A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church,
a new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 25, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  John 18: 33-37 (with Matthew 25:31-40)
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            Once upon a time, in a kingdom that was far, far away, there was a socio-political structure that little children could understand, even though it as not at all like the socio-political structure of their community.

As I contemplated today’s sermon, one of the things that occurred to me is that many children’s stories involve kings and queens, princesses and princes.  And little children “get” the social structure; they “get” the hierarchy.  Even though we do not live in a monarchy, even though it’s been over 235 years since these United States threw off the monarchy, little children understand a monarchical social structure.

At the daytime women’s fellowship meeting on Monday, I asked the gathering what came to mind when I said the word, “king.”  People mentioned King George VI and other real and fictitious kings.  People thought about crowns and political power.  When we dug a little deeper, someone mentioned Elvis Presley.  The kings in a deck of cards and the kings on a chessboard didn’t come to people’s minds until I brought it up.  People thought about people.

One of my favorite stories about kings comes from Denmark.  When Hitler’s forces occupied Denmark, the order came that all Jews in Denmark were to identify themselves by wearing armbands with yellow stars of David.  Stories circulated that this was the first step in the Nazi process of Jewish extermination, so the Danes sought some way to fight back without fighting.

Rather than directly defying the order, King Christian X had every Jew wear the star.  Then he himself wore the Star of David and he told his people that he expected every loyal Dane to do the same.  The King said, “We are all Danes.  One Danish person is the same as the next.”  He wore his yellow star when going into Copenhagen every day in order to encourage his people.

It’s a wonderful story, only it never happened.  The Danes did participate in remarkable resistance to the Nazis.  During the summer of 1943, when strikes and other overt resistance activities against the Nazis resulted in the demand that the Danish government declare a state of emergency, the government refused and resigned in protest.  The Nazis declared martial law.  By the time deportation of the Jews was finally ordered, only 284 of the estimated 7,000 Jews in Copenhagen could be rounded up.  The others had been warned and had gone into hiding, then started making their way to Sweden in fishing boats and private vessels.  But the King Christian never donned a Yellow Star.[i]

We want kings and queens, political leaders of any sort to act for justice, to resist evil – to do the sorts of things King Christian X was supposed to have done.  But we know that monarchies are too frequently characterized by absolute power, material riches, and the exploitation of the weak.  It is this characterization of leadership that has Egyptians and others nervous about President Morsi’s decree in which he seems to give himself sweeping powers.  Once he starts exercising those powers, will he ever give them back?

In her book Freedom from Fear, Aung San Suu Kyi says, “It is not power that corrupts but fear.  Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”[ii]

I bring all of this up because today is traditionally known as “Christ the King Sunday,” though some of us have moved away from the word “king” and call this Sunday “Reign of Christ Sunday.”  It is the last Sunday of the church’s liturgical year.  We start a new liturgical year next week.  And on this day, our Gospel lesson always has something to do with the image of Jesus as king.

I am struck that this year’s Gospel lesson comes from the trial of Jesus on Good Friday.  The story is leading to Jesus’ crucifixion, to his execution at the hands of the Roman government.  As the collective cultural mindset shifts from Thanksgiving to Christmas, to the coming celebration of Christ’s birth and the innocent image of the baby in the manger, we need to get a complete perspective of who Christ is before we slide into a sort of infant sentimentality.

It is an interesting exchange between Pilate and Jesus.  The writer of John’s gospel crafts a sparing match, one sharp mind against another.  Pilate, with all the pomp and power of this world, obviously is disturbed by the calm young rabbi who seems unimpressed by all the might of Rome – a power that held his life and the lives of his people in its hand.  “Are you a king?” Pilate asks.  Pilate expected a revolutionary, someone who would challenge the authority of Rome with open insurrection.  “What have you done?” Pilate demands.  Pilate expected a criminal, someone who had broken the laws.

“My kingdom is not from this world” is Jesus’ reply.  “I came to testify to the truth.”

Pilate (at least as we hear the story in John’s gospel) seems mollified by Jesus’ answers and seeks his release in the paragraph that follows our reading.  But he’s mistaken if he thinks that Jesus’ kingship is no threat to his political authority – or the political authority to any empire.  For Jesus, kingship “consists not of the hierarchy of privilege, but of right relations for all, justice and mercy, and transformative love that brings new life.”[iii]  And if that is not a threat to traditional political authority, I don’t know what is.

