Sermon: "Belonging to the Truth," November 25, 2018

Reign of Christ Sunday
The Rev. Ryan Slifka

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 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.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘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 18:33-37 (New Revised Standard Version)

Reign of Christ Sunday. Also known as “Christ the King” Sunday. Where the church raises up Christ as the King, or Ruler of all Creation.

This day’s tricky for us modern people. Because the title of “King” and the concept are almost completely foreign to us as modern people.

For example, you may know that the Bank of Canada just released a new $10 bill, one featuring African-Canadian civil rights activist Viola Desmond. Last week on the radio, I heard a few people sharing their thoughts. One member of this radio panel, though, said next the Bank of Canada should deal with its coins, all of which feature Queen Elizabeth the Second. “It’s crazy to me,” they said. “It’s crazy that any modern country would have a Queen, let alone put her on their money. We’re a democracy, and this is the 21st century. It’s time we left this relic of the medieval world behind.”

Now, leaving our personal opinions of the monarchy aside, this person’s comments illustrated something important. We live in the 21st century, in North America, in a democratic country. For us, the idea of a monarch—queen or king—seems quaint. It seems antiquated.

For many of us the idea is backwards and a symbol of tyranny, oppression, and control of ages past. From a time where single individuals were given incredible control over their subjects without any say of their own. For some it’s a symbol of patriarchy, of the rule of a male householder. And for others it’s exactly why they don’t like religion or Christianity, because it’s been used as a means to control and oppress people. And it represents a tyrannical God who wants totalitarian control over every human being.

So long story short, it can be a hard thing for us to easily connect our lives to as modern, democratic, 21st century people to this idea of Christ as King. Perhaps it was fine and good for ancient people. But for us it seems either dangerous and oppressive on one hand, or irrelevant on the other.

Having said all of the above, however, I believe that this title is still important. Not because having kings in general are a good idea. But because of what Christ as King represents. It represents a sort of flipping over, or subverting our ideas of power, strength, and loyalty.

Our scripture passage this morning takes place in the Praetorium in Jerusalem.[i] The praetorium is an incredible building, the palace of the governor. It’s the headquarters for the Roman governor in Judea, modern Palestine. It’s opulent, beautiful, well guarded. The Romans control the known world. No one can stand against them, especially not a little backwater country like Judea. So this is the local branch of the world’s largest superpower. It’s a symbol of their wealth and glory, their omnipotence on the world stage and dominance in this little country.

And it’s here that Jesus is put on trial. Pontius Pilate, the governor, summons Jesus before him. It’s a powerful moment. This unarmed, non-violent, vulnerable Rabbi standing in chains before this well-armed, powerful and seemingly invincible government official. “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks. The question is a crucial one. Because if he’s a king, or claims he’s a king, Jesus is guilty of sedition. Treason, subversion. There’s already a king in Judea, a king who’s a puppet of the Romans, the occupying power. Pilate’s there to protect their investment. And a rival king means trouble. Jesus’ life or death hangs on the answer to the question, “are you the king of the Jews?”

There’s some back and forth, but Jesus’ answer is a bit of a weird one. Instead of flat out yes or no, he says this:

“My kingdom,” he says. “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 is not from this world,” he says.

Now, we’ve often read this or heard this as Jesus talking about heaven. That he’s the king of a place that we go to when we die. That what Jesus has to say doesn’t have anything to do with the here and now, but where our souls reside in the afterlife.

Notice, though, that he says that his kingdom is not from this world. The old King James uses the word of. When Jesus talks about “this world.” He’s talking about the world as it is. Because in the Bible, the idea is that the world is fallen. It’s broken. It’s not living up to the dream, or the design of the creator. Things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. Where God has always intended peace universal harmony, the world is a violent place. It’s a greedy place. And oppressive place of cruelty, and humans hurting humans.

But Jesus says his kingdom isn’t like any other kingdom. It’s source directly in God. If his kingdom were like the world’s kingdoms, they would have invaded with armies to rescue him, he says. But the only military order he gives is for Peter, his sidekick, to put away his sword. Where our world and how it’s organized is tainted by selfishness, greed, and bloodshed… Jesus says his kingdom is rooted directly in God’s universal peace, God’s shalom.

There’s a kingdom. There’s a king. But the king and the kingdom aren’t like any other king we’ve ever heard of. Or experienced. All of our baggage around the word has to do with how it’s been used. For oppression and control. Jesus is a king, but he flips the very meaning of the word on its head. There’s that great old hymn that goes “the King of Love/my shepherd is.” About a king who rules with nothing but the word of his mouth. With the power of his sacrificial, self-giving love. A king who’s invading our world with the love, the hope, the joy, and the peace of heaven. It’s like fresh water flooding a polluted stream. The world how it’s supposed to be.

