The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon
When Jesus was born, heavenly messengers appeared, but they did not go to the powerful, the political at the capitol city of Jerusalem. But the angels went to poor shepherds working the night shift over in the little town of Bethlehem. And, what did the angels say?
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace for those of whom God is well pleased.”
St. Luke has put on the lips of those herald angels a proclamation. It is almost an exact quote of the proclamations that were issued by Augustus Caesar, one of the world’s most efficient occupiers of the Near East. Agustus Caesar, when he wanted to send a proclamation out to the occupied territories, he would sent out his herald who would stand in the middle of the town’s square, and say, “Glory to God in the highest —that is Agustus Caesar—and peace, to those with whom the Emperor is well pleased.” And hell to pay for those with whom the Emperor is not well pleased.
See, Luke has put on those angels’ lips the very proclamation from King Agustus! There is a new king, the angels seem to say, and it’s not the Emperor!
Well, today’s Gospel is a long way from that joyous night. Now Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate, the representative of Caesar in Jerusalem, and Pilate looks at this whipped, beaten, bedraggled Jew standing before him, and Pilate asked, with his voice just dripping with sarcasm, “So, you are King of the Jews?” And though Pilate has all the legends abroad backing him up, one can almost feel in that little conversation between Jesus and Pilate, you can almost feel power seeping from the Empire toward this Jew.
Well, this Sunday, this is Christ the King. And it is the newest of the Church’s liturgical festivals. Christ the King, it was invented back in the last century by the Catholic Church to celebrate the reign of Christ, the Kingdom of Christ. Some cynics said, just as the period in the nineteenth century when the Church’s political influence was slipping away from it, the Church invents Christ the King to celebrate our power and influence. We Methodists had never heard of Christ the King, so the Episcopalians told us about it. But today is Christ the King—that day when all the Gospel lessons, all the focus is on the reign of Christ the King. It is one of the Church’s most political Sundays.
And I confess I always feel nervous on Christ the King because of an experience I had a few years ago. Christ the King, I left my house to go to Duke Chapel to preach, my wife said to me, “Do we have an interesting sermon today?” I said, “Well, we have a correct sermon today.” And on the way over there I got to thinking none of those people want to hear a sermon on the reign of Christ. Lord, give me some way to get those people interested in my sermon. So I began my sermon this way: I said, I asked rhetorically, “Do you want a king? A King? Do you want a King?” Well, not often, we’re a democracy, we don’t believe in monarchy. But I didn’t ask, “Do you need a king? Do you need somebody to come in here and take charge? And I don’t mean some polo-playing boy that babbles in architecture. I don’t mean a little woman with a hat and a purse and sensible shoes. I mean a real king, to come in her and get something done for us!” And then I launched into a sermon on Christ as King.
End of the service, a woman comes out of the Chapel, clutching a purse, wearing sensible shoes, she says to me, “Did it not occur to you that you might have very subjects in the congregation this morning?” I said, “Well, we’ve got people from Michigan, Ohio, all over, I guess.” And she said, “You’re not funny; you’re disgusting. And I intend to report you to your superiors.” And then, her voice rising to a shout, she said, “Our Queen is ten times the Christian of your disgusting actor President.” And I said, “Well, I’d hate to put that to a vote here, but thank you, and….” Students gathered. Students always love to see the congregation assault clergy, and one of the students said, as this woman was storming out the door, “Well, I guess she got the point, didn’t she? There is just one King.”
Today is the day when the Church puts on the table politics. The question, “Who is in charge? Who rules?”
But, really when you think about it, every time the Church gathers and prays as we will, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” it’s politics.
A chaplain brought a group of college students from Mississippi through our place, and we were having a discussion about being Christian on a college campus. A young man, baseball cap backwards on his head, he asked me, he said, “What do you do when people despise you and try to hurt you because you are a Christian? How do you handle that?” And I said, “Well, Methodists are so nice, it’s been so long since anyone has tried to hurt us for being Christian, how do you mean?” And he said, “Well after the fraternity meeting a couple weeks ago we got into a discussion about going to war with Iraq, and most people thought it was a great idea. I just said I didn’t think it was a good idea. I thought it was a bad idea. I didn’t think it would solve anything. They started yelling at me. And they said, ‘if you don’t like living here in this country maybe you’d like to live somewhere else’—that’s what they said to me. And I said, ‘Look, look, I don’t know that much about military strategy and all; I’m a Baptist, and we Baptists tend to be suspicious of the Government. We just remember who put Jesus to death. We can’t get that out of our head. That’s all I know’”
Now there’s a young man with a very different vision of who sits on the Throne.
Pilate asked Jesus, “So, you are King?” Jesus didn’t really reply. He just went and died on the Cross at the hands of the Empire. And then rose unexpectedly from the dead, and once he was risen, the first thing he did was start to form a new government, a new people, made up of all the world’s people, that stand as a rebuke to every other sovereignty.
Ah, but as Christians, it’s just so hard to see the king. We, like Pilate, look at this, this polar opposite of our notions of rule and power, and ‘are you king?’.
When the President called a National Day of Prayer I watched on television as people, uniform people stood from this pulpit and call for all-out war against our enemies who had done such horrible injustice to us.
Look, but I thought of an earlier service I had attended in this grand Cathedral, teaching at its College of Preachers. We came over here one night, a decade ago. As we launched our first war against Iraq to end all war in the Near East forever. And Joan Brown Campbell stood in this pulpit, President of the National Council of Churches, and said, “No, in the name of Christ, ‘No, we must seek peace.’” And then the Elder Bush responded, “Well, that’s just not realistic.”
No, it wasn’t the woman was unrealistic. It was just that she had been conditioned to focus on a different definition of reality. She’s got a peculiar notion of who reigns. Maybe you might think of that as the whole purpose of worship and gathering and the question of who sits on the throne. Where is this all finally headed?
Our Lesson from Revelation begins with the word “Look! Look! Who is in charge. It’s the Lamb, the slaughtered Lamb. He’s on the Throne. We know how the last chapter ends. We know where this is all moving. And that means when we think politicians with suspicion, we think a little different.
Well, I was glad in our Scripture today when we read from that 18th Chapter of the Gospel of John on Jesus before Pilate, we finally rectified what is one of the worst translation errors in most of our English New Testaments, the Authorized Version right on through all the rest, Living Bibles Translation the worst, where Pilate says, “Well, are you King?” And then Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not from this world.” If you’re like me you probably grew up and you heard that differently: Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not of this world.” That’s a terrible translation. The Greek word is “(sounds like ‘ek’), and it doesn’t mean of; it means from, ec—out of. There’s a big difference between saying “Thy kingdom is not of this world; my kingdom is something spiritual. My kingdom is something you go to later. It’s like Disney World. It’s just out of this world. It is not of this world. It floats off into ethereal……” And what Jesus said, Jesus looked Pilate in the eyes and said, “My kingdom, my government is not from this world. You don’t my kingdom the way you get this world’s kingdom. My kingdom is not constituted by the people, by the means, the ways and the goals of this world’s kingdom. My kingdom is authorized, my kingdom is constituted by another place, from another source.
And so Christ the King is a good Sunday for us to pray,
God, give us the grace to see who sits on the throne.