Sermon for Nov. 24, 2018, Christ the King Year B on John 18:33-37. Audio will be here for several weeks.
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.”
I was listening to a discussion, on the radio, about a film that is in the theaters now. The host of the radio program warned us, listeners, saying, “Spoiler alert. I’m going to talk about the ending so if you want to see this film you may want to stop listening.” We hear spoiler alerts all the time now.
Sometimes it really does ruin a story to know the ending in advance, but other stories we keep returning to again and again, even though we know the ending. The Christian story is like that: we know the ending, but we find great value in re-telling the story.
We are going to look at one part of our story and reflect on what it meant in its setting — what Pilate meant and what Jesus meant, and then we will look at what it means in our context today. This is Christ the King Sunday, so it is the right time to regather our sense of the whole, the big story, the nature of the kingdom of God.
Our Alternative Narrative
One of the reasons we need to keep hearing the Christian story is that it is such a starkly different story from the stories our culture tells us. We need to keep telling our counter-narrative, in order not to be overwhelmed by the stories our culture tells us to the point that we start believing them.
Our culture is seduced by power and the powerful. But here we have a story of a person who is unafraid in the presence of power — Pilate represented the power of the whole Roman Empire — but Jesus behaves as if that kind of power is of no consequence.
Pilate has the power to execute him, and people are clamoring for his execution, but Jesus does not let even the threat of imminent death upset him. Our culture tries to avoid pain any way possible, even if it requires opiates. Jesus accepted suffering without flinching.
People are hurling accusations against Jesus, but unlike the rest of us, he doesn’t seem to feel compelled to refute them.
Our culture is enamored of violence. Jesus has many followers he could have called upon, but he rejects the idea that they should take up arms, even to defend him from an unjust and brutal death.
Jesus looks at everything so differently, from the way the others do that we can only marvel. The values here are counter to the dominant narratives of the culture — then and now.
Jesus and the Kingdom of God
This story tells the reason for the difference. The difference is found in Jesus’ concept of the Kingdom of God. He believes the kingdom of God is actually a present reality. And he believes it is possible to live into that reality; to live as if it were true.
In all four gospels Pilate asks Jesus point blank if he is a king, and in all four, Jesus says, “You say so.” His answer is a little cryptic. So Pilate presses him further
“What have you done?” Meaning, have you raised an army? Do you have a plan? Have you already been responsible for some of the political assassinations that have been taking place?
Jesus makes it clear that he does have a kingdom, but not the kind Pilate is thinking of. Jesus answered,
“My kingdom is not from this world.”
Then Jesus offers proof that his kingdom is not a physical one, saying,
“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.”
His non-violence is proof that his kingdom is different.
But Pilate has a lot of pressure from the local elites, and eventually acquiesces to their demands and orders Jesus’ execution. Rome was pragmatic, and the death of one, even an innocent one, was better than a riot, or a revolt.
What Would Reliable Witness Have Said?
If Pilate had actually conducted a legitimate trial, if he were able to find reliable witnesses, what would they have said they heard about Jesus’ kingdom?
“Jesus,” they would have testified, “said things like:
“the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15)
“whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:14)
“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)
“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Luke 18:16)
Reliable witnesses would have recounted Jesus’ kingdom parables. What is the kingdom of God like? It is like a mustard seed. It is like yeast in dough. It is like a treasure hidden in a field. It is like a pearl of great value, worth selling everything for. It is like a king who forgives an enormous debt. It is like a net that scoops up an enormous variety of fish, who all end up in the same boat together.
So what is the kingdom of God? It is precious. It is subtle. It is unstoppable. It is radically inclusive. It is truly good news. People who embrace the kingdom as a present reality become different people. How? They become compassionate. They become awake. They start seeing the suffering around them and they respond.
Luke says Jesus,
“sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.”
People who are alive to the reality of the kingdom of God form communities together. They gather around tables of hospitality, disregarding worthiness as a category, ignoring social rank as a category, ignoring nationality, gender, or purity as categories for exclusion.
Living the reality of the kingdom of God means you understand God in radically new ways. God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the fields of the righteous and the unrighteous, without distinction. God cares for the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, so seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all the necessities of life will be added to you as well. The person who lives into the reality of the Kingdom can relax and know that they are beloved by God. They can pray as though they were addressing a loving parent, “Our Abba in heaven.”
Here and Always Coming
Is the kingdom then fully present? In a sense, it is, yes. But in another sense, it is always coming. It comes as people become aware. It grows as people allow themselves to live into it more fully; as they integrate the values and perspectives into more and more parts of their lives, as it permeates more deeply their relationships. So Jesus taught us to pray “may your kingdom come, may your will be done (because the two phrases say the same thing) on earth where we live, as it is in the realm of the Divine.
The kingdom comes when people see the needy and help them as if they were helping Jesus himself. It comes when the “least of these” are treated as we would treat Jesus if he were hungry, or thirsty, or lacked adequate shelter or were arrested for conscience. The kingdom comes when people realize that love of God and love of neighbor are all God cares about.
Political Consequences of the Kingdom
Did Jesus know that speaking of the kingdom of God would get him in trouble with Pilate? How could he not? We are used to referring to the Roman Emperor as Caesar, but to Romans, that meant king. It was a political critique to proclaim an alternative kingdom.
And even today, the values of the kingdom of God are in conflict with politics all the time. The politics of compassion and justice are often in conflict with the politics of exclusion and discrimination. The politics of the powerless are often at odds with the politics of power.
Some people I have read have suggested we use an alternative term to “kingdom,” since “kingdom” suggests politics and power. They have suggested we use “kin-dom” which emphasizes the new sense of kin that we share with each other. I like that term, and I’ve used it, but it is also important to me to keep the political consequences of the values and perspectives in sight.
Kingdom also implies a kind of authority. The authority of the kingdom of God is not coercive, like Rome’s authority, but it is the authority of a compelling vision, the power of persuasion, like the power of beauty to draw us in.
I have been drawn in by Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God, present within and among us, and always coming. It is the most perfect, most beautiful vision of a reconciled humanity, fully at peace, where everyone’s needs are provided for by a community that seeks the common good. Where people know themselves as beloved and at one with the Divine and each other.
So, today we have come to the end of the church year. Next Sunday a new year starts as we begin the season of Advent. Christ the King Sunday is the culmination of the year for us. It comes, every year as a call to all of us: how can we live more fully into the kingdom of God? How can we integrate more of our lives, our perspectives and our values to the kingdom of God and God’s justice? How can we live more trusting in the God of the lilies and more confident in our status of belovedness? How can we wake up more fully to the reality of the kingdom’s presence and make the kingdom come within us and within our politics?
At the culmination of this year, we will answer the call by gathering around the table to break bread and share from a common cup, and we will pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, in me, in America, and in the world.”