Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., on November 22, 2009.
John 18: 33-37
As John was imprisoned on the Island of Patmos, he was visited by God in a vision that helped him and all those persons of faith in the tormented times of the first century understand what God was doing in a world that was wrought with violence and oppression. His vision contained these lines that speak of the coronation of Christ: “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come … Look! He is coming in the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:4b, 7-8, NRSV).
The one who is and was and is to come was John’s answer to the harsh realities of his time. John’s vision was a word of hope about all that is in our time that is set against the reign of God. There is hope that the world and all its myriad problems are only a mirage in light of the eternal power and hope of God acting in history to bring all this into line with the values of the kingdom that Christ has come to bring.
Our faith is a historical faith grounded in the particularities of time and space with the revelation that comes from God to specific persons in history who have encountered God and have told the divine story. Unlike other world religions, we’re not separated from the historicity of an obscure being who has no real connection with the world and its inhabitants. The biblical story is told to help us understand that God is integrally involved in the world and time is pointed towards God’s eventual reign of it all.
Imagine the scene in our gospel reading; Pilate met the angry Jewish crowd just outside the praetorium. The crowds pronounced their judgment and pushed Pilate with all their might. Then he retreated inside where he met this Jesus, face-to-face. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he demanded.
“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus answered. “My kingdom is from another place.”
“You’re a king, then!” mocked Pilate.
“Yes, you are right in saying I’m a king,” Jesus responded.
With this, Pilate went back outside and declared Jesus innocent. Then he had Jesus beaten, flogged and humiliated him by adorning him with purple robes and fitted a crown of thorns upon him as a sign befitting a man whom he calculated was politically-minded but who had lost his base of power to the point that he was more to be pitied than feared. “Hail, O king of the Jews,” he railed.
But trouble still brewed outside where the crowds hounded him at the point of his weakness: “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar! Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar,” they shouted.
Pilate found himself sandwiched between the two political realities between angering the crowd and betraying the emperor. So he caved to the pressure as all politicians eventually do. “Here’s your king … shall I crucify your king?”
Knowing Pilate better than he imagined, the crowd responded, “We have no king but Caesar!”
So Pilate had his soldiers affix a sign on the cross of Jesus written in Aramaic, Greek and Latin, which said, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Maybe that was the slight he knew would provoke them and perhaps a way he could get in the last word on the matter. They objected, of course. “Don’t write ‘The king of the Jews,’” they clamored, “but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.”
It was too late and he was not of the mind to let them edit him, so he said, “What I have written, I have written.”
We struggle with the idea that we serve another kingdom if we’re to be faithful followers of Jesus. When Jesus insisted his kingdom was “not of this world,” he didn’t mean it was merely spiritual nor relegated to a future age just over the horizon of time or even that he was speaking of heaven where all things are eventually made right. He was speaking of a reign that runs counter to most of what we experience in life no matter what your political persuasions. Jesus was talking about the push-pull we feel whenever we attempt to make Christ king in our hearts and lives. It’s that tension we feel whenever we realize the kingdoms of this world are empty of meaning and limited by sin.
Daniel Clendenin says, “In its simplest terms, the kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like, here and now, if God were king and the rulers of this world were not. Imagine if God ruled the nations, and not (the world’s leaders as we know them). Every aspect of personal and communal life would experience a radical reversal. The political, economic, and social subversions would be almost endless – peacemaking instead of war mongering, liberation not exploitation … mercy not vengeance, care for the vulnerable instead of privileges for the powerful, generosity instead of greed … embrace rather than exclusion, etc. The ancient Hebrews had a marvelous word for this kind of life, shalom, or human well-being.”
Walker Knight wrote a wonderful sense of this in a thing he wrote some twenty-five years ago, “Peace, like war, must be waged”:
Peace plans its strategy and encircles the enemy.
Peace marshals its forces and storms the gates.
Peace gathers its weapons and pierces the defense.
Peace, like war, is waged.
But Christ has turned it all around:
the weapons of peace are love, joy, goodness, longsuffering
the arms of peace are justice, truth, patience, prayer.
the strategy of peace brings safety, welfare, happiness
the forces of peace are the sons and daughters of God.
Maybe you’re sitting there thinking all this is a pie-in-the-sky way of believing not grounded in reality. That’s okay. If we took up this way of thinking, things would have to change. We might have to give up some important piece of my life in ways that we simply can’t or won’t do. It’s too much for many believers who continue to live in the world that Christ came to change.
I hear you because the only way I can name your weakness is to identify mine. But it’s the way of Christ, we must admit. If I changed and you changed, it would make a difference. If you and I changed and we convinced others to change, what could happen? It would be a revolution of the kind that Jesus came to start.
Maybe then the subversive prayer of Jesus can be prayed by all of us, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Maybe, just maybe, that’s why Jesus stood before the government’s man and let him talk till he found the justification he needed to fend off the political accusations of weakness the Jews used to make him do what they wanted.
“Perhaps the heightened sense of God’s presence is best seen outside the sanctuary, where Jesus is king, not in places of power, but in places where people try to serve him. Perhaps we will see him most vividly, not among those who choose violence as a solution, but among those who practice peace-filled solutions. Yes, Jesus is king, not where people seek advantage, but where people seek to be helpful, not where people seek security, but in a working and breathing community. This is good news! If Jesus is king, not just once a year on a throne but throughout all of time and in every place, then we don’t have to be king, or seek another king. We no longer have to judge one another. We don’t have to control what other people think and feel or force them to fit our expectations. When that happens, the kingdom of God is here and now, here in our hearts, here among us—and out there wherever we carry it. It’s a liberating idea if you think about it.”
And liberation from the old way of doing things is what Jesus was all about. It’s God’s answer to the brokenness of the world.
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).