November 21, 2021 / Christ the King Sunday / Richard Holmer
First Reading Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 / Second Reading Revelation 1:4-8 / Gospel John 18:33-37
A King Like No Other
If there is anything in this world worth fighting for, surely it would be to preserve the life of Jesus, the Son of God, the promised Savior of the world. Anyone who believes and loves Jesus ought to be willing to do whatever it takes to protect their Lord. Right? So it is that when a band of armed men came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, one of his disciples (John says that it was Peter) drew a sword and struck a slave of the High Priest, cutting off his ear. It was a bold – even heroic – move when faced with a much greater opposing force. However, Jesus told that disciple to put away his sword, saying, “Those who take the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) Jesus was adamant in his opposition to the use of force or violence to bring about the Kingdom of God. Jesus did not resist his unjust arrest. He freely surrendered, saying, “I am the one you are looking for.”
The next day Jesus was brought to Pontius Pilate, who had power to decide his fate. Pilate asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews. Jesus gives an answer that reveals a lot about who he is and his mission. “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. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Jesus indicates that he is a king unlike all the kings of this world.
He is not the kind of king who rules by force of arms and threats of violence. He is not a king like the Roman emperor who intimidates people into obedience and extends his authority by ruthless domination. Jesus tells Pilate that if he was a king like earthly kings, they would be fighting a battle instead of having a conversation. If his kingdom was of this world, Jesus and his followers would employ the means this world provides for establishing and keeping power – namely, violence.
Because Jesus is not of this world, he will not use violence to defend himself. He will not bring in God’s Kingdom by violence. Jesus will not make followers or compel obedience by violence. To be true to himself, Jesus cannot enlist his followers to fight for him. To bring about the Kingdom of God by violence would violate the essential values of the kingdom and defeat its purpose.
+ + + +
Pilate continues his interrogation, saying to Jesus, “So you are a king?” Jesus replies, “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.” Jesus not only speaks the truth, he is himself the living truth. Truth has an authority different from the power and privilege of worldly kings. Kingdoms rise and fall. Truth endures and ultimately prevails. Truth crushed to earth will rise again.
Jesus has authority that is eternal. And his power is not from wealth or force of arms. His is the power of gracious and steadfast love. The trial of Jesus is a confrontation between the power of love and the loveless love of power. Pilate embraces the worldly wisdom that might makes right. Jesus proclaims that what is true and right will finally prevail over all worldly powers. The Kingdom Jesus inaugurates is not a kingdom of violence and domination – it is a kingdom of peace and humility.
Pilate cannot comprehend who Jesus is and what his kingdom is about. So Pilate sentences Jesus to death – and Christ’s crucifixion seems to validate the notion that might makes right. The way of this world apparently prevails over the way of Jesus. His kingdom is buried along with Jesus. Yet as we know, the story did not end on Good Friday – and the Prince of Peace refused to remain dead and buried.
What kind of king is that?? Jesus is a king like no other. Jesus absorbed the hatred, violence and sin of this world – taking it all into himself, absorbing it instead of returning violence for violence – and overcame it all by the greater power of gracious love. This is a vital truth for us to learn and take to heart.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was inspired by the gospel to become a profound advocate of the way of non-violence. He realized that a noble end does not justify any means to achieve it. Instead, the means is the end in the making. We cannot make peace by making war. Listen to the words of Dr. King:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that . Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
By his life, death and resurrection, Jesus demonstrates that the way forward, the way of abundant life and wholeness and peace cannot be the way of destructive violence: not the violence of terrorism, not the violence of fruitless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not the violence of rioters who loot and burn, not the violence that has led to the death of many unarmed Black men and women, not the violence of an assault on our nation’s capitol, not the gun violence that is devastating the people of Chicago.
+ + + +
Brothers and sisters, we live in this world, but we are not of this world. We are members of the Kingdom of God. Because we do live in this world, our need to protect the innocent and vulnerable requires us to rely on the measured use of force when other options fail. So we need police. We maintain armed forces. Yet the use of violent force is not the best option – and should never be the first option.
Because we are of the Kingdom of God, we are to live as witnesses to and instruments of the power of God’s gracious love. This is not naïve idealism. It is the courageous faith we see in Jesus – it is the way you and I are called to follow. We are called to demonstrate a non-violent way different from the way of this world. Violence is not in the Christian playbook. A hymn verse says it very well:
Lead on, O King Eternal, Till sin’s fierce war shall cease,
And holiness shall whisper the sweet Amen of peace;
For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums,
But deeds of love and mercy the heavenly Kingdom comes.
+ + + +
My Reflections on this Christ the King Sunday were inspired in part by Lutheran theologian Dr. David Lose. He reminds us of the radical and counterintuitive nature of the way, the truth and the life of Jesus, the way you and I are called to celebrate and follow.
We are called to witness: to witness to the One who demonstrated power through weakness, who manifested strength through vulnerability, who established justice through mercy, and who built the kingdom of God by embracing a confused, chaotic, and violent world, taking its pain into his own body, dying the death it sought, and rising again to remind us that light is stronger than darkness, love is stronger than hate, and that with God, all things are possible.
We are blessed to follow such an unlikely and good and gracious King.
Thanks be to God.