Reign of Christ Sunday
Texts: John 18:33-37;
Dan 7:9-14; Rev 1:4-8
BORN TO LIVE THE TRUTH
Jesus answered [Pilate], “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.” (John 18:37b)
Born to live the truth. Or as John’s gospel tells us in the introduction, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, …full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Jesus’ whole reason for existence was so that we might begin to hear his voice and know the truth.
So what happened? Do we belong to the truth? Do we hear Jesus voice? Do we fully the understand the truth he came to live out for us? How often do we find ourselves shaking our heads in disbelief at the news stories that confront us on the TV or in the newspaper? How often do we find ourselves anxious at the world our children our growing up in, wondering if there’s anything we can do to make things better? Can the truth that Jesus came to live among us help us to understand such things today? Can it help us know how to respond?
I would like to suggest to you today that it can. As a pastor and as a parent, I’m deeply concerned about the world we find ourselves living in. I listen to our high school students, especially, and hear a lot of resignation in the way they talk. The find themselves in such a violent, dangerous world. And many of them seem without hope that it will get any better. Much of their music reflects it. I’m afraid that this is what is in store for my boys, too.
Yet Jesus, fully two thousand years ago, came to dwell among us full of grace and truth. Where is that truth? How can it help us sort out the mess our world is in? I began with some of it last week in talking about apocalyptic preaching, those doom and gloom preachers who will be making all kinds of dire predictions in these next several years as we enter upon a new millennium. As Lutherans, we need to speak out against that doom and gloom which puts God at the center of bringing a violent end to things. Ours is first and foremost the truth from Jesus that God has an ending planned for us that is one of grace and forgiveness. We can’t back down from that message of grace.
Yet, as we began to talk about last week (Proper 28B Sermon), Jesus and the apostles did not back down from the fact that there may be more violence before that gracious end. Wars and rumors of wars are only the birth pangs says Jesus. And that’s why, I think, there was such a sense of urgency for the early church in getting out a message of hope and truth. They could see that things were going to get worse first, and so it became all that more urgent for them to help others to understand and to begin living by that message of grace and truth. They could see that it is so important for others to be reborn with Christ in living that grace and truth in the midst of this world. Do we have that same sense of urgency anymore? As we look around at our world, can we begin to reclaim that urgency?
I think that John’s gospel helps us to extend and deepen what we began to talk about last week. As Jesus stood there before Pontius Pilate, he was about to live out such a horrifying, baffling way of truth. How could being executed as a criminal on the cross possibly be the truth that Jesus came to live among us? Yet if we go back in John’s gospel there are many clues as to what this truth is about.
The biggest clue comes in chapter 8, where Jesus is engaged in debate with a number of the Jewish leaders. You might remember from our Reformation Day gospel of just a few weeks ago that Jesus tells them, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (8:31-32) In other words, if they follow Jesus all the way to the cross and beyond to Easter morning, they will begin to understand. But, at this point, the bigger clues comes through some words that Jesus shares just a few verses later. He confronts them with the opposite of the truth: what it is to live by lies. These are not easy words to hear, as Jesus says to them,
“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.” (8:44-45)
Wow! that’s awfully harsh, isn’t it? He’s basically telling them that there lives are caught up with the father of lies, the devil, who is a murderer from the beginning. And before we are too hard on the Jewish folks that Jesus happened to be talking to that day — because he himself was Jewish and so they were the ones most available to him — listen to some very similar words from Jesus in both Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels. Again, Jesus is talking to the leaders of his own culture and religion, and says to them,
“Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah….” (Luke 11:49-51a)
Here, Jesus is again talking about murder from the beginning; but he makes it more clear that this goes all the way back to the very beginning with Cain and Abel, with Cain being an ancestor of all of us, not just the Jews. The truth that Jesus is trying to help these Jewish leaders to see is that every order of human society is somehow built on murder and violence, all the way back to the beginning of time. And, now, don’t Jesus’ words to Pilate make better sense, too? Because the Roman and Jewish states are about to do it again. They are about to try to re-assert their brand of order by murdering Jesus. So, as he stands before Pilate, about to be executed, Jesus says to him, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Pilate and the Jewish leaders are about to prove Jesus right, when he earlier had told the Jewish leaders, “You are from your father the devil, …[who] was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth.”
Two thousand years later, do we stand in the lies or in the truth? I think I’d say, “A little of both.” The truth that Jesus was born to live among us will never go away. God saw to that when he raised Jesus from the dead and then the Holy Spirit of Truth was sent into the world to keep Jesus’ work going. But the father of lies hasn’t quite finished, either, and continues to work through the Pilates, and Pharisees, and Cæsars of our day. If we cannot accept that the same is true of our human order and society today, that there are still ways in which it is based on murder, then I think we fail to hear Jesus’ voice, and we fail to stand fully in the truth.
But perhaps there’s something even more important than that truth Jesus came to live: the grace. We proclaim the grace. The introduction to John’s gospel tells us that Jesus lived among us full of truth and grace. The amazing grace is also evident in this morning’s gospel text, in that Jesus was not coming to force people like Pilate to see the truth. If that truth of confronting the lies covering over the murder and violence is outrageous enough — if it’s too outrageous, in fact, for you and me to take it all in at once — then the most amazing part of this Good News is the grace and forgiveness with which God confronts the lies. Jesus wasn’t going to use force with Pilate or anyone else there that day. How do we know? He says so. Jesus tells Pilate point blank exactly how different his kingdom of grace is from all other kingdoms: “My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus answered, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.” They would be fighting. In other words, Jesus had a truth to live that exposed the terrible lies about our human kingdoms, that they are all based on murder and violence, based on fighting. But his kingdom of grace was different; it was not from this world. So even as a kingdom radically opposed to our kingdoms, it did not come into this world in the style that our kingdoms do, trying to win the day by force. Jesus did not come as the typical revolutionary. He had a message of new life that is revolutionary, but he didn’t put it forward with our brand of revolutionism, trying to take things by storm. And he did so precisely because this message was finally about true life and not death. It was about grace and forgiveness that is offered to everyone, even the Pilates of this world, and even if they continue to stand in the lies. Jesus’ way of revolution was to stand in the truth on the cross with a word of forgiveness that can help us, that can help this world, little by little, step by step, to step out of the lies and into the truth.
And, if this wasn’t outrageous enough, Jesus does something else, too: he calls you and me to be part of it. Like Jesus was born to live the truth, in the waters of baptism we are reborn to live that truth and grace. We are promised the Holy Spirit to guide us and forgive us and empower us, so that we might step by step, step out of the lies and stand in the truth and grace for others to know and see, too. It’s like with Clayton in the children’s time today: (1) we are all called to be kings and queens, to spread the news that in Jesus’ kingdom we all get to be kings and queens.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, November 22-23, 1997
1. The children’s time had been the telling of a story by William Willimon (Remember Who You Are, pp. 30-31) of a five year-old who held his birthday party with a theme of royalty. Everyone got to dress up like kings and queens, feeling quite regal about themselves. When he blew out the candles on the cake, he wished that everyone in the world could be kings or queens.