Sermon for Sunday, November 25th, 2018
The Feast of Christ the King
Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.
If we claim to belong to Jesus, if he truly is our king, as we boldly proclaim today, then whenever he speaks, we must listen.
Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.
Whenever Jesus speaks we must listen, but when he repeats himself, we need to pay close attention. In our gospel today, Jesus is on trial before Pontius Pilate. Some of y’all know this passage very well, because this passage is sung here every Good Friday. And you will recall that when Jesus is on trial, he doesn’t offer many words in his defense. He doesn’t have much to stay standing there before Pilate, so when he does speak we need to listen. And when Pilate questions him about being a king and about his kingdom, listen to what Jesus says:
My Kingdom is not from this world.
He doesn’t say my kingdom is not in this world; he says my kingdom is not FROM this world. He repeats himself. He says:
My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world my followers would be fighting…But as it is my kingdom is not from here.
Well by my count that is three times declaring or implying that his kingdom is not from this world. And when Pilate asks: “So you are a king?” Jesus replies:
You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.
In other words, Jesus is saying that you may call me a king, but don’t be confused. I am not a king like the kings you know. My kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world. My kingdom is not from this world, but I was born to bring a kingdom into it. I was born to testify to the truth. I was born to bring something into this world that is not from this world. My kingdom is not from this world, but my kingdom is in it. And those that belong to my kingdom, well they belong to something that is true and everlasting. They belong to something that is stronger than the forces of this world.
Naturally Pilate was confused. The kings of this world don’t act like this man. The kings of this world would raise an army. The kings of this world would raise taxes. The kings of this world would do anything in their power to protect themselves or their subjects, and what is this man doing? Nothing. He will barely even open his mouth in his own defense. If this man is a king, then he’s not like any king that Pilate has ever seen. And this kingdom of his is going to come to a swift end unless this man starts to use the tools that the kings of this world have always used to hold on to power. Pilate will see to it that Jesus’s kingdom comes to an end, because Pilate knows how to behave like a king of this world. Pilate knows how a strong king can effectively control people. There are three main tools: Lust, fantasy and fear. An effective king will control his followers by filling their beds, their bellies and their bank accounts, through lust; or he will keep them entertained with mysterious rituals and diversions and displays of power or delusions of grandeur, through fantasy; or he will appeal to authority, his own authority, and the dire consequences of disobeying him, or through fear. Lust, fantasy and fear; if Jesus were a real king of this world he would know how to use those to his advantage. But he doesn’t, he just stands there before Pilate and then before the crowd, barely offering a word in his own defense. And even when the nails are piercing his hands, the only words he offers are words of love.
This past week our Presiding Bishop was talking to a group of clergy here, and he brought up a piece of literature that I haven’t thought of in a long time. Some of y’all may have read The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. Well even if you didn’t read the entire book; even if in college you just used the massive thing as a doorstop, you probably read or at least heard of the section called the Grand Inquisitor. It’s the most famous section of the book. I had to go back and reread it this week, because the image of Jesus on trial before Pilate is similar to this scene in Dostoevsky’s book.
In this section of the book, one of the characters is telling the story of a dream or vision he had of Jesus that he is turning into a poem. In his dream, Jesus returns to earth, not for the final judgement, but just because he wants to visit his followers. And he is reborn in Spain, in Seville, during the Inquisition. And Jesus walks about the town performing miracles, just as he had done in Galilee; healing the sick, and raising the dead. And the people of the town, they know exactly who he is. And the cardinal of the Church, having just come from a bonfire of burning heretics, orders him to be arrested. And before he has Jesus burned as a heretic, the Grand Inquisitor walks into Jesus’s lonely prison cell and questions him, just like Pilate.
And what the Grand Inquisitor says to Jesus is: don’t come here interfering with our work Jesus. You got it wrong and the Church has spent centuries trying to correct your mistake. Three times you were given the chance to control the hearts of men and three times you rejected the opportunity. He says, in the desert you were offered three tools that would have made saving mankind so much easier. Turning stones into bread; you could have satisfied men’s hunger. If you had just provided your followers with material comfort; if you had just continued to feed people, you would have had their hearts as well. But no, you had to insist that man is not fed by bread alone. You refused to promise material comfort to your followers, so it is no wonder they turned against you.
And then, he goes on, you had the chance to amaze people through miracles and wonders. You could have jumped off the temple and had angels break your fall. You could have captured their imaginations and their sense of mystery and wonder, you could have entertained them with dazzling and breathtaking displays, but you did nothing. You preferred to show a quiet confidence in God rather than to display his miraculous power. You bored them, so they found someone else to keep them entertained.
And finally, you were offered absolute authority over all the kings and kingdoms of the earth. You could have had temporal power that would have made the world fear turning away from you, and you refused it, for what? So that mankind can freely worship God? Don’t you realize that if man is free, he will freely turn against you?
So the Inquisitor goes on to explain that the Church has decided that if it is to be successful in this world, it must behave like a kingdom of this world. It must use lust, and fantasy and fear to control men; respecting their freedom is just too risky. Appealing to love and love alone, is not an efficient way to run a kingdom. Why didn’t Jesus understand that?
And Jesus stands there silent in front of the Grand Inquisitor; ready to accept his fate for the second time. And when the cardinal is done with his inquisition, Jesus simply offers him a kiss, and the stunned cardinal sets him free.
It’s a great story. It’s a story within a story actually. And while we know it is fiction, we can recognize that there is some truth there. The church has always been tempted to turn Jesus’s kingdom, into a kingdom just like any other. We get frustrated with the fact that love is such an inefficient way to control people; it doesn’t really control them at all. They are always free to do the wrong thing or to turn against Jesus or to ignore him and what he has to say. So we are tempted to use those tools that the kings of this world use. We appeal to people’s desires; we keep them entertained and distracted; or, we appeal to fear or to temporal authority and power to enforce God’s will.
If you know any church history at all, then I don’t need to catalog the ways in which the Church has succumbed to the temptations that Jesus resisted. But it’s not just about our history, we are still being tempted every day to make Jesus’s kingdom look like any other kingdom and to make his church run just like any other organization. We think that our mission needs to be about feeding people’s bodies more than their souls; we think we need to keep the congregation entertained at all times, and we still long for the days when the Church could speak in the public sphere with the voice of authority. And you may think that we don’t like to burn people alive anymore, but spend any time on Facebook or Twitter or look at the comments section on anything whatsoever online and your illusions of moral progress will quickly fade away. This week I was looking up a bread recipe on youtube, and as I looked in the comments section for words of advice, people were being absolutely hateful to one another over how much salt was in the recipe. Oh we like to humiliate people in public now more than we ever did, and we will do it about the most trivial things, because now we have found a way to do it that doesn’t involve chopping wood.
And still Jesus’s response to us, when we try to make his kingdom look like a kingdom that is from this world, is to just keep loving us and forgiving us.
Whenever I am tempted to think that love doesn’t work and whenever I am frustrated with how inefficient love can be as a leadership tool, I think about all the kingdoms of this world that have come and gone; kingdoms that used lust, fantasy and fear to hold on to power; kings that have used every tool of the devil to stay alive, and still wound up dead. Then I remember that the king who rules with freedom and love is still alive and still reins. His kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. He may not have as much to say as the kings of this world, but when he speaks, I’m going to listen.