November 25, 2012
John 18:33-37; Revelation 1:4b-8; Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Christ the King Sunday is a hard day to be politically correct. With all of the references to king, kingship, and kingdom, there is no way in the world that we can avoid the language that conveys such a collage of words as sovereignty, dominion, authority, and power—all of which are frequently followed by the preposition “over.” If there is one thing that Jesus critiques about the ways of this world, it’s the dynamic of a person who is in a position of authority and power to lord himself or rule over other people. Jesus tells his disciples, “This is not the way that people will relate with one another in my kingdom. In my kingdom, if somebody wants to be great, that person will be a servant to everyone else.” With this standard in mind, any time that we hear any reference to Jesus’ kingship or kingdom, or to Christ the king, our minds ought to think immediately about servanthood and service, and perhaps even sacrifice.
When Jesus is in conversation with Pilate, this dynamic couldn’t be more evident. We have to remember that Pilate represented Caesar, the most powerful ruler in the world. All of Judea was under the governance of Pilate. If Jesus truly was the king of the Judeans, then Jesus was a person with whom Pilate had to reckon. However, here Jesus was—captured by his own people and handed over to Pilate like a common criminal. Of course, Pilate is a little baffled because Jesus doesn’t look like a king and he certainly isn’t acting like one. If Jesus truly was a king, he would be a real threat to Pilate, who would have to make an account to Caesar if any major uprising occurred under Pilate’s rule. So, Jesus actually accommodates Pilate’s concern because Jesus tells Pilate that he is not going to call upon his followers to fight against Pilate or the religious leaders in order to rescue Jesus from being executed.
We are reminded that this Gospel of John presumably was written sometime near the end of the first century when the persecution of the followers of Jesus Christ by the Romans was at its worst under Emperor Nero. Christian leaders often were the ones who were captured, tortured, and executed as subversives in order to intimidate the tremendous number of Christians that was growing throughout the Roman Empire. How tempting it would have been to take up arms and fight in self-defense against Caesar anywhere throughout his realm. However, based upon this conversation between Jesus and Pilate, the author of this gospel reminds and encourages the followers of Jesus who are being intimidated and persecuted to restrain themselves from fighting against this domineering and oppressive force in their lives and from shedding the blood of their adversaries.
Another dynamic that is reflected in this conversation as the number of Christians continues to grow throughout the Roman Empire is the matter of loyalty. To whom ought the followers of Jesus give their first and primary allegiance—Caesar or Christ? To portray Jesus as the King of the Judeans in this Gospel is a reminder to the followers of Jesus that their first loyalty is to Jesus, the One whom they profess to be their Messiah or the Christ.
As I mentioned last Sunday, this loyalty was especially put to the test when Christians were conscripted to serve in Caesar’s army. Given their commitment to follow in the way of Jesus, many of his followers refused to serve Caesar in this way because they were opposed to shedding the blood of another human being. As disciples of Jesus Christ, they also were willing to accept the consequences for their refusal. This conversation between Jesus and Pilate that is portrayed in this Gospel offers a word of encouragement to the followers of Jesus because this conversation is being repeated often at the end of the first century as Christians were being brought before tribunals and counsels and interrogated for their refusal to serve in Caesar’s army.
The third thing that is accomplished by referring to Jesus as a king is better explained in the Book of Revelation, which supposedly was written about the same time as this Gospel of John. If you read through the entire Book of Revelation, you get a pretty clear picture of the tension that exists between the followers of Jesus Christ and the beast of Babylon, which is a metaphor for the emperor of Rome. One of the main messages of this book is that no matter how much the persecution by the Romans intensifies, Jesus Christ, as the King who sits on the throne of God and rules over all the kings of the earth, including Caesar, has dominion over everything that is happening on the face of this earth. In other words, even though Christ may not be controlling everything that is happening in this world, Jesus Christ is still portrayed as the One who is in charge of everything in spite of all that is happening in this world and who eventually will bring all peoples and all nations together forevermore.
On this Christ the King Sunday, I would like to dwell on this third dynamic for the remainder of this sermon. For those of us who are people of privilege, we have a lot for which to be thankful in our lives. Nevertheless, we can look around us and identify so many terrible things that are going on in this world, including in our own nation. Even as people of privilege, we can get to the point of throwing our hands up in the air and shouting, “What’s the use? Governments are never going to change. Corporations are taking over the world. The church continually acquiesces to the principalities and powers of this world. Religion institutions are more concerned about their own survival than the survival of other people who are starving to death, living on the streets, or being killed by those who wage wars in order to prove their might in controlling what goes on in this world.”
Just as the Christians who were being persecuted needed to hear that no matter how bad things were in their lives or in the world around them, God was always in the business of creating new heavens and a new earth, so also today, we are reminded on this Christ the King Sunday that God has set Jesus on the throne of God to rule over all the kings of this earth and to assure all peoples and nations that whatever may befall them, they will still be able to look forward to a life of eternal peace within the realm of God’s love, justice, and freedom that will come to fruition on earth as it is in heaven.
Each and every one of us can personalize this message of salvation, even if most of us are people of privilege, because at any moment in our lives we could experience some crisis or tragedy, or be facing imminent death, and wonder, “Where is God in my life at this moment when I am suffering and so afraid of what is going to happen to me or to someone else in my immediate family or circle of friends?” Well, Jesus has made it clear to us as he departed from this world that the Spirit of God is right here and is with us day in and day out in order to assure us of God’s steadfast love and to give us the faith and courage to face whatever adversity or calamity may come our way.
The other implication of all of this language about king, kingship, and kingdom is that we are not alone in this life to face these adversities and calamities because we also are a part of a community of faith which has been called and gathered by God’s Spirit to give us the love, the encouragement, and the support that we need whenever we feel like we are all alone in this world or feel like we have been given more than we can handle in our own lives. We call this community of faith by many names—the body of Christ, the communion of saints, the church universal, and even this congregation—all of which are only a part of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed and revealed while he pursued his mission here on earth.
As Jesus explained to Pilate, the reason that he was born and came into this world was to testify to the truth—meaning the divine will of God. Even in Jesus’ absence, his Spirit continues to guide his followers in this way of truth so that we always will be able to know the will of God if only we will listen to the voice of this Spirit. In this regard, whenever we faithfully act upon what we hear, we are doing so as members of God’s kingdom so long as we are loving and serving one another, no matter our station in life, just as we have been loved by God and served by Jesus, our Christ, who came to testify and give witness to the way that we are to live in faithfulness and obedience to God’s will all of our lives.
Therefore, whenever we are put to the test, just as Jesus was in our gospel lesson for today, we are reminded that our first allegiance is to Jesus and his way of truth, that one expression of this loyalty is our refusal to fight and kill someone else, and that we can make this decision because we know that in the end, the King of kings will have the final word, and all peoples and all nations will come together by the grace of God in peace to serve the One who rules the heavens and the earth forever and ever. Amen.