A Meditation on the Reign of Christ
Then 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.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’ —John 18:33-38 (NRSV)
I’ve been in pastoral ministry for close to a quarter-century now, but before that …
Well, let’s just say I had a lot of jobs. And I lived in a lot of places. I’ve been a hospital orderly, a newspaper reporter, a photographic lab technician, a security officer, and a church office administrator, among other things. I was even a bouncer in a bar, once (for about a week).
I’ve lived in Lethbridge, Acadia Valley, and Golden, British Columbia. I worked for newspapers in Golden, and in Oyen, Alberta. Since I’ve been in ministry, I’ve served congregations in Medicine Hat and Kamloops, before coming to Renfrew United Church in Calgary some 16 years ago. I also spent some time in Montréal, when I attended seminary there.
However, if you ask me where I’m from … Well, that would be Winnipeg, Manitoba. It’s where I was born. It’s where I grew up. Actually, to be more specific, north Winnipeg is where I grew up.
Yeah. North End Winnipeg. Probably, you have to be a Winnipegger to really grasp the significance of that. It was unlike any other place on earth.
I’ve often heard it said that, if you’re from North End Winnipeg … in order to be considered successful … all you have to do is stay out of jail!
It toughened me up, living there—which isn’t such a bad thing, really. I learned many important lessons in that place: acceptance of diverse cultures; the importance of being honourable; the immense value of friendship; the greatness of ordinary working people; and the fact that there are at least two dozen wonderful recipes for borscht! I also learned how to avoid getting into a fight … and how to defend myself if I couldn’t avoid it.
North Winnipeg has, unquestionably, left its imprint upon me. There are those who tell me that, even after all these years, I still speak with a “North End” accent … whatever that means. And I still recall what it’s like to have to count your pennies when you grow up poor. I have a friend—who grew up near where I did—who, whenever he realizes how cheap I still am … always laughs and says, “Grotz, you are a Winnipeg boy!”
It’s a funny thing—isn’t it?—how being from a certain place shapes a person; how it gets deep down inside of your bones, where it’s always a part of you. No matter where I go, I will always be a boy from Winnipeg. Where we are from says something about who we are.
Jesus knew all about that. From the beginning of the Gospel of John to its very end, people are concerned with where Jesus is from because they are concerned about who he is.
In the very first chapter of John’s gospel, we hear the incredulous voice of Nathanael. You may remember that, after Philip had met Jesus, he sought Nathanael out. Putting his hands on Nathanael’s shoulders and looking him straight in the eyes, Philip let him know that he had important news. The Messiah had come.
Philip said, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth” (John 1:45).
But Nathanael could not believe it. From Nazareth? Are you sure? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asked (John 1:46).
This same question comes up again near the end of John’s gospel—this time when Jesus is standing before Pontius Pilate. Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
But this is not Pilate’s real question. His real question is deeper: “What is truth?”
Jesus had come to testify to the truth, so it begged the question. But throughout the entire conversation, there is only one real answer that Pilate receives: “My kingdom is not from here.”
The truth was difficult for Pilate to understand. Why? Because Jesus is not from here. His truth is not from here.
Like I said before, to be from a place means that it is part of who we are. Jesus was from Nazareth, which was about 15 miles west of the Sea of Galilee; and it was about 20 miles east of the Mediterranean. It was west of Mount Tabor and about 1,300 feet above sea level.
But when Pilate asked Jesus about the truth, he was not seeking information he could get from an atlas of Palestine. It was not a question about Jesus’ hometown. It was a question about a new way of living.
As a good friend once told me, “It’s hard to be a small-town boy with a big-city haircut.”
Know what that means? You look the part—but you feel out of place. Like you don’t belong. Falling off of the turnip truck in the big city entails a learning curve—because the way of life is so different. The rhythm of each day seems foreign; the buildings are so tall, the crowds are so thick, the pace is so fast.
Basic questions are baffling. How do you hail a taxicab? Are there parts of town you should avoid? How does public transit work? Or even, where can I park my car and how much will it cost me? The way of life is different.
The disciples knew something about that. A diverse group, trying to adapt to a new way of life, they were following in Jesus’ footsteps, and struggling to keep up.
There was Simon Peter, who was always quick to speak. He proclaimed Jesus as the Christ, but he also denied Jesus three times. Then there was Thomas, who kept quiet until he was absolutely sure of what to say. He needed to see the scars on Jesus’ hands before he could say, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
There were Andrew and Philip, who—at Passover—brought some Greeks to meet Jesus … for the very best of reasons. Then there was Judas, who brought soldiers and police to Jesus … for the very worst of reasons. There was Matthew the tax collector. Jesus said, “Follow me,” and Matthew followed. Also, there was Matthias—about whom we know very little, except that he was chosen to replace Judas. Besides that, there was Nathanael (also known as Bartholomew); James and John, the sons of Zebedee; Thaddeus; Simon the Zealot; and James, the son of Alphaeus.
