Christ the King Sunday

by Crossings

On Trial Ourselves
John 18:33-37
Christ the King Sunday
analysis by Ed Schroeder

Swan Song. Sabbatheology 88, today’s Crossings matrix on the Gospel for Christ the King (Nov. 23, 1997) the last Sunday in the Year of Mark, is the last one from me to you for a while. Starting next week (Advent I in the Year of Luke) other Crossings colleagues will be working on Saturdays. Managing the process will be Pastors Robin Morgan of St. Louis, MO, and Michael Hoy of Dayton, OH, together with a team of Crossings Community members. Both Robin and Michael are members of the Crossings board of directors, with Michael currently the board president. You’ll learn more about them next Saturday as they tell you about Advent I in the Year of Luke.
So for one more time, here’s Sabbatheology 88. 
Peace & Joy! Ed 


The RCL-appointed Gospel for November 23, 1997–Christ the King–is John 18:33-37. I’ve expanded the text to include the entire dialogue between Pilate and Jesus, running on up to 19:16.

  1. The whole of John’s Gospel, suggest Paul Ricoeur and Theo Preiss (I think that’s his last name, but I’ve got no way to check it here) is a courtroom trial. When in John 1:7 we hear of “a witness [come] to testify,” it is not street-corner evangelism that we are in for, but courtroom testimony. The words witness, testimony, testify occur more times in the Johannine corpus of the N.T. than in the entire rest of the N.T. Even in the Johannine epistles and in John’s apocalypse the courtroom scene continues.
  2. That’s one reason why “truth” is so big in John–also in today’s text. The task of the court is to ascertain the truth, and make judgments based on that. That’s also the reason why “authority (exousia)” is big in John. Which moves to the next issue of just who has the authority to make the decisive “judgment” (also a big word in John). For the same reason “law” is big in John–not law as legislation, even divine legislation, but “courtroom law” that renders verdicts about guilt or innocence, death or life. As in today’s text: “We have a law and by that law he ought to die.”
  3. It’s obvious that in Jesus’ dialogue with Pilate we’re in court. More than once Pilate’s verdict is that there is “no case” against him, despite his accusers’ vehement au contraire. From beginning to end in John’s Gospel Jesus is on trial. The “signs,” a unique form of testimony in the fourth Gospel, are items of evidence which John piles up relentlessly–for those who have eyes to see. John’s last sign is in today’s text.
  4. What John calls “signs” are episodes in Jesus’ ministry which are placed alongside an O.T. precedent. The technical word is “typology.” Jesus does not merely repeat what happened in the O.T. precedent, but his is a quantum leap beyond it. Cf. the water from Jacob’s well, and the living water from Jesus himself (John 4), or the heavenly bread in the wilderness, and the bread of life that Jesus is (John 6).
  5. The sign in today’s text is “the day of preparation for the Passover,” the day that the O.T. Passover lamb was killed. It is already Good Friday in Pilate’s court, and the O.T. precedent is about to be repeated, but once more with a quantum leap difference “for everyone who belongs to the truth.” To which Pilate responds–not cynically, I suggest–as if he were seriously asking: “Huh? What is that?”
  6. The final sign arises in the courtroom where Jesus is on trial. But it is not only Jesus. Here in Pilate’s courtroom–as John hopes we’ll see and hear–there are additional folks on trial. Pilate himself, for one. Jesus’ accusers, for another. And even we the readers, for one more. Initially all three of these additional parties are in the jury box, asked to render a verdict about this Jesus. But all 3 of these parties to the jury are also themselves in the dock and on trial as well. For the verdict they/we render about Jesus, claims John, will be the clinching evidence, the “truth,” to ground the verdict God renders on the jurors as well.
  7. One way of envisioning these multiple trials–maybe even layers of trials–in progress is to view the scene described in today’s text as a micro-drama on a small stage with Pilate on the bench, of course. Behind the back curtain of that micro-trial is a cosmic one where God himself is on the bench, and all that is transpiring in the micro-trial–for each of the major participants: Pilate, the accusers, we the listeners–is being recorded as evidence by a divine court reporter, on the basis of which the Cosmic Judge will render his verdict.
  8. God’s verdict about Jesus is rendered at Easter. John telegraphs it ahead to us in the last word from the cross (19:30): It is one Greek word, tetelestai, the technical courtroom term for “case closed.”


