Reign of Christ Sunday
Texts: John 18:33-37;
Dan. 7:9-10, 13-14
TRANSFORMATION THROUGH FAITHFUL LISTENING
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.”
“My kingdom,” Jesus says. So, yes, Jesus is a king. But his kingdom is “not from this world.” (1) What does this mean? Does it mean Jesus is promoting a “spiritual” kingdom, something people feel warming their hearts, or something they will only experience after they die? For many generations that was the reading of these words from Jesus. But it is decidedly not so for the recent generations of Bible scholars.
The key is the chapter right before this, at the Last Supper. Jesus gives a long Farewell Address to his disciples on the night before this trial. Jesus uses the same phrase “not from the world,” as part of a rich and lengthy prayer. There Jesus makes it clear that he doesn’t want his disciples to be removed “out of the world.” Instead, he sends them “into the world,” but as they are “in” the world, they are not to be “from” the world, just as he is not “from” the world (John 17:13-19). What is crystal clear is that they are sent into the world. They are not to be from the world but very into and for the world.
“My kingdom is not from this world,” then, means the very opposite of “My kingdom is not in this world.” Instead, it means my kingdom is very much in this world, but it doesn’t work the way earthly kingdoms or empires do. The word this becomes especially significant in relation to Pilate’s location in the Roman chain of command: this world of Pilate, of Roman swords and spears and threats of crucifixion, of imperial domination and hierarchy and violence — this world is not the origin or character of Jesus’ kingdom.
Then Jesus specifies what it means to not be from this world of Pilate: earthly kingdoms fight, but his kingdom, being “from another place,” has another nature and another strategy. Instead of winning by violence and domination, his kingdom simply tells the truth and sees who listens: “for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”
For the last six years you’ve heard me preach that Jesus claims our politics, too, that our politics are likely to be transformed along with the rest of us. Hopefully, you’ve also heard me say that those politics, since they come from God, are very different than human politics. This passage says both those things and more. It makes it clear that Jesus does come to be king, to take charge for God in this world which begins to slowly transform and renew everything human, including our politics. But it is also a politics that doesn’t originate from human origins. It’s a politics that originates from God and comes into the world offering the possibility of transforming our politics into ways that lead to true peace.
But here’s the “more” I’m talking about: it’s a politics that not only looks different, with a different content, so to speak, but even more importantly, it’s a politics that behaves differently, one that gets things done in a completely different manner. How so? Jesus tells Pilate as straightforwardly as possible: the difference involves the use of force. Human politics get things done quickly because they use physical force. God’s politics proceed by using what Gandhi called Satyagraha, spirit force or truth force. It involves the willingness to be in loving covenant relationships where the parties change along with one another through the power of conversation, listening to one another’s voices doing their best to speak God’s truth, and never, never through the use of physical force.
This, in fact, is the difference between humans and God that has blocked us from the beginning. It’s blocked us from hearing the voice of God. I’m excited that we live at a time when there are things to help us listen to God’s voice through Jesus. In fact, we understand better how the layers of culture between us and Jesus filter Jesus’ voice so that we don’t really hear what he is saying. Archeology of the past 100 years has given a better idea of how a First Century Jew saw the world, so that we can better hear his voice.
But in this morning’s Gospel Jesus is even pointing to a block from hearing God’s truth because his kingdom, his politics, his truth does not originate from what is normally human at all. It’s not that we’re just different from God because we use force and God doesn’t. Jesus is pointing to the fact that humans have assumed that God’s voice comes through what is human, that it is from our human worlds. We always, from the beginnings of humankind as a species, have justified our use of violence precisely by saying that it was from God and commanded by God. In the ancient millennia of humankind, humankind saw God commanding blood sacrifice. In the last several millennia, we’ve increasingly heard God as commanding the peace by having us use police forces and armies against God’s enemies. We’ve typically assumed that our enemies are God’s enemies.
In that moment which changes history forever, Jesus stood before Pilate, Caesar’s representative, and spoke God’s truth forever in a word that comes completely from outside our human way of doing things: the true God who created the world is not transforming and renewing this world by physical force. That’s our way. It’s never been God’s way. We mistakenly thought it was God’s ways. But Jesus stood before Pilate, willing to die on the cross to prove it, to show us once and for all that that’s never been God’s way. His kingdom, his way to peace is not from this world. It is a way so alien to us that we crucified it. The representatives of human power thought once again that they were hearing God’s voice telling them that they should kill Jesus. That God chose instead to speak through that one they crucified is the turning point of history.
Learning to listen to the Other’s voice. That’s what Jesus teaches us. Almost two millennia earlier God had begun God’s slow way of transformation by making a covenant with a people, through Abraham and Sarah. Jesus was one of those covenant people who had finally learned to listen completely to God’s truth of transformation through loving nonviolence. Because the volume on our anthropological speakers are turned up so high, it’s been another two thousand years, and we are still struggling to hear that the true God is completely nonviolent. And that it is our kingdoms that proceed by swords and crosses, guns and bombs. God’s kingdom — since it is from the nonviolent, loving God of Abraham and Sarah, Jesus and Mary — proceeds by living in faithful covenant with us over centuries of time so that we will finally learn to hear that God’s truth about the only power that truly counts, the power of love, the power which is strong enough to create and give life in the first place. Can we finally learn to hear that voice of truth? Time will only tell, and the God of covenant faithfulness has plenty of time, plenty of loving patience.
Let me close with this. In the last six months, I’ve been stepping up speaking about my desire to lead PoP more fully into a ministry of God’s politics. It’s actually what I said very clearly in my call papers and to the call committee when I came here as pastor. But I’ve waited six years to step up the pace a bit, because when I say that I want us to be about God’s politics at PoP, I’m not just talking about a different content, so to speak, but, as I said earlier, a politics that behaves differently, one that gets things done in a completely different manner. We do not force things on one another. We listen to one another. We live in faithful covenant with one another, talking through our differences. As we seek a year of bringing focus to our mission, let’s pledge to speak and listen to each other in love. And, above all, let’s pledge to speak and listen to our Lord Jesus, who alone came into this world from God to speak God’s Satyagraha, God’s truth-force. In speaking and listening to one another, let’s do so with the pledge that, together, we are seeking to listen to that voice of truth. Amen.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, November 25, 2012
1. The first four paragraphs are based on Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, pp. 114.