Sermon for the Feast of the Reign of Christ at North Presbyterian Church.
The text is John 18:33-37.
Do you remember when you were a kid and the first time your parents asked you to do something work or chore-related?
It was pretty miserable. Up to that point, your time was your own and you could do what you want. But then, all of a sudden, you had these jobs and responsibilities beginning to pile up. Who wouldn’t avoid that, if they could?
So what do we parents do to grease the wheels of our kids’ burgeoning work ethic? We offer rewards. Treats, allowances, etc. Basically, we bribe our kids into doing the right thing. Alternatively, we threaten punishments if they don’t do the right thing.
All in all, it’s not a bad system. Rewards and punishments offer a kind of moral reinforcement for young people, whose ethical character is not yet fully formed. They drive home the idea that if we do good things, good things will happen; if we do bad things, bad things will happen.
There is a pretty solid scientific basis for this. Our brains have a system of neurons inside them called the reward pathway. These neurons get triggered whenever we experience something we like. A chemical called Dopamine then floods the pleasure center of our brain and we feel great.
Our parents gave us rewards for good behavior because these things stimulated this pleasure center in our brains. Similarly, punishments for bad behavior trigger the opposite response in our brains and we feel bad. Our parents’ hope was that we might begin to associate good behavior with good feelings and bad behavior with bad feelings, and therefore be naturally drawn toward the good.
This is a fine system for training kids in morals and good behavior. Not only is it scientifically accurate, but it also matches the natural patterns of behavior in humans for countless generations. Moreover, it’s consistent with what we read in the Bible.
The book of Proverbs forms a big part of Hebrew wisdom literature. It’s full of little nuggets of good advice, like:
- “Kind persons benefit themselves, but cruel people harm themselves.”
- “Fools see their own way as right, but the wise listen to advice.”
- “Patience leads to abundant understanding, but impatience leads to stupid mistakes.”
The general message of Proverbs, as wisdom literature, is “do good things and good things will happen.” Now this, generally speaking, is correct, isn’t it?
In our favorite movies, the hero saves the day while the villain goes to jail.
Our doctors tell us that if we eat healthy food and exercise regularly, we are more likely to live a long and healthy life. But if we sit around the house all day on the Dunkin Donuts diet, we will be more likely to get sick. So, we can see there is a general element of truth to this wisdom literature.
But things don’t always necessarily work out according to this plan.
Sometimes, in real life, the sleaze-bag gets away. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes you can eat right, exercise, and still get sick or die young.
Does this mean that doing the right thing is pointless if there is no reward? Does it mean all that stuff we read about in the book of Proverbs is wrong?
I think it just means we have to grow up and take on a more nuanced vision of reality.
Fortunately, the Bible prepares us for that. Apart from the book of Proverbs, the biblical collection of Hebrew wisdom literature also includes the books of Ecclesiastes and Job, where good people suffer unjustly and life sometimes appears to be meaningless. I think the authors of the Bible included these books in the canon to remind us that life is complicated, and things don’t always work out like they should, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t in it (somewhere).
I’m glad these books are included in the Bible because I think they call us to a deeper level of spiritual maturity, where simplistic systems of reward and punishment give way to reverence for the mystery of God’s presence in the world.
Rewards and punishments are useful for a time, while human beings are first forming their sense of morality in the universe, but the complicated realities of life threaten to undo our religious upbringing, unless we are willing to look deeper and go beyond “religious upbringing” to “spiritual maturity.”
I think we can see an image of that motion happening in today’s gospel reading. The story is set near the end of John’s gospel, as Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate on the day of his crucifixion.
Pontius Pilate, as you may recall, is the Roman governor of Judea. He is Caesar’s official representative in this occupied country. All the power belongs to him.
In front of him stands Jesus, the carpenter, rabbi, and movement leader who has been stirring up trouble and causing civil unrest in Pilate’s territory.
Pilate’s only interest in this story is to maintain order in the province given over to his charge. He is neither a good guy nor a bad guy. He is simply doing his job.
His way of looking at the world can be characterized by rewards and punishments. Pilate has been granted power over Judea by Caesar. If he can maintain order, he will be rewarded as a loyal friend of Caesar, but if he fails in this task, he will be deposed and executed. For Pilate, the game is all about maintaining the balance of power and making Caesar look good to whole Roman Empire. Pilate serves the cause of power.
