Sermon by The Rev. Sara-Scott Wingo
Sunday, November 25, 2018
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The Gospel: John 18:33-37
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.”
Christ the King, 2018
The Rev. Sara-Scott Wingo
Thanksgiving is past and Advent is not yet here, and our gospel this Sunday seems like a Holy Week reading with Jesus standing trial moving toward crucifixion. Next Sunday will be the first day of Advent and we will turn around and begin anticipating the birth of the Christ child. It’s like getting whiplash driving down a very windy road at high speed. First we look one way and then we quickly turn around and look the opposite direction. This is a strange time for us as we try to follow our liturgical season.
We call today Christ the King Sunday; and we proclaim this day that Christ has established God’s Kingdom on earth, or others might say God’s rule or God’s realm. But what does this mean exactly? How do we understand this while at the same time we look around and see poverty, violence, and terror, not to mention a lot of other things that distort and defile all that God has made good. How do we understand that God rules over all, that God’s realm is established on Earth when so many other forces are at work among us. Our gospel for today contains these contradictions about the way things are. So let’s delve in and see if it can help us understand what it means to say Christ rules
Jesus stands before Pilate, the Roman governor, who has the power to crucify him or let him live. Jesus has been forced at sword point to go where he does not want to go and soon to be subjected to torture and death, the likes of which constitute the worst kind of terrorism. So who has the power in this scene? Who is the established ruler here? It appears that political power will squash spiritual power. One could even say that it even appears God has disappeared entirely and Jesus is left alone to face those who will destroy him. God’s realm? Jesus rules? Really?
The scene is set: the one with political authority faces off against the one with spiritual authority. Pilate poses the question: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate is wondering if Jesus intends to overtake the nation by force and cast down the Roman government. This kind of treason, by Roman law, would indeed be a reason to put Jesus to death.
Jesus answers with spiritual insight: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world my followers would be fighting.” So the political kingdoms of this world are established and maintained by violence. While the realm of God’s reign is established and maintained by peace. If Jesus had intended to establish political power he would have raised an army. But Instead he nurtured disciples.
So Jesus stands before Pilate and clarifies that his kingdom is not of this world, and he adds “for this I was born, and for this I came into the world.” Pilate rules by force, a power that he will soon use to put an end to Jesus. How does Jesus not fight back? How does he let Pilate mock and condemn him without retaliating? How does he maintain his dedication to a peaceful response and not to a violent reaction? It only makes sense when we remember the this deep gospel belief: the power that created the universe lies in Jesus. The power that spoke everything into being is love. Love creates life. Violence destroys it. Jesus is God incarnate. He is imbued with God’s creative life. He will not destroy. He will not retaliate. His kingdom is not of this world. For this he was born. For this he came into the world.
If you look at this story from the view point that the power of force is the greatest power, then you will think Pilate won this face off. If you look at this story from the view point that the power of love is the greatest power, then you will see Jesus won. It seems as if Pilate has the upper hand, but he does not. Violence generates more violence. Death, destruction, oppression follow. But love opens the way to life. The story will soon show us that even Pilate and all his worldly authority cannot overpower the love of Jesus and the life this love begets. Christ is indeed king, but not in any way that the powers of this world understand.
And what does all of tis mean for us when it seems for our whole lives we struggle with the impulse to utilize force or to submit to love. I invite you to reflect on your childhood as I tell you a story from mine. My slightly older brother and I had quite the sibling rivalry going. We were playing together one night building our own magnificent towers with vegetable cans. Who needs building blocks? He tried to steal my vegetables, so I hurled a tomato can in his direction and beaned him directly on the forehead resulting in a trip to the emergency room. Only a three year old little girl with such a strong arm and accurate aim! He got me back a few months later when we were working on the great engineering feat of the century digging a hole to China. I stood in his way on purpose. He told me to move. I did not. He said he would swing his hoe anyway if I did not move. I stood my ground. He took his swing. I can’t imagine why I was shocked by the resulting blow to my head. The theft of one simple can of vegetables lead to an all out battle with each of us using metallic objects to inflict blows to the head.
By the time we grow up, we usually don’t lose this impulse to return evil for evil. Like when an aggressive driver does something so dangerous that we fear for our lives. Rage is a normal response. And we hear way to often of the disastrous result when this rage escalates into furious actions. We struggle when someone picks a verbal fight and we want to escalate the stakes. We struggle when someone does us wrong and we want to inflict even more pain on them than they inflicted on us. It’s just human nature, not just to even the score but to win, but we all know what kind of life that creates for us and what kind of world. Energy spirals deeper and deeper into discord and darkness. Nothing can fix it but by submitting to God’s power: the power of forgiveness, the power of love, the power of peace. Each of us gets to decide what kind of power we will chose for the struggles and battles of our lives, and God is ready to empower us.
I know of a man who yearns for peace and expresses this in a most unusual way. Maybe you have flown into Nashville, Tennessee and seen the huge peace sign embedded in the ground below. Earl Tuggle is a grounds keeper at the Nashville Airport. About fourteen years ago, he carefully chose a three acre plot of land on airport property, land that he predicted would not be developed. He began mowing a peace sign into that plot. As the years went by, the places he did not mow grew with tall grass and brush and eventually trees. Over time the growth made the peace sign more and more distinctly visible and noticeable. He dedicated his life to making the imprint of peace on the world, both physically and spiritually. He did this because he believes there is no hope for this world other than peace.
We too can embrace the power of peace, through Christ the King. We are his disciples in our own day, and we like Earl Tuggle can make the imprint of peace on the world. It’s very hard to do and you know all about that. Yet in another way it is very simple, and you know about that too. All we really have to do is ask for the power of Christ’s love and peace to rule in our hearts. If we do we will find a power that is not of this world at work in us. We will be amazed at what it can do. Of course we will not be perfect disciples because being human is not about being perfect. Being human is about learning how to love. Christ shows us the way, teaches us, and gives us the strength and power we need to follow the way of love, the way of peace. When God’s peace is at work in God’s people the world begins to change and to be transformed. Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world. Even so Christ has brought us God’s reign, has established it in on earth, and is establishing it still. For this he was born, for this he came into the world.
I said that this is a season of liturgical whiplash, but come to think of it, the themes of today point us right to the manger, where a young peasant woman birthed a baby for whom there was no room but a stable. And so begins the story of the Prince of Peace, the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings.