Audio will be here when posted.
Christ the King Sunday – November 25, 2018
This is a travel weekend for many people in our congregation, and as a result, our attendance is a bit lighter than usual, and since we have a more intimate gathering today, let’s get personal. So tell me: Who did you vote for?
I told you it was a personal question. We all learn early on that it is impolite to mix religion and politics in friendly conversation, and yet this morning’s text, St. John gives us both. Let us then listen together for the word of God as recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter eighteen, verses thirty-three through thirty-seven.
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 want you to know that I am well aware of the Johnson Amendment, the 1954 amendment to Paragraph (3) of subsection (c) within section 501 of Title 26, Internal Revenue Code, of the U.S. Code that among other things, stipulates that people like me cannot stand in places like this and tell people like you how to vote. Pastors who do so risk jeopardizing the non-profit status of their congregations. However, I have decided that, to be frank, I do not care. I am tired of tiptoeing around, so by the end of this sermon, I will tell you exactly how disciples of Jesus Christ are to vote, and how the next vote you cast is so important, one that must be cast as though the world were at stake, because it is.
And now that I have the full attention of at least the Reveille United Methodist Church Council, Trustees, Finance Committee, and Staff-Parish Relations Committee, allow me to elaborate.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the liturgical year which begins anew next Sunday as we begin the season of Advent. This is the Sunday each year when we reaffirm what it means for us to proclaim the lordship of Jesus Christ, and what it means for us to call him our king.
When this morning’s gospel reading begins, the kind of ruler the people were warned about by the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 8, the kind that uses people for his own ends, has arrested Jesus and is speaking with him. Pontius Pilate, a man intolerant of the religion of his Jewish subjects, a man who once suppressed a Samaritan uprising in A.D. 37 with such disproportionate force that he was recalled to Rome to answer for it, and was replaced by Marcellus.
Let’s be clear: Pilate was not the indecisive, ethically torn, handwringing ninny he is often portrayed as in the movies. He was a powerful man, with probably 3,000 soldiers at his disposal who unlike his predecessors, flouted Jewish customs, especially in regard to graven images, and who even spent money from the Temple to build an aqueduct, and had his soldiers beat those who protested this decision. He was vindictive and had a violent temper. The ancient historian Philo writes that Pilate feared the Jews would send a delegation to Tiberius, which would “expose the rest of his conduct as governor by stating in full the briberies, the insults, the robberies, the outrages and wanton injuries, the executions without trial constantly repeated, the ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty.”
Our reading from John’s gospel picks up after Jesus has washed his disciples feet, after Jesus has predicted Peter’s denial, after Jesus’ long farewell discourse to his disciples, after he had prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, after Judas had betrayed him, after his questioning by the high priest wherein Jesus was slapped in the face by one of the officials, after Peter had denied him three times, and just before Pilate offers to release any prisoner they desire, including Jesus of Nazareth, only to have the crowd demand a criminal named Barabbas.
In this morning’s text, Jesus does not seem very kingly. He is in prison because he has been betrayed by one in his small circle of followers. He has been denied by another. A crowd has gathered outside the prison to demand his execution, and Jesus is arguing semantics with Pilate, the man who quite literally holds Jesus’ very life in his hands, and who in all likelihood, just wants Jesus to say, “Yes, I am a king” so that he will have the pretext necessary to categorize him as an insurrectionist and execute and be done with him.
But that is just it. Jesus’ power is none other than the power of God, and the power of God seldom resembles our earthly notions of power. In Luke 22, Jesus says to his disciples as well as to us, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.”
Pontius Pilate, who has quickly learned that there is no easy, tidy way out of having to deal with this Jesus fellow enters the headquarters again and calls for him. He regards this man, this poor, powerless man of low pedigree, his face swollen from being struck by the police. He regards this man with no weapons, no legions loyal to him, with no political mandate, a man who only stands before Pilate at all because one of his tiny band of followers has turned him in. He regards this man and says, “So you are a king?”
And there you have it: Jesus never looks like you think he is going to look. He rarely acts as he is expected to act, and he never, even in the most desperate of times, acts in his own self-interest.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is forever performing miracles and then commanding the witnesses to keep it to themselves and not tell anyone. In the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, the people try to force Jesus to become an earthly, political king, only to have him refuse. Near the beginning of our liturgical calendar, as Jesus is tempted by Satan, he is offered relevance, fame, and power over all of the earthly kingdoms of the world, and he refuses all three, so that he can become a poor, homeless, itinerant rabbi who will be rejected, mocked, tortured, and crucified by the exact people he is trying to save.
People like you and me.
