Sermon Seeds: A Wise Reign

Reign of Christ Year B    color_white_1.jpg

Lectionary citations
2 Samuel 23:1-7
Psalm 132:1-12 [13-18]
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 93
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

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Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
John 18:33-37
Additional reflection on Revelation 1:4b-8

Weekly Theme:
A Wise Reign

by Kathryn Matthews (Huey) katehuey150.jpg

Fear and belonging: these two words seem to run underneath all the talk of kingdoms and trials, glory and power, in the readings for this Reign of Christ Sunday (formerly, “Christ the King Sunday”). Before we even get to the readings, however, it’s probably a good idea to spend some time taking a second, longer look at that title given to this last Sunday in the liturgical year. (Next Sunday, we’ll begin a new liturgical year, Year C, and a new cycle of readings, beginning with the First Sunday of Advent.)

Words like king, kingdom, and kingship may sound far away in both time and place from the democratic societies in which many of us live today. Perhaps they sound patriarchal (or even sexist), and classist, and uncomfortably reminiscent of a time when the church was closely allied to the secular powers of the world, entwined with systems that produced horrors like slavery, violence fueled by anti-Semitism, and the execution of heretics and of women who were perceived to be “witches.”

Jesus with a sword

I remember seeing a mural many years ago, in which a golden-robed and crowned Jesus Christ stands gloriously brandishing a great sword. That image would come to mind through the years whenever I heard pastors and worship planners decide to soft-pedal “Christ the King Sunday” in order not to offend modern people living in a nation where church and state are separate. However, it’s possible, even as we acknowledge the regrettable historical manifestations of human kingship and their use in association with Jesus, to reclaim this Sunday as a celebration that combines the great themes of God’s sovereignty in our lives and in the life of the world that God loves.

But first we have to deal with the fear, and with fear-less-ness as well. It seems that Jesus would have more reason to be fearful than Pilate, who appears to be in ultimate control, backed as he is by the mighty empire of Rome. However, if we read the longer narrative of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, we get a sense of the governor’s nervousness, as he agitatedly goes back and forth, in and out of his headquarters, summoning Jesus to be brought in for one more try at an interrogation that also goes back and forth, and on and on.

Fear as a tool

This nervousness is a good thing to keep in mind as we read this short passage, an excerpt from the longer interrogation and just one moment in Pilate’s growing discomfort with the situation. Isn’t the trial itself grounded in fear, if Pilate and the empire he represents act out of fear of the crowds (which have their own kind of power), and use fear itself as a tool for controlling those crowds? And yet Pilate seems worried about what to do with Jesus: is it possible that we can detect a bit of conscience in the Roman governor, if only for a brief moment in time?

No one knows what’s in Pilate’s heart or mind, but it’s interesting to read the different perspectives offered by several scholars. Right after the end of this week’s passage, Pilate poignantly asks, “What is truth?” in response to all of Jesus’ words about it. His question sounds almost modern, or post-modern, and provides a dramatic moment in the dialogue. However, Robert Bryant reads contempt underneath the governor’s words (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4), while John J. Pilch finds Pilate “genuinely curious” about Jesus (The Cultural World of Jesus Year B).

Follow the fear, not the money

In any case, the power equation must appear to onlookers as tilted in Pilate’s favor, unless they’re moved by the cool, calm manner in which Jesus faces every question. John Pilch characterizes his responses as “wisecracks”: for example, Jesus suggests that Pilate may be a “gossip.” We have to wonder just how long Pilate would tolerate such responses, of course (The Cultural World of Jesus Year B). Charles Cousar persuasively describes Pilate’s being torn between his “instincts” and the demands of his position of power (Texts for Preaching Year B). Does Pilate indeed have a sliver of a conscience, or is he simply calculating the best way to handle his fear? We’ve heard the saying, “Follow the money,” but in this trial (and all that produced it), we might try following the fear.

The most common human response to fear is to run and hide, or to seek the power we need to protect ourselves: seeking power, keeping power, and using power (and sometimes even force) to secure one’s safety and well-being – it really can exhaust a person. Power, however, enables one to protect one’s turf and one’s interests, and Pilate is in the habit of wielding the kind of power that uses soldiers and weapons, invasions and persecutions, to protect what Rome already has and seeks to expand.

