It’s In Our B.N.A.

John 18:33-38

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.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

1961 --- Actor Jean Marais in the movie "Ponzio Pilato" (Pontius Pilate), directed by Irving Rapper and Gian Paolo Callegari. --- Image by © Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

1961 — Actor Jean Marais in the movie “Ponzio Pilato” (Pontius Pilate),  Image by © Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

Christ the King Sunday / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 11-22-15

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love, in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say, “Come!” Amen.

It’s only fitting that we end this church year by proclaiming Christ as King – as the One who is, who was, and who is to come – as the Alpha and Omega of all that is or ever shall be (Alpha & Omega are the first & last letters of the Greek alphabet). Next Sunday is Advent, the beginning (the Alpha) of our church year, as we prepare the way for the coming Christ-child. And here, at the end of our church year (our Omega), we proclaim him King Jesus: the final word on life and death. In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

But I must admit, that does sound a bit presumptuous, don’t you think? To declare ‘our god’ as the ‘final word’ on all matters of life and death? Is that really what we’re proposing on this Christ the King Sunday – and every time we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” – or declare that at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord? Just what kind of king is this?

Historically, the Jews had no king except “Yahweh” – the Lord, God, was their king. When Moses delivered them from the land of Egypt and they wandered 40 years in the wilderness – they were a nomadic people. When they came to the Promised land to settle down, they became a tribal people – 12 tribes. It was a time when judges were raised up to settle disputes and to lead the people in wisdom. But it wasn’t long until other nations began to stir things up. They were attacked by nations with kings – nations with armies and great power – and so they decided they, too, wanted a king – so much so, that they appealed to the Lord, through the prophet Samuel (you can read about this in 1Samuel 8). “Give us a king to protect us from our enemies. We must live in the real world like other nations. For the sake of our national security and for the safety of our children, we must have a king!”

Others, including Samuel, opposed the idea: “If we have a king, we will become like other nations We’ll have military conscription. Elites will grab the land entrusted to our families. We’ll become like slaves. We’ll have to do hard labor for the king and his higher ups. The king will lay heavy tax burdens on us. We will cry out to God in our oppression.” But the ‘pro-king’ crowd won out and the Lord appointed Samuel to anoint Saul as 1st king over Israel.

Things went fairly well for Israel, until Solomon became king and he amassed great riches and wealth, built a grand temple and oppressed the masses of people who were at the lowest rung on the ladder. Between his 700 wives and 300 concubines Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, bowing down to foreign gods. And, in time, Israel became the very thing it had fled from generations before: Pharaoh’s Egypt.

We should be careful what we ask for, yes? It’s like the two guys who died and went to heaven: St. Peter greeted them at the pearly gates and said “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but your mansions aren’t ready yet. Until they are, I can send you back to Earth as whatever you want to be.”  “Great!” said the first guy, “I want to be an eagle soaring above beautiful scenery!” POOF! He was gone. “And what do you want to be,” St. Peter asked the other guy. “I’d like to be one cool stud!” POOF! and he was gone. After a few months, their mansions were finished, and St. Peter sent an angel to fetch them back. “You’ll find them easily,” he says, “One of them is soaring above the Grand Canyon, and the other one is on a snow tire somewhere in Detroit!”

Or, how about the story of the woman who rubbed the lamp and found a genie? It was a one-wish genie. “Ask me for whatever you wish!” said the genie. And, of course, being a kind person, she asked for world peace with her one wish. She even showed the genie a map and asked that these warring nations in the Middle East could settle their differences and that the United States could help bring about peace. The genie shook his head and said, “Do you know that I’ve been bottled up for over 500 years? Now, I’m good, but I’m not THAT good. Please think of something else.” “Well,” said the woman, “I’ve always wanted to meet a man who truly understands me. He doesn’t finish my sentences and he jumps up to do the chores without asking. He’s romantic and good looking and…” “Let me see that map again,” said the genie.

Be careful what you ask for, right?

