Reign of Christ Sunday
Texts: John 18:33-37;
Dan 7:9-14; Rev 1:4-8
A KING WHO MAKES HIS HOME WITH THE HOMELESS
William Willimon’s story about 5 year-old Clayton’s birthday party, where he had everyone dress up as royalty. His wish when he blew out the candles? That everyone could feel what it was like to be king or queen. Willimon’s punch-line:
Well, Clayton, baptism shows that something very much like that happened one day at a place called Calvary. We, who were nobodies, became somebodies. Those who were no people became God’s people. The wretched of the earth became royalty. (Remember Who You Are, pp. 30-31)
For the children’s time, tell the story, get the baptismal oil, and talk about Kirsten’s baptism earlier in the service: why is it that we anoint with oil? Because in baptism we are made brothers and sisters of Jesus the King, which makes each us royalty, too, today and every day.
How is it that so many millions, many who are among the lowly of the earth, have become kings and queens in their baptisms? How is it that this condemned man who stood before Pilate, about to be executed on the Cross, has come to truly be proclaimed as king by millions around the world today, on Reign of Christ Sunday?
The truth — the same truth, by the way, that Jesus tells Pilate he was born to witness to — the truth is that kings and queens have always been among the wretched of the earth. It’s just that we didn’t quite know it. Or at least we didn’t know the whole story. In fact, the truth is we haven’t wanted to know the whole story. We’ve hidden the worst parts from ourselves. The truth about kings and queens is among those things we talked about last week: things hidden from us since the foundations of our worlds. (1) We have eyes that don’t see and ears that won’t hear when it comes to the true nature of where kings and kings come from. We don’t want to see the whole picture, to hear the whole story. We don’t really want to see where kings and queens come from, because it goes right to the heart of how we order our lives.
But Jesus Christ came to reveal that truth to us and to himself take the place of the true King of all Creation. He comes with a forgiving grace that enables us to look. So let’s be daring and take a look this morning.
I told you my first Sunday here about a person who has been very influential for me, René Girard, whose most important book rings out these themes, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Girard gives us an anthropology, an understanding of who we are as human beings, that he himself says he could not have arrived at if it wasn’t for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the truth about us that has been hidden since the foundations of our human world. It’s this truth that Jesus was born to witness to.
In order to see that truth, it is helpful to go back closer to those foundations of our human world. Here’s a story about kingship in Africa from a anthropologist who actually witnessed such rituals:
Sometimes the length of [the new king’s] reign is fixed from the start: the kings of Jukun . . . originally ruled for seven years. Among the Bambara the newly elected king traditionally determined the length of his own reign. “A strip of cotton was put round his neck and two men pulled the ends in opposite directions whilst he himself took out of a calabash as many pebbles as he could grasp in his hand. These indicated the number of years he would reign, on the expiration of which he would be strangled.” (2)
Isn’t that amazing? As they are about to kill the person who is to be their king, they let him grab a number of pebbles to determine his reign as their king, then they do kill him and move to the next lucky guy.
Before we think this entirely strange, primitive, and uncivilized, let’s now take a look at the end of kingship in our world, which, of course, was also the beginning of democracy. In France this took the form of a bloody revolution, in which the first person killed was the king, King Louis XIV. Unfortunately, things got out of hand, and the king wasn’t the only one killed. H.G. Wells describes what happened in his The Outline of History:
The Revolutionary Tribunal went to work, and a steady slaughtering began …. The invention of the guillotine was opportune to this mood. The queen was guillotined, and most of Robespierre’s antagonists were guillotined; atheists who argued that there was no Supreme Being were guillotined; Danton was guillotined because he thought there was too much guillotine; day by day, week by week, this infernal new machine chopped off heads and more heads and more. The reign of Robespierre lived, it seemed, on blood, and needed more and more, as an opium-taker needs more and more opium. (3)
What came next was Napoleon and his bloody wars, before the French finally settled into democracy.
Now, we can still refuse to see and hear the truth about us that Jesus came to bear witness to, by saying, ‘Well, leave it to those French, they’re not as civilized as we of Northern European descent.’ But let’s be honest about our own American Revolution. We never killed the King of England, that’s true. No, we just killed thousands of his representatives in the king’s army. We substituted thousands of British soldiers for the British King and killed them. Our history books make it seem like the epitome of civilization, of course, the height of human freedom. But I truly think that Jesus came to show us something else: the truth about ourselves, that we are not as civilized as we think.