Wrap yourself in the illusion of power

The trappings of power might reassure Pilate, but he’s clearly unsettled by a different kind of power that he senses in this stranger from the hinterlands, standing before him. Cousar suggests that Pilate is a power broker whose power is really an “illusion.” How does one respond, after all, to a “threat” presented by a “humble” prophet who observes that he doesn’t need troops or weapons because he doesn’t have that kind of kingdom to protect? His power base doesn’t lie in how many soldiers he commands and the brute force he can exert or even the violent uprising he might inspire; on the contrary, he knows well that his power comes from God.

If Pilate even had a clue about this, how could he respond to that kind of challenge? Cousar suggests that Pilate needs some serious “dis-illusionment,” to be stripped of the illusions he maintains about his own importance and power in the world and in his own life (Texts for Preaching Year B). No wonder many of the commentators suggest that Pilate is the one on trial here.

A little dis-illusionment is a good thing

Would most of us benefit from a degree of “dis-illusionment” ourselves? Do we carry, and act out of, deep illusions about who Jesus really is in our lives and in the life of the world? First, do you think of Jesus Christ as “king” of your life, and if so, what does that mean? (One might also ask, “If Jesus Christ is not king of your life, who or what is?” Or, perhaps, “If Jesus Christ is not king of your life, what word would you use to describe him?”)

Walter Brueggemann hears in John’s Gospel a great legal argument over who Jesus really is: Jesus isn’t the one on trial today, but each one of us is called to testify and perhaps, to be on trial ourselves. What do we really say, and believe, about this Jesus? (The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word). Scott Black Johnston reminds us that the reign of Jesus isn’t over territory or peoples but over the “truth to which people belong” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels, emphasis added). Do we “belong” to this truth? Would people recognize that we do? Brueggemann says that we’re not dealing with intellectual or theoretical things here, but with “a way of being in the world in suffering and hope, so radical and so raw that we can scarcely entertain it” (The Word Militant). Could people say that about the way we live our lives, as disciples of Jesus?

Questions of ultimate allegiance

What does it mean to be “in the world” when we belong to God? Of course, it means our ultimate allegiance and loyalty – and our love and devotion – given to God rather than any other person, thing, or power that tries to claim primacy over God. This kind of love for God is the opposite of idolatry; are humans driven to idols out of fear, out of wanting to belong to something outside themselves?

And yet we do belong to a king whose heart is so tender that we might better see him as a good and loving shepherd who calls us to follow; we can only hope that we’ll recognize his voice and respond, as the blind man did, and the sheep, and Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene, later, in the garden (Karoline M. Lewis, New Proclamation Year B 2009). As Eugene Peterson so beautifully translates the words of Jesus, “Everyone who cares for truth, who has any feeling for the truth, recognizes my voice” (The Message). The truth is something we have a feeling for, a longing for, and we hope that the powers-that-be don’t block our way to that truth.

Facing the truth about ourselves, gently

There is the truth about Jesus, and then there’s the truth about ourselves that we must face. Robert Bryant reminds us that the gentle shepherd-king of our lives calls us to examine our lives carefully and honestly, as Pilate was apparently unable to do (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4).

The role of the church in our lives is one important way that a loving God helps us to carry on this lifelong self-examination, this thoughtful and prayerful self-awareness that should not lead to self-absorption or obsessive guilt. Instead, the church offers a place of nurture and honest but loving encouragement to grow deeper in our faith, to immerse ourselves more deeply in the grace of God, to listen more closely to the call of the Stillspeaking God in each of our lives.

Freedom for Pilate himself?

Pete Peery touches on the heart of things when he reflects on the fear people feel in their lives, the feeling of being trapped, in spite of, or perhaps because of, an excess of material possessions, or their place in society, their security: are they not truly free after all to be their true selves, to share their vulnerability, their deepest hopes and fears? Ironically, Jesus offers this same invitation to Pilate himself, to free himself from his fear and his need for power and security, “to utter the truth of his own life,” like the woman at the well back in chapter four (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4).

