Sunday, November 22, 2015

Christ the King [Year B] - November 22, 2015 (John 18:33-37)

The first time they tried to catch him he was just a baby. They sent armies—men with swords and probably torches—in order to hunt him down, killing indiscriminately anyone who matched his description. His crime, if you could call it that, was simply that is birth was inconvenient to some. It’s hard to believe the armies would come after him before he could barely speak, but the word had already gotten out that he was some kind of a threat. In fact, he didn’t need to be able to say a word at all because he himself was the truth. But, being born into dark and risky times, the truth immediately had to flee.

Matthew tells us all about it, about how the father was warned in a dream to leave for Egypt in order to escape the slaughter. He does so, scurrying and hurrying his frightened family out of town while it was still night. They cross the border and, as far as we know, were welcomed in a foreign land for a number of years.

So, you see, the child who was born to give us refuge became first a refugee himself. The child who was born to rule over every land first knew the vulnerability of having no land. The one born to give freedom, began his life on earth captive to fear. That was the first time they tried to catch him, but he got away.

The next time that they tried to catch him he was preaching in the synagogue in his own hometown. There were no armies this time, but instead angry townspeople—probably some of the people who knew him best. There were no swords and torches, either, but a cliff at the edge of town they wanted to hurl him over like their ancestors had done to some of the prophets.

This time his crime (if you may call it that), was preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed. It was suggesting that God’s kingdom was breaking in. The people in the synagogue recognized those words from their Scriptures, but in their judgment he was speaking them dishonestly. He came speaking truth, but the people did not want to have it.

Jesus is in the synagogue at Nazareth
Luke tells us about this episode, how the people stand there, not believing their ears, and wanting him to perform some signs of wonder. If he really is who he implies that he is—that is, the one who brings God’s kingdom—they want to see examples of it right there in Nazareth. To their minds, the things he had done in Capernaum and in the other towns—the healings, the powerful teachings, for example—do not really mean anything until they are duplicated here.

But he does not humor them. Instead, he takes the opportunity to remind them that God’s kingdom does not have national boundaries, that God’s kingdom has always had a habit of occasionally breaking in among foreign people, that God’s truth and grace is often witnessed by people beyond the margins, by those who speak other tongues. And he gives them examples to underscore this truth, examples they would have known: “Remember how the prophet Elijah was sent to the widow way out at Zarephath, and how the Lord did a miracle there? And what about Naaman, the Syrian,” he says, “who was cleansed by the River Jordan at a time when there were plenty of lepers in Israel who could have used a good healing? None of them were our people, were they?”

It’s the truth, but all this does is make them enraged. They rise up against him and drive him to the edge of the cliff. No more of that truth! That was the second time they tried to catch him, but again, he somehow got away.

There were a few other times they tried to catch him. It is mainly John who tells us about those. For example, once a crowd tried to capture him in order to make him king because they were so happy with the way he multiplied bread. The other times, however, he was viewed as an outlaw because the religious authorities didn’t trust his take on the truth even though he told them knowing the truth would make them free. It was the truth about God’s love for the world and the truth about their sin. It was the truth that the Father of the universe was somehow present and active in the life of this one man. It seemed less and less possible that any of them would ever see that, and so they conspire to catch him, to lay their hands on him and do away with him.

"What is Truth. Christ and Pilate" (Nikolai Ge, 1890)
Eventually they succeed. The people capture him and bring him before the leading authorities, and he doesn’t get away. Thinking that swords and torches will be needed they come armed to the hilt, but little do they know that he will remain defenseless. He will remain completely defenseless except for one thing, that one thing he’d had from the beginning: the truth. He holds in his power the truth about God’s almighty love and forgiveness and the truth about their brokenness. As it turns out, that is all that he’ll need to respond to their false accusations and their fear of his agenda.

The representative of the occupying Roman power, Pontius Pilate, is left to question him in his headquarters in Jerusalem and there we see in stark relief just how different these two kingdoms are. The one that Pilate embodies—that is, the one that Pilate and all the Herods and Pharaohs and chief priests and Nazareth and townspeople are party to—is the one that uses swords and torches and violence and bombs and drones and boundaries to influence people and bring them under control. These kingdoms occasionally bring peace and justice, occasionally grant freedom to the captives and hope to the poor, but overall they operate in a world that is broken and afraid and doesn’t always know how to admit it, that they’re methods are incomplete.

The kingdom Jesus lifts up, the one he has represented since he was just a little child, operates according to God’s love. Like God’s mercy, it has no real boundaries, but is always fluctuating, always growing, albeit sometimes with painful slowness. Like God’s compassion, Jesus’ kingdom will always be reaching to pull more people in, rather than push people out.

And that basically sums it up. We could go on, but clearly time with Pilate is running out. The people want this whole episode over, just as they’ve wanted it over ever since Jesus began preaching about it. The truth is too much. They don’t like it. They don’t believe it, and so they do what they know always silences the truth. They nail this King of the Jews to a cross.

Except…it doesn’t silence it this time. This time God changes the course of history, raising up this man and making him victorious over all those attempts to push him out. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus returns, he speaks and preaches a little more to his disciples, and then sends them the Holy Spirit before returning to the place where he began at the foundation of the earth, robed in majesty, and girded with strength at the right hand of his Father.

We are told that we will see him again, in all his glory, and when that time comes, it will be his turn to capture us and all of God’s people. At that point it won’t be about us getting a hold of the truth, but about the truth finally getting a hold on us. The full splendor of God’s glory will spread over all of the universe, and things—all actions, all intentions—will be named for what they are.

In the meantime, the community which he has claimed for himself through the blood of his cross will feel the tension of living in these two kingdoms we see in opposition in Jerusalem—the one Pilate represents and the one brought about by Jesus’ death and resurrection. In the meantime, we get to participate in his Risen life which means we will have the opportunity to see him still among us, to remember him standing in weakness before Pilate. We will have the opportunity to remember him, for example, as a child refugee crossing borders in the night, to remember him graciously pronouncing God’s grace to the poor and the captive against the will of his home people.

In this meantime, as one kingdom slowly crumbles and the risen one takes over, we get to testify to the truth that we, too, follow a religious extremist—one who demonstrates love and peacefulness to the extreme, one whose love knows no boundaries, not even the boundary of our death.

In these mean times, let us then to testify to his truth with Word and Water, with morsel of bread and sip of wine, with service to our neighbor and peace to our enemies…the truth that despite the terrorism and despite the poverty, that despite the sorrow and despite our sin, that this Jesus the Crucified really is the King.

And that, because of his love, God will not ever let us get away.




Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


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