11/25/2018 Sermon: Jesus and Empire

Christ in Judgment, Byzantine h

On Reign of Christ Sunday (also known as Christ the King Sunday), I preached at Resurrection Lutheran Church in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago.

You can find the lectionary reading here.

Sermon audio and text is below.

Sermon Audio

“Are you King of the Jews?” Pilate asks Jesus.

It should strike us as absurd. Pilate is the Roman governor of Judea. He has a palace, he has cops and regents and the support of an entire Empire. Jesus, in the context of this passage, has just been abandoned by his only friends and supporters, arrested, subject to police brutality, and is now sitting helpless in front of one of the most powerful men in the Judea. Pilate holds all the power, something he would remind Jesus of only a few verses later, and yet he is asking Jesus about truth, and about who Jesus is.

And Pilate does not ask him, “do you claim that you are king of the Jews?” Pilate only asks him, “Are you king of the Jews?”

This short Gospel reading is missing most of its context. If we were to read it in context, we would know that Pilate is pacing back and forth between Jesus, the accused, and the people of Judea, who have demanded that Jesus be killed, though they have not specified what his crimes were. Imagine: the decisive governor of Judea, pacing between a mob and a lone, peaceful man, trying to figure out what to do with this accused man. If we read this passage in its context, we would also know that Jesus has already announced who he is; only a few short passages before this, Roman soldiers announce that they are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus answers, “I AM.” And everyone falls before him, bowing.

“Are you king of the Jews?” Pilate asks. But Jesus does not play his games. He has already said who he is, and king is never the title he has applied to himself.

In fact, when Pilate asks again whether Jesus is a king, Jesus only replies, “You say that I am a king,” but that he has come to this world to testify to the truth.

The truth? Pilate must have thought this was a bold claim, because he immediately asks, “What is truth?” Those who know the Gospel of John well may have the answer on the tip of their tongue. Before his arrest, Jesus announced “I am the way, the truth, and the light.”

We know the answer to Pilate’s question about truth, and yet still I can’t help by feel that we are Pilate. Like Pilate, we pace between Jesus and the things people are saying about Jesus, wondering what the truth is; we pace between the mobs of this world and the man hanging on the cross, wondering who to believe. We have been told who Jesus is, perhaps felt ourselves fall before the great I AM, and yet still we wonder what the truth about this curious person, Jesus of Nazareth, is. Or, perhaps, in an age where the words ‘fake news’ are so often used, we may pace between what we hear and what we know, wondering what is true, and then perhaps wondering what God has to do with the truth, anyway.

N.T. Wright, an Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar, said that, “truth is what happens when humans use words to reflect God’s wise ordering of the world and so shine light into its dark corners, bringing judgment and mercy where it is badly needed.”

So, when we say that Jesus is the truth, we testify to the fact that Jesus, the powerless man who stood before Pilate, is the one who comes to shine light into our dark corners, to illumine where hearts break and death reigns high, to bring mercy and love and grace to those who need it so desperately.

But truth, as NT Wright defines it, is at odds with the Roman Empire. Empires, he says, can’t cope with the truth. He goes on to say that empires “make their own “truth,” creating “facts on the ground” in the depressingly normal way of violence and injustice.”

And this is certainly true of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire spread and dominated through the largest and fiercest military the world had ever seen, and they grew their territories through violence and force. They killed entire cities which resisted, salted the earth to remove people’s ability to live off the land, they exploited the natural environment wherever they went, and they created a system where the vast majority lived in squalor while the richest among them enjoyed luxury.

But they had their reasons. The Roman Empire functioned this way to keep chaos at bay, to maintain order. They valued the pax romana, the Roman Peace, wherein people could trade freely and people could live safer lives, if only the violence exported further away from Roman cities. They prided themselves on a prosperous economy, on a stable government. The Roman Empire emphasized its military force and exploited the land and its people because they believed that this was the best way to give people good lives.

In short, they believed that violence would be their savior.

And Jesus claimed the opposite.

