A Wise Reign

Sunday, November 25
Reign of Christ Sunday

Focus Theme
A Wise Reign

Weekly Prayer
Almighty God, you remembered the oath you swore to David and so established a glorious realm of salvation through Jesus of Nazareth, his heir. Train our eyes to see your righteous rule, that, standing firmly in hope before the powers of this world, we may heed your voice and be constant in your truth. Amen.

Focus Scripture
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.”

All Readings For This Sunday
2 Samuel 23:1-7
Psalm 132:1-12 [13-18]
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

Focus Questions

1. Where is the deepest fear in this scene between Jesus and Pilate?

2. What do you think is going on in Pilate’s mind and heart?

3. Under what illusions are we living in our society? In the church?

4. Would observers recognize that Jesus Christ is “king” of our lives?

5. What does it mean to be “in the world” and yet belong to God?

Reflection by Kate Huey

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 get to the readings, however, it’s a good idea to take a second look at that older title of 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.” 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 came 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 in this text, and with fear-less-ness as well. It seems that Jesus would have more reason to be fearful than Pilate does, 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. 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, while John J. Pilch finds Pilate “genuinely curious” about Jesus.

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 even 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). Charles Cousar persuasively describes Pilate’s being torn between his “instincts” and the demands of his position of power. 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. The trappings of power might reassure him a bit, 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 dusty 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. No wonder many of the commentators suggest that Pilate himself 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? Scott Black Johnston reminds us that the reign of Jesus isn’t over territory or peoples but over the “truth to which people belong.” 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.” Could people say that about the way we live our lives, as disciples of Jesus?

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–are given to God rather than to any other person, thing, or power that tries to claim primacy over God. This kind of love for God is the opposite of idolatry; we might wonder if humans are driven to idols out of fear, out of wanting to belong to something outside themselves. And yet, Karoline Lewis writes, 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. As Eugene Peterson so beautifully puts 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. The role of the church in our lives is an 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 should offer 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. 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 we not truly free after all to be our true selves, to share our vulnerability, our 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,” Peery writes, like the woman at the well back in chapter four of John’s Gospel. 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 “too 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.

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. 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, way too much while too many have way, 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 our responsibility, as followers of Jesus, 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 live as if Jesus reigns over our lives, day in and day out, not just when we’re praying, not just during our time in church?

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. Many scholars emphasize the communal experience, the “belonging” part of this Reign of Christ celebration (after all, arent’ we part of the Good Shepherd’s “flock”?). This message is counter-cultural in the individualism-soaked culture we live in, but if offers us great hope, and guidance as well.

Learning “to call things by their right name”

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. 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).

A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/november-25-2012.html

For further reflection

Stephen Vincent B
nét, 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?”

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