Note: November 25 is also the Commemoration of Isaac Watts, hymnwriter. Watts paved the way for non-biblical poetry to be used in English hymnody. "Joy to the World" is perhaps Watts' most well-known hymn.
One of the pastors at my home church when I was growing up was a big Elvis fan. I think I remember him even grabbing a guitar a time or two in front of youth group, curling up his lip, and crooning “Don’t Be Cruel” in a believable imitation of Elvis’ voice. This pastor even went so far as to tell people that it was his dream to start up a new Lutheran mission congregation in Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace of Mr. Presley. He had it all planned out. There was going to be a black velvet painting of Jesus on the cross hanging on the wall behind the altar, and the pastor’s vestments would be studded in a conspicuous amount of rhinestones. There would, of course, be a full-time gospel choir in the chancel. The best was his plan for the name of the congregation: “The King of Rock” Lutheran Church, or something borderline-sacrilegious like that.
Everyone always laughed along with him when he’d share this crazy plan, especially when he shared that name of the congregation, but we were never quite sure if he was serious or not. His funny obsession did point out one thing, for sure: Americans don’t really have many references for kings, do we? I think if you asked most people on the street, “Who’s the King?” they probably would answer, “Elvis Presley.” Other than that, most of our experiences with kings have been the cartoon ones in Disney movies. I know I live with two little girls who often dress up and act like princesses, but, let me tell you, that doesn’t make me a king. In my castle I usually feel more like the court-jester. No, we don’t know what to make of kings. As one of my colleagues put it this week, the last time Americans had an experience with a real king was over two hundred years ago and it wasn’t exactly positive.
|King Hubert and King Stefan from Disney's "Sleeping Beauty"|
So, as we close out one church year and get ready to begin another one, what are we saying, then, when we claim that Jesus, the Christ, is king? This is something we must deal with when we take Scripture seriously, for it appears throughout the entire Bible, and is even, at times, alluded to by Jesus himself. While sometimes we might wish for him to be presented with a title or form of authority that is a little more accessible to our particular day and age—say, Christ the President, or Christ the Secretary-General—we must still wrestle with the fact that the God of the entire universe chose to come to a particular group of people ages ago who happened to use kings and monarchies as their form of earthly power. Therefore, the language of Jesus’ ministry and his very life are bound up in talk about his royalty. But what kind of royalty, exactly? What really are we saying when we say that Jesus is king?
We are not the only ones who trip up on that concept. Pontius Pilate, as it turns out, does not really know what to make of it, either, when Jesus is presented to him by the Jewish religious authorities at the end of John’s gospel. As the prefect of that province where Jerusalem is located, Pilate is the local representative of the Emperor, Caesar. Pilate, you might say, is clear about where his authority comes from. He understands and knows how to operate within Caesar’s empire, or kingdom. Its military power, economic systems and definable geographic boundaries make sense to him. We know now that the ancient world in which Pilate governed was a veritable powder-keg of different nationalities and ethnicities constantly competing for control, but Caesar still managed to run quite a tight ship. Those who claimed rival authority needed to be investigated, questioned, tested, and the man standing before him—Jesus of Nazareth—seems to be referred to as another king.
The conversation that the two of them have is relatively short. Some people have described this as a trial scene, but there is no jury or judge here. There is no impartial presentation of the facts. This is a one-on-one conversation between two men with two drastically different views of what authority is and where it comes from; two men with two dramatically different understandings of power. One has the power to end life. The other has the power, unbeknownst to everyone, to grant it eternally.
And so, in their discussion they seem to talk past one another rather than directly to each other. They go back and forth with questions for each other, but never really seem to settle on any common ground. Jesus keeps saying that his kingdom is not of this world. “If it were from this world,” he says, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” This does not mean that Jesus’ kingdom is purely in heaven or that we cannot experience Jesus’ reign here and now. It means, in short, the kingdom that Jesus rules does not operate with the same parameters as our kingdoms. The kingdom that Jesus leads, unlike Caesar’s, does not resort to violence or force to advance its influence or even defend itself. Jesus does not use power to dominate his enemies, but relinquishes it fully that their cruelty and sin may be fully exposed. Jesus does not exercise his authority by issuing decrees and handing down judgments from headquarters, but by becoming a servant and addressing the needs of God’s people. Jesus does not reign with a love of strength, but with the strength of love.
