Our Gospel lesson is found in John chapter 18 verses 33-37. It’s Passover, and the Chief Priests have handed Jesus over to Pilate. I’m reading from the Common English Bible.
33 Pilate went back into the palace. He summoned Jesus and asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own or have others spoken to you about me?”
35 Pilate responded, “I’m not a Jew, am I? Your nation and its chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”
36 Jesus replied, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.”
37 “So you are a king?” Pilate said.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.”
The Word of the Lord – Thanks be to God
Every so often a celebrity leader comes along promising great things, and we’re greatly disappointed.
For instance, they were sure his leadership would bring world peace… it didn’t.
Some promised and others warned that he would bring economic equality, redistribution of wealth… but he didn’t.
Many people hoped and believed that a big change was coming; change they could believe in… what they got was more of the same, and in some cases it got worse.
He did end up accomplishing temporary food security and health care for a lucky few.
Of course I’m talking about Jesus… were you thinking of someone else?
Please pray with me: Heavenly Father, we thank you for Christ, our King and brother. Now, guide our hearts and minds into your Kingdom that demonstrates your reign among us here and now. Amen.
Today, I want us to remember that the Kingdom of Heaven is where Jesus’ followers pledge their allegiance. This Kingdom was the central message of Jesus. He said he only did what he saw his Father doing, and so when he came to earth and talked to us about the Kingdom over and over, it must be pretty important. If it was that important to him, it ought to be important to us, too.
We ought to try to understand: what is Jesus’ kingdom like? What makes citizens of Jesus’ kingdom different than the patriots of other nations? In our text today, we read that the citizens of Jesus’ kingdom don’t use violence, and they don’t fight. Somewhere along the way, much of Christianity abandoned this idea. For example, one of the biggest ways we get attention in the wider culture is in what we call “culture wars”. Now, we’re not taking up arms in these culture wars, hopefully, but there is an element of violence, of “us and them” … brace yourselves, because the annual Christmas war is upon us and shots have already been fired.
Now, the Christian New Year is actually the beginning of Advent. At some point, a church leader added the Feast of Christ the King to the end of the Christian year to celebrate the idea that in the end, Jesus is the King. Soon our calendar flips and we begin our year again, and we are sent back to the beginning of Jesus’ story. All hope is hinged on this one little baby. Those who were waiting then were promised that this baby would bring great social change. Their rough, crooked paths would be made smooth and straight! Their valleys would be brought up and the mountains their oppressors sat upon would be made low!
We forget what a great affront this was to the kings and priests, whose privilege was dependent on keeping the lower class held down, fighting amongst themselves for survival. The church and state institutions feared this redistribution of wealth and power. This baby was most definitely perceived as a political threat. As he grew and began to teach, his followers called him “Lord” and “Son of God”, and these were titles reserved exclusively for Caesar. We don’t think of these as political terms, but they were in the day Jesus lived. There were great hopes that Jesus would lead an army to overtake the Roman Empire and establish a new government with liberty and justice for all.
Now, Christ the King Sunday is like the last chapter of the book, and from here we can take a look in the rear-view and we can see how these hopes were met with great disappointment.
In order to understand the Kingdom, we need to ask: What kind of King did Jesus turn out to be? This “king of the Jews” was executed. We know he rose again, but what really changed? Since he returned from the dead, why didn’t he take the opportunity to righteously judge his own killers who were still oppressing his people? He didn’t. He returned from his wrongful death and greeted them with: “Shalom.” Peace. The prince of peace did not engage in retribution or eye-for-an-eye justice.
What about his followers? Following Jesus proved to be fatal for his disciples. Hundreds of thousands of his people were massacred by the same system that executed him not many years later. Everything they hoped he would do was left undone – everything they wanted him to save was completely laid to waste.
And what about those still suffering in the real world today? Those valleys still hold despair and the mountains still harbor greed and oppression.
And yet, here we all are some 2000 years later, gathering on Sunday morning as we like to do in the name of this guy who lived in Palestine, caused a ruckus, and like so many other Jews of his day, got himself hung on a cross.
As we acknowledge that this King doesn’t behave like a normal, powerful ruler, we are tempted to over-spiritualize his Kingdom. I’ve heard many say, “The Kingdom of Heaven just isn’t here yet, we’re waiting on Jesus, to come, and the second time he’s really going to get ‘em”. But in the Gospels, Jesus is very clear: the Kingdom is at hand. He said to those first century listeners that some of them wouldn’t see death before it arrived!
Some traditions say the Kingdom of Heaven is just “Heaven”, that happy place we go when we die. But this ignores Jesus’ calls for social change as a natural result of spiritual change. He taught us to pray “Thy Kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven”. This heavenly Kingdom is not just a destination after death, but it is an alternative perspective on life.
Ethics of the Kingdom
Jesus’ commandments for kingdom living are practically impossible. “Sell all you have and give to the poor. Don’t worry about tomorrow; just keep what you can use today.” Aren’t we terribly tempted to say that Jesus’ teachings just don’t work in the real world?
How about “Love your enemies and forgive those who sin against you.” When applied to our personal and national enemies, we don’t like that. We would much rather say with King David: “God, show your power and smite them!” than say with the King of heaven and earth: “Forgive them; they know not what they do.”
The fact is, we would much rather fight culture wars for the 10 commandments than show Jesus’ heart for the world by living the Sermon on the Mount. The law in black and white is so much easier to grasp than the commandment to love.
One of the insights of the Old Testament is this grand example of how keeping strict holiness codes only leads to self-righteousness and exclusion. This king loved even the excluded. Many of the people Jesus was close to were people the temple considered sinful, and the temple had the scripture - the law - to back it up. But Jesus announced a new Kingdom where the holy ones were reprimanded, and those immoral lowly ones were lifted up and told that they were beloved and blessed by God.
As ambassadors of a kingdom from heaven, we are given the charge to live these impossible ethics out, moment by moment, not with holiness codes and rule keeping, but through the leading of the Holy Spirit. In our reading we heard the words of Christ: “I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.”
My favorite thing that Jesus said about the Kingdom of Heaven was - not to look for it over here or over there, but he told them: The Kingdom is within YOU. And one of my favorite Hebrew verses is in Jeremiah, when it’s prophesied that the law will no longer be written in paper and ink, but upon the human heart.
This is the beautiful mystery; that everything Jesus came to show us had really been here all along. When he came to a people who were looking for an external kingdom to validate their existence and the certainty of clear-cut laws to live by, he pointed their attention inward, to the place where God dwells… The Kingdom within. The laws we live by, given to us by our different authorities are important, to be sure, but as subjects of this King, there is one Law we place above all others – the law of love. We love God, we love each other, we love ourselves, we love our enemies, we pray for those who would attempt to hurt us and we do good to those who harm us.
This week we were reminded that there live among us some who are in desperate need of love. Love is the only thing that can stop violence in its tracks. Too many times we are too easily convinced that violence can be holy and in some cases necessary to destroy evil, but our King teaches us not to resist evil men, not to fight evil with evil but to overcome evil with good. We are not guaranteed success in this kingdom. We’re not even guaranteed our own lives, but we’re given a promise… The one who loses her life for Jesus’ sake will find it again. We believe in resurrection, and we do not fear death.
The reign of God is a gift we can acknowledge and receive and give thanks for in every moment. When we allow our Lord Jesus to rule in every relationship, whether with friend or enemy; we’re living in Kingdom of Heaven, ruled by a very different kind of King. This is our present reality of a great future hope. This is the Kingdom, where we are governed not by fear or defense, but by the Word of God – Jesus Christ – the lamb who was slain – the victim who is King.
Let it be so with us. Amen.