Preached at St Mark’s by-the-Lake, Tecumseh Ontario, November 22, 2015.
Text: [Revelation 1:4b-8], John 18:33-37
I was invited to preach at St Mark’s because I was awarded the St Mark’s by-the-Lake award for Christian Leadership last year and they have a tradition of inviting those who receive the award to preach in the church and meet the community. I had a wonderful morning with St Mark’s and was able to speak with many people in the community over coffee (post-8am) and soup (post-10:30). They are a warm and welcoming community just outside of Windsor. Many thanks to Rev. Robert Lemon and his congregation for the invitation.
I would like to invite you to take a walk with me if you will.
It might not be an easy walk. The streets are crowded. Its that Holiday rush – the tight pack of people all headed in the same direction with far too little space to accommodate them all. And yet the crowd is growing – where they are all coming from and how many more will fit is anyone’s guess.
The air is full of voices – but there are so many voices that it is hard to pick out what anyone is saying. From the tone, there are some who are overcome with excitement for the Holiday. And there are others who are muttering about this inconvenience or that annoyance.
The sounds and smells of animals – horses, donkeys, sheep – provide that smellscape that you sometimes get when the petting zoo or live nativity scene sets up in the town centre. But that isn’t too surprising: we are headed towards the Temple. It is Passover. We are in Jerusalem.
You look around, taking in the sights, and start to notice that there are soldiers strategically placed along the roadside and even more around the Roman government building up ahead. An extra show of force – and security? – at Holiday time. They are instructed to keep the peace at all costs.
The crowd begins to shift, bunching in closer together and you start to hear the clinking of armour. Looking back, you can just see through the mass of people a group of fully armed soldiers pushing through the crowd. You can tell they are soldiers because of the sun glinting off of their drawn weapons. No wonder the crowd is surging away to give them space. And the soldiers have with them a group of men wearing the long robes of religious leaders and a man who looks like he is their prisoner.
They are heading towards the headquarters of the Roman Governor in Jerusalem, a brutal man who would have only have come to the city if he anticipated civil unrest and the need for soldiers to squash it.
The Roman Empire. A vast empire won and held by force.
There is no way that anyone can take over most of the known world without some sort of violence: violence of the sword, of executing political prisoners by crucifixion, of brutal suppression of dissent.
Or, perhaps there are other ways of taking over or spreading dis-ease that are more familiar to us sitting here in our pews today: The violence of systems that enslave people and keep them in poverty. The violence that strips culture by stifling the speaking of native languages or religious expression. The violence of having to work long hours in a sweatshop for only pennies a day to produce clothing you can’t afford to wear. The violence when children are removed from loving families. The violence that forces families to flee from their homes and risk everything in small boats on an open sea to get to safety. The violence of intolerance and hate.
If the Reign of Christ, Jesus’ kingdom, if Jesus and his followers – if he and they were of this world, then they and we would use the primary tool of this world for establishing and keeping power: violence.
Pilate turns to Jesus and asks him, Are you the King?
My kingdom is not from this world. Responds Jesus. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to you … But my kingdom is not from here …
Imagine an alternate reality with me, and let us think back to last night, when we were gathered with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying. Suddenly soldiers appeared with lanterns and weapons – maybe even the same soldiers we saw earlier today pushing him through the crowd.
These soldiers want to arrest Jesus and take him away! But Peter, that faithful follower, will have none of that. Before anyone else can even wrap their head around what is going on, Peter has pulled his sword out and cut off someone’s ear. The next thing we know, everyone is pulling out swords and fighting the soldiers off. Then it is a run down the hill into the city to catch them unawares – fighting into the palace and installing Jesus as King.
For the next few decades, people like Paul will sail around the Mediterranean spreading the good news of a kingdom of violence to the world.
While we know this is not what actually happened with Jesus and his followers, it is what eventually happened with the Crusades, with the colonization of North America, Africa, and many other parts of the world, and is what happens today when good people spread of messages of hate and intolerance in places like Facebook…
This is what happens when kingdoms are spread through the ways this world knows.
But My kingdom is not from this world. Said Jesus.
My kingdom is not a kingdom of violence. Put your sword back into its place, Peter. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.
We can imagine Jesus saying, Those who live for violence – for hate, intolerance, distrust – will only bring more of the same into their lives.
Jesus is not of this world and so Jesus will not defend himself by violence, nor will he establish his claim by violence. Jesus doesn’t usher in God’s kingdom using violence. And Jesus will not make any followers by violence.
Nevertheless, Pilate asks, So you are a king?
Jesus answers; 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. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.
Instead of coming to establish his reign through violence, Jesus has come to witness to the truth. The truth that God is love and that God so loved the world that God sent God’s only son to the world. The truth of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling amongst us so that we might see his glory, his glory full of grace and truth.
But, as the writer of the gospel of John reminds us, the world did not recognize him. Because no one has ever seen God. (John 1)
Because we have not seen God, we have a hard time imagining God. And when we try to imagine things we have not seen or known, our imagination becomes dominated by our experience. Rather than imagining a God of love, often we imagine God to be angry or violent because we live in a world of violence. The headlines we read, the images we see, and the sounds we hear daily on the news and in social media are frequently ones of violence.
Rather than recognizing the cross as a symbol of sacrificial love, we assume that it is the legal ways of punishing Jesus in our place – because we have way too much experience with punitive relationships.
Rather than believing that God’s grace and acceptance and love are entirely unconditional, we assume that God offers love, power, and status only on the condition that we fear, obey, and praise God – and despise those who do not – because so much of our life is about “tit for tat.”
But Jesus is not of this world. And so his followers do not fight to bring about his reign because to use violence is to violate the very principles of his kingdom and will only cause its destruction.
No, the way to bring about the Reign of Christ is through love.
That radical love that, in the words of our baptismal covenant, calls us to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbours as ourselves.
Because while the Reign of Christ on one hand reveals Christ in his glory, coming in with the clouds so that every eye might see him, the Reign of Christ is also about the glory of Christ hidden beneath rags so that when we see him, we might love him by giving him clothing,
or find Christ thirsty that we might lovingly hand him something to drink,
or discover Christ the stranger or refugee who we might welcome into our homes or communities.
The Reign of Christ – the reign of the Christ who is calling us to transform the unjust structures of society that cause people to have to flee from their homes,
or that force people to work in dehumanizing conditions for insufficient funds,
or that calls us as a national Anglican church to grapple with a legacy of violence stemming from systematic abuse in Residential Schools –
The Reign of Christ is here on earth so that we might challenge violence of every kind to pursue peace and reconciliation.
Because here is another difference between the kingdom that Pilate was looking for and Jesus’ kingdom that is not from here: Jesus’ kingdom is not limited to a particular place or time like the Roman empire was or like the empires of today are.
Jesus’ kingdom is a state of being. A way of life. A commitment to view the world through Jesus’ eyes of love and to love fiercely even in the face of these violences in the world we see all around us every day.
In a few moments we will gather together around a table. A table where we proclaim the power of the sacrificial love of Christ. And then together we will pray, praying with believers all around the world, “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
Today we proclaim that the Reign of Christ is here on earth. That Christ is among us, enthroned in glory and leading a kingdom not spread through the means of this world, but spread through love.
Welcome to the Reign of Christ, to the Reign of God’s love.