Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, November 21, 2021

YEAR B 2021 christ the king

Christ the King, 2021
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 93
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today’s Gospel reading is all about power.  There’s the obvious power struggle between Pilate and Jesus, and there’s the background power struggle between Pilate and the Jewish leaders.  And there’s an overall power struggle between the Jewish people and Rome.  Lots of power being thrown around, and it’s hard to tell who’s actually going to win in the end.

I grew up in the city of Niagara Falls NY, and was surrounded by natural power.  We had this massive waterfall—perhaps you’ve heard of it—powerful in it’s own right.  Safe to look at from a distance, but if you get in the way of its flow, you will be swept away.  And thanks to Nikola Tesla, the power of that water was harnessed into the power of electricity.  And electricity, like the waterfall that generates it, is powerful in its own right.  Safe to use in daily life, but get in the way of its flow and you will be electrocuted.  

It is the nature of powerful things to sweep over us.  You think of a tsunami, or a hurricane, or Rome in Jesus’ day.  You can stand in the way of such things, but they will sweep you away without so much as a ripple.  Powerful things cannot be resisted, like electricity, earthquakes, and the IRS.  You might step out of the way, or leave town, or direct the energy elsewhere, but when power hits you head on with its relentless force, there really is nothing you can do.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is being held captive.  He’s kind of on trial, being interrogated by the one in power.  Pilate has the power to decide what happens to Jesus.  The power of life and death over Jesus.  He says, “Your own people handed you over to me.”  Your own people have put you in the path of my power, and you will now be swept away without a ripple.  Do you not understand the force of my awesome power?

And the two of them have the strangest conversation.  Pilate keeps asking questions that seem designed to help him justify putting Jesus to death, but the answers make it sound like the two of them are each talking to someone else.  Like they’re not using the same rules of conversation or something.  Pilate asks if Jesus is the King of the Jews.  Jesus asks if he’s asking on his own or if someone else told him about him.  Pilate says, I’m not a Jew; what have you done?  Jesus answers, My kingdom is not of this world.  Pilate asks, “So you are a king?”  Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king.”  But “I testify to the truth.”
This is not a normal conversation.

We would expect Jesus to be talking his way out of getting killed.  We would expect him to be trying to step out of the way of Pilate’s tidal wave of power.  We expect Jesus to seek higher ground, but he just stands there, talking like a crazy man!  Pilate is playing a game of sorts with Jesus, and Jesus is going to lose.  It’s a fight to the death, and Jesus won’t even pick up a sword.  Jesus is swept up in the wave of Rome’s power.

There are some confrontations in life where you could say just surviving is enough.  Maybe you didn’t win the fight, but you’re still alive, right?  The Hunger Games, Presidential Debates, pistols at twenty paces, in these cases, surviving is good enough.  You don’t necessarily have to win to win.  You just need to not be dead, right?  But Jesus cannot be said to have won even on this level. 

Following this exchange with Pontius Pilate, Jesus is overpowered in every sense of the word.  And yet we call him victorious.  We call him king.  Jesus loses the game in the most decisive way possible, and yet today you and I are celebrating Christ the King Sunday.  What makes the difference?

Well, there’s a temptation to say that Jesus loses the battle but wins the war.  We want to say that when you put his death in the context of the larger picture, Jesus wins.  In the broad scope of things, Jesus’ death is just a temporary setback on the way to the larger victory.  Gotta break some eggs to make omelets.  The end justifies the means, as some like to say.

The problem with that approach is that it justifies the smaller battle on the way to winning the overall war.  When you and I take this approach to things it is exceedingly dangerous, because we get caught up in moving the goal posts.  Before long, any act can be justified in service to the greater good.  You can end up approving anything by simply dialing out the lens and putting it in a larger context.  

We can see this in dictatorships all around the world.  The suffering of one person, or one race of people, means nothing if it achieves the overall goal.  Actual people are completely dispensable when we can trade them in for lofty things like world peace, or purity of doctrine, or an achievable political agenda.  And if we claim that we don’t do this ourselves on at least a small scale, then we’re not looking at our lives very carefully.  We do this kind of cost-benefit analysis all day long, when you think about it.  

And sacrificing one person for the overall good of many should sound familiar to us because it is ultimately what gets Jesus killed.  For the survival of Israel, one man must die . . . for today.  If this one man is sacrificed, there can be peace with Rome . . . for today.  All will be right in the world, the thinking goes, if we can just get rid of this one person we don’t like.

And you and I can safely watch this injustice in the assurance of the resurrection, right?  We can fold our arms and say, “You just wait until Sunday buster.”  And when we do that, we’ve walked ourselves right back into thinking it’s okay for Jesus to lose the battle because he wins the war.  But if his death is okay because we know he’s going to rise again, then we’ve missed the point.  Because “the end justifies the means” is exactly the thinking that gets Jesus killed.  Strange as it sounds, Jesus’ death is not made “okay” because of the resurrection.  The death of God’s own son is not just a minor setback on the way to the bigger goal of salvation for humanity.

Let’s return for a moment to where we started, talking about the power of nature.  When a massive wave is rushing toward you, if you do not move out of the way, you will be swept away, no matter what you do.  But what would happen if you could change the nature of the water?  What if you could separate the hydrogen and the oxygen, for example?  Or what if you changed the forces of friction, or gravity, or the nature of mass itself?  The point is, power sweeps us away because we are forced into playing the game on water’s terms.  The reason water can overwhelm us is because we’re stuck in this system with the laws of nature governing what happens.

Now, step back into the interrogation of Jesus before Pilate with all that in mind.  Pilate is fully expecting Jesus to beg for his life, plead for mercy, or at least stand up to him as a king.  What Pilate is not expecting is for Jesus to stand there like he doesn’t understand the game.  Pilate is working from the perspective of the massive wave of Rome’s power, and Jesus isn’t responding appropriately.  

And here’s the important thing: The reason Jesus is not playing the game as Pilate expects is because Jesus has declared the game itself to be over.  Jesus has seen the violations of the rules, the undeclared fouls and penalties, the absolute corruption of the referees and judges, and declared the entire game invalid.  

The resurrection is not just some last-second score that somehow wins the game in overtime, because that would still be playing by the rules of the game, you see?  Jesus does not overpower Pilate with an even bigger dose of power.  Instead, Jesus changes the very nature of power itself.  Changes the laws of nature, if you will, in what it means to wield power.

Because of Jesus, power is no longer shown in putting someone to death, but rather in rising from death.  Power is no longer shown in taking from the hungry, but in feeding them.  Power is no longer shown in conquering my enemies, but in loving them.  This is a hard teaching, because it goes against everything we are taught.  Which is the whole point!

We began this day with a Collect proclaiming that it is God’s will to restore all things in Jesus, asking that God would grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule.  The most gracious rule of Jesus.  Power as Jesus defines power.

In Jesus, God has changed the very meaning of power and strength.  Power and strength come from the hand of God, and they are to be used for very different purposes than what the world has taught us, or would have us believe.  And for those of us who gather at this Altar, true strength comes in holding out our hands as beggars, to receive the most precious body and blood of God’s beloved son, Jesus Christ our Lord, our strength, our redeemer, and our king.


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