Jesus, on the other hand, plays by a completely different set of rules. He stands in front of Pontius Pilate as a person who understands his divine-human identity and his role in the unfolding story of the cosmos.
Any other peasant would be trembling with fear to stand before Pilate’s judgment seat. They would tell him whatever he wants to hear in order to save their neck. But Jesus is most uncooperative, from Pilate’s point of view. He answers every question with another question, or with some kind of cryptic statement that is almost impossible to decipher.
Jesus isn’t interested in telling Pilate what he wants to hear. He just wants to tell it like it is. The most straightforward statement Jesus makes to Pilate is, “I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth.”
Jesus serves the cause of truth, while Pilate serves the cause of power.
Pilate and the cause of power are tied up entirely with the simplistic systems of reward and punishment. Everything looks black or white. Obviously, this cause has served Pilate well as he has advanced to a position of such great political power. However, this cause has its limits. The reward system is based on the human desire for pleasure. When it is not questioned and transcended, the pursuit of pleasure remains the central motivating factor in human life. Those who serve the cause of power are never able to grow out of pleasure’s defining role in their ethical systems.
There comes a point in every kid’s youth when they are no longer offered rewards for doing what needs to be done. A person with an established moral character does what is right, no matter the cost or reward. Washing dishes and doing laundry are part of living life as a family. There is no price tag that can be put on that.
The cause of truth, on the other hand, accepts reality as it is. Sometimes it is complex, sometimes it doesn’t make sense, sometimes bad things happen for no reason, sometimes we can’t control the outcome of situations, no matter how hard we try.
Jesus stands before Pilate in this morning’s gospel as the servant of the truth. He is, if you will, an enlightened being who operates “at a higher level of consciousness.” He is not interested in any political maneuvering or game-playing. Jesus isn’t concerned about what he can get out of his conversation with Pilate. His only goal is to “speak truth to power.”
What this means for those of us who follow Jesus is that we too are called to grow out of our juvenile obsession with rewards and punishments. We are called to live in reality as it is, with all its complexities and frustrations. We are called to “testify to the truth,” as Jesus did. We must “speak truth to power” in all our words and actions.
On a practical level, this means that we must be committed to doing the right thing, even when it costs us something and there is no reward. We must be driven by the same force of compassion that motivated Jesus’ life, even when it doesn’t feel safe to do so. We have to take risks in the name of love, not because it is sound policy, but because Jesus Christ commands it.
Jesus knows something about this. He has been this way before.
After he had spoken truth to power before Pilate, he was led away to be crucified. This didn’t happen because of any offense he had committed, but because Pilate served the cause of power, and his first duty was to maintain order in the empire. Jesus came “to testify to the truth” and he ended up dying for it.
But you and I know that the story doesn’t end there. Because, on the third day, the power of love overcame the love of power. On the third day, the heart that was impaled by a soldier’s bayonet began to beat again. On the third day, after the powers of this world had said “No” to Jesus and rolled the stone across his grave, God said “Yes” and rolled that stone away. On the third day, God rejected our rejection and “led captivity captive.” On the third day, God made power look weak and intelligence look stupid. On the third day, God gave fear something to be afraid of and sentenced death to death.
On the third day, Jesus Christ rose from the dead. This is our faith. This is our only hope. This is truth upon which we hang all our yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows.
Therefore, if we believe this, if we dare to call ourselves Christians, then we must pledge our allegiance to Jesus Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords. We pledge our allegiance to King Jesus over and against every enemy, every competing allegiance, every business interest, every political party, every ideology, every flag, every border, and “every other name that is named in heaven or on earth.”
And just as Jesus is a different kind of king, so we must be a different kind of army. Our Commander-in-Chief has given us our marching orders:
“I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me… I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.” (Matthew 25:31-45)
Brothers and sisters, this is the commandment our king. It is our bounden duty. It is not an option. And if anyone, however powerful, acts otherwise, if they abandon the millions of “the least of these brothers and sisters” of Jesus who stand trembling at our gates while the bodies of their children wash up on our shores, then that person, like Pontius Pilate, is serving the cause of power and is therefore guilty of High Treason against cause of truth.