Here’s that truth in its starkest. Look at John 8 with me (beginning on p. 100 of the pew bibles). It’s the chapter in John’s gospel that talks the most about truth. We read a key passage on Reformation Sunday a few weeks ago (verses 31-36). The crucial passage for us this morning comes a few verses later. It is the truth about ourselves that we don’t want to see and hear:
You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. (John 8:44-45)
This is the truth about us that we cannot bear to see and hear: that our sense of order as human beings is virtually founded on murder, on those we deem as castoffs dying. That’s why it took Jesus being murdered on the Cross for the sake of the political order of Jesus’ day to see that our way of order is based on murder. That’s why Jesus tells Pilate that he was born to bear witness to the truth just as Pilate is about to have him murdered for the sake of the political order. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away our sin by dying at the hands of it and forgiving us for it.
It’s also why we proclaim Jesus as the true King today: because he shows us that the King himself has also been one of our murdered victims from the beginning of human history. I could take you all the way back to human beginnings to show you why kingship developed this way, but that’s a longer story for another day. Today, I hope we have seen sufficiently this truth about kingship as a way of human order based on murdering. The African ritual shows the murder of the king as it was close to the beginnings of kingship. The French Revolution shows us the murder of the king at the end of political kingship. And the American Revolution, I think, shows it how it was for the eons of kingship in between: that is, the king was able to make others substitute for him in being killed. In the American Revolution, it was primarily the lowly foot-soldiers who were killed in place of the king. Even in times of peace, it was the scores of lowly peasants who died of starvation so that the opulent wealth and high station of the kings and queens might remain in place. For centuries, kings were able to make the wretched and lowly of the earth die for them. They were able to make victims so that they didn’t have to be one.
But Jesus comes to uncover the whole game. He comes as the King who is truly and obviously our victim. He comes as one who identifies with the wretched and lowly of this earth so that we might begin to identify with them more, too — identify with them more than with the high and mighty, those whom we have tended to call our kings. In our baptisms, we are anointed as just this same kind of royalty with him. We are the wretched of this earth who can begin to live by a different way. We identify with the poor and with those still suffer the injustices of our political order, those who are pushed to the margins or outside it.
Another way to see ourselves as disciples of Jesus is as homeless ones. Jesus himself stood before Pilate and declared himself so. He told Pilate that he came into this world but was not of it. In other words, his kingdom was not at home in this world’s kingdoms.
It is how I think we are called to be, as well, even within our democracy, what I would consider as the best political order human beings have come up with to date. Yes, democracy is the best of human kingdoms. But if we have our eyes and ears opened by the Gospel truth about ourselves, I think we must come to see that it is still our way, a way that is rooted in murder, a way that still leaves the lowly of this world on the fringes. We are homeless with Jesus because his kingdom is not of this world.
But we began this morning lifting up Zion’s new 90th anniversary plates, and the words emblazoned on them from John 14:6: Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” But notice the context of this verse in John 14. The chapter begins by seemingly recognizing that we are still homeless with Jesus. We are still on the way, Jesus’ way, a way which is not of the world, not at home in the world. Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” When do we most often read this passage? At funerals with the comfort that there is a future home for us in heaven. But I don’t think that the future tense that Jesus is using here refers to our going home to heaven. I think the future tense refers to his own going to the cross, which hasn’t happened yet at this point in the story. It is Jesus who ascends on the cross, but not just to prepare a place for each of us in heaven. Heaven is never mentioned. Listen to the rest of what Jesus says:
- Listen to verse 17, for example. When Jesus is lifted to heaven, he will first send to us the Spirit of Truth: “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” This Spirit of Truth is still homeless in the world. Rather, it makes its home in us!
- And listen to verse 23: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” I think this means now, in this life! Jesus comes to make his home with us, as we begin to learn his way of forgiveness and love and life.
- There is this kind of language throughout these last words of Jesus to his disciples. It is summed up best, perhaps, with these words — which, notice, are in the present tense: “Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4a). Make your home in me, as I make my home in you.
So, No! We are not completely homeless! We are homeless in this world because we are not of it. We choose to follow a different way, Christ’s way of forgiveness, love, and life. But we are not forever homeless because the true King has come to make his home in us, and we in him.
Paul J. Nuechterlein,
Delivered at Zion Lutheran,
Racine, WI, November 26, 2000
1. Last week’s sermon did a wholistic reading of Mark’s Gospel around his quote of Isaiah 6, that we have eyes unseeing and ears unhearing. Jesus heals physically deaf and blind people, but he cannot make his own disciples to see and hear what he most needs them to see and hear: the truth that comes through his being given into human hands to be killed, and on the third day rise again.