King of What?
This is one of my favorite Gospel stories. The ultimate example of that most Lutheran of doctrines, Justification by Faith, the concept that we are made right with God by our belief, not only our actions. By our hearts, not our hands and feet. At a time when absolutely no one else, including the disciples, can see it, this man, a criminal whose life to this point has presumably been less than faith-filled....he sees it. He sees a kingdom where everyone else sees a dying man on a cross.
The church language is full of royal imagery. This is Christ The King weekend. In a few weeks, we will hear Isaiah refer to the promised son as the Prince of Peace.
With many things we hear or see or say a lot, after a while, they sort of lose their meaning. We start to go right past them without actually giving the words we say or hear much thought. So as I prepared for today, I started out with something that would seem pretty basic, but which I am not sure we really think about much when we toss around these royal terms.
Christ the King. OK, sure. But wait. King of......what?
The gospel of John tells us that once, Jesus knew that his followers "intended to make him king by force" (imagine that..."forcing" Jesus to do something!), and so he went off, alone, to get away from them and let the situation settle down. He wanted none of it. We know that the Jews of Jesus' day were waiting for a Messiah that they imagined would be like their great leader from the past, King David. And when the religious leaders of Jesus day thought he was going to do just that, they feared it would fail and arouse the retaliation of their Roman authorities, so they got what we would call "proactive" today...they got the Romans to kill him first, with the charge "King of the Jews". No wonder he wanted to run from all this king stuff!
Today, we would say, they had it all wrong, that wasn't Jesus mission. But do we have it right? Jesus didn't come to lead a military or political revolt. He didn't come to raise an army. But that hasn't kept people from continually trying to fit him into those molds.
During our Civil War, as supposedly intelligent people on opposite sides of the conflict each grabbed their Bibles to show how God wanted us to have (or not have) slaves, someone is said to have asked President Lincoln if he thought God was on the Union's side. And Abe said "I am not so concerned that God is on our side. I am more concerned that we are on God's side."
In our lifetimes, in the recent past, it is still common to invoke Jesus on our side of political questions. The "Moral Majority", the "Religious Right"...these are names applied to groups with a political agenda, largely Christian in their make up, who are (or were) not shy about tossing Jesus into the argument. Even the term "Evangelical", which is in the name of our church, has had its definition completely altered in popular usage, and is now a "buzz word" for "crazy right-wing Christian".
So again, I ask, do we have it right?
Pilate asks Jesus "Are you a King?" and his answers are a bit evasive at first, like He knows how much his name and this kingship thing are going to get twisted around by people for their own uses. Finally, he says, "My kingdom is not of this world." Which doesn't help us understand too much either, does it?
But maybe it does. Maybe that is the beginning of understanding.
You see, Jesus, despite our efforts to the contrary, was about as UN-political as it gets. The people of his day asked him about governments and taxes, and he said, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God's." He entirely separates himself from the issue of governing on this human infested planet.
He virtually never talks about the Romans, certainly never confronts them or condemns them. He never talks about who the Jews should have in charge of the Sanhedrin, makes no political endorsements. He only talks about people and how they should relate to their God, and to each other individually. He frequently turns people's complaints back on to themselves...instead of complaining about how you are being wronged, how can you do better?
Governing humans in the real world is about drawing lines and making rules. Because people, all of us except Jesus, are inherently sinful, you can't have an organized land without laws and enforcement. It's what we have to do to try to counter the sin we know people will introduce into the world. But Jesus understood the weakness in laws; there are always exceptions. Make it a law to rest on the Sabbath...good idea. But what if you come upon someone sick or hurting and you have the capacity to help them? Is it OK to do that on a Sabbath, or does that violate the rule about resting?
Of course, we know Jesus' answer to that. And we know that it got him in trouble with the very strictly-by-the-rules bunch of his day.
Which is why Jesus hated rules. He understood them, understood the need for them in the real world. But then he went about breaking them all the time to show us a better way.
Unlike God, we try to write laws to cover all the possible circumstances and exceptions. God's laws for all of life initially took up two pieces of stone you could carry around with you; no one human is strong enough to even pick up most of the stuff our legislators vote on, and they are written on paper. You can read the Ten Commandments in about a minute, but our laws are too long winded for anyone to actually read. And amazingly, with all those words and pages, we still come across a million oversights and exceptions that don't quite fit right in the law. So we have to have courts to fight over those.
Being a King on this earth, or a president, or a prime minister, is sloppy business. No wonder Jesus was quick to point out that his kingdom was not OF this world.
But here's the really neat part. His kingdom was and is IN this world. Not the same thing as of this world. It isn't of this world because it isn't defined by any human laws or rules, but it is here in our world, all around us every day. Hidden sometimes, most of the time, because the imperfections of the human world make it hard to see. Someday, we are taught, the human imperfections will all be gone, out of the way, and the Kingdom of Heaven will be the only one left, so you won't be able to miss it. But until then, you have to work a little bit sometimes to see it. You have to see the child in Haiti smile and giggle and sing with you so you can get past the fact that he has no shoes or pants and hasn't eaten yet today.
In Jesus' kingdom, the rules are really simple. Love God and love your neighbor.
And here's the thing. If everybody actually did that, we wouldn't need any other rules. We wouldn't need to draw lines and enforce boundaries and definitions. No laws. We wouldn't have to fight about health care or immigration or gun control, because "love you neighbor" pretty much covers all that. It means we would simply take care of each other, not build walls to keep each other out or grab guns to shoot each other.
In this messy world full of imperfect humans, who can't keep his simple rules for more than about five minutes at a time, Jesus knew he could never be the king he wanted to be. That will have to wait. So maybe we should stop trying to drag him in to our mess all the time by saying He is on my side of this argument or that argument. How can we be so darn sure of ourselves and our righteousness that we know he is on our side?
Maybe he can't be king of a human world in human terms. But he can be my king. I can stop worrying about what everyone else is doing, about trying to make everyone else do it my way, and just try to make sure I am doing it his way. I can let him lead me, or really try. And regardless of how well or poorly I do, you can decide that he can be your king, too.
Right now. Today. Forget about the enormity of the rest of the world. The Kingdom of Heaven is here if we live like it is. One person, one interaction at a time.
Dr. Robert Zielinski