Christ as King
I have had fun picking the last two sermon texts to preach on, but this Sunday I wanted to do it a little differently and go by the lectionary.
For those who don’t know, the lectionary is a scriptural calendar of sorts that assigns biblical texts to each Sunday of the year.
This Sunday, the Sunday before advent, is considered “Christ the King Sunday”.
What is interesting is that the suggested lectionary passage in John ends right before Pilate asks Jesus, “What is Truth?” which is the clear ending of the section.
It made me wonder why. Did they want pastors to focus on the kingship part and not be distracted by the messy-truth-parts?
But to me, the kingship parts and the truth parts are inextricably connected.
When I was at Hesston College I got on a kick out of going around asking people what their “greatest truth” is. Man I really stumped people on that one.
It was probably incredibly annoying because I was never satisfied with their answers. I made the question impossible.
Say they answered “God” I would say, “Well, which part of God? God as Father? God as Mother? God as creator? God as an all-knowing being who punishes sinners? God as a grace-filled loving being?”
If they said “Love” then I would ask, “Well what does love mean to you? A feeling of affection? Accountability? Supporting one another? Standing by someone no matter what?”
I think I was working to reconcile the fact that I was learning that the concept of “truth” was really complicated. Trying to define it is hard. Is truth personal and subjective---based on experience? OR is it universal and objective—based on something greater than our lived experience?
Can it be both?
It is safe to say that I like Pilate’s question. I like wondering about complicated philosophical questions and concepts—especially when they have theological implications!
I know, I know, I am a nerd. I’m ok with it.
Pilate’s question, “what is truth?” has been referred to as the, “question of questions” that no one has been able to answer satisfactorily.
What is amazing is that Jesus didn’t answer Pilate’s question! Well as far as we know at least. It would have been a great time for Jesus to defend himself and say, “Well Pilate, now that you mention it, actually, I am the way, the truth, and the life…so there’s that.”
But no, we are left with silence from Jesus and then we see Pilate go out to the people and say that he does not see how Jesus is guilty.
Unfortunately for Jesus, the crowd was not in his favor. They demanded that Pilate release Barnabas and instead crucify Jesus.
The conversation Jesus and Pilate had leading up to his question of truth is fascinating. Hopefully not just to nerds like me.
Backing up a bit to verse 29, we see that the Jewish leaders brought Jesus to Pilate and gave him the responsibility to execute Jesus because they, as they said, “have no right to execute anyone.” Pilate then asked Jesus if he were the King of the Jews.
Pilate could not execute Jesus for religious reasons, but he could if he had suspicion that Jesus would rise up as a political rival to the Roman throne.
While Jesus was the one being interrogated, he turned the tables and asked Pilate if it was his own idea that Jesus was the King of the Jews, or if he was simply going off what others had told him. Pilate sarcastically responded by saying, “Am I a Jew?” (Implying that clearly he is not a Jew).
Then he placed the blame on Jesus’ fellow Jews, saying: “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
And in true Jesus fashion he didn’t answer the question directly. Instead he started talking about how his kingdom was not of this world—if it were—he explained, then the servants of his kingdom would fight to prevent his arrest by the Jewish authorities. His kingdom is from another place.
Pilate latched onto Jesus’ talk of a kingdom and said, “You are a king then!”
Jesus responded saying, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into this world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
And now we are full circle back to Pilate’s timeless question. “What is Truth?”
The other night Nick, Cynthia, and I decided that a good way to end Thanksgiving would be to watch a Christmas movie. Cynthia suggested we watch “Miracle on 34th Street”. It is a classic Christmas movie, but it was actually the first time that I have ever seen it.
So for those of you who have never seen it, the general premise (of the newer version) is about a man who works as a department store Santa Clause who actually claims to be the real Santa. He even says that his name is Kris Kringle. This, as you can imagine, stirred up quite the controversy.
The climax of the story involves Santa on trial, defending his own sanity while the prosecutors try to prove that Santa doesn’t exist.
In the end the judge is swayed in Santa’s favor when the main protagonist, a wise-beyond-her-years young girl carries a dollar bill up to the judge that had “In God We Trust” circled.
In a dramatic speech the judge proclaims that if the general public and the government have faith in an invisible higher being like God, then who is to say that the equally invisible-yet-present being of Santa Clause isn’t also worthy of our faith?
Santa is cleared of all charges and a crowd of people overflowing the streets of Time’s Square erupts in applause.
And, of course, the logical and skeptical mother of the previously mentioned little girl also ends up believing in Santa Clause.
It wasn’t until the next day that I realized that, despite the severe differences in the end, there are uncanny similarities between Jesus’ trial with Pilate and Santa’s trial in this movie.
In the most memorable quote of the movie, Santa boldly declares:
“I am a symbol, a symbol of the human ability to suppress the selfish and hateful tendencies that rule the majority of our lives. If you can’t accept anything by faith then you are doomed to live a life dominated by doubt.”