Jesus, who came to testify to the truth, says that his kingdom is not from this world, because the kingdoms of our world are full of this myth of saving violence. Our kingdoms, whether they be the Roman Empire or the United States, claim that we can be prosperous and safe – we can find our salvation – if we simply rely on violence in whatever its form.

But Jesus tells us that this kingdom is not from our world, where violence is hailed as savior, but that his kingdom is over truth. And Pilate asks him, “what is truth?”

But Pilate could have known already, had he been listening. Jesus had been preaching and teaching publicly for three years by the time he was put on trial before Pilate. For three years he had been shining light on the dark places of our world and bringing mercy and healing to all whom he met. Jesus testified to the truth by healing the sick and dying, by raising Lazarus from death, by comforting the brokenhearted, by speaking to foreigners and teaching women, by feeding the hungry and witnessing to God’s light in the world.

Jesus had been testifying to the truth for years by proclaiming God’s love for the world, and by showing that this great love meant healing from our every ill, freedom from the captivity of injustice, and redemption for all creation.

And the Empire could not cope with this truth, and they crucified him.

Pilate paced back and forth between Jesus and his accusers, wondering which savior he might choose. And he chose violence.

So, Jesus is right. His kingdom is not from this world, it has no basis in saving violence. And Jesus never does claim to be a king. His only crown was made of thorns, and he had no throne – only a cross.

So, why then, do we even have Christ the King Sunday? Why is it we gather once a year, at the end of our church’s calendar, and proclaim Christ to be something that he never claimed for himself?

The answer lies in the origin of this feast day. You see, unlike Advent or Lent or Easter, which are all ancient parts of our church calendar, Christ the King Sunday is only 93 years old. It was declared a holy day in the Roman Catholic Church in the year 1925, as a political response to the rise of fascism in Europe, and especially in Italy.

That same year that Christ the King Sunday was given a place in the Roman Catholic Church’s calendar, Mussolini had declared himself dictator over Italy. And he believed vehemently in the myth of saving violence. His “Black Shirts,” the fascist party of Italy, claimed that it would resurrect Italy to the former glory of the Roman Empire through violence and domination.

And the Church Universal felt the need to remind the world that Christians do not count our allegiance with the Empires of this world, and that our salvation comes not from violence. Rather, we follow a different way. The Truth, over which Christ reigns, is where we count our allegiance. It is in Christ, not violence, that we find our salvation. And it is through God’s love, not weapons and fists, that we will find the redemption of the entire world.

Today, we may find ourselves like Pilate in so many ways. We may wonder what the Truth is, and we may scurry between who Jesus says he is and who the world says he is, wondering what is to be believed. We may wonder who our real savior is – Jesus or the violent ways of Empire.

And like Pilate, we rely on the violence of an Empire to secure our own safety and economic prosperity and comfort. We may not be the ones who hold the weapons, but we rely on the US military, now the largest the world has ever known, and police and private prisons and factories which rely on child labor and detainment centers for immigrant children for the kind of lifestyle we live here in Lakeview. Like Pilate, we have outsourced the violence we rely on for our lives, and like Pilate, we can find ways to make this violence into our savior.

But the difference between a Christian and Pilate is that Pilate chose Empire. As he paced between his two options, between the mob and Jesus, he decided that violence was his savior after all. And we, as Christians, claim that Christ is the true king. As Christians, we proclaim that we have chosen a different way that the one that our empire has laid out for us. As Christians, we hold fast to the faith that love is a greater savior than violence, and love will always have the final say.

Christ the King Sunday marks the end of this year’s church calendar. Next week, we will begin the season of Advent, where we wait with bated breath for the birth of Jesus. It is fitting that we celebrate Christ the King just one week before we remember the beginning of his earthly life. Because nothing can tell us more about the kind of sovereign Christ is than to see that he entered this world as a helpless, fragile infant, born with all the limitations of our frail flesh, born helpless and hunted by the Roman Empire. And all this, only to be Immanuel, God with us. It is this Jesus of Nazareth, laying in a manger, that we proclaim God, and it is this Kingdom of God, where violence has no foothold, to which we belong. Amen.

Influential Sources/Further Reading

Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence by Walter Wink

How God Became King by N.T. Wright

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