Quite the motley crew: a publican, a couple of revolutionaries, a whole bunch of fishermen—and possibly even one with royal blood.*
They were all learning how to follow and how to lead, how to wash people’s feet and how to dust off their sandals, how to feed large, hungry crowds and how to drink from one, common cup. All of them were trying to get used to a new way of life. All of them were different, but … they all knew what it meant to leave home.
They had left home to follow Jesus. And in doing so, they were not simply leaving a place. Whether or not they knew it at the time, they were leaving in order to find a new way of living. They were about to discover a new kind of life—true life; life in the Kingdom of God.
So it is with us. If we want to understand the truth about the Kingdom of God, we have to leave our familiar places. We have to leave home—and that means moving from what we know to what we do not know.
Leaving home requires a willingness to embrace what is unfamiliar. It means stepping into the unknown, trusting that something better awaits us—even if we’re not sure what that “something” is. And we can only do that by taking a leap of faith.
I know something about that. The first congregation I was ever part of—which I joined when I was 16 years old—was Kildonan United Church, back in Winnipeg. I can still remember the day I was baptized and made my profession of faith in that church.
Standing at the front of the sanctuary, I looked out at the congregation looking back at me. I stood there holding a new Bible with my name on it—a gift from the church. It was a place where I felt at home. People there called out my name in the hallway. I knew where folks sat in the sanctuary. I saw familiar faces every week.
But on that morning, the church did something very strange. It gave me a Bible and said, “Take this with you wherever you go.” Little did I know that, eventually, I would leave that place for good. Eventually, I would leave home.
Often, we discover that we don’t have to travel all that far in order to leave home. Sometimes it is a very short distance, to a place where we encounter something new—something that teaches us more about following Jesus. We come to learn that the Bible is not a dead-end street, where the journey ends. No. It is a busy intersection that sends us out in all directions—pointing us toward the living God, so that we see the world with fresh eyes. It sends us to places we are not from.
Jesus is not from here, but he came here bringing a new way of living that is all bound up with the lives of others—bound up with their needs and sorrows and joys.
Jesus came because of the brokenness of the world. Jesus comes to us because we are broken. He comes to us so that—through the needs and sorrows and joys of ourselves and others—we can begin to understand the good news he wants to share with us. He comes to call us to discipleship, urging us beyond the places we are from.
That’s not to say you should ever cease being thankful for your home. It will always be a part of who you are. I’m glad that I’m a boy from north Winnipeg. I’m grateful for the way my faith was shaped and nurtured at Kildonan United Church. But on that day so long ago, when I stood before the assembled congregation and received a Bible, my leaving was inevitable. I didn’t know that, then. But the church knew. These people understood that the Kingdom of God is not from here; and so, they knew I would one day leave home—whether or not I ever actually moved away.
They knew what I did not know. They knew that seeking the Kingdom of God means discovering a larger world of discipleship and grace. We leave home to discover the grace of discipleship—and the discipleship of grace.
Our baptismal vows—our commitment to follow Jesus—these things broaden our view of the world. They bring our lives into sharp focus—but even more than that, they enlarge our lives and give them meaning.
As in the words of Ruth (Ruth 1:16)—”Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God”—our vows of discipleship enlarge our lives. They make room in our lives for others.
Each day—hopefully—we learn to live with gratitude for the places we are from. But, each day—hopefully—we also learn how to widen the circles of our lives. We learn how to include both neighbours and strangers, the poor and the hurting. We learn how to include empathy and hope, forgiveness and grace, friends and enemies.
We live with a new innocence and integrity, humility and hope, grace and gratitude, faith and forgiveness. Our lives become larger, precisely because the One we follow is not from here.
We seek the Kingdom of God, where reigns the Christ—the One who came from another place in order to transform this one.
As we follow him, he certainly will lead us to new places—to places where we shall be made over. And we shall experience the truth of what the Bible tells us: “… if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17)
This is the Gospel we preach. Thanks be to God for it. Amen.
* Nathanael Bartholomew lived in Cana of Galilee. A number of scholars believe that he was the only disciple who came from royal blood, or noble birth. The family name Bartholomew (Greek: Βαρθολομαίος, transliterated “Bartholomaios”) comes from the Aramaic bar-Tôlmay (בר-תולמ), meaning “son of Talmai.” Talmai (2 Sam. 3:3) was king of Geshur, whose daughter—Maacah—was the wife of David, and mother of Absalom.