Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, November 20, 2009

Is Jesus a King? thoughts for Christ the King Sunday

This is the second half of a sermon to be preached this Sunday for Christ the King. The first half explains the promise to King David and also sketches out the minimalist project of the "historical Jesus" revisionists. This half contains a true story that someone might want to borrow for Advent.

From the Gospel of John:
Pilate…called Jesus, and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered...“My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over…but my kingship is not from the world...For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

This dialogue sets the kingship of Jesus into the sharpest possible contrast to “the kingdom of the world.” This man who is in so many ways a human being just like us has also something about him that is uncanny. He can’t be made into a mere religious sage without deleting large parts of the New Testament. He is, as he says here, from another world. The Christian church calls this the Incarnation: the descent of God from the eternal realm of uncreated light into the violence, darkness, sickness, and death of this world. The Lord Jesus says this in John 8:23—“You are from below; I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.”

Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, could not be more uncomprehending. “What is truth?” he asks, as if Jesus had posed a philosophical question. At the University of Virginia, there is a gateway arch with these words on it: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Those are the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John (8:32), but the university has taken them out of context. In the world of the university, “the truth” is an abstraction. But this isn’t what Jesus’ words mean at all. Here is what he says: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free…[and] if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (8:31-2, 36). So Pilate is just like us when we want to read the Bible as if it were science or philosophy. He has the Truth standing right in front of him and doesn’t recognize it, because he doesn’t recognize the Son of God.

I’m not likely to preach to this congregation again. I must take these few moments to bear witness to the Truth, that is, to Jesus Christ the King of kings and Lord of lords. If we choose to think of him as less than this, we should be aware of what we are doing. Who do we want to be ruler of our lives? Who do we want to be ruler of this world of Sin and Death?

Let’s answer the first question first. Who do we want to be ruler of our lives? That’s easy to answer. We want ourselves to be rulers of our own lives. I am the captain of my ship, I am the master of my fate. Yeah. That’s the American way. Then why hasn’t your career gone the way you had hoped? Why is your marriage troubled? Why aren’t your children doing what you want them to do?

Second question: Whom do we want to be the ruler of this world of Sin and Death? But maybe you don’t think of the world that way. Maybe you think of it as white sails on Long Island Sound. Maybe you think of it as hitting the perfect golf stroke. Maybe you think of it as Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving. I know a man who is famous for being cheerful and optimistic about everything, always upbeat, always ready with a solution for problems, very successful in his lifelong career, valued and respected. On the eve of his daughter’s wedding, his son took a fatal overdose of drugs.

I saw him months later, not knowing. His face was shadowed. He had been through something. I inquired. He told me what had happened to his family. Here’s what he said to me: “We are not in control of our lives. Who would plan for his son to o.d. on the night of his sister’s wedding?” Then he said, “I went back to the baptism service in the Book of Common Prayer [the old 1928 Book, interestingly]. I saw that in baptism, the child becomes God’s. My son belongs to God. Nothing can change that. This thing is between him and God. I can let it go.”

That’s what it means to trust in God as the ruler of Death.

Every baptism is a victory over Death.[1] “The Lord swore to David a sure oath from which he will not turn back.” Baptism is the action of God in this world to ratify his “everlasting covenant” in the lives of each of his beloved children. It is the action of Jesus Christ as Lord and King over all the demonic powers. It is the action of God in the tortured death of his Son where, on the cross, he drew into himself all the wickedness and all the pain and all the sorrow in the world and, in the resurrection, conquered it—conquered it because he came from the world where death has no dominion and he returned to the world where death has no dominion. From that dominion he rules as the living Lord: his dominion is Light; his dominion is Truth; his dominion is Life—for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.


Grant, O Lord, that we may fight the good fight of the faith; that we may take hold of the eternal life to which we have been called; that we may make the good confession in the presence of many witnesses…In the presence of God who gives life to all things, and of…our Lord Jesus Christ… the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light... To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. ( I Timothy 6:12-16)

[1] “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4)