The following sermon was preached at St. Matthew’s Riverdale on Sunday, November 25th, 2012.
A Sermon for The Feast of Christ the King
Readings: 2 Sam 23:1-7; Psalm 132; Rev 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37
“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” (John 18:37).
In 1925 when Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of “Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe” Europe was being overcome by a growing nationalism and secularism. It is in light of these beginnings that today we celebrate not only Christ’s rule over and above all earthly rulers, but the all-embracing authority of Christ as King of the whole cosmos.
Of course, kings and queens do not seem particularly relevant to us nowadays. In the ancient world, however, the world Jesus inhabited, people knew what kings did. They ruled people according to their own wishes and whims, they were all-powerful and not to be questioned. In those days, folks also knew how people became kings. Often the crown would be passed from father to son or to some other close family member. For non-family the way to the crown was through violence so, from time to time, there would be a revolution. This was true of the Jews as much as pagans. Judas Maccabaeus established his dynasty two-hundred years before Jesus by overthrowing the Syrians, winning for the Jews their independence and for himself and his family, royal status. Thirty years before Jesus, Herod the Great defeated the Parthians and in gratitude for his service Rome allowed him to become “King of the Jews”. So, when Pilate faces Jesus in our gospel reading today and someone hints at the fact that he thinks himself a king, this must have been what Pilate assumes is going on. A little later when Pilate tries to release Jesus, because he can find no guilt in him, the Jews cry out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor,” (19:12). Indeed. Pilate knows there can be none of this, not on his turf anyway, it would have to be quashed.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” asks Pilate. It’s almost laughable really and I’m sure he already knew what the answer was. Before him stands a poor man from the wrong part of the country. He had a small band of followers at one point but they’ve all run off by now. He’s no king but his own people have dragged him here so he must have done something wrong. Jesus’ response is somewhat cryptic: “My kingdom is not from this world…my kingdom is not from here.” We should beware of misunderstanding Jesus here. Certainly he is not saying that his kingship and his kingdom are other-worldly and that they really do not have all that much to do with this place. No, here Jesus is denying that his kingdom has a this-worldly origin or quality, he is not denying that it has a this-worldly destination. Indeed, that is why Jesus has come into the world himself (v37) and why he has sent and will send his followers into the world (17:18; 20:21). Think for example of those powerful words from the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” The rule of King Jesus is destined for earth, of this we can be sure. So, Jesus is indeed insinuating that he is king but a king rather unlike Judas Maccabaeus, Herod the Great, and certainly unlike Caesar. His kingdom does not come from this world but it is for this world.
Here is the tension. As has been the case throughout all of history, there are many rulers and regimes of all sorts of shapes and sizes. And of course the problem we see arising here is that if the proclamation of the gospel entails that Jesus is king of the universe, then no one else, or no other thing, is. This would have been Pilate’s concern, it would have been the Emperor’s concern, and it ought to be a concern to any earthly ruler at any point in history. For at the very least it means that Christ reigns over and above the earth’s rulers. Their authority is not final. Justice will be done, and it will be Christ who does it. Of course, we’re somewhat skeptical of our earthly rulers anyways, right? I suspect that few of us think that our politicians are characterized by a commitment to the truth. Perhaps we shouldn’t assume that they are opposed to the truth, necessarily, it’s just that it’s so easy to make the truth instrumental to some other thing and in our increasingly media and money driven method of campaigning for office (this month’s US election, for example) politicians are practically invited and encouraged to employ half-truths in the service of gaining or retaining power. This is not so with Jesus’ kingship. Jesus does not employ the truth as a means to some other end, no he comes to give evidence about the truth. “So you are a king?” Pilate asks. “You say that I am a king,” retorts Jesus, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” The truth is not instrumental to some other political purpose. It is, rather, the decisive identity marker of Jesus and his followers, they are “of the truth” not “of the world”.
Jesus came into the world to testify to the truth. Indeed, Jesus is the truth and he prays for his disciples not that they may be taken out of the world, though they do not belong to the world, but that they may be “sanctified in truth” precisely because they have been sent into the world. Here is where the tension continues and takes on a more personal tone. Pius introduced this feast day not only as a reminder that Christ rules over the hugeness of the entire cosmos but also to remind us that Christ must reign in the smallness of our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies as well. To proclaim Christ as King is not only a warning to earthly rulers but it is a warning to you and I. For if Christ rules then we do not, not even over our own lives. And here is the really important bit for us this morning. To be confronted with the truth of God in Christ is to be confronted with the truth about the whole world, ourselves included. This is to say that it is only in light of Christ that we can see God and the world truthfully, and also ourselves truthfully. In an age of self-discovery, it is to say that we are unable to know ourselves truthfully apart from Christ and, I would say, apart from the community which Christ gathers around himself, the church. It is to say that we must learn to know ourselves truthfully in light of the Truth, King Jesus and his inbreaking kingdom. This is, because, it is only in light of King Jesus, the King Jesus who died on a Roman cross and then rose to life three days later, that we are able to see that the whole world is under the power of sin and death and in need of redeeming. And it’s only in light of Jesus that we come to learn that we too are under the curse of sin and death and in need of redeeming, of being brought back to life again. Ask yourself, where else do you hear this? Where else might you learn that all of creation is groaning under the power of sin and death? Which newspaper will proclaim the triumph of King Jesus over these powers on the cross? Where else might you learn that the way to life is through death? Where will you hear and understand the news of the coming of King Jesus to judge the world and set it right, so that death does not have the final say? It is only here where we meet the risen Jesus in the breaking of the bread and the opening of the Scriptures that we can look back on ourselves and out into the world and begin to see things as they truly are. And because Jesus has done all this the Father has exalted him to the highest place, has given him the name above every name, has given him all authority on earth and in heaven.
This may all sound rather terrifying and rightly so, perhaps. For, we’re about to enter the season of Advent where we liturgically await the return of King Jesus to set the world right, set it right according to the truth, that is. This means that anything not in line with the truth will lose it’s place. That is to say, Advent and the return of King Jesus has very much to do with judgement. Judgement is, after all, properly one of Christ’s kingly duties, he decides what sorts of things are fitting for his kingdom and what sorts of things have no place there. Judgement can make us rather uncomfortable, and that’s fair I think given all of the ways we may have experienced poor judgement. However, I would implore us to understand the judgement of King Jesus as one of the many beautiful facets of God’s love for the world, the kingdom of God is for the world after all. Think, for example, of the fact that Christ’s kingship is one of humility and service, “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” (Mk 10:45). The “no” of God’s judgement to sin and death is simultaneously the “yes” of God towards his good creation. God loves what he has made so much that he goes to the cross and tramples down death by his own death so that nothing may thwart his good purposes for creation.
This Sunday’s message is that change is coming, and Christ is its author and presider. Jesus the Truth will come again and make this place his home. The rule and authority of King Jesus challenges the compartmentalized smallness of our faith. For if Jesus is King then this has implications for everything we do, everything we fail to do. The truth which King Jesus testifies to is like the light which enables us to see all things rightly. When we celebrate Christ as King, we are not celebrating an oppressive ruler, but one willing to die for humanity and whose “loving-kindness endures forever.” May the loving, merciful and just king of the universe be forever praised and glorified. Amen.