Grace to you and peace, from GOD who creates us from the good stuff, from Jesus who redeems us from the bad stuff, and from the Holy Spirit who accompanies us, challenging and comforting us, along the way, through all the good and the bad stuff. AMEN.
Today on this Christ the King Sunday, we have an interesting picture: Jesus is not crowned in our readings with glory and gold—as much of our art and our music would have us believe. Jesus is standing before Pilate, “a prisoner” in the Empire’s terms.
Now why would we focus on this picture on such a regal Sunday, on such a celebratory day? Jesus is about to be sentenced to death…and that’s our reading for Christ the King? Other years, the assigned reading on Christ the King is actually the story of Jesus on the cross. That’s a little strange, a little depressing, don’t you think...especially in this festive, holiday time?
But sometimes we need to be confronted with the starkest of contrasts in order to hear and understand the Truth of Jesus’ way. Sometimes we need to see him, face to face with the powers of this world. [pause] The Roman Empire was the most powerful nation on earth, the greatest country in the world—the mightiest, most sophisticated, most majestic. It had the most advanced and well-trained military, the best technology in its cities, an order and system of governing that was proven to be most effective, the promise of freedom and peace for all citizens of Rome. Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome. It’s a little scary to think about comparing the Roman Empire to the United States of America. Often we imagine ourselves as the underdog, I mean we Americans love the underdog stories, as we should—it’s written into the fabric of our history, with our humble beginnings and all the underdogs who worked and suffered to get us where we are today. But we mustn’t kid ourselves now, we are one of the wealthiest, most powerful nations in the world, even in these days. I like to imagine Christ on our side, but at the beginning of this text today, Jesus is opposite us. The USA looks a lot more like Pontius Pilate. Jesus is standing face to face with the power of this world—military might, brute force, Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, ambassador of ROME. Pilate represents us.
It’s kind of a classic build-up we’ve got here, at first glance. ESPN and Fox Sports have mastered the building up of classic rivals before the great match. Virginia Tech vs. UVA. The Red Sox vs. the Yankees, the Cowboys vs. Redskins. Other rivalries? Help me out… You can almost hear the music and see the helmets clashing and exploding. “Jesus vs. Pilate! TODAY ON FOX! Let’s get ready to...!!”
That’s the way of this world. Two contenders, someone’s going to win and someone’s going to loose. And that makes sense to us, doesn’t it? And in retrospect, every time we read the story, we’re rooting for Jesus. We’re rooting for Jesus’ might to make everything right. We’re rooting for our idea of power to be expressed and made known in the ONE TRUE GOD dominating and even destroying the opposition. “Yeah, show ‘em Jesus!” It’s so easy to want what the disciples and the Jewish people wanted—an underdog but powerful leader, eloquent and brilliant like a star quarterback to spearhead the underdogs from oppression to freedom, freedom in the world’s terms. That would make sense! (& be awesome, right?)
But that’s not what we get.
First of all, what we get is someone we can’t relate to. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is ice cool. He is what he says he is—not of this world. I don’t know about you but I like a Jesus who I can relate to. I like Mark’s portrait of Jesus: a guy who gets angry and impatient at times, who gets scared at times, but still manages to overcome death and the grave.
But not here in the Gospel of John—oh, he overcomes death and the grave alright—but totally unflinchingly. Jesus has always been portrayed as weak, wracked with pain, humiliated during the Passion, in movies and probably in our imaginations. Sometimes we try to recreate that on Good Friday. But in John’s Gospel you’ll notice that he never shows fear. He never cowers, sweats like blood, praying in the garden that he doesn’t have to go through with this. Always remember that in John’s Gospel, Jesus is ice cool, calm, almost inhuman. He practically climbs up onto the cross himself! In fact what we see here is Pilate getting more and more upset at Jesus’ lack of fear in the face of all the power that ROME represents. In those classic head-to-head battles that we can relate to so well, we know that both sides have to have a healthy dose of fear in order to take on their opponent. But Jesus has no fear, never did. Certainly the most courageous leaders in history tell us that they had to overcome their fear in order to succeed. But Jesus never overcame fear because he never had it. Jesus is all God, all divine. It’s hard for any of us to relate to that kind of Jesus—we kind of draw a blank. So we imagine other models. We draw from other Gospels. We want so badly to relate to Jesus. We write hymns about “what a friend we have in Jesus,” and we cling to them. We need those ideas of Jesus to which we can relate...but that’s not what we get today. [pause]
WE GET A MONARCH, A SOVEREIGN. You can’t be friends with a heavenly king, no earthly underdog can. Now how is that Good News?
[slowly] It’s good news because what we get this day—on this New Year’s Eve Day of our church year, on this day of turning a page in our congregation, on this day of looking both back on this past year and forward into the next—is the all encompassing love of God for this world. What we get this day is not simply another clash between good guys vs. bad guys, to put it simply, but an embrace…an all encompassing embrace. In the Gospel of John, LOVE just pours out of Jesus like an ever-flowing stream. It’s inhuman, that is, beyond this world. Jesus is LOVE. There is no clash because Jesus’ reign covers the entire cosmos. All the world. Pilate can’t see it, his view is so narrow. (His love covers the cosmos like light fills a room. It’s everywhere.)
It’s like the children’s song, “He really does have the whole world in his hands.” No one is conquered when they are conquered with love. That’s what we have today. Forgiveness of sins, the promise of eternal life, freedom from fear ourselves, confidence to walk in grace led only by the voice of the one true Shepherd King who guides our feet into the way of peace, who is our only true protection. How quickly we forget and seek other forms of comfort and protection (like Pilate, the disciples, the Jews all did), but Christ is our King—not King in the way the world understands it, but King [pause] over the way the world understands it. [pause] Jesus’ love pours out all over us and this world today, saturating us with joy, pouring over us comfort and security, flooding us with forgiveness, drenching us with eternal salvation. It’s overwhelming really. There’s no contest—a classic duel between good guys and bad doesn’t even make sense.
It’s all God, all Love, all Jesus. That’s the cross of Christ, around which we gather here again, before a new year begins. In this cross is healing, peace, love, life and joy. Happy New Year. Thanks be to God. AMEN.