Homily: Yr B Proper 34, Reign of Christ, Nov 22 2015.
Readings: 2 Sam 23.1-7; Ps 132.1-13; Rev 1.4b-8; John 18.33-37
Today we celebrate the Sunday called the Reign of Christ in our churches, also known as the Feast of Christ the King. It’s a bit of an unusual celebration in a number of ways. First of all, it’s relatively new to the church calendar. The Feast of Christ the King was first proclaimed in 1925. Now that’s quite recent in the life of a 2000 year old institution! But what’s more, Christ the King feels a bit out of place in our church year. Here we are one week before Advent starts and all of a sudden our gospel reading from John places us smack in the middle of Jesus’ trial before Pilate on Good Friday, early in the morning. That feels kind of strange.
But that’s not the only thing that strikes me as strange about proclaiming that Christ is King. In John’s gospel, Jesus makes a lot of statements about who he is. I am the Light, Jesus says. I am the Good Shepherd. I am the Bread. I am the Way, the Truth, the Life. But Jesus never says “I am the King”. In fact at one point in the gospel, when Jesus realizes that the people were about to come and make him king by force, he hides from them, going up a mountain where they can’t find him.
So it seems that we’re forced to ask the same question that Pilate did: Is Jesus king? The answer isn’t a straightforward yes or no. Maybe that’s why the Anglican Church decided to rename this Sunday as the Reign of Christ. The very fact that we changed the name is a hint that we don’t sit easily with the notion that Christ is King.
One of the difficulties for us in deciding whether to call Jesus king is that kings are no longer part of our lived reality. What is a king? When I asked my daughter this a few years ago, she replied that the king or queen is an important symbol but she doesn’t do very much. Is this what we mean when we call Jesus king?
When I asked some others what a king was, most tended to respond in terms of power. The king is the seat of power. The one who rules over others. The one who can raise your taxes. The one who can send you to war.
I suspect this was the sort of answer that Pilate would have given if you had asked him what a king was. Pilate’s king was the Roman emperor Tiberius, a military leader who ruled with an iron fist. Pilate was well aware that if he failed in his job as governor of Judea, Tiberius would fire him, or even worse, accuse him of treason and have him executed.
But there’s a different picture of a king presented for us in today’s Old Testament reading. The reading from 2 Samuel which we heard today gives us the final words of King David, the greatest of the kings of Israel. In this reading we hear that the king is God’s anointed one, God’s favoured one, the one whom God has exalted. The king has an everlasting covenant with God, rules justly and the spirit of the Lord speaks through him.
Now here we have an image of a king that we can at least start to apply to Jesus. Jesus is God’s anointed one. He is the one through whom God speaks.
The problem for us is that the idea of the king as God’s anointed one always seems to get tangled up with the reality of the king as the one who exercises power. Kings throughout history have had to exercise power in order to be recognized as kings.
Even King David, who is held up as a model king, still had to fight wars to secure and defend his kingdom, and at times he exercised his power ruthlessly. Some of you might remember the story of Uriah the Hittite, whom David sent to his death just so that he could marry his wife.
So then, is Jesus king? I think the lesson to be learned from our gospel reading today is that we can’t call Jesus king unless we are prepared to radically re-shape our understanding of what a king is.
Pilate asks Jesus straight out “Are you the King of the Jews?” What he’s really asking, probably in disbelief, is whether Jesus is proclaiming himself to be a political and military threat to the Roman Empire. That’s what the Jewish authorities have accused Jesus of, because they know that being a revolutionary leader is grounds for Pilate to put him to death. Jesus responds by telling Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world. He doesn’t deny being a king, but he is not a king as the world understands it. He’s already told his disciples to put their swords away. So Pilate tries again. Perhaps he’s intrigued, perhaps he’s still looking for Jesus to give him an easy way out. “So you are a king?”
“You say that I am a king,” Jesus responds. He allows Pilate recognize him as king, but Jesus does not proclaim himself as king.
And then Jesus shifts the terms of engagement. All of a sudden the discussion about kingship is moved to a whole new level. For this I was born, Jesus says, for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.
Here Jesus lays it out for us. This is not about power. Jesus has no desire to force us or to coerce us into recognizing him as king. He came into the world for one purpose and that purpose was to witness to the truth. And when that truth resonates with us, that is, when we belong to the truth, only then can we proclaim Christ as king. The reign of Christ is the reign of truth and not of power. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, but neither is it other-worldly. It can be found here and now in those who belong to the truth.
Does this truth resonate in your life? Do you belong to it? Do you know what Jesus is talking about when he talks about the truth?
Pilate didn’t. His response to Jesus is “What is Truth?”
What is the truth that Jesus is testifying to in his trial in front of Pilate? John, the gospel writer helps us out here. If you were to look at the original Greek text you would see that the verb he uses for testifying to the truth, is actually in the future tense, and so the phrase could be literally translated as “I will bear witness to the truth”. On Friday morning in front of Pilate, Jesus tells us that he will bear witness to the truth. On Friday afternoon, he dies on the cross.
By using the future tense, John is pointing us forward from the trial of Jesus to the crucifixion as the point at which Jesus bears witness to the truth in the fullest possible way. And that truth is that no matter who we are, or what we’ve done, or what anyone else might think, God loves us. As John writes in the verse that Martin Luther once called the gospel in miniature, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Or as our reading of Revelation put it this morning, God loves us and frees us and makes us to be a kingdom.
And so we have in our gospel this morning two pictures of what it is to be king. The first is Pilate’s picture, that of a king who exercises power and rules over others. And the second is John’s picture of Jesus as the one who bears witness to the truth that God loves us.
Which king do we choose? Power or truth?
The church, that is you and me, the gathered people of God, is called to bear witness to the truth that God loves all people. But too often in our history and still in the present day the church chooses instead to exercise power and rule over others. And when we do that we are very, tragically wrong. And a price is paid.
If you talk to people who are alienated from the church and from the Christian faith, as many of my friends are, you’ll often hear the same concerns:
the church has a terrible history of violence and coercion, they’ll say;
Christians want to tell other people how to live;
the church is judgmental and excludes people.
Sometimes we act as if the truth belongs to us. But what Jesus tells us in the gospel today, is that we belong to the truth. We are called to witness to the truth that God loves all people, in our lives, in our families, in our community, in the way we welcome all people into the church.
Christ the king is not the one who exercises power and rules over others, but rather the one who witnesses to the truth. And if we as the ones who listen to his voice can also be faithful witnesses to the truth that God loves all people, then that is when the reign of Christ is present amongst us.