After the First World War and in the face of the emerging totalitarian regimes of Soviet Communism and Josef Stalin; the Nationalist Social Movement in Germany with Adolf Hitler; and Fascism in Italy with Benito Mussolini, the Church introduced today’s feast of Christ the King. It then challenged – and still does – Church members to look beyond our all-too fallible earthly kings and rulers to the One above the heavens to whom all earthly powers – ultimately – are responsible.

In today’s Second Reading we find Jesus described as the ‘Ruler of the kings of the earth’. However, in the Gospel for today – John 18:33-37 – we find Jesus not so much in outward power but in his weak, earthly form as he is interrogated by Pontius Pilate, the powerful Roman governor who ruled the region of the Mediterranean world where Jesus lived. He was held as a prisoner before Pilate because fellow Jews, in an effort to get rid of Jesus, had informed Pilate that Jesus was claiming to be a king (and, thus, a challenge to Roman rule).

Up to this point in the trial, Pilate had concluded that Jesus was no more than a petty rabbi who was upsetting fellow Jews. He could find no cause to condemn Jesus. But when he was told about Jesus’ claim to kingship, he met Jesus for a second time and asked if this was claim was true: ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’

Our Lord’s first reply was to say that if this was true then he and his followers would have resisted arrest, whereas, in fact, they did not. His kingdom, he said, had nothing to do with earthly, political or military power: his was not a kingdom of this world. Instead, he said his mission was to reveal the Truth about God and invite people to submit to the rule or reign of God in their lives. So it was only in this sense – bringing people into the kingdom or rule of God – that he was any kind of a ‘king’. Consequently, Pilate had nothing to fear from Jesus but you should, Jesus said to Pilate, be on the side of this Truth for which I stand.

Although it is not included in our text today, Pilate, somewhat wearily and cynically gave his infamous reply: ‘Truth? What is that?’ He could have been speaking for many a political leader down the centuries, not least in our own time …

St John presents Pilate as knowing in his heart that Jesus was innocent and no threat to Roman rule. However, as governor of Palestine he was under severe pressure from the Jewish religious leaders to find Jesus guilty and have him condemned. The last thing he wanted on his hands was a rebellion. So his dilemma was this: do I condemn an innocent man to appease a crowd I despise or do I declare him innocent and thus cause unrest among the people I am governing?

So now the pressure was on Pilate, not Jesus. Their roles had reversed – it was Pilate, not Jesus, who was on trial.

All four Gospel accounts agree that Pilate wants Jesus to be spared his eventual fate of execution and only when the crowd refuses to relent does he give in to their demand. He tries his best to avoid personal responsibility for the death of Jesus because he knows an innocent man is being condemned.

We know the rest of the story … out of political expediency Pilate gave into the crowd. He had Jesus crucified with a mocking sign erected over the cross declaring ‘The King of the Jews’.

When I think of Pilate’s dilemma, I have some sympathy for him. How easy it is for us to be in a situation where we know what in conscience we should or should not do but give into pressure, perhaps from another, to do something we know to be wrong. Such a predicament has beset not just Pilate but most of us at some time or an. It’s a dilemma, perhaps, that people in modern-day politics and other professions face constantly.

The Good News of the Gospel is that however conscience judges us, and whatever painful truths we regret, God’s mercy does not condemn us, even if we find it difficult to forgive ourselves. Christ’s in not a kingdom of power but a kingdom of love. Jesus did not condemn Pilate and neither does he condemn us.

Michael Campion
Holy name, Jesmond
21 November 2021

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