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Of all the times I have needed and been unable to find or create a sermon illustration, I have never wanted one less than the one I have to share with you today.
You see, I realize that Jesus as a king is a hard concept for many of us to wrap our heads and hearts around. Understandably, many of us get hung up on our limited understanding of what a king is, and that can leave us feeling very uncomfortable with the notion of worshiping and obeying the Christ, and having our fate rest in his hands.
But I’m pretty sure that neither Jesus of Nazareth nor Pontius Pilate, in the testy exchange presented in John’s gospel, believed they were talking about thrones and robes, crowns or scepters, royal decrees or other kingly conventions. Both Jesus, who tradition tells us was visited and worshiped by foreign kings as a baby and who, as a man, had just days before had been greeted with cries of “king” and “hosanna” as he entered Jerusalem riding a lowly donkey, and Pilate, who as the Roman governor of Judea was an agent of the emperor, knew that what they were really talking about was power.
What they were really talking about was authority—the means by which to shape the world toward a certain end, whether for domination by and the enrichment of a few, . . . or grace, justice, healing, belonging, and wholeness for all, starting with the least, the last, and the lost.
Now this is a kind of power we can understand. More than that, it is the kind of power we want, the kind of power almost everyone desires: the wherewithal to make things go the way we want. We can talk all day and night and until the next Election Day about power for what and for whom—because that is so much of what political power is about. It is the power of emperors and kings, the power of presidents and generals, the power of members of Congress and CEOs, the power of the wealthy and the privileged.
Which brings us back to Pilate’s headquarters, the center of Roman power in ancient Jerusalem. Jesus holds none of these powerful positions; nor does he have any hope of attaining them. And so Pilate, having heard the word on the street about Jesus, having understood why the chief priests fear and detest him, is belittling Jesus, cutting him down to size. He confronts Jesus not as prophet or healer, lover, leader, or teacher, but Jesus as political prisoner. In one fell swoop, Pilate both mocks Jesus and insults the Jews.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” he taunts. As if a poor man from Nazareth is the best the Jews can do. As if a prisoner in chains is Israel’s best hope. As if the son of an old carpenter and a young girl can claim to speak for God. As if Jesus is not just another soon-to-be-dead man walking.
Pilate’s aim was to show both Jesus and the Jews of occupied Judea how absurd this notion of Jesus’ kingship was. How absurd it would be for any Jewish subject of Caesar’s to think they could have any power at all. Pilate’s goal was not so much to kill Jesus as to squash any hope the Jews had of liberation and justice. He was less interested in trapping Jesus in the crime of treason than in reminding the Jews who was in charge. This world was all Pilate knew. And so he had built his life not on power with others or power for others, but power over others.
Power struggles don’t come much more crass than this. Except that Jesus isn’t struggling. Jesus isn’t taking the bait. Pressed by Pilate, Jesus allows only that his realm is not of this world, that his followers will not be fighting the earthly powers to protect him because their eyes are on a different prize, that his purpose is not to rule but to save.
Christ the King, or Reign of Christ, Sunday is a testament to the power and authority of the one whose kingdom is not of this world: the one who serves, the one who sacrifices, the one whose authority comes not from humans but from God, the one who changes the world by love and mercy and truth rather than military might, the sharing servant king who points to the extravagant love of God rather than a conquering ruler who will do anything to get and keep the throne. Compared to most feast days of the church year, which date back to ancient times, Christ the King Sunday was created just yesterday—in 1925. In the wake of the growing nationalism that had followed World War I, church leaders felt a need to remind Christians that their first allegiance must be to the kingdom of God.
And yet Reign of Christ Sunday has always been a hard sell—not so much because of our different Christologies (plenty of American Christians worship their own image of a white Jesus), but because of our love of political and economic power and our attachment to the ways of this world. Many American Christians still speak of their love for God and country as if country and God were a matched set. Other American Christians, despite their despair over our nation’s leadership and policies, continue to put their greatest trust, resources, and energies in the methods and politics of the kingdoms of this world.
To proclaim Christ as Lord or king, to follow the ways of a troublemaker and rabble-rouser who loved the oppressed and the powerless, is not easy. Resistance to the current occupant of the White House and all he stands for is one thing, but committing ourselves to the building of a kingdom whose creation will take much, much longer than the next election cycle (or the one after that and the 10 after that), is something altogether different.
Which brings me to the sermon illustration I wish I didn’t have.
This past Friday another beloved child of God, another suffering servant of the kingdom of God, another Christ in our midst came face-to-face with the kingdom of this world.
Samuel Oliver-Bruno, a 47-year-old Mexican man who has lived without papers in this country for more than 20 years, had for the past 11 months been living in sanctuary at CityWell United Methodist Church in Durham, North Carolina, to avoid deportation. While in sanctuary, Samuel had begun to pursue a call to ordained ministry, and other students at Duke Divinity School agreed to hold their class at the church. Samuel had been the sole source of financial support for his wife, who is ill, and his 19-year-old son.
Recently Samuel received notice from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to provide fingerprints and discuss a petition to stay his deportation. So Friday morning Samuel left the safety of the church and, accompanied by clergy, church members, and other supporters, traveled to the ICE office.
After he arrived, as he had been ordered to do, Samuel was forcibly detained, handcuffed, and arrested by ICE officers dressed in plainclothes. They dragged Samuel outside the building and put him in a van, which his supporters then surrounded. They sang “Amazing Grace,” and other songs, they prayed, and when they tried to speak to Samuel or refused to move away from the van, 27 of them, including Samuel’s son, were arrested.
We might say that the powers of this world were clearly in control of the situation. We might say that Samuel and his supporters had no power at all. Samuel is now in detention. Two members of Congress have spoken out in his defense, and they say ICE has assured them that Samuel will not be deported while is case is being considered—but given the events of Friday we might have a hard time believing what they say.
Last night Samuel’s church and other supporters held a vigil for him and his family. They read scripture, sang hymns, and prayed. They proclaimed a power greater than government, greater than a king or emperor or president. They proclaimed an authority, a kingdom, a realm, a government, a ruler greater than human law, grander than earthly nations, stronger than borders. They worshipped the God who loves all people without regard to race or nationality, documents or sexuality, the God who pours out her mercy and grace upon all, regardless of merit, the God of the poor who welcomes the stranger and embraces the outcast.
This proclamation of a greater power, this allegiance to an other-than-worldly ruler is, in itself, is a subversive act. This is the very subversion for which Jesus was executed. This is the subversive allegiance to which our faith calls us.
By every measure of empire and power, Jesus failed. By every metric of our government, every jot and tittle of immigration law, Samuel and his church and supporters have lost.
Within a few hours of his exchange with Pilate, Jesus would be dead and buried, while Pilate would still be in power, still an agent of the emperor, still calling the shots. But 2,000 years later, when we read these words and give thanks for the truth that sets us free, Pilate’s name arises only in connection to that of Jesus. It is Christ who lives, Christ whose power remains and sustains, Christ who still delivers and heals and empowers.
In him all things hold together. In him and in each one of us, the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. In him and in us, the love and power of God are made manifest. And it is in him, that even in these times of darkness and despair, that we have hope. It is in his realm that we put our trust. It is by the power of his Spirit that we continue to work to build a kingdom not of this world, and we proclaim the reign of Christ.
Thanks be to God.