned out that the young man who called was a theology student who wanted to enquire about the logistics of my doctoral programme; my thesis advisor had given him my name and contact information.  I trust that that our conversation was helpful.  Perhaps you also have met a person for the first time who begins by telling you that some other person—a friend of yours—has told them “all about you.”  What you wonder is precisely how much your friend has disclosed.

When Pilate summons Jesus and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?” it would appear that Pilate is repeating something that the Jewish leaders have said about Jesus.  It has Pilate’s attention because it is loaded with the suspicion of a potential leader of rebellion against Rome.   Surely Pilate was expecting Jesus to deny the charge that potentially endangers his life.  It must have come as an utter surprise to Pilate that the defendant responded with a question of his own—“Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

1.  Have you ever stopped to consider that we acquire most of the knowledge we have about our world through hearsay?  Hearsay is often thought of as something negative, something untrue, as a synonym for rumour.  But this is not necessarily the case.  I have been informed, for example, by reliable sources that The Horseshoe Falls are 180 feet (57 meters) high and allow 6 million cubic feet (168,000 cubic meters) of water over the crest line every minute during peak daytime hours (that is about a million bathtubs full of water every minute!).  But I have never measured the height of the falls nor calculated the water volume as it hurtles over the edge. I have taken someone else's word for it. I heard it said, and I believed it.

As with our knowledge of science, so it is with our knowledge of history. On October 13, 1812 the first major battle in the War of 1812, known as the Battle of Queenston Heights, was fought near Queenston, Ontario. Did it actually happen? I have to take someone else's word for it. Plainly what I affirm is hearsay. And there's nothing wrong with accepting such hearsay.

Yet there is a setting where hearsay isn't accepted at all: a courtroom. No courtroom judge puts any stock in the testimony of someone who says, "I never actually saw Mrs. Brown shoot her husband, but when I was at the grocery store, or maybe it was the barber shop, I heard it said that she shot him." Hearsay isn't enough when testimony has to be rendered in a court of law.

Already you can see where hearsay is acceptable and where not. It is acceptable with respect to acquiring information; but it isn't acceptable with respect to testimony concerning persons. As we move from information about things to acquaintance with persons hearsay has no place. If you were to ask me what it is to love a woman and be loved by a woman, my answer might sound somewhat self-conscious and rather awkward.  Still, without any hesitation I know in my heart what it is to experience such love.  However awkwardly I might convey this to you, neither of us would be helped by consulting a textbook on gynaecology.  Information of any kind, however sophisticated, is never a substitute for intimate acquaintance with a person.

Words always become less adequate, less helpful, as we move deeper and deeper into what is profoundly human. In fact words can never finally do justice to human intimacy. There is a level of experience that others can apprehend only if they come to share the experience themselves. They will never apprehend the experience by having it described in words.

C.S. Lewis wrote his helpful book, A Grief Observed, following the death of his wife.  The book begins very powerfully: "No one ever told me that grief was so much like being mildly concussed or being mildly drunk…."  I am sure that those who have lost the one human being who is the earthly comfort and consolation of their life know precisely what Lewis is talking about.  I do not know since I have not lost the one who is literally part of me.  While Lewis’ words tell me some things about grief I don’t know it in this human experiential sense.

2.  This matter of hearsay and personal acquaintance is at the heart of Jesus’ answer to Pilate’s question.  In questioning Jesus Pilate has on his hands someone whom he doesn't dislike, yet also someone around whom an uprising might develop, thus ruining Pilate's career in the civil service. Wearily Pilate asks Jesus, "Are you king of the Jews?" And as Jesus does so often when he's asked a question, he doesn't answer.  Instead he asks his own question: "Am I king of the Jews? Do you say this on your own, of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?" In other words, "Do you have firsthand acquaintance with me, with the truth that I am, or are you merely parroting hearsay?" "Am I a Jew?", Pilate retorts, "How on earth do you expect me to know?"

"My kingdom isn't of this world," Jesus comes back. "Ah, so you are a king," says Pilate. "Do you say this of your own accord or did others say it to you about me? You say that I am king," continues Jesus, "…I have come to bear witness to the truth." Then, in a voice steeped in weariness and frustration and vexation and cynicism Pilate mutters, "What is truth, anyway?"

"Truth," in John's gospel, always has the force of "reality." "What is real, anyway?" This is what Pilate is asking, and is asking just because he doesn't know.

Pilate doesn't know who Jesus Christ is. He has heard lots said about our Lord, but he has had no firsthand acquaintance with our Lord, born of journeying with him. Oddly, such firsthand acquaintance with Jesus is the common possession of apostles whose names the world will never forget as well as of countless ordinary Christians whose names the world has never remembered; and such firsthand acquaintance with Jesus is utterly foreign to Pilate.

Let's be fair to Pilate. Who Jesus Christ is also escaped many other people in Jesus’ day; the religious leaders, for example.  Meanwhile one question continues to reverberate: "Do you say this (who or what I am) on your own, or did others say it to you about me?" In other words, "Do you have firsthand acquaintance with me, or are you merely repeating hearsay?"

The question that reverberated then reverberates still. It has to be dealt with today. "Do you sing hymns and repeat confessions of faith and say 'Amen' to the prayers of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?" "Do your hymns and prayers and creeds and eucharists and committee meetings; does all of this come from your intimate acquaintance with me or are you merely repeating hearsay that you picked up somewhere?" The question is still asked, and still it must be answered.

