The text for today’s sermon on Christ the King Sunday, is John 18:33-38.
When I was growing up in the late 60’s and early 70’s my family went to church every Sunday. Sunday School for us began with all of the kids meeting together in one big room to sing songs with motions. Some of you might remember those songs, Zacheus was a wee little man…, and I may never march in the infantry, ride in the calvary, shoot the artillery. I may never fly over the enemy, because I am in the Lord’s Army. Yes, sir!
This last one was certainly one of my favorite songs. The Viet Nam war was going on the news every night, and we were obsessed with making war ourselves. I loved GI Joes. I had like twenty of them. My brother and I had bags of those little green army men. We spray painted half of them red, Viet Cong communists, and set up complicated battles in our bedroom. In our toy box we had we really cool plastic machine guns that made a rat a tat tat sound when you pulled the trigger. So an opportunity to march in the infantry, ride in the Calvary, and shoot the artillery at church was too good to be true.
This Sunday School song is a close cousin to an old hymn Onward Christian Soldiers. We don’t sing either tune much anymore. Maybe because we associate the Lord’s Army now with radical Islamic or Christian fundamentalist groups, who really are bent on creating an army for the Lord with artillery and infantry. Maybe militaristic language is not as popular anywhere, including our churches. Maybe, just the images of beaming eight year olds gleefully pretending to shoot each other in church just seems all kind of wrong in a way it didn’t in 1970.
Both songs though seem appropriate to the idea we celebrate today, Christ the King. The traditional thinking behind the image of Christ the King goes something like this. As Christians, we are called to be good citizens of our earthly king, but our ultimate allegiance is to Jesus our true king. King Jesus Christ, at eight I always thought Christ was his last name, has first claim on our lives. Someday King Jesus will lead the charge and we will vanquish his foes, all those nonbelievers who have been making the life of a Christian and God’s world in general miserable, conquering the world in his name, Onward Christian Soldiers.
Today, this feels wrong in the same way eight year olds shooting artillery in Sunday School. Christ the King seems in conflict with the imagery Jesus himself uses to describe his ministry or the heart of God. The stories Jesus told, feature a gentle shepherd searching frantically for one lost sheep, the son of a vineyard owner, who is mistreated and abused by thieving crooked renters, an old woman, scouring the house looking for a shiny coin lost in the dust somewhere, an old man, waiting, hoping for his miserable, gambling, womanizing son to return.
When kings show up in the stories of Jesus, the king’s anger is not towards the enemies out there, Onward Christian Soldiers, but the enemies within his own kingdom. The king becomes enraged when guests invited to his son’s wedding don’t show up, so he invites any Tom, Dick or Harry he can find. The king loses patience when one of his servants who he had been generous to does not show that same generosity to another. The King rewards those who recognized him when he showed up as a poor man, hungry man and imprisoned man and punishes those who did not. There is not one horse mounted to conquer territory outside his kingdom. These kings don’t have a foreign policy at all. They are busy cleaning house right within their castle walls.
In one story, Jesus gets an opportunity to be a conquering king over everyone in the world. Satan takes him to a top of a mountain and says all of this can be yours if you just bow down to me first. Of course, Jesus took a pass at that one. It seems like a soft ball temptation who really thinks Jesus is going to bow down to Satan?
This temptation by Satan reveals the problem Jesus had with earthly kings in general. Their power comes from someplace on this earth, the little people whose support they need or riots will occur in the streets, the rich people whose money they need in the coffers in order to get anything done, or the powerful people who really pull the strings in any government. Most of us accept that our kings will do or say almost anything in order to keep power. Can anyone imagine Jesus running for President in the United States? “I am Jesus Christ and I approve this message.” Jesus isn’t searching for votes or power. His power comes from being the Son of God and people can either believe that and find life or refuse and find death.
Pilate, an earthly king, has to work hard to keep his power. Christians have been kind to Pilate in a way history has not. Maybe, we give him a pass because we see him as a politician trying to keep the people happy. Politicians have to do distasteful things all the time in order to play to their base. Deep down Pilate doesn’t really want to kill Jesus, but at the end of the day, it is better for his poll numbers if he does. Pilate isn’t interested in the truth, as he says himself in verse 38. He just needs a signed confession so he can make it to his 3:00 squash game.
Can any of us imagine Jesus doing the wrong thing because it is the most expedient thing to do? Jesus is not capable of being the sort of king that you and I are familiar with. Jesus tells Pilate my kingdom is not located here. I used to hear this as almost a boast by Jesus. If this were taking place in heaven, Pilate would be squashed like a bug, but since it is happening on earth, he has the upper hand right now. Just wait for the Lord’s Army, though. Someday soon heaven and earth will come together and then watch out everyone who went against Jesus.
The problem with that is Jesus’ doesn’t boast. He must mean something else. The word kingdom could be translated reign or kingship instead. My reign, my power is not from this world. Pilate has to answer to Rome and the people he has to rule. Pilate has to always worry about losing his power if these people aren’t kept happy. Jesus’ power comes from God and can’t be lost. It is part of the eternal dance that is the Trinity. He doesn’t have to base any decisions on keeping others happy. He only has to be true to God, true to himself, true to love.
When Jesus says that his people would fight for him if it were a worldly kingdom, maybe he is simply comparing how different these two kingdoms work. Pilate needs an army, guards, artillery, to hold on to power. Jesus has no need for any of this. Love rules in Jesus’ kingdom, and either you live in it loving God or you live outside of it. No one can be forced to love, so weapons are not needed. The only way to conquer someone for God’s kingdom is to love them to life.
Jesus avoids telling Pilate he is a king, because the title has been so corrupted by the world and politics that it has little resemblance to who Jesus is. Jesus is a guy who fed 5000 people with a couple of loaves of bread and some fish, then fled when they were so thankful they wanted to crown him king. Jesus is a guy who strips down to his waist, gets on his knees and tenderly washes the feet of those in his kingdom, even the ones who will betray him in just minutes. Jesus is a guy who stops his guards from using their swords then heals an enemy soldier’s ear that has been cut off in the battle so that same guard just healed can arrest him and take him away. I can’t imagine any of the kings I know doing any of those things.
Jesus can’t make the “tough” decisions that we expect of our kings. He can’t be pragmatic, understanding there are winners and losers because the only losers in his kingdom are those who refuse to receive his love. He can’t vanquish a foe, because he was called to draw everyone to the cross. He can’t lead us to victory trampling over someone else and leaving them in defeat. He can’t be an earthly king. He can only be our savior, who brings us life by loving us and inviting us to love him. Amen