The woman at the well (who had so little to lose) experienced her life transformed, but Pilate, we suspect, will remain trapped by his worldly power (he has so much to lose, it seems). The woman at the well could hear the gentle shepherd’s voice, because other things were not drowning it out.

Telling the truth about Jesus

Of course, it is often difficult for the church itself to carry on this sort of self-examination, let alone facilitate that process for the individual member. Undoubtedly that inability played a huge role in the historical horrors mentioned earlier in this reflection, but even our mainline congregations, especially the ones that appear to be safe and stable and somewhat reasonably removed from the abuses of the past, struggle with the freedom and honesty to tell the truth about Jesus and who (and how) Jesus calls us to be the Body of Christ in the world.

Despite our claims of allegiance to Jesus Christ, Pete Peery asks whether the challenges of loss – of memberships, resources and influence – might not tempt the church to shape its message and mission in ways to preserve all three rather than being true to the challenge and risk of gospel living (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4). It’s so much easier to examine and judge the church of several hundred years ago than it is to face the truth of our own life as the church today.

Not of this world but definitely in it

And that question relates to the larger question of what it means to be the church – the Body of Christ – in the world today. On this Reign of Christ Sunday, we have to ask how the “not-of-this-world” reign of Jesus Christ relates to the very-much-this-world situation in which we live. When we look around at the poverty, injustice, and suffering experienced by so many of God’s children precisely because some have way too much while too many have way too little, aren’t we directly contradicting Israel’s wilderness experience when “the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little” (2 Cor 8:15) or the early church’s practice of sharing all things in common (Acts 2:44)? Are we in fact faithful to God’s Word in the way we arrange and live our lives, individually and communally?

This trial of Jesus is in the shadow of Good Friday, and Good Friday continues to be experienced by many people over and over again, today, by starving children and people with cancer but no health insurance and homeless people in the approaching winter and refugees who have lost their homeland and people with HIV/AIDS and women afraid in their own homes. What is the responsibility of the preacher on this Sunday morning, in the face of such suffering by so many of God’s children? Is this a time for triumph, or a time for hope? How do we preach hope, and yet challenge our hearers, and ourselves, to living as if Jesus reigns over our lives, day in and day out, not just during our time in church?

Learning “to call things by their right name”

We don’t experience Christ’s reign all on our own, of course: we are really part of something bigger than our little selves, when we live “under” the reign of Christ. This shared experience makes us belong to one another and to God, who invites us into this community and helps us on our way. This is the place where we get to know who we are as followers of Jesus, and who we are together, as a community of faith. Rodger Y. Nishioka is one of several scholars who emphasize the communal experience, the “belonging” part of this Reign of Christ celebration. This message is counter-cultural in the individualism-soaked culture we live in, but if offers us great hope, and guidance as well (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4).

We have come to the end of another liturgical year, an appropriate time, Dianne Bergant writes, to observe Reign of Christ Sunday. After all, everything we claim as people of faith comes to a fitting conclusion here, with Christ as the focal point, reigning over all creation in goodness and truth, a “ruler” we can approach without fear, knowing that we belong to this gentle and loving shepherd-king who leads us, and cares for us, and calls us home, where we belong (Preaching the New Lectionary Year B). Truly, there is no need for fear.

In the meantime, living in what Walter Brueggemann calls “a seduced world” (one thinks of the way a seduced world wanders away, like a lost sheep), we pray that we might find the right words – and actions – to express the truth of our lives and the truth of who Jesus Christ is in our lives. Brueggemann’s prayer is a fitting way to end one year, and to begin a new one: “Give us courage to depart the pretend world of euphemism, to call things by their right name, to use things for their right use, to love our neighbor as you love us” (“Ours is a seduced world” in Awed to Heaven, Rooted to Earth).

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page:

A Bible study version of this reflection is at

For further reflection:

Stephen Vincent Benét, 20th century
“We thought, because we had power, we had wisdom.”

William E. Gladstone, 19th century
“We look forward to the time when the Power of Love will replace the Love of Power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace.”

Amy Tan, 20th century
“You see what power is–holding someone else’s fear in your hand and showing it to them!”

Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear, 21st century
“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

C.S. Lewis (referring to Aslan, the Lion, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), 20th century
“He’s not safe, but he’s good.”

