John 18:33-3: Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
For those reading this from the Monday newsletter, I am preaching this from the pulpit on Sunday morning. This is only the third time in nearly 25 years that I have preached from a pulpit, and the reason is a confluence of a variety of things. When I arrived at St. James just over a year ago, I spent some time talking about some of the nuances that I follow in ministry. Given that I have had half a dozen or more questions about why I don’t preach from the pulpit in recent days, I thought I would again share my understanding of preaching, so that we are all on the same page. When I then looked at the readings for today and added in a couple of books that I have been reading for an article I plan to write for the Huron Church News, there was an interesting symmetry emerging that intrigued me.
What follows about preaching and pulpit is no comment on anyone else, but exclusively my understanding of the craft. I believe that pulpits originally had more to do with site lines and sound projection than anything else. Given modern technology, those concerns no longer exist. I see preaching as a conversation. In fact, in a very clear way, it is a conversation with myself, because I need to hear and learn. You have the opportunity to eavesdrop on that conversation. I also believe that being ordained priest does not change who I am, it does not elevate my position, but rather is a call to ministry with, rather than to, a community. That means I should never preach as if I am above, or looking down at anyone – I should preach from within the community. Which is why I also like to wander around a bit while I preach, because that is who I am naturally. If left to my own desires, I would probably be half way down the center aisle by the end of this sermon, but that would be taking things a bit too far.
The two books I have been reading are Zealot by Reza Aslan and Simply Jesus by N.T. “Tom” Wright. Aslan is a scholar and his book is about Jesus from a strictly historical, cultural and academic position. While he references the Scriptures when it suits his purpose, most of the time it’s “just the facts.” I was most intrigued by his comments on Pontius Pilate who is referenced in today’s Gospel. From an historical/cultural model, Pilate was a tyrant. Aslan talks of dozens of people at a time paraded before Pilate, who condemned them to death without even looking up from his desk. Aslan says there is no way the Gospel accounts of Pilate interacting with Jesus can be true.
Wright, on the other hand, is investigating Jesus from a deep faith perspective. When he arrives at the point of Jesus and Pilate, he paints a picture of Pilate as a man who was intrigued by Jesus, who wanted to know how this quiet, unassuming man was creating such a fuss and endangering the lock down control that Pilate wished to keep in Jerusalem to preserve Roman control. Pilate, a man of power, recognizes that Jesus is also a person of power, but of a different manner. Aslan paints Pilate from an heirarchical point of view while Wright represents the relationship view.
It is John’s Gospel, that we read today that gives us the most fulsome view of the conversation between Jesus and Pilate and provides that understanding of an intriguing respect between the two, given that they were most different in their nature. I am somewhat disappointed that the Lectionary ends today’s reading at verse 37 rather than adding the most intriguing question from Pilate to Jesus in verse 38 “What is truth.”. Do any of us have the courage to engage in that discussion?
So today we conclude the Christian year – with the Gospel reading from John and the passage from the beginning of Revelation, we have a glimpse into the themes of Advent which begins next Sunday. John points us to the end of Jesus’s earthly life as Pilate sends Jesus to the cross, while the beginning of Revelation points us to an understanding that Jesus will come again.
So, a bit tongue in cheek, here is my question. Will you mark an Aslan style Advent or a Wright infused Advent. Aslan wants the facts, what we know, the same old same old, no interpretation, just the way it is. Wright is about relationship. In fact his book Simply Jesus goes on to express a recurring theme in Wright’s works that heaven and earth are closer and more interconnected than we think.
So, will Advent again be a necessary precursor to Christmas? Will we grumble about all that apocalyptic stuff that makes us uncomfortable and instead hide with Christmas Trees and Santa Claus. Will we make Advent just what it always was, is and will be. No exceptions?
Or can we take the challenge of Tom Wright? Can we, will we, risk to think anew about what it means that Jesus was born, died, resurrected, ascended and will come again? Dare we think about heaven and earth, about life and death, about what our faith calls us to in Advent? How do we understand the connection between heaven and earth. When Jesus returns will the two be more separate, or less as Wright would suggest. He in fact says the second coming is to unite heaven and earth into one. Or do we skip merrily along to the Baby in the manger.
Advent is NOT Christmas. It is a necessary, thought provoking, faith inspiring, journey with Jesus. Before we once again revisit the cycle of Jesus birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension; we have the chance to seriously and fearlessly dive into a new, fresh and exciting look at one of the most overlooked seasons in the Christian year. I look forward to the preaching journey with you through this season.
Rev. Keith Nethery