The British hit TV series, The Crown, tells story of British royalty from the end of King George’s reign into that of Elizabeth II, with fascinating detail about the family dynamics of the royal family, the courtship of Elizabeth and Philip, the influence of Philip’s uncle, Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, and other court officials, and the many large and small crises faced by the nation and the royalty. Winston Churchill is admirably played by John Lithgow. Princess Margaret’s tragic love life and unfortunate marriage are detailed, as are the tensions in Elizabeth’s own marriage to Philip, who came from German royalty. All in all, a jolly good series!
An interesting thing I learned from the series is the overriding concern for upholding the office of the king itself – the “crown,” – and resisting anything that might compromise the solidity of the monarchy. The crown was more important than the person. The British royals were all very much aware that the other European monarchies had fallen. They would stop at almost nothing to protect their own.
As the last great European monarchy still standing, this is the image that comes to mind for most of us when we think about royalty, about kings. But when we speak of Jesus Christ as King, this image doesn’t help. Christ’s kingship is of such a different kind that it bears almost no resemblance to the gilded palaces and jeweled crowns of the Windsors of England – much less the back-stabbing intrigue!
Today’s strange gospel from John takes us to the chambers of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea in Jesus’ time. When Jesus was brought before him, Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus deflects; he does not give a straight answer. Eventually he says, “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.”
I’d never noticed this connection of kingship with truth before. What does Jesus mean? Clearly, a devotion to truth is central to Jesus’ mission. If we are to follow him, we must be devoted to truth – even hard truths – too. Playing loose and cool with the truth is not of God, and it is terribly destructive of relationships, of communities. If you’ve ever been lied to about important things, you know this.
Without a foundation of reality, of actual facts, of truth, we can build little good in this world. Trust is undermined in relationships. The foundation of community is cracked and broken when lies and falsehoods are told.
If you look on your bulletin cover, you see an icon there of Christ the King, and his eyes bore into you in a strange way (not at all typical of orthodox icon tradition). Jesus seems to be looking inside us and seeing the truth – the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s a bit disconcerting – I’m not sure I want anyone to know all my inner secrets! But we have no choice. “Lord, you have searched me out and known me…,” declares Psalm 139. God is the one “to whom our hearts lie wide open,” the one “from whom no secrets are hid.” If we want to belong to Jesus, we must also belong to the truth.
So what is the practical impact of this “kingship of truth” that John’s Gospel gives us? It means we cannot be party to lies, in our relationships, our business dealings, our politics, and among nations. We cannot wish away the inconvenient truth of climate change, just because we don’t want to face it. We cannot ignore the bad behavior of foreign princes, or our own leaders either. We cannot wish away the racial and ethnic tensions in our own United States.
We must be devoted to the truth, even when the truth is hard, unpleasant, or disappointing. And often it is. But history has shown that a truth ignored today often becomes a monumental – even existential – calamity tomorrow. When the United States tried to avoid the truth of the great sin of slavery, when various “compromises” were struck, the issue only festered until a Great Civil War was inevitable. When the British leadership tried to avoid the truth of Hitler’s rapacious desire for power and territory, things only got worse, and World War II ensued. When the U.S., or any other country, try to deny the clear science and incontrovertible evidence of climate change, we hasten more disastrous results.
I think Jesus resisted the title “King,” because he knew it was freighted with all kinds of implications that had little to do with his true role. He came not to win wars or elections, but to win human hearts. He knew that spiritual transformation had to come first, to remove the greed and selfish ambition that are the chief sins of the human race. He knew that moral fiber is needed to resist lying and falsehoods, when we think they can benefit us. He knew that the standard of truth is a high one.
Jesus also declared that “the truth will set you free.” That’s not the most obvious of statements. Sometimes we think a well-placed lie will get us out of a scrape, allow us to escape responsibility. But once we lie, we are stuck carrying the burden of maintaining our lie. My many years of reading and watching murder mysteries has shown me how hard it is to keep your story straight once you’ve lied!
So I begin to see how only the truth can lead us to true freedom. No maintaining shams and deceptions. Our personal relationships need a foundation of truth, or we are in for a heap of trouble. Deception destroys marriage; it can also undermine friendship. We see what happened when David took Bathsheba, another man’s wife, into his bed. We see Peter’s dejection after he denied ever knowing Jesus. God knows, truth itself can be difficult to deal with; but deception and lies are worse.
Jesus had it right: we are only free when we belong to the truth. When we acknowledge the truth, we can repent and receive forgiveness for our sins. There’s a reason the Bible calls the devil “the father of lies.” We follow a king who embodies the truth, a king who insists on the truth: “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.”