John 12:12-19 & John 19:16b-42
Jesus came into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday heralded by the crowds as the “King of Israel”. At least, that’s what the Gospel of John tells us. The other Gospels, not so much. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that the crowds named Jesus “Son of David”. In Mark, they name Jesus as “the one who comes in the name of the Lord” and make reference to the “coming kingdom of our ancestor David”. Luke has the crowds calling Jesus “the king who comes in the name of the Lord”. And out of all four Gospels, John is the only one who specifically names the branches that the people used to strew Jesus’ way as palm branches. Matthew and Mark just say the people used “leafy branches”. Luke only says that people laid down their cloaks for Jesus to ride over. Now, these may seem like minor differences in the story, but I promise you, there’s a reason that John tells things a little bit differently here. In different parts of his Gospel, John has been playing with the idea of what it means for Jesus to be a king. In John’s telling of Jesus feeding the 5000, he relates that when the crowds realized what Jesus had done, they decided they were going to make him king by force. When Jesus saw that, he left the crowds and withdrew. In John’s telling of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when Jesus hears the crowds naming him specifically as the “King of Israel”, and sees them waving palm branches, which were a sign of national triumph and victory, he goes and gets a donkey and rides on that. Donkeys were a sign of humility, as opposed to horses, which were a symbol of a conquering military hero. By riding a donkey, Jesus is signaling that he is not, in fact, a king like the people expect him to be, and he is not going to militarily throw out the Romans and restore self-rule to the people of Israel. He is going to be a different kind of king.
We’ve seen that in the last few weeks as we have meditated on John’s account of Jesus’ trial, first before the chief priests and then before Pontius Pilate. Jesus does not claim the title of king for himself, although others accused him of it. When Pilate asked Jesus if he was the King of the Jews, Jesus answered that his kingdom was not from this world. If Jesus’ kingdom were from this world, Jesus said, his followers would have been fighting to keep him from being handed over. And indeed, back in the garden when Jesus was arrested, he reprimanded Peter for drawing his sword to defend him. Jesus proclaims God’s reign over this world by love. And that love means not responding violently when violence is done to him, but rather, laying down his life for the sake of those he loves.
And so, today we see Jesus carrying his cross to the place where he is to be executed. And even here, John shows us a Jesus who is completely in control and who knows what he is doing. If you recall, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, a man named Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry the cross when he can no longer do it on his own. Not so in John. In chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, Jesus says that no one takes his life from him, but that he lays it down of his own accord. He has power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. And we see this in John’s telling of Jesus’ crucifixion as Jesus does not need any help to carry his own cross to the place where he will die.
But even in this moment where we see Jesus walking to the place where he will die, carrying his own instrument of death on his back, we see Pilate arguing once more with the Jewish officials. This time it is about the sign that he has written to place above Jesus on the cross. Crucifixion was an especially cruel way to put someone to death. People who were crucified would hang on the cross for hours, struggling to catch their breath, and every time they would try to twist to relieve that discomfort, the pain of the nails in their hands and feet would pierce them. Rome did this to those criminals that they wanted to make an example of, and they hung those criminals in a public place, so that everyone who walked by would see and be warned what would happen to them if they did the same thing. And so, by writing “The King of the Jews” on the sign to be put over Jesus’ head, Pilate was warning people what would happen to them if they made claims of kingship and tried to rebel against Rome.
But more than that, Pilate was, once again, ridiculing the nationalistic hopes of the Jewish people he ruled over. “Look at this King of the Jews,” he was saying. “You pitiful, conquered people. You can’t even raise up a king for yourselves without getting him killed.” But, as John has shown us before, there is an important truth that is coming through even in the mockery. For Jesus is, in fact, the King of the Jews—but not the king that was expected. Being lifted up on the cross was Jesus’ coronation ceremony, and the cross was Jesus’ throne. And by having the inscription on the sign written in three different languages—Hebrew (or rather, it would have been Aramaic), Latin, and Greek—this is a sign that Jesus is not only king of the Jews, but king of the Romans (Latin) and king of the whole world (Greek was the common language that most people in the Roman Empire spoke). This is our king, up on the cross, and, as Jesus said in chapter 12 of John’s Gospel, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
So what does it mean for Jesus, someone who was executed by the state as a criminal, to be our king? It might mean that, when we think about people in prison, we do not rush to judgment, but that rather, we take into account their stories and ask whether or not they may have been falsely accused or imprisoned unjustly. It may also mean that, when there are laws in place that are unjust: such as laws that forbid feeding the homeless in public places, that we deliberately obey God rather than human beings and be willing to be imprisoned for violating those laws made by human beings. Having a king whose throne was a cross should also keep us humble, as we remember that Jesus took our sins with him to the cross and in their place, gave us his righteousness, so that we might live and walk in newness of life.
Besides having someone who was crucified as our king, what does it mean that Jesus is king not only of the Jews, but also of the entire world? For one thing, it means that racism has no place in the community of Christians who follow Jesus. Jesus, after all, did not speak English, and he was not white. Jesus spoke Aramaic, which is related to Hebrew, and he probably looked like someone who would have a difficult time getting through airport security today. We Americans often forget that we are grafted into Jesus’ family, and that we are not the natural-born heirs of the promise. But in spite of that, Jesus does love us. And, Jesus loves the immigrant who comes to our shores, either legally or illegally. And Jesus loves the refugee who comes seeking asylum from persecution, because he knows what it’s like to be persecuted. Can we who claim to follow Jesus do any less? If Jesus is king for the whole world, then we who follow Jesus must love the whole world just as Jesus does, and get rid of any racist attitudes that we might have.
Jesus is a king who rules, not by earthly power and glory, but by his suffering and death. Jesus is the king who draws all people to look on him and to believe that he loves us, which is much more than any earthly king or ruler can do. Jesus, who was executed as a criminal by the empire on a horrible instrument of torture, is the one who we look to as our king, with the cross as his throne. Let us behold our king on the cross, and let us take his actions as the model for our behavior. Let us strive to show sacrificial love for our brothers and sisters here in Steelton and around the world in every way that we can, not just in word but also in our actions. In all of our actions, let us remember this: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son. Amen.