Martin Luther had no idea what kind of genie he was releasing from a bottle when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. When he let the Genie out of the bottle it sparked the Reformation; but things got out of control – within eight years, the peasants were revolting – pulling down statues of Mary and the saints in their churches, making their own rules rioting in the streets and rising up against the aristocracy. And so he made distinctions between the “Two Kingdoms” – the Kingdom of the Left and the Kingdom of the Right – one ruled by the governing authorities and the other by Christ. And we, who bear the name of Christ, are citizens of both – with obligations to both. And Luther wrote hundreds of letters to the dukes and secular leaders of his day – admonishing them to govern wisely, according to the faith. And, during the Peasant’s War he found himself in the middle – sympathetic to the injustices forced upon the peasants – and yet, not condoning their bloody tactics. Some called him ‘the butcher’ for siding with the governing authorities to put down the rebellion.

So, there are no easy answers on this Christ the King Sunday – when we are tempted to claim: “Our god is better than your god.” “Our religion is the one, true religion.”

Last week’s terrorist attack in Paris has brought to the forefront a national debate about what “True Islam” is really about. True Islam says that if you kill an innocent person, it is as if you’ve killed all of humanity. So it says in the Qu’ran – and yet, there are also some verses requiring us to kill the infidel in the Qu’ran. Just as there are calls to kill one’s enemies in our own scriptures. Who could read Psalm 137 “Blessed are those who dash your babies heads against the rock” and say ‘go and do likewise’? We understand these texts of terror in their contexts – penned by people who had witnessed atrocities against their own people, taken into captivity. And so, each day is a striving for the truth.

Also this week, in North Minneapolis, there are those who are trying to uncover the truth about the shooting of an unarmed man, Jamar Clark, by a police officer. Peaceful protests have begun outside the 4th precinct to demand answers. Will we ever know the truth?

What is the truth? It’s the question on everyone’s mind these days.

And it was Pilate’s question to Jesus after the reading of today’s gospel. When Jesus says to Pilate: “For this I was born, to testify to the truth.” Pilate says “What is truth?” In John 14, Jesus said it was he, himself: “I am the truth, the way and the life.” And here, in today’s reading, we find Jesus on trial. “Are you the King of the Jews?” He doesn’t deny it – but he describes a much different kind of kingdom. It is one where his followers do not rise up to fight. Whereas, Pilate is used to ruling with an iron fist, taking names and commanding soldiers – Jesus rules from the heart, with love and mercy. He’s counting on his followers to listen to the truth, and to overcome darkness with light and to drive out hate with love. This way of ruling involves not a company of soldiers, but a communion of saints – a towel and a basin to wash one another’s feet. Here is a king who rules by caring for the hungry and the thirsty – there’s no mighty chariot, no flashing sword.

Do you ever wonder whether we’d recognize Jesus today – if he were to show himself? I bet the first thing he’d say is what he always said: do not be afraid.

In a world where fear runs rampant – whether it’s about ISIS or the potential threat of fleeing Syrian refugees – Jesus would say: do not be afraid.

Did you see the story in yesterday’s paper about First Lutheran Church – opening its doors to refugees 40 years ago after the fall of Saigon? It’s in our DNA – that thing that Bishop H. George Anderson called our BNA: “Be Not Afraid.”

It’s not a safe world in which we live. There will always be dangers and unforeseen tragedies. But we are called to walk in the way of peace nonetheless.

I am reminded of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – a Lutheran pastor who was hanged by the Nazis for his part in the resistance against Adolph Hitler. He wrote: “There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment. Wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of almighty God. …Battles are won not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from a sermon on August 28, 1934.

It’s often a lonely path we are called to walk. John opens his gospel with these chilling words about Jesus: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:11)

So, what are we to look for these days? How can we open our hearts and accept the coming Christ as our king this day? In many ways, it seems obvious: we just pray to him. We take time each day to keep Christ at the center of our lives (both public and private).

As a closing prayer, I leave you with the words of a Charles Wesley hymn. Let us pray:

Help us to help each other, Lord, each other’s cross to bear’
Let each his friendly aid afford and feel his brother’s care.
Touched by the loadstone of thy love, Let all our hearts agree;
And ever toward each other move and ever move toward thee.

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