John 18:33–37 (NRSV)
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 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?” 36 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.” 37 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.”
As we head into the holiday season, we begin by remembering the things of which we give thanks. This is one of the greatest traditions in all of America, and is a tradition that is really unique to our culture. When I was in Ukraine and the students I worked with were curious about our culture, the most common question after how much money I had was, “What is Thanksgiving?” How would you answer that question? We say that it is a religious holiday, but has never been a day universally recognized by the greater church body. That being said it does have a spiritual dimensions to it. If we practice it properly we slow down our lives and reflect on things that have true meaning in our lives. Oddly enough the secular and religious communities seem to consider the same things as important on that day, because it is the busiest period of time for travel. And people travel to meet with family and friends. I want us to consider Thanksgiving, as we reflect on this passage today. The activities that we participate in and why it is that we do those things.
I said that the universal church does not necessarily consider this holiday to be one of their liturgical holy days, but that does not mean that the roots do not have spiritual meaning. The first thanksgiving, the one we learned about in grade school, is a day that the pilgrims celebrated the harvest with the indigenous people of America. The reason they celebrated the harvest was because they were puritans, and the puritans were a group of people that attempted to conform all of life around scripture. They were deeply devoted people, and they only celebrated holidays that were listed in scripture. And the holiday that they were celebrating was a form of the Feast of Booths. This particular holiday in ancient days was a feast that lasted seven days, seven because when God commands a celebration He intends that we really celebrate. But this holiday was to remind the people of their exodus and wanderings, how they lived in tents and shared all that they had because all they had was a direct gift from God. As they moved away from the exodus this festival became one of great importance, they were commanded to leave their house for a week, set up camps, and to share the fruits of their harvest. It was a festival that celebrated the end of the growing cycle, and the abundance that was given to them. During this festival all people were considered equal all were wanderers in the world and if someone wandered to your tent they were treated as a guest and were asked to join in your feast. The first thanksgiving was an attempt at recreating this festive atmosphere where we are mindful that all that we have is a blessing from God and it is not to be hoarded but shared.
Today we read a passage that does not seem too festive. Most of us would not choose to read a passage about a trial that would eventually lead to an execution as something to highlight a time to be thankful, but this is actually a beautiful passage. I will be honest, it has been hard for me to focus on one central theme because as I have studied the passage left me sitting in awe. I have found myself reading and then caught up in the words, unable to move forward because the Spirit of God urged me to just consider what is being said more fully. It has been a week filled with reflection.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks to opens the conversation. This is a loaded question, because no matter how Jesus would answer it consequences would follow. Is he the king? Pilate is not asking if he is a rebel wishing to start a revolution, but he is honestly asking if Jesus is the hereditary king or ordained ruler of the Jewish people. The answer that Jesus gives is actually quite intriguing, “Do you ask this on your own or did others tell you about me?” This is intriguing because it causes Pilate and everyone else that reads this passage to reconsider what was being said. Did Pilate consider Jesus the King of the Jews? Did he come to his own conclusion about the personality before him? Did the political power structure truly believe that Jesus was a threat to their status, or was this simply a case of jealousy by people attempting to maintain some semblance of power? By answering Pilate in this manner Jesus causes his questioner to contemplate not only his politics but also the actions of the man before him. He had to actually look at Jesus’ life and lifestyle, the way He lived and consider why Jesus did what he was doing. For the questioner there is no easy answer. Is He the king?
Pilate does not want to actually consider this, it challenges everything he knows in the world. Jesus did not act like anyone else he knew, he did not seek power yet He stood there accused. So Pilate says, “How should I know I’m not a Jew. But why have your own leaders sent you here?”
This is where this passage gets me. 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.” This single verse is what caused me to stop and think for the past week. Words like fight, from, world, kingdom, and followers all seemed to lunge toward me leapt from the page and implant themselves into my mind. I realized I never really understood what was being spoken.
Imagine yourself in the conversation. Jesus is telling you these words. “My kingdom, what I find most important is not what you think. If it was I would have armed agents keeping me from being arrested. This is not about a debate or a championship bout, the things you spend your day investing in. What I find most important is not territory, power, or fame. I am interested in life.”
This is why this passage struck me as beautiful. It is a testimony of peace and freedom, but not because it has been liberated but because it is released. So often we think of our faith in Christ as a battle between good and evil, a war between what is right and wrong, but in our fights we can become distracted. Jesus says if my kingdom was the same as yours my followers would fight. The word fight used here is to describe a contest between athletes in an arena or a debate within a forum. These are the things that are important to the world. Connected to a “fight” in this sense of the word is fame, fortune, entertainment, and power. The idea of convincing people that you or your ideas are the most important or that you are the champion. It speaks of numbers, votes, status, and wealth everything that the world deems as being symbols of status and worth in a society. Jesus is saying if that is what I wanted you could not have touched me, but that is not at all what is important. What is important is much deeper.
What then is his kingdom? If he is not interested in the fight, or the debate what is important? This is the heart of the feast of Thanksgiving. The feast of Booths and the day of thanksgiving revolves around everything Jesus came to bring us. A life of abundance, a life filled with joys of companionship. We gather in the dining rooms on a holiday for no other reason than to enjoy the company of other. We visit with the people that we do not have to fight with to be seen as acceptable.
In my family Thanksgiving was probably the most important holiday of the year. As I am speaking here today my family is making their way from Texas, Colorado, and all across Kansas to meet together in a small town in the middle of nowhere. My family has a wide range of political views, they have various careers, and differing ideas on religious practice (though predominately Quaker). But when it comes to family all those differences fall away. My salary is of no concern, my job only matters if it brings joy, and politics might make interesting conversation but they do not really care. The important thing is that we are there together. If we cannot be together someone will pick up a phone and everyone will yell their greetings. We eat, we laugh, we enjoy a game, and we sing. Everyone gives something and no one leaves without a deep sense of belonging.
His kingdom is not from the world. His kingdom is from something deeper, a place that connects us together in ways that go beyond the superficial. His kingdom is life. His kingdom revolves around our relationships with each other and with God. It removes all the things our society deems important. Everyone sits together equal, sharing what we have to encourage and bless those around us.
Pilate listens to Jesus as He basically told him that everything he stands for is pointless, and Pilate ask, “So you are a king?” Pilate missed the point. He acknowledge that Jesus had something great, that there was something that gave Jesus power over the people but he did not quite understand what the use of that power was for. He did not get it because he is a man from the world instead of a man dedicated to life. Jesus responds again saying that he came for one reason, to testify to the truth, and that everyone that belongs to truth hears his voice.
As I sat this week contemplating this passage, it occurred to me that often I am just like Pilate. I miss the point and I enter into the fights of the world. I engage in debates trying to convince those around me that my way of thinking is the right way and if they disagree they are wrong. I spend my time chasing after the things that hold value in society, a job title and the influence that that can bring as well as the income. That is why it struck me so hard. I toil and struggle wondering if I am a success or a failure, and all I really need is right here around me. It is in the screams of joy I hear when I walk through the door. It is in the songs of praise I lift up on a Sunday morning. It is in the shared meals that I have with friends and family every day of the week. The most important things are not the achievements or the gains but it is the things shared. It is the shared life and the holy rhythm that Jesus taught us a life of worship, prayer, and service. The life of loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. That is why Jesus came, he came to save us from the emptiness of the world so that we could know the truth of life. Life with Him and each other.
As we enter into this time of Holy Expectancy and communion in the manner of Friends, let us reflect of the truth that Jesus brought us. Let us consider the life he wishes to give us, and let us be released to live the truth of Thanksgiving.