Text: John 18:33-37
I suspect we’ve all heard the expression, “You can’t get there from here.” One of our favorite family stories on this subject occurred about 30 years ago. During a visit with my sister Susan’s family in Atlanta, my parents were asked to pick up one of their grandchildren, then a third grader, from an after-school activity while her parents were working. When my dad asked Susan for directions, she said, “Don’t worry. Kristin (their seventh grader) will be home from school by then and she can go with you to show you the way.” Feeling satisfied that this would work, my dad did not ask for any further directions. Well…you know what’s coming. Kristin got them lost in northeast Atlanta. Really lost. In fact, she got them so lost that after a lot of time passed, she managed to find her way back home so she could start over since she literally could not “get there from here.” The irony is that Kristin, the direction-impaired seventh grader, is now a physician on the staff of a hospital and a member of a medical school faculty. But, I should add, on some occasions getting “there” from “here” is still a bit challenging for her.
This morning I feel like we should have a ball – or perhaps an acorn – ready to drop here in our sanctuary since today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Advent begins next Sunday and the first Sunday in Advent is the first Sunday of the church year. Today is also the Sunday before Thanksgiving, the day when we gather with loved ones to give thanks for the gifts we have received. It’s a national rather than a religious holiday, as you know, in spite of all the talk about “blessings.” But it’s a good one. I once spent Thanksgiving with a Catholic sister from Australia. It was her first one in the US, and they don’t have anything like our Thanksgiving there. So she took great delight in the food and the gathering of friends and the focus on giving thanks.
In addition to the year’s final Sunday and “Thanksgiving Sunday,” today is “Christ the King” Sunday according to the church calendar. Now that’s not exactly a popular day here at Pullen since the “kingship” of Jesus is not something we talk about. In a conversation about our lovely stained glass windows, one of our Pullen members once said: “If the Paul window gets broken, he probably won’t come back. He’ll be replaced by Mary or Miriam or Deborah. And if Jesus gets broken, he’ll come back but NOT wearing a crown.” This was said in jest, but I think there’s truth in it. The kingly nature of Jesus isn’t one of our favorite topics.
So what are we to do with Christ the King Sunday and the lectionary text we have heard today? It feels like we’ve jumped into Lent to read the story of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. As awkward as the king thing is, a conversation about this pre-crucifixion event just before we start looking toward the birth of Jesus seems pretty strange, too. But it’s our text for today, so I’ll offer some thoughts about this confrontation between the accused Jesus and Pilate, the judge.
This story of the trial of Jesus is found in all four gospels. They vary somewhat in the details but the general message in consistent. Having been tried and found guilty by the Jewish high priest, Jesus is sent to Pilate. In the words of John Dominic Crosson, Pilate “was an ordinary second-rank Roman governor with no regard for Jewish religious sensitivities and brute force was his normal solution to even unarmed protesting or resisting crowds.” According to Crosson, he was eventually dismissed from office for excessive cruelty and unnecessary brutality, even by Roman imperial standards. Most of us are aware that Matthew’s version of this story has Pilate washing his hands of the matter as if he senses that Jesus is someone special. But Crosson has trouble believing that Pilate really cared one way or the other about the Jewish rabbi before him given the non-biblical historical records about Pilate’s cruel nature. It’s an interesting question, but whether the hand-washing is fact or editorial license doesn’t negate the importance of the text’s message. It’s not what Pilate did, but what Jesus said that I want us to consider.
If you’re familiar with the story, you know that Jesus responds to questions with questions of his own. Pilate says, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus responds with, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Instead of being interrogated, Jesus becomes the interrogator. Let me say parenthetically that there’s a lot of reference to “the Jews” in John and they are presented in a pretty negative light. Our story shows that this reference is not specifically to the Jewish people but to everyone, including Pilate, who rejects Jesus.
In the critical part of this brief conversation with Pilate, Jesus talks about his “kingdom.” Today we hear this as a masculine reference that severely limits the breadth of his intent. Personally I prefer talking about the commonwealth of God rather than a kingdom. I used to call it the “reign of God” – R-E-I-G-N – until I learned that children hear this as R-A-I-N, which makes the reign of God pretty confusing to them. So I’ll use kingdom like our text, but know that I understand its limitations. To the audience of Jesus, it would have made perfect sense and would not have been offensive.
Key to this passage is understanding that when he talks about his kingdom not being of this world, Jesus is talking about its origin, which is God, not its geographical location. He’s definitely not talking about heaven, or at least not exclusively about an after-life. In the prayer he taught his disciples, he says, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s not just about what comes next but what is coming now. The fundamental message is that Jesus came from God and gives witness to the truth. In a dramatic reversal of roles, Jesus is on trial yet he is the one who testifies to the truth and the world is judged by its response to his proclamation.
