Jesus, the Son of God and King of all creation, rules and saves very differently from the way of the world. As his disciples we are called to learn from how he uses (or doesn’t use) power, and so follow him with our lives.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Christ the King, Sunday 34, year B; text: John 18:33-37
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
There’s a powerful scene in the middle of Shakespeare’s Henry V where, on the eve of battle, King Henry disguises himself and walks amongst his troops, campfire to campfire, trying to sense what they are feeling and thinking. This play shows Henry a man of the people, a king who shares himself with the commoner. One could love such a king.
Except in the play and in history, there was a battle the next day, at Agincourt. And this king waged brutal war to assert his claims of kingship. He had control of England; he believed France was his by divine right and mandate, and was willing to sacrifice everything to regain authority over those lands. Regardless of his feeling for the commoner, this king is a king like all others. Ultimately his rule is defined and supported and extended and upheld by force and violence and threat.
There’s another great scene in history, though Shakespeare never set it. It involves a minor governor in a vast empire, overseeing a scrap of land at the far eastern reaches of that empire. And this minor governor is confronting an even more insignificant character, an itinerant preacher and healer who barely owns more than the robes on his back. Except that this rabbi’s followers are calling him king, and his enemies have arrested him and condemned him to death. And now the governor, as is his right by his own decree, must decide whether to issue the sentence of death to this so-called king.
As John the Gospel writer tells the story, Pilate, the governor, cannot understand this teacher, Jesus. When asked if he is a king, Jesus answers “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. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
To Pilate, this is gibberish. As it would be to any of us if someone started telling us that they were a ruler but their kingdom was not in or of or from this world. Where, pray tell, would it be? If Pilate could have heard an exchange between this insignificant man and his followers earlier that evening, at the time of his arrest, he’d have been even more convinced of the man’s delusions. When one of his followers tried to resist arrest by swinging his sword, this Jesus told him to stop. “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Then he added, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me twelve legions of angels?” (Mt. 26:52-53) Pilate would have known immediately that the sanity of this one was questionable. 72,000 angels at his beck and call? With that kind of power, if it even existed, why would he look so bedraggled? And why would he let these events, this trial and this imminent execution, happen to him?
Indeed, that is a good question. We know who this Jesus was and is. We know he was killed, and yet rose again from the dead. We confess – that is, we say we believe – that this Jesus is Lord and King of the universe. Son of the Most High God. But if we do not come to grips with Pilate’s question, and indeed, the world’s question – what kind of king is this? – if we, like so many, believe when we call Christ King and Lord we mean a king and lord like the world is accustomed to know, like Henry V and all the rest, if we hold that view, we deny everything our King and Lord stands for and calls from us. And we stand the risk of rejecting the salvation he so dearly bought for us.
Finally there is only one thing about this question that is true: there can be no way to look at the lordship of Jesus other than his way.
And his way is clear: he will rule by giving up his life for the sake of his beloved people. He will set aside power to show us the way of the universe as it really is intended to be.
To follow Jesus in this way isn’t to deny that the Triune God has omnipotent power. It’s simply taking seriously Jesus’ consistent message to us about how God chooses to deal with the pain of this world, how God chooses to reestablish rule over this disobedient planet. Luther reminded us that of course we believe and know God is omnipotent and ruler of the universe. But, he said, we can never know God in that way. We can only know God in the way God chooses to be revealed to us; we are not capable of more.
And God chooses to be revealed to us in that scruffy rabbi being led to the cross. That’s God’s self revelation. To Pilate the governor. To the Jewish leadership. To the world. Regardless of the Triune God’s power, this is God’s answer to the disobedience and wickedness and hate in the world. To let all that disobedience and hate and wickedness do its worst. To stand quietly in love and be killed.
Of course, when you kill the Lord of the universe, who created life, death itself is reversed and everything changes. And this rabbi is now seen as the very Son of God, risen from death, in love. But even in resurrection, his way, which is now called to be our way, doesn’t change. Risen from death, Jesus continues to show us that God’s way is not the way of power and domination, but of love, invitation to follow, forgiveness, restoration, and grace.
