By Rev. Glen Herrington-Hall, guest preacher —
The readings for the final Sunday of this church year, for this Christ the King Sunday (2 Samuel 23:1-7, John 18:33-38a), include one about the end of a beloved king’s life, and one about another who has been called king which leaves us with a profound question unanswered. It is an anticlimactic way to mark what could be an excuse for a big end-of the-year party. No hats and horns, no cake and presents, no royal feast and shiny crown. No, what we have a death and an awkward silence.
But after a couple of weeks like we’ve had, like this broken, hurting, bleeding world has had – bombings in Paris and Beirut; murdered innocents in Kenya and Mali; protests following another death in Minneapolis, a death with unanswered questions and a community grieving again and racial tensions rising – maybe some awkward silence is a good thing. At least, maybe it’s the best we can do.
It’s David who is dying at the end of Second Samuel. He was beloved. He was a hero: mighty in battle, having defeated Goliath the giant as a young man, and rising to power despite his predecessor’s jealous rages and attempts to kill him. He was handsome, a poet as well as a warrior. A man of God as well a flawed husband, father, and friend. This poem is attributed to him, as his last words. He was the anointed of the God of Jacob, the sweet psalmist of Israel, and here he reminds the people that those who would be king after him must be faithful to God for the people to prosper.
David was praised and remembered as a great king, but it was a long struggle for Israel to have kings at all. They had long wanted a king, to be like every nation around them, but God had denied them a king for generations. God knew, God knows, how frail monarchies could be, how terribly human our leaders are, how such power corrupts, how nationalism replaces devotion to the greater good, and how flags and crowns themselves become idols.
But the people of Israel were persistent, and despite the safeguards built in, with the presence of the prophets and the priests advising the king, Israel began a cycle of falling away and returning and falling away and returning to God. Internal division and exile was their fate over centuries. The hopes for a glorious rise, of a king like David, fell time and again, as the kings, and the people, forgot who they were and whose they were, and what ultimately set them apart from all other nations. They forgot that indeed the king was king only by God’s blessing, and that the people were a people in God’s name, in service to the strangers, widows and orphans who lived among them, and not to the glory of the king.
And so it was the time of Roman occupation into which Jesus was born, and the Roman occupation in which he lived, and a people in exile to whom he preached. And it was an agent of the occupation, Pilate, whom Jesus stood before on the eve of his execution, that we read about in John today.
Jesus has entered Jerusalem at the time of the Passover, been welcomed with shouts of Hallelujah, as if he were himself a King, the Anointed One, the Lord himself.
Now we recognize these as religious terms, but these are political titles as well. It was the Caesar who was the Lord, Anointed, the one who who held all power and was the only one worthy of worship. Whatever peace accord the local Jewish leaders had managed to strike with the local Roman authorities was now clearly threatened. Jesus and his followers had been under surveillance for some time, and there had been meetings before, but this was too much. This was more than could be tolerated, more than could be contained. Their greatest fears had been realized. Something had to be
And so when under the cover of darkness, away from the crowds, he was arrested, detained, and brought in for questioning. That’s how he landed before Pilate, Jesus, this pretend King.
Jesus’ teaching, the healings, and other the miracles he perfomed, all pointed to a new reality. For the faithful, they challenged the authority of the scribes and pharisees, those who preserved the tradition, maintaining the peace between the occupied – the Jewish population of Jerusalem – and the occupiers – the Romans.
Jesus’ teaching, the healings and other miracles, went beyond mere religious meddling. Through them, he spoke not only with a new theological voice but offered an alternate political truth. He challenged not only the authority of the temple leaders but of the Roman occupation,and threatened to unsettle the uneasy status quo established between the temple and the palace.
When Jesus stands before Pilate, Pilate wants to know if he is, as he has heard, “King of the Jews.” That is an absurdity, of course. Pilate is mocking Jesus, as well as his accusers. There is no such title; the Jews are no longer a political entity. They have been subsumed by Rome, swallowed up. Jesus’ reply knocks Pilate back to Jesus’ own level: Get real; you only ask that because of what you have been told.
Pilate acknowledges that they are now sparring: Okay, so now you tell me what you have done, who you are, to cause such trouble. Jesus gets to the point: My kingdom is not of this world, he says. It is not like any kingdom you have ever known. It is nothing you can possibly understand. It is not bound by borders, or limited by language, it is not restricted to one land or to one people.
In his retelling of the gospel, Eugene Peterson, in The Message, offers Jesus’ words to Pilate this way: “I was born and entered the world so I could witness to the truth. Everyone who cares for the truth, who has any feeling for the truth, recognizes my voice.”
That is how the realm of Jesus is known, how it is measured, and that is why you can’t find it on a map, and why Pilate can only answer, “What is truth?”
Pilate had to ask that, because he had not seen the truth Jesus had revealed.
He was not there when Jesus washed the disciples feet.
He was not there when Jesus fed the 5000.
He was not there when he saved the woman accused of adultery from being stoned to death by an angry mob.
He was not there when Jesus made the lame walk, gave sight to the blind, and raised Lazarus from the dead.
He was not there when Jesus told his followers to love one another, and that such love would be how others would know that they were followers of the way, the truth, and the life.
And he was not there when Jesus told his followers, over and over again, so they would never forget, that everything he did, he did only because of the one who sent him. “When you see me, you are looking not at me, but at the one who sent me.”
That is the truth Pilate had not seen and did not know. That is who this King of the Jews was who stood before Pilate. And that is the realm of Christ in whom we live today.
This congregation, in this interim time, has a unique opportunity. In this critical moment in your life together, one that doesn’t come around too often, hopefully, you can redefine yourselves. You can take these days to listen to our still speaking God with a future fully open, and ask not with the sarcasm of Pilate, of overly confident or one fearing for his future, but of the grace of community hungry to be faithful, “What is truth?” And hear your Christ say back to you, “I am the way, the truth, the life.” “Love one another as I have loved you.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
In the realm of Christ there’s a radical expansion and inclusion. What’s promised in the line of David, the line from which Jesus comes, according to the tradition, isn’t just the restoration of Israel, as the disciples understandably but mistakenly thought, but the redemption of the world. Nothing that God loves will ever be lost. No evil will endure. All that God has created (will be redeemed.) The (realm), proclaimed by Jesus the Son of David, is forever. And it’s for everyone.
The gospel this week records the most dramatic political confrontation in all of Scripture: Pontius Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus… For John the passion narrative in general and the trial before Pilate in particular were political rather than religious crises. Jesus’s trial and Roman execution epitomized a clash between two kings and two kingdoms, and the allegiance that they both solicit from us.
The kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were (sovereign) and the rulers of this world were not (Borg, Crossan). The political, economic, and social subversions would be almost endless:
peace-making instead of war mongering,
mercy not vengeance,
care for the vulnerable instead of privileges for the powerful,
generosity instead of greed,
humility rather than hubris,
embrace rather than exclusion.
The Lord’s Prayer, then, just might be the most subversive of all political acts: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” People who live and pray this way have a very different agenda than Caesar’s, whether Republican or Democrat, whether capitalist, socialist or communist, whether democratic or theocratic. Why? Because they’ve entered a kingdom, pledged their allegiance to a ruler, and submitted to the realm of Christ the King.
May it be so. Amen.
italicized portion: Daniel B. Clendenin, journeywithjesus.net