Summary: A sermon for the last Sunday of the Church year - the feast of Christ the King
Welcome to the last Sunday of the Christian year - traditionally recognised as the feast of ‘Christ the King’.
Next week is Advent - the start of a new Christian year, but this week we conclude the old ecclesiastical year with a proclamation of the kingship of Christ, and a call upon all of us to decide where our allegiances in this world lie.
I said that this is a ’traditional’ feast, but it’s actually only a tradition that goes back 80-odd years - to 1925, when the feast day was proclaimed by Pope Pius XI.
1925 was a dark time for our world. The world had only just emerged from the war to end all wars, and the signs were everywhere that it was hurtling towards another.
We were in the grip of a worldwide economic depression, and desperately looking for answers. And of course there were some outspoken leaders who believed that they had answers to those questions. One was the Italian leader, Mussolini, who had just celebrated his third year in office. Another was a young rabble-rouser by the name of Adolf Hitler, who had been out of gaol for a year by that stage, and whose Nazi party was rapidly growing in popularity across Germany.
The world was watching, waiting for answers, and listening to these powerful men competing for the limelight, and the Pope felt that it was time to call on Christian people everywhere to declare their allegiance to the rule of Christ.
Unfortunately, the years that followed showed that not enough people took Pius’ call to Christ seriously. Either that, or somehow they failed to understand that you couldn’t follow both Christ and the Fuhrer.
Of course it’s easy to be wise in retrospect, but I still find it very difficult to understand how so many pious, church-going, Christian people supported, fought for, and prayed for the Fuhrer week by week over the passage of World War II.
I don’t doubt that in many cases it was because they really had no idea what the Fuhrer was up to, but that was not always the case. Indeed, some of the most depressing literature I‘ve ever read comes from the diary entries of pious German Christians who, during the war, were faithfully working the gas-chambers at Auschwitz by day but, according to their personal journals, were struggling with their consciences over whether as Christians they should attend the camp dance at night
How did they get it so wrong? How did they fail to see that you can’t follow Christ while you’re murdering your brothers and sisters as your day-job?
Sociologists will tell you that part of the reason has to be that German Christian thinking at the time was very much shaped by the two-worlds approach - that religion was a personal spiritual thing, and not directly relevant to political, material realities. After all, did not Jesus say, “my Kingdom is not of this world!”
And of course He did say exactly that, and we heard Him say that in our Gospel reading today, but I’m pretty sure that was not what He meant!
So let’s open our Bibles, and as we do we journey back from 1925 to another dark time - some 1900 years earlier, in the Roman province of Judea - a region that was also heading towards war. And once again there were various voices competing for attention - military leaders, politicians and charismatic figures who would arise from the rank and file of the subjugated local population, promising to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression.
Pontius Pilate was the character with the unenviable job of keeping the province of Judea in line, and he was, according to the Jewish historian Philo, a ruthless overlord: "by nature rigid and stubbornly harsh. . . of spiteful disposition and an exceeding wrathful man. .His career was marked by … bribes, acts of violence, outrages, cases of spiteful treatment, constant murders without trial, and ceaseless and most grievous brutality."
Today’s Gospel reading portrays him as a weak and vacillating man - torn between his external fears and his inner doubts. He is also a cynic - “So you are a king?” he asks Jesus sarcastically, as he threatens him from his position of power.
It is a dialogue that is masterfully told by John the evangelist, as it is portrayed as an encounter between the leading local power-merchant of the government, on the one hand, and the apparently powerless figure of Jesus, on the other. And yet, as the story progresses, we realise that it is Jesus who is in control, whereas Pilate seems to be quite powerless. He wants to release Jesus but can’t. His job is to administer justice, but he is too scared to do what he knows is right. And so he moves back and forth between Jesus and his accusers, eventually symbolically washing his hands of the situation, in a desperate attempt to excuse himself from responsibility.