Sunday, November 25, 2012

What kind of king?

Christ the King Sunday
John 18:33-38a

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There really is no more opportune time for “Christ the King Sunday”
than a few weeks post-election.

For the last couple years, as a nation,
we’ve been engaged in a process of king-making. 
One could say we’re engaged in that process all the time. 
There is always political maneuvering, manipulation, 
partisan gamesmanship,
intended to seize control of the oval office,
where, according to many people,
sits the most powerful person in the world.

Of course, some are doubtful about the actual power of one person,
who really cannot give jobs to millions of people,
make gas prices go down,
and make everyone safe.

But we like to have kings, and we like for them to have power.
Since the days of ancient Israel,
when God’s people begged Samuel to let them have a king,
like all the other nations, 
there is a common human longing for the security 
that comes from strong, stable, present, human rulership.

We want to be ruled by someone who is just enough like us 
to understand us and know what we need, 
but just enough higher and stronger and distant from us 
that we can simply trust without needing to know all the details.
In other words,
we want them to be smarter than we are,
but we want them to think like we do.

But that’s a hard balance to find.
If our king-figures are too distant, too lofty,
too far removed from our daily life experience,
we’re afraid they won’t have our best interests at heart,
they won’t understand life on the ground,
their sense of reality will be distorted by their ivory tower.
And if our kings are too common, too much like us,
then we doubt their genius as leaders,
we start thinking they are no smarter than us,
and we could better ourselves.

I wonder if that’s partly why this past election was so polarized.
We set up a situation where both sides
had the kind of leader the other side feared most—
either removed and out of touch with ordinary people,
or not enough of a leader to make hard, smart decisions.
People were afraid they could not trust the king they were making.

Which brings us to the question of this day.
What kind of king is Jesus, the Christ?

That was precisely the question under discussion
in the Gospel reading this morning from John 18.

Lots of people openly declared Jesus to be king.
Jesus himself talked about “the kingdom.”
This made other people anxious and fearful.
They were afraid of what kind of king he might be.

Some were heavily invested in the status quo,
the Roman empire as it was.
They were afraid Jesus might try to unseat King Herod,
and throw things into chaos.
Others wanted things overthrown, chaos or not.
But they were afraid Jesus was too soft on the opposition.
Jesus talked about loving his enemies,
and when he got fired up and angry, it was at his own people.
What’s up with that?

So at one end,
those who were in bed with the Empire, were afraid of Jesus.
And at the other end,
the revolutionaries, didn’t trust Jesus.
And the masses in the middle just hoped like anything,
that Jesus would be the anointed king of the Jews,
and bring stability and security once again.
His teachings proved he was smart enough.
His miracles proved he was powerful enough.
He just had to step up and do it.

I think that’s what was going on when Jesus was put on trial,
and dragged before governor Pilate to be questioned.

The accusation was that Jesus claimed, illegally,
to be “King of the Jews.”
Pilate wanted to know if this was true.

Jesus answered,
“My kingdom is not from this world. If [it] were, 
my followers would be fighting 
to keep me from being handed over . . . 
But my kingdom is not from here.”

Then Pilate asked,
“So you are a king?”
Jesus response was non-committal. 
“You say that I am a king.”
“I will say that I came into this world to testify to the truth.
Those who are ready to hear the truth, follow me.”

Now Governor Pilate is very familiar with the kind of king 
who rules with military strength,
who guards the boundaries of his kingdom 
with the superior power of his armed forces.
But he doesn’t know what to make 
of a king like Jesus,
who says his kingdom is not secured with military might.
His kingdom is not rising up to protect him by force.
His kingdom is not defined by, or even concerned about,
national boundaries, because it’s not “from here.”
His kingdom is oriented around, and defined by . . . truth.

And the Gospel passage ends with Pilate asking a question.
And nobody answers it.
“What is truth?”

And we, the readers, are left to wrestle 
with this all-important, and haunting question,
“What is truth?”

I hope you are not now expecting me to announce,
with great authority and finality,
the answer to that question.
Because it’s one of those questions 
that is never answered by proclamation.
The answer comes in the process of seeking, repeatedly.
The answer comes to those willing 
to keep honestly and openly seeking the One
who testified to this truth.

But I do think that this story from John
leaves us with one huge, obvious, clue,
that we can’t afford to ignore.

This kingdom of God, 
whose truth Jesus came to reveal and give witness to,
does “not come from here.”
It is not from here.
Those are Jesus’ words.
In fact, three times in one verse, John 18:36,
Jesus repeats himself to Pilate,
“My kingdom is not from here.”

In my sermons,
I don’t usually pick apart little prepositions,
and make a huge deal about them,
but here I must.
Because it makes a huge difference.

Some well-intentioned Christians believe followers of Jesus 
should not get actively involved in public affairs,
should not dirty ourselves in the systems of this world,
should remain separate and pure,
because God’s kingdom is “not of this world.”

And by “not of this world,”
I think they imagine a purely spiritual realm, somewhere else,
where we Christians must put all our energy,
and meanwhile, just bide our time in this sinful world,
trying not to sully ourselves while we pass through.

Some English translations of this verse have Jesus saying,
“my kingdom is not of this world,”
or “does not belong to this world.”

And some people immediately jump to a conclusion
that God’s kingdom is disconnected from this world,
that God has somehow given up on this world,
and we should, too!
By no means!

The original Greek prepositions used here,
clearly refer to origin, not connection.

Jesus is not distancing himself from the world.
Jesus is not telling Pilate,
“My kingdom is irrelevant to your kingdom.”
He is not saying,
“My followers have nothing to do with this world,”

The best translation really is, 
“my kingdom is not from this world.”

