Br. Randy Greve, OHC
Christ the King - Sunday, November 22, 2015
2 Samuel 23:1-7
|Jesus before Pilate|
They can’t even agree on the meaning of the word.Pilate: “Are you, yes or no?”
Jesus: “Why do you ask?”
Pilate: “I don’t, but your own people say you are.”
Jesus: “But not in the way they or you think”
Pilate: “So ‘yes’?”
Jesus: “That’s your answer, not mine. How much clearer can I be?”
It’s a strange exchange. Pilate wanting the answer to a question he has no way of understanding. Jesus unwilling even to use words that Pilate will misunderstand; Pilate vaguely curious, maybe sarcastic, about this peasant prophet accused of being a king yet without an army, weapons, or seemingly any intent on ruling much of anything. Jesus is guarded, perhaps knowing that anything he says will just be twisted against him. The word is king – is Jesus one or isn’t he - seems easy enough. A king has a kingdom, servants, some military force to defend the kingdom and himself – all the usual stuff that goes with being a king. That’s a reasonable definition of a king. One is not a king by wanting to be one or in theory, but one either is or is not. But if those are the criteria, is Jesus or isn’t he?
In the synoptic gospels the only words Jesus ever says to Pilate are “you say so” when asked if he is a king. John uses that cryptic and loaded response and builds this exchange that is between two individuals but is really a dialog, or the lack thereof, between kingdom and empire. In claiming to be some kind of king, Jesus is implicitly rejecting, or at least resisting the Roman Empire and Caesar’s claim to be the only divine power on earth. For Pilate and all the rest of the empire, Caesar is lord, plain and simple. Question or challenge that claim and you may well end up beheaded or up on a cross. The world is clean, neat, and simple. Just fit in, go along, obey and everything will be fine. The reign of God of which Jesus speaks introduces big trouble into the picture.
We still live within empire, although it is usually more subtle and unconscious, it is no less real. Whenever you hear a politician or business leader or thinker of some sort touting the real solution, their solution, to our social problems as the solution that will lead to happiness and prosperity for all, you are hearing the voice of empire. While our social life is important, the belief that our identity and security can be ultimately located in taxing the rich or building a wall or in more weapons or higher wages is alluring but delusional. And of course when someone opposes an idea as ideologically defective, the blame and suspicion begins. Suspicion of other’s motives, suspicion of those in my religion who are not like me or agree with me, prejudice toward those who are different, whose ideology does not line up with mine, whose image of empire conflicts with my image of empire. Pilate is unable to encounter Jesus with objectivity because once he hears the word “king”, all he can imagine after that is rival, threat, insurrection, danger that must be eliminated, even if reluctantly, for the sake of the good of the empire.
Empire not only comes with political or military force but also comes in the form of atheistic scientific rationalism. Richard Dawkins, famous atheist and author of The God Delusion says this:
“The god of the Bible is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
No Christmas card for Professor Dawkins this year I quote that to demonstrate that in his hatred of god and religion he is very religious – he goes about debunking the existence of god with righteous zeal for his own cause, his own little empire of science and mind and self. Life within empire is continually conflict and struggle because my only sense of identity and purpose comes in opposition to or control of the other.
What both Pilate and Dawkins tell us about the human condition is that we need and seek out someone or something, some kind of authority, some ultimate source of truth to which we can look for our identity and security. The appeal of empire is to be on the winning side, to make a world that makes sense, to defeat our enemies, whether people or ideas, and to use our brawn and brains to create the society that we want. So the question is not whether I’m going to live under some rule or not, it’s whose and what kind, which leads us back to our original question, is Jesus a king or not?
Yes, but… Yes, because Christ is King; “but”, because his existence and relationship with the world upends and upsets our imperialistic reflexes. His rule is not with force, manipulation, fear, or threat. This is a voluntary kingdom where everyone is invited. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice”, Jesus says. He rather calmly and confidently says, “Yes, I know that empire will misunderstand, manipulate my words, oppose my way of peace, use me to advance an agenda of dominance, but that does not negate its reality or make it any less true.” This king wields a power far greater than any puny thing we can manufacture - his voice - which is what defies and ultimately defeats the empire – the power of truth. Jesus is speaking to the depths of the soul. Beneath the impulse to be right, to gain control and dominance, is an ache, a longing for a bigger story, a deeper communion, a greater purpose than just what my side can achieve against you here and now. This longing finds its home and identity in the voice of Jesus – belonging to it, abiding in, listening and watching for it in all the amazing ways that it appears and calls to us.
This kind of feast is rare, Holy Trinity Sunday being the only other of its kind, in that we are not celebrating an event like Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost, but a mystery of being. There was never a time when Christ was not already King and there will never be a time when he is not King. We are celebrating an “is”, an eternal reality into which we get glimpses and hints and flashes in this life as we await its closer apprehension in the life to come. In some ways monastic life is the gift of being a sign to the mystery of being, to the “is”. Our rhythm of life – of prayer, work, and study in this community and in many other monastic communities is a particular and consecrated response to this mystery of the “is” of Christ the King. All empire can offer is an “if only”, a fleeting wish that always needs more money, more control, more support. The Church’s “is” is absolute.
Our prayer nurtures the strength of soul to unmask the “if only” of the empire and embrace the “is” of God’s kingdom. Thus we fulfill and embody Christ’s words to belong to the truth in listening to his voice. As we are faithful, our own temptations toward empire become less attractive as we set our hearts toward the time when we shall see Christ face to face on his throne of glory. While God knows the day and hour when kingdom will be fully revealed, we proclaim the truth of it and choose it through our love and service. Every prayer, word, and act of reconciliation, of peace, of justice, of invitation is not just about being nice but is an affront to empire and an embrace of Christ’s rule.
At one of the memorials to the victims of the attacks in Paris, a father and his young son were interviewed about why they had come. The boy was straining to grasp some understanding of what had happened and the outpouring of these tangible signs of remembrance. The father was gently prompting him with the words he thought the child might be searching for – evil and pain and grief mixed with caring and togetherness. Finally, the father spoke not only to his son, but to the church and the world when he said, “They have guns, but we have flowers.” Amen.