This is a way that is counter to all our intuition, all our sense of how the world works. It isn’t merely idle talk that Jesus says his kingdom, his rule, is “not from here.” His way is as foreign to us as the most remote language or culture we could imagine on this planet.
And it is a matter of life and death that we begin to understand God actually means this. This is the truth Jesus came to show, the truth he talks about to Pilate. The true way to life and grace in this world. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” Jesus said.
So, how about we all start listening? Wouldn’t that be a very good idea, considering what we claim about Jesus?
There are two areas we want to consider as we look at Jesus, listen to Jesus, understand Jesus.
First, our reality as members of a free society. Regardless of which political solutions we prefer – and we can disagree about various possibilities – as followers of this different King, we are committed to peace, justice, and non-violence, with no exceptions. If the God of the universe rejects violence as a way to achieve the desired end – a just, loving, obedient world – we can do no less. And if the God of the universe, incarnate among us, rejected power as a means to an end, we can do no less.
We have just completed an election cycle which continued a trend of recent years where the deceit and hateful words have increased to the point of intolerability. It is time that we who belong to such a king as Jesus hereby resolve that at least each of us will be and act differently toward our fellow citizens and leaders. We cannot change others, nor is that asked of us.
But as followers of the true King, who rules our hearts with his death-defeating love, at least we can commit that we will not participate in hateful speech toward anyone, and we will not speak lies as far as we are able to speak truth, and we will work toward a culture which cares more about the poor and those on the fringes than one which only cares about who is in power and who won’t be pushed around by whom.
And we must remember that we belong to a free society, but one which has been deeply shaped and built by violence. We have a national persona that the only way we can accomplish what we hope for on the global stage is by using might and force. If national politicians even hint that they have a different understanding or approach these days, they find it very difficult to be returned to office.
So as Christians, followers of the true King, we are called to work and pray for ways to solve the world’s problems that involve diplomacy, generosity, and justice, and to be insistent that we not become a terrorist nation ourselves by imposing our will on others destructively and violently while we cloak it in the name of freedom.
This way, by the way, does not dishonor those who serve us in the military. They are there to defend us in an increasingly dangerous and hate-filled world. But we make their jobs infinitely harder when we play the aggressor and in fact raise the tensions and contribute to the hate.
The second area is our own personal way of living. The truth Jesus reveals about God – that God’s way is self-giving love, a way that refuses to dominate or use violence but seeks to transform by invitation to new life, by resurrection from the way of death – this truth is what defines us.
So we become people who refuse to dominate, to manipulate, to achieve what we hope to see in life. We become people who do not see life as something to be won, but to be lived, to be loved. As servants of the servant King, we seek a life from Christ that is Christ, a life like his, a love like his.
Too often even Christians have disdained this as too unrealistic. To that we can only say, maybe so. But it is the way our Lord has set for us. It is not for us to decide how realistic it is. It is the only way, the only truth, Jesus shows us. Those who live by the sword, Jesus said, will die by it.
And when we consider these two areas, our public life and our private life, we must always remember how different a king Jesus is. In fact, Jesus is so committed to this way, he will not force us to live by it. Unlike Henry and all the rest, unlike most of the world, he is willing to risk losing us all, having us all disobey and walk away, for the sake of having even one of us willingly follow and live in the way of justice and peace. Remembering that Jesus has enough power to dismantle even any modern government, not just ancient Rome, we stand in awe when we realize he still will only rule over us by our choice, by our willingness to follow.
This is our King, the true King of the Universe, and there is no other way than his way.
Risen from death, he calls us to die to the ways of power and rise with him to the way of love. We may be as confused as Pilate. We may be tempted to think as people always have that we would use power in ways that wouldn’t end up destructive. That’s the way the world works, we think, we know.
But that is not the way of life, according to the crucified and risen Lord of Life. No matter how tempted or confused we might be, we know that much. Our King rules in a kingdom, a reign, that is not from here. But it is a rule of life for all people. And the grace of our King is that we have the love of our King to lead us, invite us, and transform us. May we all follow his call, and so transform the world with this new way, God’s way. It’s how our King lived and acted; it’s now what the King has asked of us. God help us do so.
In the name of Jesus. Amen