This is the truth about why Jesus was born, the truth about how God draws us to himself, the truth he speaks to Pilate. And if you think it comes across as confusing and confounding in the headquarters of Pilate, wait until you see how this love works itself out on the cross. There it will reach its climax, and we behold a king who is innocently sacrificed out of love the people, who, as the writer of Revelation says, “loves us and frees us from our sins by his blood.” Through our King’s death and resurrection, we are freed…freed to live in this truth about God’s love for the world…freed to be God’s own people not just in the next life, but in this one, as well.
|"Ecce homo" Antonio Ciseri (1880)|
But for the moment, the issue becomes: what will Pilate say about Jesus? And, in a sense, that is the question put to all of us about Jesus. What will we say about him? When Jesus is on trial, so to speak, in our midst, what do we say about his authority? When Jesus is brought up for debate in our boardrooms, in our classrooms, how do we articulate the ways his peaceful, humble power holds sway over our lives? How do we make sense of this kingdom of his that apparently can pop up just about whenever it wants to, because it does not have definable geographical borders but comes into existence wherever we’re graciously given the opportunity to serve and love others as he does us?
Furthermore, how do we listen to his voice and respond to him as king, especially in the midst of a culture that more and more does not know what we’re talking about? A study released about a month and a half ago reports that now one-in-five adults in the U.S. claim no religious affiliation. It is easy, perhaps, to speak of Christ’s authority when you feel most around you would also acknowledge it, but what about when more and more people don’t really know what to make of him, if they even know him at all? For some, articulating that Jesus is the risen King essentially means fighting to have things like the Ten Commandments posted in public places, but even in locales where that method might be deemed legal, it would still be a poor substitute for the faithful witness by Jesus’ own subjects learning to speak in their own words and in their own actions what it means to hear the truth of Jesus’ voice.
It is no secret that Lutherans, for various reasons, have been typically quiet about personal faith. The keep internalized, at least in their speech, that which they experience in the truth about God. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people refer to as “God’s Frozen Chosen.” In a recent article, Lutheran missions pastor David Luecke, from a congregation in Ohio, argues that the time has come for traditions like ours to cultivate a stronger tradition of sharing the ups and downs of our spiritual journeys, of learning how to put into words who we say Jesus is and what living in his kingdom is about. I believe this type of thing, on some level, does go on in our Bible studies and youth group meetings here at Epiphany and certainly at youth events. The participants at the three Men’s lunch groups often have very lively and open-hearted conversations centered around God’s activity in their lives. It is good to practice with one another in safe settings how we put words to our faith, a faith which in the Lutheran tradition has a long history, I might add, of being put into action through community service work to those less fortunate.
I’m coming to agree with Pastor Luecke, and I’m wondering how we might begin to develop the kind of familiarity with our faith that would help us put into words why we try, in spite of our sin, to keep allegiance to Christ, the King. We may not all end up being Isaac Watts, able to articulate our faith into the words of hundreds of hymns (dude wrote over 600 of them, ten of which are included in our current hymnal!), but we can all stand to grow in our ability to say something about Jesus that is true and meaningful. And I guarantee the world wants to hear it.
Because, at least to my way of thinking, there is no such thing as “no religious affiliation.” That is a false category. Everyone has a religion or a “religious affiliation”…even Pontius Pilate. Everyone is bound to worship something, if not several things. That’s what it means to be human, the innate tendency to build our lives around values and authorities, even if it is just the authority of science, or the authority of my own will and desires. When set in that framework, it becomes easier, at least for me, to develop a way of talking about Jesus as an authority that is worth obeying, a truth worth listening to…because he loves me far more than any of those other authorities ever could.
So, to start us thinking about this, let’s say you were a pastor who had a dream of beginning a new congregation in your ideal location…be it Tupelo, Mississippi, or even the congregation that gathers regularly around your kitchen table. What would it look like? What would its traditions be? How would your little dream mission outpost proclaim Christ and his peaceful, powerful kingdom in its own unique way? What, for example, would you name it? And why? Share it with me!
And beginning there, perhaps, we can begin—once again—to prepare ourselves to engage the world as subjects of Christ the King. And, by the by, also prepare ourselves for that great day when we will stand face to face with Him in his court and hear with our own ears about the eternal love he has given us.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.