And the truth is that this kingdom is what we long for, deep inside. We know there’s something wrong with the world. There’s a better world our hearts know is possible. The world isn’t what it’s supposed to be. And it’s gotta be different.

And the promise of the Christian faith is that our lives can be different. Our world can be different. We don’t have to wait for it, though. We can experience it here and now.

Jesus talked about his kingdom not being of this world. By this point, of course, Pilate still doesn’t get it. “So… you’re a king?” he asks. In his world of armies and weapons and power and strategies. It simply doesn’t compute. He’s still befuddled by this weaponless peasant standing before him that everyone says is going to take it all down. “So you’re a king?”

“You say so,” Jesus replies. “You say I’m a king. For this I was born,” he says. “For this I was born and came in to the world. To testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth hears my voice.”

Being a followers of Jesus is about recognizing that our lives belong to no one. They don’t belong to us… not our fears, our addictions, or our anxieties. They don’t belong to the important people who call the shots. Not our spouses, not our friends, not our bosses. They don’t belong to any of the authorities in our world. Not Pilate, not money, not the government, nor any other power of this world. Being a follower of Jesus means that we realize our lives belong to the Truth. The core, the burning center of all things. Our lives belong to no one but the living God.

Jesus says that everyone who belongs to the Truth hears his voice. When so many others compete for our allegiance, our time, our energy. Our work is discerning Jesus’ voice, the voice of the true king within the chaos of the competing kings of this world. And when we’re able to do that, it changes everything.

A great Methodist Preacher, Tex Sample tells the story of a friend of who was visiting his father. [warning about language] This friend was from some place in the southern US, like Georgia. He’d probably have classified his Father as a “good ol boy.” Racist. Against every piece of civil rights legislation for African Americans. As they were both watching TV, the face of Jesse Jackson, the famous civil rights leader appeared on the screen.

“That SOB,” the father barked out, “Somebody ought to shoot him!”

His friend’s first inclination was to condemn his dad, and start a fight. But instead, he decided to appeal to his father’s Christianity.

“Well, daddy,” he said. “If you really believe that, [that somebody ought to shoot Jesse Jackson], I think you ought to go to church and pray for somebody to shoot Jesse Jackson.”

His father turned to him. “Boy,” he said. “You know good and well that Jesus ain’t gonna put up with that shit.”[ii]

For the most part, this guy paid attention to nothing but the voice of the world. Telling him how to live, who to love, and how to be. But even so, he could hear the Truth. The voice of Jesus when spoken. It’s the same for us. For the most part we pay attention, buy into, and give our lives over to the competing voices of the world. But the voice of Jesus challenges all of our assumptions. It breaks our habits, and it creates new possibilities for love when they were once closed. When we stop, and listen for the voice of Christ, it pulls our hearts up to heaven, and roots them in his kingdom of peace.

This is why we call Jesus King, Prince, Lord, Messiah, all these other titles. Because he’s not a king at all. At least not the way we understand it. Where the world relies on antagonism, fear, oppression and bloodshed, “Jesus ain’t gonna put up with any of that shit.” It may stand for now, but it shall fall before the universe-creating power of God’s love. He’s the counter-cultural king. One who brings with him a counter-cultural kingdom. One of acceptance, mercy, healing, forgiveness, and justice. The kingdom of Truth that goes against the grain of the world’s lies.

Christ is our Lord, our King, because we believe that in following him, in pledging allegiance to him, in listening for the sound of his voice among the rabble, these gifts become our own. This kingdom of healing love can touch down, heal our lives, and make us healing agents for others. And these gifts will transform our own hearts if we let them. And ones that God will us to change the world… if we submit to his rule of love.

So, brothers and sisters. The truth is that the world isn’t how it oughta be. But it’s not how it’s gotta be, either. In Jesus, we’ve seen a whole new world, a whole new kingdom, a whole new reality, a whole new future break in. Christ comes to testify to the Truth, and those who belong to the truth hear the sound of his voice.

Open your eyes to the beauty of this truth. Open your ears to the sound his voice. And open your hearts to his coming.

Long live the King of Love. Long live Christ the King! Now and forever! Amen.

[i] This reading of this passage is based almost entirely on Gail R. O’Day, “John,” in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary.

[ii] Tex Sample, Christian Justice for the Common Good (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 56.