Sermon for the festival of Christ the King. Readings are: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 and John 18. 33 – 37
It seems to me that this morning’s Gospel reading could be potentially interpreted as a scene in a Greek tragedy. Here we have acted out in front of us the story of the greatest of all men whose apparent downfall is brought about by conflict with society.
In our reading, Jesus and Pilate are discussing matters of kingship, power and truth. At the surface level of this scene, Pilate is apparently the person with the power because he possesses the power of the Roman emperor
But it’s not just Pilate and Jesus in this particular Act of our Greek drama. Lurking offstage, in a scene that has just happened onstage although we did not read about it today, are the religious authorities Annas and Caiaphas. They too have just pronounced Jesus guilty before sending him off to Pilate.
And so we have an intriguing triangle: Jesus in the first corner, the religious authorities in another and the secular authority in a third.
As Christians, we are already anticipating the punch-line to this well-known story: For those familiar with John’s Gospel, it is of course Jesus who is the true King, and Jesus who is the Truth. John’s Jesus tells us quite clearly: “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
In the actual economy of God’s universe, the perceived power of Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas cannot compare to the authority of Jesus. Jesus is the true King.
As we celebrate the Festival of Christ the King this morning, I’d like to think a bit about whether these three sides of the triangle have anything to say to the world in its present situation and to us as the Church.
Annas & Caiaphas
I’m going to take the risky beginning and start with Annas & Caiaphas – representatives of the prevailing religious establishment - an establishment that Jesus spent his ministry opposing.
Now, there have been times in the history of the Christian church when the stories of Jesus’ opposition to the religious leaders have been used as a justification for engaging in the exact same behaviour that Jesus’ opposed during his lifetime. This is the behaviour that turns religion into a system of in-groups and out-groups.
Rather than seeing the religious authorities in the bible as examples of our universal human tendency to divide into groups of “them and us”, the Church herself has engaged in this sort of “them and us” behaviour.
The worst example of this has been the long history of Christian persecution of the Jewish people, sometimes using these very stories of Jesus’ trial as a justification for doing so.
But there are many bad examples of the Church creating these sorts of “them and us” situations – with particular Christians casting themselves in the role of righteous hero and those whom they oppose in the role of “deserving victim”.
*In the 16th century, so-called good Christians drowned the Anabaptist heretics.
*Catholics and Protestants have waged war on each other for centuries.
*In my own childhood, Protestants of different denominations were suspicious of each other, viewing Protestants of a different denomination as heretics.
*And today we have suspicion in the Church along party lines with different flavours of Christians suspicious that other flavours are not as pure, as faithful, as modern or as enlightened as “our group” is.
* And, finally, over the last several years, especially since “9/11”, sections of the wider Christian Church seem to be flirting dangerously with scape-goatting the Muslim community as God’s enemies.
As disciples of Christ, we are called to speak out when we see Christian brothers and sisters expressing prejudice against other religious communities. We are called to speak out in the name of justice when we see any group expressing prejudice against another We speak out not just because Christian prejudice is bad for our witness, but because such behaviour is contrary to everything that Jesus taught.
At the heart of the Kingdom of God is the Great Commandment, a commandment that is also at the heart of Judaism: Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and love your neighbour as yourself.
Christian love is not defined by a feeling of warm affection (although we may have that in many instances); Christian love is based on doing the right thing; it is based on doing what Jesus commanded us to do. Jesus commanded us to leave the ultimate judgement of individuals to him and he commanded us to respect each other.
This doesn’t mean we can’t say that we believe that certain actions are wrong; it doesn’t mean that we can’t disagree with another’s opinions. But it most certainly does mean that we are not permitted to name other people or groups of people as “enemies of God” and use this as an excuse to shun them or do harm to them.
But of course, the Church isn’t the only group who get things wrong from God’s perspective.
The next character in our play is Pilate. Pilate, the Roman functionary who recognised the truth of Jesus’ innocence under Roman law but who sentenced Jesus to death nonetheless because it was politically convenient.
There is a testimony that Jesus could have given to Pilate in order to walk free. Jesus could have stated clearly that he was a spiritual leader and that his only interest was in spiritual matters. He could have uttered the words that many secular leaders seem to want to hear: “I am a religious leader; I do not get involved in politics.”
But Jesus did not do that. He did not explain himself in such a way as to assure Pilate that he was not a threat. He made what could be seen as a grandiose claim: that he is the embodiment of truth and that everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice.
It seems that Jesus may very well be a “spiritual” King, but he is also a here-and-now King. As the old hymn lyrics state, he is Master of Everything: King of both heaven and earth.
The Kingdom of God is not just about pie in the sky by and by. It is also about the here and now. It is about truth. It is about loving our neighbour as ourselves. It is about justice: food for the hungry and freedom for the oppressed.
Those who utter the cliché: “Christians should not meddle in the affairs of the world” are taking the worldly view of Christianity. They are taking Pilate’s view, not Jesus’ view.
At her best, when the Church is listening clearly to the voice of her King, we can bring the standards of truth, justice and fairness to bear on matters of this world. Indeed, as disciples of Christ we are called to do so. This is part of the Church’s mission and vocation on earth.
Christ the King
Next Sunday, as you may remember, we begin a new church season, the season of Advent.
But today is the festival of Christ the King. And today, we end a long cycle of meditation on the theme of Christian discipleship that began on the 11th of June with Trinity Sunday – the Sunday when the church and the minister put on the colour green.
And it is fitting that we end the season dedicated to discipleship with the affirmation that for us as Christians, our first loyalties lie with Jesus Christ as our sovereign and Lord.
For Christians, Jesus is not simply a prophet who knew and taught the truth, Jesus embodies the truth. Jesus is truth. And, as Jesus’ disciples, we are followers of truth.
We are not to be misled by the universal human tendency to form in-groups and out-groups.
Where we hear calls to name as God’s enemies people of a different religion, a different race, a different flavour of Christianity, we are to name such behaviour as wrong and to resist these movements in word and deed.
Christians are called to stand up to anti-Semitism and we are called to stand up to the current cultural mood of scape-goatting Muslim people.
We are not be misled by claims that Christianity has nothing to do with the here and now and that being a Christian is only about our private spirituality. Having accepted God’s love and forgiveness into our own hearts, we are called to bring that love to others. This is not just a call to witness to the Gospel doctrines. It is also a call to demonstrate God’s unconditional grace and mercy in very practical ways.
The Kingdom is to come, but the Kingdom is also here. Christ will be our King in Eternity, but Christ is also our King in the here and now.
As we come to Christ’s table in a few minutes to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, I pray that we may all be fed with food for our journey. May we come to his table invited by our crucified, risen and ascended King and rise from his table to take his invitation of forgiveness and reconciliation to all the world. Amen