Nov. 25, 2018 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Nov 25, 2018 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The Last Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 29B)

November 25, 2018

Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’ (John 18:38) I don’t know why the lectionary cuts off that last line of their conversation, but I think it’s important we include it today. This is Christ the King Sunday, and Pilate asking “What is truth?” has everything to do with Christ as king, because Jesus is that truth. His Kingdom is not about defining truth or arguing who is right, rather Christ is that truth himself, so saying Christ is our king is about living as if he were that truth. His reign or kingship is not about choosing content, making rules, living under governance by successive royalty, or even electing a monarch as leader. Rather it is about character. The ‘Kingdom of God’ is not ruled by a king but by commitment which recognizes and serves God’s truth as incarnate in Christ.

Normally ‘kingdoms’ are defined by criteria like ruling power, specific borders, powerful leaders invested in their outcomes, geographically located human subjects. I would guess few (if any) of us have lived under a fully governing monarch, there are not many left these days. We recall them as something from children’s stories or works of fiction, and we virtually scoff at the thought of living under an un-elected powerful ruler enthroned for life. All of this makes it hard for us to put ourselves into the conversation we’ve just heard between Jesus and Pilate. The people of their day understood first hand that kings commanded power, held privilege, authority, wealth, loyalty be it out of fear or affection, and enjoyed a certain amount of grandeur even if at their subject’s expense. Some might think modern day presidents or prime ministers are much the same, though we rely on the safety of election cycles should we consider our leader unfit in some way.

Holding our historical and political perspectives in mind, think how odd that conversation was! If Jesus’ kingdom is not about raising himself up to oust Pilate, but about truth and commitment and character, that kingdom can be anywhere, it can last as long as one lives and as long as people of faith tell the story of this truth. It cannot be destroyed by killing off individuals because it’s greater than any one person, no matter how important they might be. That’s what Pilate doesn’t understand here—Jesus as King is not about his earthly lifetime or a palace where he’ll reign or an army he raises, it is a perspective and wells up from the hearts of faith of those who “belong to the truth” and listen to his voice. It cannot be taken away by incarceration, torture, law or bribery. One preacher says having Christ as King is a way “to live life, [it’s] never a fought-for hierarchy, but a forever hermeneutic, a way of interpreting the world and embodying such a hermeneutic in everything that we do.” (The Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis, Luther Seminary)

Honestly, some days it’s impossibly hard, some days as easy as breathing. Being here with you today, breaking bread, sharing the Word, and feeling the Reign of Christ in this body is very different from yesterday; walking on the beach at Indianola with my husband Mike yesterday and feeling God’s reign as waves lapped and wind blew and the sun was just a lovely blurry spot in the sky, and yet both are where I am immersed in knowing God is at my center and leads my whole life—as much as I’m able and willing to step back from my lessor lures and sinful tendencies and fully exist with Christ as my way of life. Not a rule, not one place, not for one day a week, but Christ as one’s reigning way of life.

Those are two places it’s easy to acknowledge Christ as my ‘king.’ What are the harder ones? When or where do we relinquish the sovereignty of Christ to other lessor gods? What kind of ‘kingdoms’ do we think supersede our Christ-centered way of life? Shopping? Politics? Acquisitiveness? Government? Wastefulness? Internet or cell phone addiction? Where is the Truth Pilate asked Jesus about in those worlds where we live Christ’s kingship even facing those like Pilate? We have to create life where Christ can reign in us even as we move in and among such worlds as these. Yes, we create it because we are the disciples living here today and we can feel the manipulative power of those king’s worlds. We do not have to become subject to them though. The choices are up to us, and that’s what Jesus is telling Pilate; those worlds of half-truths and falsehoods and deceptions entice us and work our insecurities and fears, coaxing us to follow false idols instead of Christ our King.