3. Imagine being as close as Pilate was to the Lord of the universe; having a private audience with Reality itself and dismissing him with a remark steeped in frustration and cynicism.  “What is truth” or “what is reality, anyway?” The answer to Pilate’s question—are you the king of the Jews—is yes and in that capacity Jesus said that he “came into the world to testify to the truth”.  He came into the world to show us reality; to declare what is real.  Many use the word real to speak of what is actual—this pulpit is actual.  Reality is the nature of existence in which the actual finds a place.  All life comes from and is preserved by the hand of the One who is life; he is our reality.  Pilate thought that Rome and its power was reality; Jesus was to be measured by it.  Rome is long gone but our Saviour remains.

The writers of the gospel tell us the story of Jesus that we might come to know that this same Jesus, now raised from the dead, is standing among us.  “These are written so that you may come to believe* that Jesus is the Messiah,* the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name,” wrote John.  One month from today we will be celebrating Christmas.  I know that we complain of all the complexity, the commercialization, and the busyness we have layered all around this event.  We want people to remember the reason for the season; to put Christ back in Christmas.  Consider this; once a year a great part of our world stops and marks the day called Christmas.  Through the haze of all that it has become the name of Christ has attention drawn to it.  The name of the one born king of the Jews is on the lips of many. Every year our Lord asks many people, “Do you say this of your own accord or did others say it to you about me?”

I also marvel at our Lord’s love.  In the midst of the chaos in which he is swept up; the late night arrest, the abuse of soldiers, the trials with predetermined verdict, being marched off to Pilate.  In the midst of that chaos Jesus’ invites Pilate to know him, whom to know is life eternal.  Pilate’s question—are you the King of the Jews—isn’t asked in order to confirm some growing relationship with Jesus.  Pilate wants to determine if this king so called is any threat to his career in Rome’s civil service.  Today Christians around the world mark this as Christ the King Sunday.  Do we say this on our own—that is do I embrace Jesus as the sovereign of my life?

4.  It is clear that Jesus’ question implies that we ought to be able to answer—we say these things about you on our own accord.  I invite you to think with me about the believer’s intimate acquaintance with Jesus.  Faith—the faith the scriptures speak about—is personal encounter with God.  It begins by entrusting as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of God as we know of him.  It begins with hearsay, with what others have told us about Jesus but it moves to intimate encounter with him.  We hear the Apostles tell us of his promise to be present as we gather in his name; as we trust that word and join in worship we experience something in the gathering with believers that is not to be found on any other gathering.  We move from understanding something that was said of Jesus to knowing it for ourselves.

I said to you, as we embarked on our small group study campaign, that hearing and heeding Jesus always takes the form of hearing and heeding the apostles.  This is why the early church devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching; it is why the Nicene Creed affirms that “we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” In our small groups the Apostles’ teaching was the subject matter of our conversations.  As I experienced the fellowship of the people in my group I know that I was experiencing much more than the collective joy of human fellowship—as happy as that was.  I was growing in intimate acquaintance with my Saviour.

As you and I move away from picking up mere hearsay about Jesus to our own intimate acquaintance with him, what difference is it going to make to us?  One difference is that it will give us assurance of our faith in Jesus Christ, assurance of his hold on us, assurance that we are his younger brothers and sisters and citizens of his Father's kingdom, assurance that we are being used of God now and are destined to see our Lord face-to-face.  This is not the “I know” of the know-it-all nor the “I know” of arrogance.  This is the Lord’s work in our hearts assuring us that he has us firmly in his own grip.

In 1925 the Methodist congregation and Presbyterian congregation in Unionville joined together to become Central United Church.  Both our Presbyterian and Methodist foreparents spoke much of assurance.  Calvin (Presbyterian) said quite starkly, "Where there is no assurance of faith there is no faith at all." I think his assertion was too strong. Wesley (Methodist) said (at least at one point), "Assurance is the privilege of every believer." I think his assertion was too weak. In scripture it is simply taken for granted that those who genuinely know Jesus and love him also know that they know, know that they are loved of their Lord and are bound to him. The first epistle of John, for instance, is one of the shortest books in scripture (five very brief chapters), yet the confident, firm, emphatic expression, "We know", is used in it fifteen times. "We know that we have passed from death to life; we know that God abides in us." This knowing is the conviction, spirit and word of the apostle John and countless Christians after him: "He who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself."

Faith born of intimate acquaintance with our Lord brings with it that assurance which confirms us every day in the truth of faith.  Some think that assurance is being able to say with conviction that we can affirm every line of something like the Apostles’ Creed; or to be able to say “I know beyond a shadow of a doubt” about some aspect of the gospel.  I think that in these kinds of assertions we a relying on our ability to understand; our ability to get our minds around some truth so we can say we are fully convinced.  I am not meaning to down play the importance of loving God with our minds.  But assurance of faith is born of encounter with a person.  And recall that we said that words alone are not adequate to describe fully the nature of human intimacy.  We humans we created for intimacy with God; further we note that in God’s remedy to our turning away from this intimacy he takes on our humanity for our sakes in Jesus.

I have a minister friend who pastors a church in Florida.  He has a wonderful sense of humour.  The only way that you will come to know this—know not merely know about—is to engage in personal encounter with him.  You might anticipate it to be so because you have taken my word for it, yet you come to know it through encounter.

Think of prayer for a moment.  Jesus invites us to pray in his name promising to hear our prayer.  It is hard to put into words how in the experience of praying we are somehow being assured in our heart that we were heard, yet we know it nonetheless.

Are you Jesus the king of the Jews?  If we ask this because we want to know him then we ask of our own accord.  It is a step of faith for we have entrusted as much as we know of ourselves at the that moment to as much as we know of him; and having rendered this reply once to render it again and again as we seize him afresh and follow him forever.