DIAGNOSIS: On Trial Ourselves and Misreading the Evidence that Could Save us.

Misreading Jesus and Acting Accordingly Pilate, the accusers, (we too?) misread Jesus, misread the sort of Son of God he is, the sort of King of the Jews he is, misread his being on trial (where the law calls for death, even from God himself) for us–as the Passover lamb par excellence. Misreading his regime as competition to Caesar, as being “of this world” [i.e., the world’s kind of top-down rule, the world’s kind of hoard-it-all, not-to-be-shared authority]. And from such misreading comes mis-living as though the regimes of “this world” were the ones before whom we must pass muster–by deserting Christ the King.

The “As If” of Pretended Legality. Living in “Untruth.” All the principals in the drama claim they are acting legally. “We have a law,” say the accusers. Pilate too wants to act legally. He measures the evidence against Jesus and “finds no fault in him.” That is the way of all sinners, living “as if” they were non-sinners, as if they were “right,” right according to some law. But this amounts to not being truthful about themselves. Only when someone who is a “sinner in fact,” [which is everyone] becomes a “sinner in truth” [= a sinner with no “as if not,” no pretense to the contrary], only then does one “belong to the truth,” which enables one to “listen to Jesus’ voice.”(37)

Self-incriminated to one’s own Death Sentence Apostasy from God is at the root of living “as if” people are “in truth.” It surfaces when they say: “We have no king but the emperor.” For Israelites to make such a confession is to depose Yahweh as their king, to break the very first commandment, the great Shema of Israel’s foundation. Either Yahweh is king or the Roman Emperor is king. To be devoted to one is to despise the other; to love one is to hate the other (Matt.6:24). When they accuse Jesus of blasphemy for his alleged claim to be Son of God, and do so by claiming the sanction of God’s law for deserting Yahweh and affirming Caesar, they incriminate themselves with blasphemy indeed. But since he is God’s son, the untruth locks them out from him.


The King of the Jews, the Son of God, in the Dock for “As If” Sinners In submitting to the untruth of all the courtroom participants, in willingly accepting their “as if” verdicts, Jesus appropriates the verdict for himself. He does not protest his innocence for a moment. When he says: “you have said so,” he is consenting in the verdict and its consequences. That is the quantum leap plus of this Paschal Victim’s sacrifice par excellence. Here is God’s Son taking the “sins of the whole world.” For who of us does not also live an “as if” existence of “untruth” which links us all to those original participants in Pilate’s court? But that is precisely what makes him Son of this particular God, the God of mercy and steadfast love, the God who loves sinners. This is what makes him the real King of the Jews as well. David is the model of the Jewish king, a shepherd king–even though David’s own performance was mediocre. For a Jewish king, when the sheep are in mortal danger, the king springs into the breech, laying down his life so that the sheep may live. In contrast to the kings “of this world,” who sacrifice the sheep so that the king may live, who hoard their authority and the perks thereof, this King does not think of his divine perks as something to be clutched, but empties himself of them to share them with the sinners whose king he is (Phil.2).

Faith in this Christ as King Trusting the King of the Jews as one’s own king. Confessing the “truth” about ourselves as sinners, and then confessing the “grace” that Christ grants such truthful sinners. Thus I read the text of John 1:17. Luther’s lines in his explanation of the second article of the Apostles Creed in the Small Catechism are 100% Johannine at this point.

Sharing in the Authority of this King of the Jews Here too I suggest we run back to John’s prologue for some text: “And to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the authority (exousia) to become children of God” (1:12). If God owns the world, and we are God’s kids, draw your own conclusions. Or just to stick with the authority item for a moment. Receiving a share of this King’s authority authorizes such children of God to have it pass around (call it Pass-over) to others. In short: Lift high the cross!


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