Not of this World?

A Sermon for 22 November 2015 – Christ the King Sunday

A reading from the gospel of John 18:33-37. We break into the portion of the gospel when Jesus has been brought before Pilate to be condemned to crucifixion. Already Pilate has been outside to talk to the religious leaders who have brought Jesus to the local Roman ruler. And Pilate’s wondered if this man isn’t innocent. He returns to his headquarters to speak to Jesus directly. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “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.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

There’s a couple in my new neighborhood who have been really welcoming to me. The first day when I was moving in some boxes, they walked by and made a point to introduce themselves. Then a few weeks ago they stopped in to tell me of an upcoming neighborhood potluck. I didn’t know for sure where they lived until one morning when I passed by a house and the man was outside doing something to his car. He’s always so chipper – no matter the early hour. It’s impressive to me as I barely am awake most mornings when I’m out there walking my dog. One day I noticed a sticker on the back window of their car. It reads: “Not of this world.” . . . I’ve been a little confused as to what exactly they intend with their sticker. Especially because it’s on the back window of their sleek, silver Infiniti, which leaves me wondering if they bought the car to keep themselves focused on infinity, as in eternity; or if they really are focused on a luxury vehicle and the sticker is just an after-thought.

I’m not so sure I like the sticker – what with a long Christian history of abuse of physical matter in this world due to misguided understandings of God. After all, if spirit was all good and matter was all bad, God never would have created physical matter. This beautiful earth with all its creatures including us, who are an interesting elixir of spirit and matter. The breath of God breathed into the soil of the earth, according to the Genesis 2 telling of it (Genesis 2:7). If the world was all bad and the spirit was all that was good, then certainly God wouldn’t have taken on our physical flesh in Jesus the Christ. I know we focus a lot on his death and resurrection, but he really was a living human being – like each one of us. It must have been so cool to be him – excited each day to wake up in a home with parents around him, and feet to put on the ground, and taste buds to take in that first sip of whatever it was he’d drink each morning. He finally had ears to hear the sweet songs of the birds and muscles to feel the strain of physical labor – the wood in his hands as he worked alongside his dad. He could feel the hot sun on his back as they built and notice the beautiful colors as it began to set each night. He had a brain to think and try to keep calm. And a heart beating in the center of his chest with which he could feel the full range of human emotions. I do believe that if God didn’t value the physical stuff of this world – including all the stuff of human flesh, then God never would have chosen to be in-fleshed among us in Jesus the Christ. . . . I don’t like stickers that lead people to believe that the matter of this world somehow needs to be escaped. Because we wouldn’t need to waste any time on Advent and Christmas if that was the case. . . . For God so loved this world, God in Christ came to us in a new and wonderful way!

It’s Christ the King Sunday – the final Sunday of the liturgical year. It’s the culmination of the cyclical story that takes us in Advent through the waiting, waiting, waiting for God to act among us in a new way, to the in-breaking of Christ as a baby in Bethlehem, to his radical way of living among us which led directly to his death but could not be the end for a God who is Life and would start something amazing among us through the Spirit so that we would grow together in this world to walk that same radical path of love. Today we remember Christ is King! He reigns supreme with the strongest power known in the universe. Not force, in which the powers of this world put all their hope; but love.

This year in the Christ the King lectionary, we’re taken right to the judgment seat of Pilate. Here in the gospel of John a seemingly private conversation between Jesus and Pilate is recorded. . . . It might be helpful to remember that John is the latest written gospel and it begins with that beautiful poetry of “In the beginning” (John 1:1-14). There was God. There was Word. There was Spirit and the outflow of their love created the world. The continuing outflow of their love caused it to be that Word would take on flesh to dwell among us. . . . Jesus attempts to explain this to Nicodemus when Nicodemus comes to him in the shadow of night trying to understand what Jesus might be up to. As the gospel of John records the story, it’s the first teaching of Jesus and it begins like this: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3). If you’re scratching your head going: “Huh?” Don’t be alarmed. Supposedly Nicodemus was a part of those who devoted their whole lives to understanding God and he’s just as confused as the next.

