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.” (John 18: 36-27)
You probably woke up today thinking this was just another Sunday like any other Sunday... but it’s not. Today is special because this is the last Sunday of the church year. This is the Sunday when the church clears its throat, and makes a pronouncement concerning the person of Jesus Christ. Who is he? After all, we’ve followed him, witnessing his life and ministry throughout the past year ‒ followed him to Bethlehem where he was born, followed him to Galilee where he taught, healed and shared the good news, followed him to Jerusalem where he suffered and died on a cross, followed him to the gravesite to witness his resurrection, and then were led into the world by his Spirit which has directed, guided, and grown the Church.
We’ve followed Jesus all the way to this final day of the church year and now it’s time to profess something about the person of Jesus Christ. What is it that we believe about him? Having read all the scriptures, having heard all the sermons, and sung all the hymns, what is the ultimate claim we can make about him? It’s time to sum it all up into something concise and manageable.
And the pronouncement the church has made is this: Jesus Christ is King. He is king above all earthly kings, he is Lord over all creation, he reigns above every earthly power. Jesus Christ is King. That is the most central message of the Gospel and the ultimate proclamation of the Church. So we call this, aptly, Christ the King Sunday.
I have no problem with the proclamation, but I do wonder why they select the Gospel passage they do for today! You might think they’d chose a scripture passage where the power and glory of Jesus is unmistakable... his ascension from the earth into the heavens maybe, or his transfiguration before the amazed disciples, or perhaps a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus. But no, the lectionary passage for today is Jesus is bound, standing before Pilate. Pilate is the person of power here – he’s the one doing the interrogating and Jesus is answering his questions. The accusation has been made that Jesus is a threat to Rome because he claims to be King of the Jews. Pilate is trying to get Jesus to indict himself, so he has cause to crucify him.
“So, you are a King?” Pilate presses, to which Jesus responds, “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.” Is that a yes or a no? It’s not clear. It’s certainly not enough to condemn a man to death! So, Pilate goes out and tells the crowd that he finds no case against Jesus. And that makes the crowd angry because they want blood, so they press Pilate even more. And this is the passage we have for Christ the King Sunday?! Yes – it is.
I suppose the reason this passage was chosen is because it reminds us of something we already know but rarely put in words... that while Jesus Christ is indeed King, there are places where his sovereign rule is still being challenged. Oh, he’s King alright, but every knee does not yet bow, and every tongue does not yet confess. So, in a way we’ve got the cart before the horse. Yes, he’s king but his dominion is still coming... his kingdom is not evident everywhere. Not yet.
And this kind of runs against the grain of our Presbyterian heritage, doesn’t it? Presbyterians have been raised to believe that everything should be done “decently and in order.” First things first! The coronation comes before the parade and celebration! But in the Gospels, the parade into Jerusalem comes first. Jesus is hailed as King before he has a throne to sit upon, a crown to wear, or an army to protect him. Aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves? The king does not yet exercise power over the kingdom! You don’t celebrate before the fact
But God’s ways are not our ways... and it’s a humbling thing to learn that God does not always follow Presbyterian polity – no, everything is not always done decently and in order. Many times, God does choose to celebrate before the fact. There is plenty of evidence in scripture to attest to the fact. Take Joshua: Joshua and his army march around Jericho, trumpets blasting in celebration and everyone shouting praise to God, when? Before or after the walls come tumbling down? Before! And God sends Samuel to anoint David as King of Israel when? When David was just a kid... while Saul was still king of Israel. And in the parable of the prodigal son – when does the son get the ring, the robe and the big party? After he’s proven himself out in the fields or before? You know it’s before! Much to the chagrin of his elder brother. God does things backwards. God seems to like to celebrate before the fact.
And the implications of this for you and I are profound. If we profess Christ is King, then we too need to be willing to join the celebration. We need to hail Christ as king, despite all evidence to the contrary. What evidence? Just read the newspaper headlines: suffering, violence, fire, loss, terrorism, mass shootings, calamity, division, homelessness... evil still wages war against the King! Darkness still challenges his light. But we celebrate because evil is no match for Christ. His dominion is not in question! And so, we celebrate his kingship, we spread his light, and we extend his kingdom knowing one day every knee will bow and profess he is king. So, everything we do after we say, “Jesus Christ is King” is an act of faith... until his kingdom comes in its fullness.