And is it any wonder that so many were baffled by his leadership.  Many – perhaps most – of his followers “looked to a worldly kingdom with the usual style of worldly leadership.  [But Jesus] called for a kind of leadership in which servanthood would replace lording it over others.  He shared the concerns for justice and peace, but differed greatly as to means.  When he asserted that his kingdom was not of this world, he did not mean that it was entirely individual or invisible.  Rather, he was affirming that the means were different.  Jesus does not criticize his disciples for expecting him to set up a new social order but for misunderstanding the style of action that would characterize that order.  Unlike most of us, who are tempted to take the easy and safe way in order to stay out of trouble, Jesus was probably tempted more by the Zealot option because of his common identification with the poor and the oppressed. …  The struggle in the garden revealed a continual struggle with the idea of ‘a holy war for the kingdom.’  He was tempted to eliminate the cup of suffering love and call down 10 legions of angels to join his zealot disciples in fighting for the revolutionary kingdom.  Instead, he told Peter to put up the sword.  His was another way, the way of suffering love.”[iv]

For generations, followers of Jesus have heard of the vision of this beloved community Jesus comes to establish.  They have heard the vision and they have wondered when it will come to be.

Some believe that Jesus has given us the tools to build it ourselves.  So this reign of Jesus will come when the world gets better.  And the beloved community “does emerge in unexpected modest places.  Its means are indeed inauspicious in comparison with the ways of the world.  Its growth can be hidden because of our false perspectives and priorities.  As frequently articulated, however, this view places the accent on the claim that it is our kingdom rather than God’s.  [And] it has too often ignored the depth and power of evil.”[v]

Another view is that reign of Christ will come only after things get worse.  These millennialists, pre- and post-, believe that once things get really bad, Jesus will come and, in one order or another, establish the perfect kingdom and judge the world.  “Such views often run contrary, however, to the spirit of the scriptures.  Sometimes there is such joy in discerning the evil events of our time as a clue to the imminent return of our Lord that the resulting mood lacks deep Christian compassion and concern for our … world.  Bad news is too easily translated into good news … [and this makes] Jesus’ second coming entirely inconsistent with his first advent, …”[vi]

This point of view makes the Sermon on the Mount completely inapplicable for us today because it can only be lived when Jesus comes and sets up the perfect kingdom.  This completely ignores the biblical promise that we can begin now to experience the first fruits of the kingdom, and begin to live now as if the kingdom has already come.

Rather than seeing the reign of Christ either as only coming as the world gets better or after it gets worse, I believe that the kingdom is both now and not yet.  Yes, this view is a bit more complicated.  Nonetheless, I believe it to be closer to my experience and to the message Jesus brought as recorded in the gospels.

Though we are called to begin to live in the beloved community now, we know that it takes God’s action to make to come to complete fruition.  While the beloved community is in the future, it can and does break into history now and then with amazing force.

I think of the freedom riders and other civil rights workers.  Not just the leaders and heroes, but the average people who rode busses and sat in at lunch counters.  They were often arrested and jailed.  “While in jail [they] were often treated poorly and brutally in order to break their spirits.  They were deprived of food or given lousy food.  Noise was blasted and lights were flashed all day and night to keep them from resting.  Sometimes even some of their mattresses were removed in order that all would not have a place to sleep.

“For a while it seemed to work.  Their spirits were drained and discouraged, but never broken.  It happened more than once and in more than one jail.  Eventually the jail would begin to rock and swing to sounds of gospel singing.  What began as a few weak voices would grow into a thundering and defiant chorus.  The Freedom Riders would sing of their faith and their freedom.  Sometimes they would even press their remaining mattresses out of their cells between the bars as they shouted, ‘You can take our mattresses, but you can’t take our souls!’

“The Freedom Riders were behind bars in jail, but they were really free.”[vii]  Glimpses of the beloved community broke through, not just when civil rights legislation passed, but in the struggle itself for its passage.  On those buses, at those lunch counters, in those jails, the beloved community took root.

Every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, we say, “Thy kingdom come on earth.”  Every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, we are asking that the beloved community be established here among us, here on earth, even as it is established already in the presence of God.

As we draw this liturgical year to a close and prepare for the celebration of the birth of a baby, let us remember why that baby was born.  Jesus came to remind us that we are citizens first and foremost of God’s kingdom and that we are called to live in the beloved community now, even as God works toward its complete establishment.

Amen.


ENDNOTES
[i] Barbara and David P Mikkelson, “A Star is Borne,” Snopes.com, http://www.snopes.com/history/govern/denmark.asp (24 November 25, 2012).

[ii] Cited by Kate Huey in a “Sermon Seeds” email from her dated 16 November 2012.

[iii] Michaela Bruzzese, “Everlasting Dominion,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_031149_BProper29&week=B_Proper_29 (24 November 2012).

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Steven E. Albertin, Against the Grain – Words for a Politically Incorrect Church, CSS Publishing, quoted in an email from Sermons.com, dated 19 November 2012.

Additional Sources used:

Michaela Bruzzes, “Christ the King,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_091149_BProper29&week=B_Proper_29 (24 November 2012).

Verna J. Dozier, “A Glimpse of the King,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_941149_Bproper29&week=B_Proper_29 (24 November 2012).

Jim Rice, “What Is Truth?” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_971149_BProper29&week=B_Proper_29 (24 November 2012).

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