In her book entitled The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind, Cynthia Bourgeault makes the case that Jesus isn’t just the Savior of the world – here to die and be raised to new life for us, as we’ve primarily come to emphasize in the Christian tradition of the West. Jesus also is a wisdom teacher – one among us to perk our consciousness that we might come to know how to live. How to follow the path of his Way. It’s why so much of what Jesus teaches is hard for us to grasp. People seek to take him at face value like he’s a teacher who rattles off fact after concrete literal fact. When wisdom teachers speak, according to Bourgeault, “pithy sayings, puzzles, and parables” all for the sake of the transformation of the human being (The Wisdom Jesus, p. 23). Bougeault points out that much of Western Christianity has seen the kingdom of God in one of two different ways. She writes: “A lot of Christians . . . assume that the Kingdom of Heaven (or of God) means the place where you go when you die – if you’ve been good.” . . . Others “equate the Kingdom of Heaven with an earthly utopia . . . a realm of peace and justice, where human beings live together in harmony and fair distribution of economic assets” (Ibid., p. 30). I’ve heard of both, haven’t you? In fact, one or the other, or both, seem the concern of Pilate. He’s Rome’s representative in Jerusalem, after all. If Jesus is a King, he needs to know if the Caesarea has anything to be worried about.

As Jesus stands before Pilate, he’s asked: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33). In the vein of a true teacher of wisdom, Jesus turns back the question on the questioner: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” (John 18:34). He might as well have been saying: “What do you think, Pilate? You see the leaders out there wanting to do me in. Am I the King of the Jews?” Insisting Jesus reveal his crimes, Jesus finally tells Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. That’s easy enough to see or else my followers would be here storming the gates to free me. Using the very same force Rome and the powers of this world rely upon” (John 18:36). . . . I wish the gospel writer would have used a word other than the same one used in the rest of the gospel of John. Like instead of saying: “The Word was in the world, and the world came into being through him . . . And for God so loved the world” (John 1 & 3); I wish the word on Jesus’ lips before Pilate would have been translated society. Culture. Even way, as in: “my kingdom is not like your way.” Anything to keep us from thinking that Jesus wants nothing to do with the physical stuff of this world. His kingdom is not of this world in the sense of the norms, rituals, and values of so much of our society. But it is right here and now; in this world. . . . He says it himself when elsewhere the Pharisees ask him when the Kingdom of God will arrive. Luke 17:20-21 records his answer as: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed . . . for in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.” . . . In Putting on the Mind of Christ, Jim Marion suggests a third way to think about it. He concludes that the kingdom of God might just be “a metaphor for a state of consciousness . . . a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place” . . . an awareness that sees no separation between God and humans, and humans and other humans. (The Wisdom Jesus, pp. 30-31). It’s a Oneness. A mutual indwelling, which Jesus tells his followers about a few chapters earlier in the gospel of John when they gather together that fatal night. He tells them: “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you . . . abide in me” (John 14:20; 15:4). When we’re aware of that kind of oneness – when we’re living that kind of unified sense, then the kingdom of God indeed is in us.

I want to believe that’s how my new neighbors mean it as they dash around the neighborhood in their Infiniti. It could be the source of the man’s cheeriness every morning. For maybe when he greets me, he realizes I’m no stranger. Not some other who moved into the house one of his dear friends had to move out of in order to sell it. Maybe he sees us as one. Knows we’re not of this world because we’re in Christ and Christ in us; which makes us foreigners really to the ways propped up as heroic in the society in which we live. Maybe we’re both celebrating today that Christ is King – the One reigning in the kingdom that is present in us each and every day because we are citizens first of that Way. I want to believe we’ve both heard that truth from the lips of the One who deeply loves the physical, living matter of this world – you and me and all this precious earth. The One who shows us how to live in this world as ones not of this world. That’s Christ our King.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

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