SERMON NOTES — November 25, 2018
Reign of Christ Sunday B
Growing up, I don’t remember Reign of Christ Sunday much, do you? It doesn’t really stick in my mind until I was a pastor and needed to preach on it every year. And it’s become important to me as one of those signs of my changing theology. I grew up with a clear division between my faith and politics, largely because my primary notion of Jesus as king was that he ruled the kingdom of heaven — the place where I go to when I die. Jesus is king of an otherworldly kingdom. His kingdom is not “of” (RSV) this world.
But something began happening as I preached the texts assigned on Christ the King Sunday. The biblical texts seem to take more seriously that Jesus is king in the world, even though his kingdom is not “from” (NRSV) this world. I began to notice that we pray for Jesus’ kingdom to come into this world all the time: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.”
Then, fifteen years ago I came across the work of N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop and biblical scholar whose work is creating a sea-change across the church. He began to help the church reinterpret the Gospel from otherworldly to this-worldly. If we understand Jesus’ rootedness in his own Jewish faith, then we understand the immense importance of this world having been created good. God could never abandon it. So if God has a plan of salvation in Jesus the Messiah, then it is ultimately to save this world. It is not to call a few believing souls out of this world to go to an otherworldly kingdom of heaven. No, it is to call believing persons to participate in God’s kingdom coming into this world. It is not from this world, but it certainly is coming into the world in order to save it and renew it. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.”
One of the books that N.T. Wright has written makes this clear even in its title: How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. Let me share his thoughts around this morning’s Gospel as an example:
When, after the final prayer (chap. 17) and the arrest and the Jewish trial (18:1-27), we find Jesus standing before Pilate (18:28-19:16), we ought to know, because John has set it up, what is actually going on. This is the point at which the ruler of the world is being judged. Caesar’s kingdom will do what Caesar’s kingdom always does, but this time God’s kingdom will win the decisive victory.
Jesus explains (18:36) that his kingdom is not the sort that grows in this world. His kingdom is certainly for this world, but it isn’t from it. It comes from somewhere else — in other words, from above, from heaven, from God. It is God’s gift to his world, but, as John already pointed out in the prologue, the world isn’t ready for this gift. The key is this: if Jesus’s kingdom were the regular sort, the kind that grows all too easily in the present world — the sort of kingdom, in fact, that James and John had wanted! — then Jesus’s followers would be taking up arms:
“If my kingdom were from this world, my supporters would have fought to stop me being handed over to the Judaeans. So then, my kingdom is not the sort that comes from here.” (18:36)
The difference between the kingdoms is striking. Caesar’s kingdom (and all other kingdoms that originate in this world) make their way by fighting. But Jesus’s kingdom — God’s kingdom enacted through Jesus — makes its way with quite a different weapon, one that Pilate refuses to acknowledge: telling the truth:
“So!” said Pilate. “You are a king, are you?”
“You’re the one who’s calling me a king,” replied Jesus. “I was born for this; I’ve come into the world for this: to give evidence about the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
“Truth!” said Pilate. “What’s that?” (18:37-38)
The point about truth, and about Jesus and his followers bearing witness to it, is that truth is what happens when humans use words to reflect God’s wise ordering of the world and so shine light into its dark corners, bringing judgment and mercy where it is badly needed. Empires can’t cope with this. They make their own “truth,” creating “facts on the ground” in the depressingly normal way of violence and injustice. (pp. 144-45)
We are to be “bearing witness to it”! God’s Kingdom has been coming into this world through Jesus the King (that’s what “Christ” means, “king”!) for two thousand years now, and we bear witness to it! The kingdoms of this world are formed in tribalism, Us versus Them, based on fear and violence. Jesus came to die at the hands of our kingdoms in order that the Risen King might pour out a Holy Spirit to begin transforming our human kingdoms — “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.”
So how are we doing? I have come to preach that we sorely need a New Reformation because the church got way off the tracks when it began partnering with the Roman Empire more than 1600 years ago. So much so that it took a Hindu disciple of Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, to show us again the distinguishing feature of followers of Jesus: we don’t fight using violence like kingdoms from this world. (“If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting. . . .”) We mostly-Christian Americans fought for our freedom from the British Empire using the time-tested way of this world: armies with swords, guns, and cannons. Gandhi led the Indian people to freedom from the British Empire using Jesus’ way of nonviolent resistance to the tribalistic powers of this world. So a New Reformation begins with this crucial difference around fighting with violence or with nonviolence.
The other crucial principle of bearing witness to Jesus’ way of ruling is from last year’s Gospel Reading on Reign of Christ Sunday (Matthew 25:31-32, 34-35, 40):
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the nations one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. . . . Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. . . . Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
[Extemporize ending on the incredible reading of this passage by Brian Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars, chap. 7, “Clouds, Christ, and Kingdom Come,” bringing to life Jesus’ words as a judgment on nations in history according to the criteria of caring for the least; see Reign of Christ A.]
Lutheran Church of the Savior