So why do we fall for it? Because it seems innocuous, easier, attractive, maybe it’s popular, promising immediate gratification, or less risky to let those decisions about truth be made for us, to go along instead of pushing back in love or speaking up in truth. Sometimes we wish there were a formula with perfect outcome, a social club promising all one could want, like a pill that promises to make us young, thin, strong, smart, successful. Yet that’s what such kingdoms are like; empty. And when we see them for what they are we feel lucky just to escape. Forget about challenging them or confronting those empty promises and false values! After all, that’s what Jesus did, and look where it got him. Surely Jesus doesn’t mean for us to do that, does he? This is the underlying conversation going on between him and Pilate. Jesus leaves the door open to truth even in this loaded death-sentencing conversation; when Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answers, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Are you really seeking truth, or just playing politics? Pilate won’t do the hard work of thinking for himself, nor would those who turned Jesus over to him do the work. Acting anything but ‘powerful,’ Pilate is so averse to taking responsibility he gives Jesus another out, he blames those who turned him in, he asks the crowd if they want him to release Jesus, and finally he absolves himself—he never takes a stand.

The whole scene is the world of power turned upside down, as Jesus so often did; Pilate appeared powerful and yet was cowardly and powerless. Jesus is arrested, under guard, abandoned by his disciples, clearly powerless, and yet clearly standing firm in his own authority and power. Jesus brings down the power-people of his day by submitting to their fake show of authority. We look back 2000 years later thinking we’ve come so far and would never be so easily led by worldly power or glory, and yet if we’re not careful Christianity can ring with false triumphalism too. It’s surprisingly easy to discover we’re paying lip service to living Christ’s Truth as our own, while blithely falling into easy stride with all those other false gods and kings, judging other’s actions while failing to act with love ourselves, thinking it’s enough to intend to do good works, and then never quite finding time or generosity to do so. Or maybe we just aren’t in the right place to do it, or the right time of our lives?

Recently I read an account of a man behind another border wall – the one separating East and West Berlin after World War II. From the start, Dietrich Offeldt’s friends urged him to flee to West Berlin for the sake of his family, his freedom, and because he could more freely live his faith as a Christian. They called it ‘spiritual suicide’ to remain on the other side of that wall. Yet he stayed, writing letters to family and friends on the other side affirming that even in the nightmare unfolding around him, “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior…the ruler of my life.” He observed that “every Christian finds himself or herself in a particular circumstance, a particular time, a particular place in which they live out their discipleship.  My circumstance is communism; my time is the Cold War; and my place is East Berlin.  I chose to be a disciple here.” To do so he said required he make two decisions; first to accept that it was his to live as a Christian, and given so in that place and time, and although it would have been easier to run away from it, he would not. Secondly he decided to ‘show his colors’ and let others know “that Christ rules my life.” He then wrote of seeing fellow Christians who hid their faith and who advised their children to do so, and how as a teacher he watched those children become tense and isolated, “not free, but slaves to the fear of being found out.” He knew he couldn’t teach his faith at school, but he refused to hide it either. He recalls his principal confronting him, “Mr. Offeldt, communism teaches us that there is no God, that God is a figment of our imagination.” Dietrich replied, “God is not the figment of my imagination. God created my imagination and yours.” These were the decisions that kept him sane, close to Christ, and strong in living his faith. He challenged the wrongs of the authorities by standing in the truth of Christ. What about us? Do we believe, whatever our circumstances, that Christ can reign in our lives in active ways, be it convenient, comfortable, or not? Do people know that our faith gives us Christ’s power to do what is right, and that it guides our whole way of life?

The powers of this world will pale as it faces the truth of Christ’s kingship. His kingdom, without borders, walls, or defending armies, still challenges the world’s understanding, because the one who reigns is the one who serves those most in need. Pilate asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” and then “What is truth?” Jesus’ very presence radiates how enormously challenging those questions really are. In the end Pilate answered them himself, when at the crucifixion he ordered the inscription on Jesus’ cross to read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.”

© 2018 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

View lectionary readings:

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 93
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37