Elizabeth Gilbert (in Eat, Pray, Love), 21st century
“I met an old lady once, almost a hundred years old, and she told me, ‘There are only two questions that human beings have ever fought over, all through history. How much do you love me? And Who’s in charge?'”

Additional reflection on Revelation 1:4b-8:  

If real estate is all about “location, location, location,” then we may likewise consider the “setting” of this passage with keen interest. First, we are reading it, in time, on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, at the end of fifty-two Sundays of hearing about the work of God throughout history, in Israel, in the time of Jesus, and in the early church. We’ve reflected on how we fit into that story and its purposes, even though we live in a very different place and a very different time. And so we end the year as we should, acknowledging the One on the palm of whose hand our very names are carved, and extending peace from the Jesus who is Lord not only over us but over every Caesar who claims otherwise. Thus, we call this Sunday “Reign of Christ Sunday.”

For some of us, this name may remind us uncomfortably of triumphalist Christianity, with memories of paintings of Jesus holding a sword and wearing armor and looking like one more late Roman or medieval warrior. It may remind us of times when “Christ the King” meant that we should kill anyone who disagreed with us, and, as long as we’re at it, keep their land, too. But there are other associations with this reading, too, if not specifically with the day itself. The Book of Revelation holds many associations with fundamentalist preaching and warnings about end times, a version of Christianity that has frightened many right out of the church, and some of those have returned to United Church of Christ congregations, hoping that somewhere, in all of that, there is a word of hope.

Ending with a New Creation

Of course the news is good, because the Book of Revelation is both beautiful and full of hope. Again, setting is important, because this great letter is a poem to the New Creation, ending the Bible as it began, with God’s hand at work making all things new and full of God’s glory. The perspective of Catherine Gunsalus González and Justo L. González is helpful here, as they trace the unfortunate pattern of misunderstanding and even misuse of this beautiful text, a most challenging one to “translate” into a message that “makes sense,” if you will, to modern and post-modern listeners.

Instead of a message of hope, comfort, and meaning, Revelation is often used by “fanatics” to frighten, confuse, and even intimidate their listeners, who are then unlikely to grasp the underlying message of joy and triumph. Indeed, this last book of the Bible, this last word in our sacred texts, has often inspired “destructive and even pathological behavior” (Revelation, Westminster Bible Companion Series).  

How does the preach approach such a text?

One task of the preacher in this day and this setting is to sift prayerfully through all of this, and to find a clear path to reclaiming and embracing this song of hope and comfort, for there are many sitting in our pews (and many others not sitting there) who have been frightened by this book, and frightened by the use to which too many preachers have put it. Most of those folks will never come to a Bible study to hear otherwise, and may be pushing down fears and doubts prompted by a literalist reading of these texts.

Others may dismiss it as simply a historical reflection of the situation of the church at the end of the first century, a time of persecution, smallness and vulnerability, and certainly not a text that we should concern ourselves with today, especially in a nation that often calls itself Christian, ruled by those who claim the title, too. We can just put it in that place in our minds where we keep the verses about stoning disobedient children or killing the entire population of one town or another: it doesn’t apply to us, we say (or at least we hope so).

A third approach to Revelation

The González commentary wisely points us to a third option. This book is indeed a letter addressed to the “fullness” of the church, represented by the number seven, and it addresses real, historical situations in the ancient Mediterranean world. But it speaks to us, today, too, in our own place and time. Catherine and Justo González remind us that we’re not so very different from our ancestors in what we face, especially the need to make the choice between faith and success or popularity or comfort and safety. They suggest that Revelation’s “dire warnings” are not such a bad way, then, to end the New Testament, for we’re tempted to give in to so many temptations in every age (Revelation, Westminster Bible Companion). Maybe those temptations go by different names, but they always seem to come down to a decision to worship God, to ground our lives in God, rather than in our power and our self-sufficiency. It comes down to caring for one another, just as Jesus taught us, rather than for ourselves alone.

