One of my favourite films is Whistle Down the Wind. If you have seen it, you will remember it. A group of children, led by Kathy (wonderfully played by Hayley Mills) find a man in a barn and believe that he is Jesus. They care for him; they revere him, and they love him. Until one little lad says: “That’s not Jesus it’s just a fella” and, of course it was, and furthermore he was actually a convict on the run. Just a fella, and yet you can’t help but wonder, or at least I can’t.
If you have never seen the film do watch it if you get the chance. Firstly, because it is a great film and secondly because 2000 years ago for many people Jesus was also just a fella. He had 30 years of fairly ordinary life and then, to most folk, he appears to go off the rails and will end by suffering a convict’s death. The only time Jesus would be crowned king on this earth would be in mockery and cruelty.
What do we mean?
Well, things change and today we here would surely all proclaim Jesus as King. Our King. But what do we really mean when we call Jesus King? And just how much power are we willing to allow him over our lives? Because even we Christians are often tempted to put limits on his Kingship. As for the rest of society, well, it is clear that most people believe that religion has no place in everyday life and that The Church (big C) should keep well out of politics. Personally, I don’t think that is possible and I am not sure that they should keep out either.
The Church of England is a political organisation. It makes decisions that affect large groups of people which is basically what politics is about. It is also the established church of this country a church which only this week was being called into account regarding the Christian convert who took that bomb into Liverpool. The Church and just about any faith organisation has a political role. It always has. 2000 years ago, when Jesus stood in front of Pilate he did so as a political prisoner. Pilate recognised that the man in front of him was not just a wandering preacher he was a political activist. He was a threat.
So, the kingship of Christ is not just about faith; it has real political implications and we are part of this. After all, when we pray “Your kingdom come on earth as in heaven,” we are actually saying that things on earth are not right. We are saying things need to change and we with them. You can’t get much more political or dangerous than a prayer that desires that our political systems, most of which have been legally elected, are replaced with a God that many do not worship or even believe in.
And any movement in which members vow allegiance to a power other than those maintaining the status quo can and will be seen as a threat. Today, you don’t need to look far to find religious groups and individuals, including Christians, being persecuted for their faith. In fact, Christians are among the most persecuted faith group in over 50 countries; including Libya, Somalia ,Iran, China, Iraq and Pakistan. In places like these, just as in the Rome of 2000 years ago there is a recognition that those who choose to live their lives according to values other than those of the state are potentially a greater threat than any invading army.
The nature of truth
So it was that Rome’s representative needed to assess the threat standing in front of him. Somehow though I am not sure that Pilate saw Jesus as a threat. I don’t think he was really sure what or who he saw at all. But he knew one thing and that was that the Jewish hierarchy and their demand to be rid of Jesus was a threat to the stability of Rome’s rule in Israel. So, when Pilate asks “Are you the King of the Jews” he is looking for a straight yes or no answer which he can act upon; he doesn’t get it. The conversation develops into a debate about the nature of true authority, true kingship.
Jesus turns the question back on Pilate “Do you ask this on your own, or has someone else told you this?” Jesus also knows where the real threat comes from. Pilate protests that he is not a Jew, which to the early readers of John’s gospel was a reminder that it was the Jewish leaders who really convicted and condemned Jesus. Pilate understands that it doesn’t matter where Jesus’ authority comes from; it is either compliant to Rome or it isn’t. It is not that Rome couldn’t tolerate other kings, Herod was allowed to retain his throne, but they had to submit to Rome. Pilate and Jesus must have looked at each other and known this was not going to happen.
Jesus rejects the title of King, just as he had when the crowds demanded that he be there King after the feeding of the 5000. Jesus knows that his role is not to rule and control, it is to testify to the truth. And perhaps that was the most dangerous thing of all. Because those who recognise the truth will also recognise that the truth is not coming from Rome or from the chief priests and the religious worthies. The truth comes from the man who is now bound and bleeding but who is not, and never will be defeated.
Now all this makes me wonder and possibly you do to whether King is actually the right title for Jesus at all. He has spoken about his Kingship, but he made it clear that it was not of, or in, this world. He certainly didn’t have a royal court, unless a rag tag group of ex fisherman and society rejects counts. And he may have debated the law and even issuing his own a commandment, love one another; but few would think that kingly or regal.
The word ‘king’ – as it is understood in our political world does not seem to fit him and yet we continue to use it. But perhaps as we do so we are actually revealing another truth; the truth about ourselves as His followers. Because when we say that Jesus is our King, we are saying that no one else is above him. We are saying that we are his subject and that we will not give unquestioning allegiance to any other authority. We will give allegiance to queen and country and such; but it will not be first and it will not be without thought.
He’ll be back
Our first allegiance is to the King of Love whose kingdom is not defined or limited by national boundaries. Our first allegiance is to the one who went willingly to the cross for those who condemned and betrayed him, for those who washed their hands of his blood. This King accepted humiliation and execution. This king accepted a crown made of thorns. And he did it in absolute humanity and humility. He rejected the easy route of using his divinity, of showing his authority. The authority which far surpasses that of kings’ emperors and presidents. Instead, he stood before Pilate as just a fella and went to that convict’s death. And because of that we can gather at this table as subjects of the king whose reign was established by laying down his own life for the world.
At the end of Whistle down the Wind the convict is taken away, the little band of child disciples is dispersed and only Kathy is left. As all looks hopeless, she is approached by two very young children who ask to see Jesus. She tells them that they missed him this time, but he will be back one day. Amen.
“Whistle down the Wind” was proclaimed by Elizabeth Binns at Christ Church Walmersley on Sunday 21st November 2021. It was based on John 18:33-37. Beryl Cook’s picture of Madonna and Child is Elizabeth’s favourite picture and is shown here with grateful thanks. Copyright © John Cook 2021. www.ourberylcook.com.