What do we know about this kingdom? As reported in the gospels, Jesus talked about it more than any other topic. We spoke in lectionary this week about how Jesus wasn’t intending for his kingdom or commonwealth to be political in the way we use this word today. The term “political” comes from Greek words referring to cities or communities or the citizens who live in them. So in its true sense, politics is about the way people live in relation to one another. In that context, Jesus’ message was wholly political because it was about how God desires for God’s creatures to relate to each other. But because it was such a different perspective from the common view, this kingdom was seen in the more contemporary use of “political” as well. It was seen as a call to overthrow the government. In fact, when Jesus spoke these words two thousand years ago and in every age since, they have often been heard as subversive and counter-cultural – even revolutionary. Jesus was charged with sedition, which is “conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch.” But he wasn’t encouraging people to rebel against government or religious authority as much as he was urging them to adopt a different way of life irrespective of governments or monarchs. “Not of this world” doesn’t mean heavenly. It means different from the typical human way of doing things. It means “losing your life to save it,” “turning the other cheek,” “loving your enemies.” These are counter-cultural indeed.
Jesus says to Pilate and to us, “I don’t see things the way you do. My kingdom isn’t from here.” If my way – which is God’s way – were like yours, he says, my followers would be fighting to protect me from those of you who don’t believe in me. But that’s not the way we do things in God’s kingdom.
So how do we get there – to this different way – from here, today, from the culture we live in as mostly majority-race, middle class, educated Americans on the left end of the theological spectrum? How do we help to create this kingdom, this commonwealth, this way of being and acting in the world when we have acquiesced in so many ways to a culture that runs counter to the way of Jesus? We are where we are. American capitalism, democracy and individualism and all that goes with them are in our DNA. They are under our fingernails, in the air, part of our psyche whether we like it or not. The challenging thing is, that’s not all bad. If it were all bad, it would be easier to chuck it and try something else. It’s much easier to choose between the obviously good and the obviously bad than it is to select a way forward among what appear, at least on the surface, to be many possible and often competing goods. So Jesus challenges us to understand what his kingdom looks like based on what he said and what he did through his teaching, feeding and healing.
Then, as if figuring out how to participate in this Kingdom-of-God-building isn’t hard enough, Jesus goes on to make another bold claim: I came to testify to the truth. Those who are seeking the truth listen to me. We’re talking about the real Truth here. He’s not referring to my personal truth or your personal truth based on our life experiences. My personal truth is valuable to me and in many respects it guides my life. But if you’re one of the foster youth served by the Hope Center who has been moved from one home to another 20 times in your life, and none of them were very good, the truth of your life is that adults can never be trusted. So our personal truth isn’t always THE truth. Jesus is talking about Truth from the One who sent him to build the kingdom of God on earth.
Now if I knew how to tell you on a practical, day-to-day level how to find or build this kingdom Jesus talked about or how to clearly identify God’s truth in a given situation, I’d be wealthier than that blustery presidential candidate we seem unable to avoid these days. But I don’t have the formula if there is one. Yet there are times when God’s kingdom appears and you just know it’s in front of you – like this week when I read the email sent by Amelia Mahan’s parents, David and Julie Brown. They are living in Paris and serving immigrants, many of them Muslims, on behalf of the Evangelical Reformed Church of France. The good news is that they are safe. But I want you to hear an excerpt from their update about life in Paris this week:
Police and military are still a strong presence in public areas. We are going about our work as usual but also with awareness of our surroundings. All are praying that the worst is over and we think it is. We are so impressed by the courage of Parisians, of the French (the president has made it clear that France will continue to welcome Syrian refugees). They refuse to let the terrorists win – to allow their fears to overwhelm them.
Pray that the French spirit of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” will not be dampened. Pray for the refugees and migrants all around the world who have been forced to leave everything behind – escaping war, terror, persecution, and famine. Pray for us as we try to be the presence of Christ – to express the love of Christ – in this difficult time.
These, my friends, are two glimpses of the kingdom: David and Julie in their work with Muslim immigrants and the French people in committing to continue to take refugees from Syria. Doing the compassionate thing in the face of legitimate fear is what builds God’s kingdom. To proclaim by your actions that love is stronger than fear is to speak God’s truth.
So I don’t have easy answers about how in specific times and places we can foster the coming of God’s kingdom and speak God’s truth. What I do know is if we want to participate in bringing this kingdom Jesus talked about to earth – if we want to get beyond our own personal version of the truth, as valuable as it is to us, to discover the Truth about which Jesus came to testify, we will do this better if we listen to each other and the cries of the world. We will do it more effectively if our discernment is first spiritual and then practical. We will do it more faithfully if we do it together. That’s the only way I know how to get there from here. And “there” – that place where God’s way of wholeness for each person and the planet is real – “there” is where I want to be. And I know that’s where you want to be as well.