So the warnings are still in effect, but not in the way many may think. And indeed, where is the word of comfort and hope? This very historical book, written by a man of faith to communities of faith long ago, speaks to us of the hope in which we live, because we know who is really in charge not only of our lives but of the future beyond our imagining. We know who the Lord of History is. We know who reigned, who reigns, and who shall reign. We know that the same One in whom we live, and move, and have our being is the God of all history, of all time, of all that is and shall be, including our own little and sometimes fragile lives.

A message of hope

How marvelous and full of hope it is to know that we are held by this God who makes all the little caesars of the world look foolish indeed! This was the hope and comfort of John, of the seven churches and the whole church, and of each of us today.

After more than fifty years as the United Church of Christ, as we look over the histories of many congregations going back hundreds of years, and as we know ourselves as part of a long line going all the way back through the medieval church, and the early church, and back to the first followers of Jesus themselves, who, or what, indeed is “lord” of our lives? Who is indeed head of the church, and what comfort does that bring us, and what challenge? At this end of another church year, grace…grace and peace to you.      

Lectionary texts

2 Samuel 23:1-7

Now these are the last words of David:
The oracle of David, son of Jesse,
   the oracle of the man whom God exalted,
the anointed of the God of Jacob,
   the favorite of the Strong One of Israel:

The spirit of the Lord speaks through me,
   his word is upon my tongue.
The God of Israel has spoken,
   the Rock of Israel has said to me:
One who rules over people justly,
   ruling in the fear of God,
is like the light of morning,
   like the sun rising on a cloudless morning,
gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.

Is not my house like this with God?
For he has made with me an everlasting covenant,
   ordered in all things and secure.
Will he not cause to prosper
   all my help and my desire?
But the godless are all like thorns
   that are thrown away;
for they cannot be picked up with the hand;
   to touch them one uses an iron bar
       or the shaft of a spear.
And they are entirely consumed
   in fire on the spot.

Psalm 132:1-12 [13-18]

O God, remember in David’s favor
   all the hardships he endured;

how David swore to God
   and vowed to the Mighty One of Jacob,

“I will not enter my house
   or get into my bed;
I will not give sleep to my eyes
   or slumber to my eyelids,

“until I find a place for God,
   a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob.”

We heard of it in Ephrathah;
   we found it in the fields of Jaar.

“Let us go to God’s dwelling place;
   let us worship at God’s footstool.”

Rise up, O God, and go to your resting place,
   you and the ark of your might.

Let your priests be clothed with righteousness,
   and let your faithful shout for joy.

For your servant David’s sake
   do not turn away the face of your anointed one.

God swore to David a sure oath
   and will not turn back on it:
“One of the offspring of your body
   I will set on your throne.

“If your offspring keep my covenant
   and my decrees that I shall teach them,
their offspring also shall sit on your
     throne forevermore.”

[For God has chosen Zion;
   God has desired it for a habitation:

“This is my resting place forever;
   here I will reside, for I have desired it.

“I will abundantly bless its provisions;
   I will satisfy its poor with bread.

“Its priests I will clothe with salvation,
   and its faithful will shout for joy.

“There I will cause a horn
   to sprout up for David;
I have prepared a lamp
   for my anointed one.

“whose enemies I will clothe with disgrace,
   but upon my anointed a crown will gleam.”]

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

As I watched, thrones were set in place,
   and an Ancient One took his throne,
his clothing was white as snow,
   and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
   and its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued
   and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousands served him,
   and ten thousand times ten thousand
   stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
   and the books were opened.

As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
   coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
   and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
   and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
   should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
   that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
   that shall never be destroyed.

Psalm 93

God is ruler,
   God is robed in majesty;
the Sovereign is robed,
   and is girded with strength.

God has established the world;
   it shall never be moved;

your throne is established from of old;
   you are from everlasting.

The floods have lifted up, O God,
   the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their roaring.

More majestic than the thunders
   of mighty waters,
more majestic than the waves
   of the sea, majestic on high is God!

Your decrees are very sure;
   holiness befits your house,
O God, forevermore.

Revelation 1:4b-8  

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
         Look! He is coming with 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.

John 18:33-37

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.”

Liturgical Notes on the Readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel

The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.

The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.

A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.

During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading (Series 1) through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings (Series 2). It is suggested that a congregation choose one option and follow it.