Jesus is saying,
“My kingdom has its origins somewhere else completely.”
It starts in a different place.
It has different assumptions altogether.
So my followers aren’t fighting to keep me from being handed over,
because whether my kingdom survives
is not dependent on what you do with me, Pilate.
It will survive on its own terms.
The kingdom of God will not rise or fall,
on whether the kingdoms of this world 
accept it,
or legitimize it, 
or incorporate it into their own systems of domination.

My kingdom operates on different assumptions,
because it’s not from here.
Your kingdoms—Pilate, and Herod, and Caesar—
are all concerned about protecting your interests,
your boundaries, your power, your possessions.
My kingdom is foreign to you.
My kingdom is not from here.
My kingdom flourishes in a different kind of soil.

So in this back-and-forth between Pilate and Jesus,
we have two very different approaches to power.
As we celebrate Christ the King Sunday,
we had better be clear 
on just what kind of power is being exercised here,
and what kind of kingly power we are celebrating.

Jesus did recognize, respect, and relate to
the powers of the state—in this case, the Roman Empire—
and the powers of the religious establishment—
the Jewish hierarchy.

He related to both of them as a member of those communities,
but his own identity was not bound up in those power structures.
He did not dismiss those powers as irrelevant.
Nor did he grant those powers ultimate authority.

He engaged the powers—both religious and Empire—
but not on their terms.
Jesus confronted the religious establishment,
not by taking over the temple,
but by touching lepers,
eating with tax collectors,
hanging out with sinful people,
and otherwise living a different kind of righteousness.
That’s what a kingdom “not from here” looks like, apparently.

And Jesus confronted the powers of the Empire,
not by taking up arms and staging a takeover,
but by refusing to bow to their absolute power.

The Emperor, Caesar, demanded to be worshiped as Lord and Savior.
Literally.  Caesar referred to himself as Lord, and as Savior.
In Matthew 22, Jesus was asked about paying taxes to Caesar.
So he called for a coin,
pointed to Caesar’s head, and said,
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,
and give to God what is God’s.”
This was not endorsement of Caesar!
This was confrontation.

Caesar saw himself as Divine Lord,
and claimed authority over every thing and every person.
Jesus said, sorry, but no!
“These coins have Caesar’s picture on them.
We’ll give him that much. 
Now . . . give the rest to the true God.”

Jesus confronted the powers,
and he ended up dying for it.
He was crucified by the political powers of the Empire,
conspiring with political powers of the religious establishment.
Jesus never raised a sword, to usurp anyone’s power.
He just lived a life of radical love.
He laid down his life as a sacrifice,
rather than betray the character of God’s kingdom.
That’s what a kingdom “not from here” looks like, apparently.

But as we know, God’s power had the last word.
Jesus’ resurrection shamed and embarrassed the powers.
It showed how powerless they were.

Surely this has something to say about how we ought to relate to
the powers of this world we are attached to.
Whether we voted red or blue or otherwise in this past election,
or whether we voted at all,
is not the determining factor of how we now relate
to the governing powers of the nation-state we live in.

If we voted for Obama and the Democrats,
that does not mean we owe our undying affection and support
to this administration,
or that we pin our hope for our future on their policies.
If we voted for Romney and the Republicans,
that does not mean we slink away in defeat and despair,
hoping the Democrats’ programs fail,
so we can say “told you so.”

For people devoted to the kingdom of God,
to the kingdom that is “not from here,”
this is a time for neither gloating nor lamenting,
neither unrealistic hope, nor irrational despair.
Our identity in Christ calls us to something higher and greater.

Our citizenship is in a kingdom “not from here.”
Yes, it is located here, connected here, embodied here.
But we keep in mind our primary citizenship in God’s kingdom,
even while we live as good and responsible citizens in this world.
We declare our ultimately loyalty to, and only to, the kingdom of God.
A kingdom that prioritizes sacrificial love over control.
Hospitality over protectionism.
Generosity over greed.
Forgiveness over revenge.

So today, when we say and sing, “Christ is King,”
we are bowing and proclaiming our ultimate allegiance to only one.
When we say, Jesus is Lord, we are saying Caesar is not.
When we say, Christ reigns supreme, 
we are saying every other would-be king in this world, does not.

Sure, as human beings, we still have a desire for human rulership
that is just, and competent, and will help provide for our basic needs.
And we will engage our leaders.
We will recognize, respect, and relate to them.
But worship them, we will not.
Pin the hope of our future on them, we will not.

Rather, we will place our hope for the future
in the kingdom that is “not from here.”
And we will throw our lot in with the community of that kingdom.
We will invest our lives and our identity 
in the visible body of Christ the King,
the church of Jesus Christ the King,
in all its flaws and imperfections.

Not because the church is somehow going to save the world.
No, only because we are the ones who orient ourselves around 
and are subject to Christ the King, 
who with God, through the Holy Spirit,
is ushering in a new kingdom of peace.

In the words of Carl P. Day, Jr.
O day of peace that dimly shines
through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
guide us to justice, truth, and love,
delivered from our selfish schemes.
May swords of hate fall from our hands,
our hearts from envy find release,
till by God’s grace our warring world
shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.

Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb,
nor shall the fierce devour the small;
as beasts and cattle calmly graze,
a little child shall lead them all.
Then enemies shall learn to love,
all creatures find their true accord;
the hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
for all the earth shall know the Lord.

Let’s sing that poem, HWB 408. Let’s stand to sing.

—Phil Kniss, November 25, 2012

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