I have said before that we mix up our ides of God and Santa. They are both thought of and portrayed as old white men with white hair and a white beard. They are both all knowing and they take account of when we do good and when we do bad. If we do good then we are rewarded, if we are bad then we are punished. They even both have a list of names!
This movie is not shy about pointing out that we should suspend our doubts and sense of reality in order to wholeheartedly, blindly believe in something, someone that we can’t prove exists. The movie even says, “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.” Apparently we must put our rational mind on hold in order to believe in God and Santa.
One of the characters in the movie entertains the possibility that Santa doesn’t exist but he argues, “Would we rather have a lie that draws a smile or a truth that draws a tear?”
Immediately upon hearing this line I turned to Nick and said, “No! I would rather have the truth, even if it made me cry!”
Conflating God and Santa is dangerous and harmful in many ways, first of all because I don’t think we need to suspend our rational mind or fight our common sense in order to believe in God.
Jesus never beckons us into blind obedience. In almost every conversation he has with someone, he challenges them to think—to question the status-quo and instead explore an alternative way of being in the world. He leads them on quests to discover the Truth on their own.
If Jesus’ kingdom were of this world, then maybe it would align more nicely with a political power that demands blind submission. But Jesus never claimed an identity as an earthly king and he never sought out political power. Instead his “kingdom” is the exact opposite from the Roman kingdom of the time, and I would add our political “kingdom” that rules today.
Jesus’ kingdom is an upside-down kingdom.
I think that Roger Naam summarizes this idea well:
“…Jesus is not a king that the world would ever recognize. This is a king who speaks to the lowly and the rejected. This is a king who serves rather than being served. This is a king who enters the holy city, not triumphantly on a horse, but seated on a donkey (John 12:14). He is a king unlike any other king, and his kingdom is unlike any other, for it is not of this world.”
Jesus even pointed out that there are no servants who tried to save him, as there would be if he were an earthly king. No servants fought for him because that’s not the kind of following that Jesus wants. He demonstrated this when he healed the solider that Peter attacked when Jesus was being arrested.
Further we see this very same Peter deny Jesus three times as Jesus is led to his death. The wild thing is that Peter’s doubts did not disqualify him from being a disciple of Christ. Rather Peter was the rock on which the church was built!
Healthy skepticism is that, healthy. We must take the time to discern whether our actions, our loyalties, our beliefs are healthy and good both for ourselves and the wider world.
I read an eye-opening research article saying that, “Decent people participate in horrific acts not because they become passive, mindless functionaries who do not know what they are doing, but rather because they come to believe—typically under the influence of those in authority—that what they are doing is right. It is not that people are blind to the evil they are perpetrating, but rather they know what they are doing and believe it to be right.
Doubt means we are thinking and engaged in our relationship with our king. We are not buying fake news, we are not taking orders, we are not buying rhetoric that somehow twists our thinking to justify evil actions. We are not slaves serving our master. We are not doomed to lives dominated by doubt simply because we don’t accept everything by faith.
I don’t want a life of faith that is actually a lie in disguise, an attempt to make me smile, a fruity gloss over suffering and evil.
Yes I want to have faith in the spirit of Christmas. I want to BELIEVE to my core in the idea that someone is looking out for me and will fill my stockings on Christmas.
But faith is not a feeling, it’s a choice.
I think of faith like I think about love. Love is not a feeling. Affection, attraction, these are feelings. Love is not a feeling, otherwise it would be vulnerable to our rapidly changing emotions, moods, and life situations.
Love is a choice. Love is deciding, yes I choose you. I choose to have faith in the best parts of you and the worst parts of you, and I will wake up tomorrow and choose you all over again.
Faith is not a feeling. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think that proper faith is an in-your-gut unquestioned feeling that something is true…despite any and all evidence, logic, or reason to the contrary. That’s not faith, that’s indoctrination, that’s brainwashing, and it’s incredibly dangerous.
Faith is waking up and listening for the voice of God when you are on the brink of despair.
Faith is saying, “My life is better when I feel close to God, when I try and live life Jesus, when I surround myself with a community that also strives to be close to God and Jesus.”
Faith is the courage to go on a Jesus-led quest to discover if he truly is the way, the truth, and the life.
I choose faith in Jesus not because it is the easy thing to do, not because Christianity is an easy thing to believe in, but because I refuse to live a life of despair. I choose hope.
I see Truth in the upside-down kingdom of Jesus and I choose to pursue it, to live it.
So no, lectionary, I will not blindly let you dictate how I see scripture and how I present it to my congregation.
And yes, I will continue asking myself and others the question of questions, “What is Truth?”
The Gospel According to John XII-XXI
A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary by Raymond E. Brown
The Interpreter’s Bible Abingdon
The Interpreter’s Bible