Sunday, November 25, 2012

If Christ Is King...

Thanks to the writing of Jaime Clark-Soles for helping me point this sermon in the right direction.

John 18:33-37
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."

This is the Word of the Lord.

The church calendar marks this Sunday as Christ the King Sunday, or “Reign of Christ” Sunday. As church festivals go, this is a pretty recent one, instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, either as a concession to Mussolini or as a response to growing nationalism and secularism, depending on whose account you read. Its statement is simple: Whatever our country, our rulers, our philosophies or ideologies or beliefs or mores, however patriotic we may be, none of these should be the center of our focus, the foundation of our lives. Christ alone must hold that office, that place in our lives. Christ alone is King.

It’s interesting, though, that this King repeatedly removed himself from situations where the crowd wanted to make him king by force, and never really admitted being a king. Isn’t it interesting that, in our Gospel reading today, Jesus never responds to Pilate by saying, “Why yes, I am a king, thanks for asking.” In fact, many scholars see Pilate use the title of “king” in a sarcastic way.

Certainly, it is an odd kind of exchange. Pilate, who should be confident, decisive, and who has no reason at all to fret over killing a man who seems to be stirring up trouble in his territory seems, throughout the longer passage in the Gospel of John, to fret over Jesus, to be genuinely trying to figure out if he is a threat to the peace, or a pawn in a power play. Pilate seems scared of Jesus!

Let’s face it, however sympathetically we tend to view Pilate in these readings – poor guy, torn between the bloodthirsty Jewish mob and the very-likely-innocent Nazarene nobody – Pilate was, by all historical accounts, just as violent, cruel, greedy and self-serving as any other governor or ruler or king in the Roman Empire. He crushed people under the weight of taxes. He killed whoever got in his way. You followed his rules or you rued the day you were born. Think about it: Pilate is someone who employs, in crucifixion, a form of execution in which breaking your legs is seen as a merciful act! That, in my book, is not a sympathetic figure.

Crushing, killing, subterfuge, murder, coercion… this is what the people of the time expected of their leaders, because that's what kings, what Roman governors, what despots and rulers from time immemorial and the world over did. Kings rule by fear and by force. They make treaties when it serves their interests, and break them when those interests are no longer served. They fight wars to gain territory, and live in luxury at the expense of their subjects. Even David, the model of Godly leadership in the eyes of the Jewish people in first-century Judea, allowed the power of his office to corrupt him, to change him. As much an example of Godly leadership as he may have been, he also personified, in many ways, all that was wrong about unlimited power in the hands of fallible human beings.

And over against Pilate, there is Jesus… by now bruised and exhausted, yet unbent. Christ the King.

This, too, seems odd. If Christ is King, how can he be under arrest, being interrogated? How can he be beaten and crucified, an innocent victim, a lamb led to slaughter? This is not the way royalty acts!


Pilate, like all kings and despots and occupiers, needed to use force, and fear, and coercion, all in order to maintain his power, to keep the population in check. His position, after all, was precarious: Judea had a reputation as a trouble spot for Rome, and Pilate’s job was to keep the peace. In any case, who knew when the Emperor would die or be overthrown? Who knew when some Imperial gossip would mumble his name into Emperor Tiberius’ ear, ending Pilate’s prefecture, and quite probably his life?

There is a certain way of looking at Pilate as a man of great power, and great fear. A man who commanded armies, whose word decided who would live and who would die, yes, but a man always a whisper, a heartbeat away from ruin.

So if Jesus is a King, why doesn’t he show that same kind of fear, that same jealous lust for power? Throughout the Gospels, Jesus never demands that people follow him. He invites people to follow him. He never threatens or coerces or kills to get his way. He speaks the truth, he ministers healing, he feeds the hungry and raises the dead, and above all he personifies love.

If Christ is King, then his Kingdom cannot be of this world. If Jesus is King, then his power neither results from, nor requires, the assistance of armies, police forces, tax collectors, the guillotine or the gallows pole.

If Christ is King, then his Kingdom is one predicated not on power for the sake of power, or conquest for the sake of control. Rather, his Kingdom is founded upon love and obedience.

We all know about the love part: God loved the word – all of the world – in such a complete, overwhelming, wild and boundless way that the only gift worthy to be sent was the Son, who came not to condemn, but to save.

And (using Paul’s words from Philippians) that son, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing… he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!”

If Christ is King, he is King through that love and obedience, and his victory was won through suffering, and conquering, death.

Continuing in Philippians, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Every knee bows and every tongue confesses, not out of fear, not because that knee is forced at gunpoint to bow, or that tongue is coerced to confess, but because the only possible response to a love that vast, that exuberant, is to give ourselves to that love with wild abandon.

So… is Christ indeed King? This is a question that demands our attention, because when we call him “King,” he asks us, as he asked Pilate, “Do you [say] this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Do we know Christ as King, or do we call him King because that's what we're supposed to say?

After all, what does it mean to call Christ our King in the United States of America in the twenty-first century? To be sure, calling Christ “King” means that he has access to all areas of our life, and is at the center of all we say and do. No thought is off limits, no action unconsecrated. If you've perfected this area of your life, please let me know how, because I am definitely a work in progress.

Calling Christ our “King” means that we are striving to look and act and think like citizens of the realm. Pilate and Tiberius and every despot and ruler and king has had followers, and those followers did their best to emulate the actions and attitudes of their leader. Caesar had his legions, just as Hitler had his Nazi Party, and Stalin had his purges, and Idi Amin Dada had his army, and the list truly does go on and on.

Over against that picture of Pilate and Hitler and Stalin and Amin and all the kings of history stands the picture of Christ as King – not the warring despot, ruling with fear and an iron fist, but the shepherd who would leave ninety-nine sheep to find the one lost, who would – who did – give his life in protection of his flock. We who would follow this king are called to emulate him… to care for others as if they were our own flesh and bone, to love without reservation, to give without fear of lack, to serve without regard to appearance or propriety.

Calling Christ “King” means also that we are, in some ways, revolutionaries. In the earliest days of Christianity, saying “Jesus is Lord” was potentially a capital offense, since by definition it meant that Caesar was not Lord.

In our own time, the very act of praying “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done” means that we are not at all happy with the state of the present world and we wish to see it change. This does most decidedly not mean praying for the President to die, as some Christians have quite publicly and proudly done. Nor does it mean wagging our fingers at a person or group of people, demanding that they act in the way we think they should.

What it does mean is that we are constantly praying and working for change – whether that means supporting a ministry or action group with our time, talent, or resources, making contact with government officials to speak on behalf of an issue or group, or simply giving a homeless person a sack lunch. What it does mean is that we are not dependent on an administration or bureaucracy for our safety and survival, we are not hanging on the word of a politician or pundit or even a preacher for instructions on how to think, feel, and react.

Rather, we rely on the written Word of God and the active Holy Spirit for instruction, and on the Triune God for our safety and sustenance and purpose. We serve not because we must, not out of fear or obligation, but because this King has set us free from bondage to all the lesser political or theological, philosophical, and even personal kings. Scripture tells us that who the Son has set free is free, indeed.

Pilate's response to Jesus, right after our passage this morning, is well-known: “What is truth?” Whether he spoke it sarcastically, or as a genuine question, we who follow Christ the King know the answer: Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.

What is truth? That's what set us free.

Let us pray.

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