Sermon for November 21, 2021

Last Sunday after Pentecost 25/Lectionary 34B, Reign of Christ, John 18:33-37

Picture Pilate’s headquarters, the place where Jesus was summoned to be questioned concerning the complaints about him brought by the religious authorities. Pilate was the Roman governor for the territory of the Jewish people, an agent of an ancient superpower, the Roman Empire.

Given that, Pilate’s headquarters may well have been an impressive place architecturally, and no doubt outfitted with some very nice things. Roman ruins suggest some pretty opulent buildings.

To help your imagination, think of the many embassy buildings located throughout the District of Columbia. Such images might help you imagine Pilate’s headquarters.

Surely Pilate’s place came with all the trappings of power. Power in a worldly sense. Maybe there were mosaics adorning the walls, ceilings and floors that pictured the emperor or perhaps military conquests by Roman armies. Maybe chariots and horses were depicted. All symbols which suggest raw power, perhaps that conveyed through violence.

Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost, known as the Reign of Christ, or Christ the King Sunday.

Thus it is that those who decided which biblical stories to include in the Revised Common Lectionary chose the story from John’s gospel for this day, the story about Jesus coming to Pilate’s headquarters to be questioned about being a king.

Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jewish people?” Jesus then queried Pilate, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate then revealed, “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”

Then Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world.”

The world in John’s Gospel cannot finally be reduced to the spatial qualities of ancient cosmology, with the world or the earth “down here” and heaven or eternity or the divine realm “up there.”

Rather, world in John designates particular qualities of power relationships and ordering of societies that stand in distinct contrast to eternal or heavenly or sacred qualities of such ordering. Remember that for John, eternal life is something that begins here on earth even now. Thus, God’s reign is on earth, as it is in heaven, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer.

So, when Jesus says to Pilate that his kingdom is not from this world, he’s saying that the qualities that mark the dominion with which he is associated are distinct from the ways of the world.

Jesus elaborates, revealing the ways of the world, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Judeans. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

That is to say, Jesus seems to be implying that worldly ways would involve violent rebellion, insurrection to keep imperial hands off Jesus so that he might assert his own power over against that of Rome, fighting fire with fire, exchanging force with force.

Of course, it’s noteworthy that Jesus doesn’t directly admit to being a king. Pilate asked in response to Jesus seeming to imply he was a king, “So you are a king?” Jesus continues some evasion so as not to be labeled and misunderstood, and replies, “You say that I am a king.”

So, what’s going on here? How do we begin to make sense of this exchange between Pilate, the representative of empire, and Jesus who represents something quite distinct from empire?

The light of clarity begins to shine in the final half of the final verse of today’s gospel: “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.”

“To testify to the truth.” That’s the opening to seeing what kind of kingdom, what kind of reign and dominion Jesus is associated with. The mission of this reign is to testify or witness to the truth.

“I came into this world to testify to the truth.” The Greek word translated testify here is the same word from which we receive the word martyr. So we might say that Jesus is to be martyred to the truth, or martyred because of or for the truth.

Which brings us directly to the cross.

I began this sermon by inviting you to imagine in your mind’s eye Pilate’s headquarters. What about Jesus’ headquarters, as it were? In Jesus’ kingdom, where does Jesus hold court? Where is his throne?

That place is Golgotha, a barren hill outside the city walls, a place of execution by Roman powers. That’s Jesus’ headquarters, if you will, a very different setting from that of Pilate’s place of power. The cross, then, is Jesus’ throne. Jesus holds court there offering words, final sayings from the life-giving tree of his throne, arms outstretched to take us all to himself, testifying to the truth about himself and about God:

  • To his executioners, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
  • To the repentant criminal hanging next to him, Jesus revealed, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
  • To his mother and beloved disciples, Jesus lovingly offered, “Woman, behold your son…. Behold, your mother.”
  • To the divine one whom Jesus called Father, Jesus pleadingly asked in agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
  • Describing his condition, Jesus stated, “I thirst.”
  • Testifying to completion, Jesus proclaimed, “It is finished.”
  • Finally, again addressing God, Jesus says on his final breath, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

These are not statements from the worldly kind of king housed in the likes of Pilate’s headquarters. Indeed, Jesus’ realm is not from that world.

What happens to Jesus on the cross is his embodied testimony to the truth, the truth that God loves us and gives all for us. “For God so loved the world that he gave is only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Truth is a big word in John’s Gospel. The truth about Jesus’ identity has its fullest and most vivid display on the cross and in the empty tomb.

Jesus’ kingdom, his reign, his dominion is one of truth and truth telling, a truth that sets us free. Elsewhere in John, Jesus is recorded as having said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32)

All of this is indeed in stark contrast to the qualities of dominion in the kingdoms of this world, which are more often marked by death not life, imprisonment not freedom, hatred not love, lies not truth.

Fast forward to our own day. Where now is it that Christ reigns? How is it that this kingdom, this dominion comes about even now? Martin Luther helps us here in the Small Catechism and his explanation to the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come.” Luther explains that God’s kingdom in Christ comes about “whenever our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that through the Holy Spirit’s grace we believe God’s holy word and live godly lives here in time and hereafter in eternity.”

In other words, this kingdom is not located in a headquarters, but in the meeting place of assembly. Right here in this place when the Spirit assembles us around word and sacrament when the truth is testified to again and again right here in our midst, the Spirit generating our belief in God’s holy word, the Spirit birthing our godly lives here in time and ultimately in eternity.

This kingdom of Christ finds its way to us in the power of the Spirit, even entering into our night visions which are often night terrors as suggested by today’s first reading from the apocalyptic narrative from the book of Daniel which speaks of a throne of fiery flames, wheels burning with fire, and a stream of fire flowing from the One who sits in judgment of all people.

But in Christ, these night visions also reveal, as Daniel writes, “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.” To this one, Christ, was given a dominion that is everlasting, that will not pass away, a reign that will never be destroyed (cf. Daniel 7:13-14). Thanks be to God that night terrors give way to the reassuring, calming presence of Christ, offering the peace of Christ.

It’s into this reign of Christ that we are baptized, the dominion of Christ finding its way to us in water and the word all wrapped up in the Spirit’s coming for our own personal Pentecost – thus fulfilling in small but powerful ways what appears in today’s reading from Revelation where we hear the truth that Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. Christ is the one who loves us and frees us from our sins by his blood, and makes us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and father, Christ who is given glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (cf. Revelation 1:5-6)

Moreover, this reign of Christ also finds its way into our own bodies when we eat the bread and drink from the cup, becoming participants with Christ in his holy reign.

Finally, the reign of Christ finds its way to the wider world when we leave this place, fed and thirst quenched, to go back to that world bearing the truth of Christ the king in word and deed as we lovingly serve our neighbors in need.

This is what we celebrate and extol on this last Sunday in the church year, another day to honor Christ our King. Amen.