There is a confession of faith in another denomination that expresses our present situation succinctly:
The forces of the evil one still wages war against us.
The destructive powers are still present,
But their end is not in doubt.
We await the full revelation of our Lord’s triumph. (Living Faith Ch.3.5.3)
We await the full revelation of our Lord’s triumph... but waiting here is not referring to a passive act. It involves us actively working to usher in Christ’s Kingdom. Back in the 1970’s, Communist Poland was being challenged by a Lech Walesa ‒ a Roman Catholic electrician in the Gdansk shipyard. He started the Solidarity movement in Poland which called for open elections in Poland. The Communists reacted by outlawing the Solidarity movement and imprisoning Walesa. They eventually released him but kept him under constant watch.
Jean Vanier, a prominent Catholic leader here in America, went to visit Walesa and asked him, “Where is your hope?” Walesa replied, “We are waiting. We are waiting.” What he meant by “waiting” is that the outlawed Solidarity movement had gone underground and was preparing for the right moment when they would re-surface again, this time so strong that even the communist government would not be able to stifle them. And that is exactly what happened. Protests in Poland eventually forced the communist government to declare free elections in 1989. The Solidarity movement surfaced with Lech Walesa as their nominee, the newly formed position of President of Poland. He was elected President for five years and the iron curtain in Poland came crashing down... and that influenced the tearing down of the Berlin wall just a year later. Waiting is active, not passive.
And so, we await the full revelation of our Lord’s triumph in similar fashion. We who proclaim Christ as King are actively awaiting his kingdom, we don’t just acknowledge his sovereignty, we work for his kingdom that is coming as surely as the sun that rose this very morning! And we do so by gathering on Sundays to worship him in this place, and by living according to his teachings – loving one another, even our enemies, caring for the needy, tending to the sick, being a voice to the voiceless, speaking up in the name of justice, serving others as Christ served us.
In many countries the Church is considered a subversive institution because our king is not yet recognized as sovereign everywhere. This is why the church is outlawed in some places and severely limited in others. Those countries and those leaders do not support Christ’s kingdom. And even in our own nation which has been founded on Christian principles and beliefs, there are many times when the church finds itself at odds with the laws and policies put in place, or with behaviors and actions that some display. And it is our job as subjects of Christ’s kingdom to stand up and to speak up when this happens. To wait for Christ is to actively prepare for his kingdom – building bridges of love and understanding, welcoming the stranger, caring for the needy, preaching peace and proclaiming justice... all the while praying “thy kingdom come” and looking for signs of its coming.
Sue and I decided to invite Constantine Mbaruku and his family over for Thanksgiving dinner this week. We had no family to celebrate with, and it’s crazy to cook a huge meal, including a turkey, for just two, so we invited them over. Constantine agreed to come, to which his daughter Sbeera said, “I have never eaten turkey before...” so we knew we had to cook turkey.
It will go down as one of our more memorable Thanksgiving dinners. They brought some African food to add to the mix and we all sat down together to celebrate God’s goodness. When you share Thanksgiving with refugees you can’t help but remember all the important things we should be thankful for... for the freedom we enjoy in this country, for the abundance of our land, for the opportunities to succeed, for the ease of communication, for the gift of one another and the unique gifts of each one. We broke bread around the table together and were thankful, and somehow in that meal the kingdom of God came closer than it had in previous meals. And before they left, they all stood up, sang the first verse of “Amazing Grace” and then prayed for our household. There was Christ in our home, reigning supreme!
Jesus Christ is King. Oh, I know there are places he’s still unknown, still unwelcome, still challenged... but his kingdom is not in question, His reign is coming and sometimes it gets so close to us that we can’t help but celebrate and sing! So close that we can’t help but celebrate before the fact.