November 25, 2012
John 18: 33-37
+In the name of God, our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Sustainer. Amen.
Today is the day in our church calendar when we celebrate Christ the King. Since we’re members of the Anglican family of churches, we Episcopalians are a bit more fascinated with kings than are members of other denominations. Not surprisingly, we’re especially intrigued by one king in particular: Henry the Eighth of England, who was king during part of the sixteenth century and who was the king most closely identified with our history.
Henry is a fascinating character. The young Henry was reputedly handsome; we get some idea of his looks from the famous Holbein portraits of him in his prime. As Holbein portrayed him, Henry was tall and powerfully built. His posture and his facial expression in these portraits contributes to the impression of forcefulness. Henry’s obviously expensive clothing displays wealth as well as power. He was reputed to have possessed a formidable intellect. He wasn’t easy to intimidate. Henry didn’t cower before anyone in his time, not the other rulers of Europe, and not even the Pope.
Henry the Eighth was all about power and about asserting his will. The object of that will for all of his reign was a male heir to succeed him. Nothing, not even his famously devout Catholicism, was going to stand between Henry and his desire for an heir to his throne. As we all well know, the Pope refused to grant Henry the annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, which he needed to marry Anne Boleyn. So Henry broke with the Pope and became head of his own church in England. He married four more women after Anne. Henry’s quest for an heir involved considerable bloodshed. He had two of his wives beheaded. He had several clerics and courtiers tortured and executed as well. For Henry, maintaining and assuring the future of the monarchy was a violent business indeed.
Henry is hardly unique in the history of monarchy. Kings tend to use brute force to preserve their power. They often operate in a culture of violence. They are often surrounded by courtiers and soldiers who swear allegiance to them, but yet can never be completely trusted. As King Henry the Fourth said in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” As history will attest, kings must constantly be on the lookout for the next attempt to usurp their throne. For all their power and might, a sense of safety and security and peace isn’t theirs.
Since today is Christ the King Sunday, it’s natural that we might wonder how Jesus fits in with these ideas of monarchy. He doesn’t seem to fit into any traditional conception of monarchy at all. So how can we celebrate Christ the King Sunday and still be faithful to the Jesus who is the Good Shepherd, the Jesus who laid down his life for the sheep? Well, we’re going to have to revise our ideas of kingship somewhat. Actually, we’re going to have to revise those ideas completely.
Imagine you are a bystander in the scene we have in today’s Gospel lesson. You’re in Pilate’s rooms when some soldiers bring in a man. This man, Jesus of Nazareth, is someone you might easily pass on the street without noticing. He’s not remarkable in any way, at least in any good way. He’s not very well dressed, and he looks like he’s been roughed up pretty badly by the soldiers who brought him in. His shabby clothing is torn and not very clean. His grooming leaves something to be desired; he’s quite dirty and bloody. You might be able to come up with several adjectives to describe this man, but “royal” or “kingly” wouldn’t be among them. As you look at this man Jesus, you realize you’ve seen him before, followed by a rag-tag band of associates who seem to hang on his every word. But now his friends are nowhere to be seen. Another bystander tells you that the friends disappeared the moment Jesus was arrested. Even worse, his closest associate wouldn’t even admit to knowing him.
Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus’s reply is, to put it mildly, rather strange. “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 hopes to get a clearer statement from Jesus. So he asks Jesus, “So you are a king?” Jesus’s reply this time is as baffling as before. “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.”
Jesus’ notion of kingship doesn’t begin to fit Pilate’s frame of reference. This man Jesus is about as different as anyone can be from Pilate’s own king, Caesar Augustus. Pilate can’t think of anything else to say except, “What is truth?” Pilate is done with Jesus at this point. Jesus doesn’t fit Pilate’s idea of a threat to Roman rule, and anyway, Pilate isn’t interested in having a philosophical discussion. He offered to release Jesus to the Jewish authorities, but they preferred to have a man named Barabbas released instead.
While Pilate was done with Jesus, we aren’t. Far from it. The question for you and me on this Christ the King Sunday is, “What kind of king IS Jesus?” What does his kingdom look like? What are we praying for when we say, “thy kingdom come?” The answers to these questions aren’t obvious. The disciples certainly didn’t understand Jesus’ kingship. They squabbled about who was going to sit at his right hand. Jesus reprimanded them. He reminded them that in his kingdom the first would be last and “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.”
Jesus’s kingdom is every bit as unusual as its king. It doesn’t make any sense in the conventional understanding of kings and kingdoms. Jesus’s kingdom has no borders to be defended. Jesus’s kingdom has no army to fight against anyone who might attack it. Jesus’s kingdom has no stockpile of weapons. While there is certainly great power in Jesus’s kingdom, that power lies not in might but in service. In Jesus’s kingdom, might isn’t right and the strong and rich don’t dominate. Those who would otherwise be insignificant in other contexts matter in Jesus’s kingdom. The lost sheep is found and brought back into the fold, not left to be eaten by the wolves outside. The wounded man left by the roadside is picked up and cared for, not by a priest or a Levite, but by a Samaritan, of all people. The prodigal son is welcomed home before he can even begin to beg for his father’s forgiveness. Jesus doesn’t shun sinners, tax collectors, and even prostitutes. He invites them to be his dinner companions instead.
Jesus’ kingdom is unusual in another respect. Other kingdoms only exist in a single time period. But Jesus’ kingdom existed in first century Palestine, it will exist when Jesus comes again in glory, and it exists in the here and now. Here-and-now. Jesus’ kingdom exists right here, right now, in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Imagine that! You can find bits and pieces of Jesus’s kingdom all over this town, wherever people who are hurting, hungry, or homeless are healed, fed, and sheltered. Tri-Area Ministries’ food pantry is part of Jesus’s kingdom. ChurchNet, which helps people in need pay bills, is part of Jesus’s kingdom. The dedicated folks who run our local Meals on Wheels are part of Jesus’ kingdom. These are just a few of the places where you can find Jesus’ kingdom alive and well every day, right here.
Next Sunday is the First Sunday in Advent. Then we’ll begin to anticipate actively both Jesus’s entry into the world as a homeless baby and his coming again in glory. As Matthew describes the scene in his Gospel, when Jesus returns he will sit on the throne of his glory, and say, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.” Amen.