I wonder if perhaps the most frustrating, if not most infuriating thing about Jesus is how seldom he behaves like you and I so often do. I find myself wondering if only; if only Jesus would support my positions, if only he would reinforce my perspectives, if only he would throw his good name behind me and endorse my agenda. It is subtle, but in the gospel narrative, this happens more than one might think: “Jesus, should we pay taxes to the emperor? Tell us, Jesus, are the dead raised or not (this was an ongoing debate between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, two of the major religious parties of Jesus day).” One can even argue that Pilate looks for a little support from Jesus. In verse 38, which is the verse just after the last verse I read, Pilate, with Jesus at his mercy and a mob clamoring for Jesus’ life, asks Jesus for a little insight into the meaning of “truth.”
In his book Quest for the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer likens attempts to discover the Jesus of history apart from the confessions the church makes about him to looking down a well. What you end up seeing is your own reflection looking back at you. What he means is that Jesus easily becomes a man for all seasons, and no matter what kind of Christian you are, you will see Jesus as a prototype for exactly that kind of discipleship, that specific agenda. Thus, it is not difficult to find in Jesus a ringing endorsement of our own preset agendas, and the risk we run here is idolatry. We end up with a very safe, sanitized God of our own making, who never disagrees with us, and who only serves to reassure us that we are all OK.
And friends, little could be farther from the truth of a savior who in his earthly ministry spent what little time he had shaking the foundations of our belief, confronting our well-worn assumptions about God, and overturning the tables of our institutionalized religion.
Jesus is simply not going to provide an easy endorsement of our well-worn, worldly platforms, because as he told Pilate, his kingdom is not of this world. And yet, perhaps that is the best news of all for us and for the world today, because in it, there is a way forward. Instead of living lives burned by the friction borne of trying to gain Jesus’ endorsement for our closely-held positions, we start giving our lives to the things that Jesus is already endorsing by moving the things that were (and are) central to his life to nowhere less than the center of our own lives, and our life together in his church.
I told you at the outset of this sermon that I was going to tell you exactly how Christian disciples must vote, and here it is:
But before I do so, allow me to acknowledge something I believe to be present in this room: some, if not most of you, are deep down inside hoping that I either tell you that the gospel endorses your side, or at least casts some serious aspersions on the other side. Like Sadducees and Pharisees debating eternal life, we think “Come on Jesus, give us a nod. Let us know that we are the ones who are in the right.” And yet I tell you, that is not going to happen, at least not this morning.
I told you I was going to tell you how to vote, not for whom to vote.
What it comes down to, sisters and brothers, is that if Jesus is our King, and his kingdom is not of this world, then neither are we. And in this kingdom, in God’s kingdom, we do not choose our ruler; our ruler chooses us. We do not vote for our ruler; our ruler votes for us. When Jesus sat in the praetorium with his very life on the line and the cross just outside the door, Jesus voted for you and for me and for his church, even if it meant voting against his own life. When at the end of that Friday afternoon, it seemed like the earthly ruler was in control, early on Sunday morning, he rolled away the stone and proved that it is our God and not the earthly kings who is ultimately in control.
We do not vote for our ruler, but our ruler, again and again, votes for us, even when it makes us uncomfortable, even when it means dismantling the little lesser personal kingdoms we construct for ourselves in our personal lives. Jesus lowers our flags, sets fire to our battlements, and sends our soldiers home.
So then the way for Christian disciples to vote is this: do not wait until November, and do not wait two years. Vote today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and the next with your heart, with your soul, with your mind, and with your strength. If voting means choosing, then may all God’s children vote with how we utilize our precious time, our God-given talents, and our hard-earned resources.
When we choose to avail ourselves of God’s means of grace (worship, the sacraments, prayer, studying the scriptures, having loving fellowship in community with other Christians, working for mercy and justice in the world), are all ways to vote. Bringing your children to the waters of baptism is a vote, and then bringing them back to live in community in the church is a vote, as is modeling Christian discipleship for them. Taking the bread and cup are votes. Even our simple act of lighting candles in a world filled with darkness is a vote.
Speaking with courage when it is time to speak is a vote, as it listening when it is time to listen, marching when it is time to march, loving when it is time to love, are all votes, as are forgiving and being forgiven and loving our neighbors and enemies as ourselves, all of them votes.
So then, I am telling you this day to vote early, and vote often. Vote if you are young, vote if you are old. Vote if you are a citizen or a foreigner, vote if you are male or female, gay or straight, rich or poor, black or brown or white, because enough of God’s children casting enough votes each and every day is how we partner with God in nothing less than colonizing the earth with the life of heaven, making the Kingdom of God known in our midst.
So then, perhaps the question with which I opened this sermon is incomplete. Perhaps the question to ask each morning is “How am I going to vote today?” and the question to ask in the evening is “For what did I vote today? What did I make the great priority of my life and my limited time on this earth?”
We can vote with our King or against him, but never for him, for it is he whose reign was established before all time. It is he whose reign makes him unlike our temporal earthly rulers, for it is Christ alone who is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, and it is before him “that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
With this life and breath that our King has entrusted to us, to you, to me, how are we going to vote today, tomorrow, everyday, and forever?
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.