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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Christ the Kingdom - November 21, 2015

Jesus never referred to himself as “King.”

In our story today, when Pilate asks him if he is King of the Jews, Jesus doesn't say “yes,” but rather responds in typical Jesus fashion … with another question.

Pilate keeps trying to pin that title on him, but Jesus keeps dodging it, as if to say to Pilate and to us, this is not what you think, this is not kingship in the way that humans have defined or experienced it.

Just after this part of John's gospel that we have tonight, Pilate will go ahead and sentence Jesus to death, despite the fact that Jesus will never accept the title of king in these interrogations … despite even the fact that Pilate never finds a case against Jesus.

It is first Pilate who officially hangs the title of “king” on Jesus … “I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” (v. 38b-39) he asks the people.

From there the Roman soldiers pick up the title. They put a crown of thorns on him and a purple robe, they slapped his face and taunted him: “Hail, King of the Jews.” (19:3b) And then Jesus' own people use the title against him.  Still finding no case against him and unnerved by Jesus' composure and sureness, Pilate was trying to release Jesus when the people cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” (19:12b)

Jesus never referred to himself as “King.” And yet, here we have him standing accused and sentenced to death in Pilate's court for assuming that very title.

It shouldn't surprise us that Jesus avoided this earthly title. He would have known the truth about kings in this world. This dodgy legacy goes way back to a time when the Hebrews who had made it to the Promised Land saw the other nations around them and their kings and decided they too wanted a king.

Despite being brought out of Egypt by God so they would not have to live under the thumb of anyone anymore. Despite the abundant life ushered in by Samuel the prophet and judge – a time when the people themselves would have said God had rescued them out of the hand of their enemies on every side and they lived in safety. Despite all this and so much more … the people wanted a king.

And so began another experience in the relationship between God and a people who cannot seem to help themselves … they repeatedly place obstacles between themselves and the creator who loves them so much. They are a  people who cannot resist the temptations of power or hoarding God's abundance – choices that wind their way to the ultimate consequences of placing earthly things before God and losing God's favor. This is what happened with the first king they got, Saul. He reluctantly stepped up to this kingship, and when he did, it got off to a pretty good start. …  But before long Saul was mired in the consequences of  unlawful sacrifice, poor leadership, defying God and building monuments to himself – actions that separated himself and others from God.

Samuel had been hesitant to anoint Saul, but did as God commanded him. But, not before trying to convince the people otherwise when they cried out to God for a king in the first place. He spells out the cost pretty clearly: A king will take your sons and daughters to fuel the engine of armies, tend the king's land, run the king's house, favor the king's political allies. A king will demand a portion of your best crops and livestock. You will become slaves again. “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (1 Sam 8:18)

But the people still insisted – they want a king. So God, through Samuel, reluctantly gave it another shot and David was anointed king. David came from humble beginnings, he had a good heart and was filled with the spirit of God from the time of his anointing … but even then,  he would eventually find himself tangled in webs of deceit and sin and human nature.

Jesus never referred to himself as “King.” He knew the memories and missteps that come with our human experience of that word.

And yet here we gather today, much like the people who affixed the title of king to Jesus in Pilate's court; much like the Hebrew children who repeatedly cried out to God for a king. We too want our king and we want it to be Jesus, and so we celebrate this feast day … Christ the King Day.

It has been the traditional last Sunday of the liturgical year for us Lutherans only since 1970. Just to put it into perspective, Bill and Janet had already been married for 20 years.

The feast day was originally instituted in 1925 in the Roman Catholic tradition when Pope Pius XI became worried about the increasing agnostic mindset in Europe and the decreasing awe and respect at the name of Jesus Christ. By creating this feast day, he hoped to strengthen the church's immunity from the state. He hoped leaders and nations would see they were obligated to give Christ his due respect. He hoped those who remained religious would be strengthened and emboldened by the celebration – reminded that Christ should reign in our hearts, minds, wills and bodies.

There is good intention there, I think we can agree – but clearly it has not been the antidote hoped for by Pope Pius and many others who worry over falling church attendance and rising secularism in Europe and now – 90 years later –  across much of North America too.

Perhaps it is in part due to the human spin that enters into projects such as creating doctrine and liturgy sometimes. The Pope's intention, good or bad, came with a very human way of understanding what it is to be king … to dominate, to be privileged above others.

But Jesus never referred to himself as “King.”

Jesus used language about kings and kingdoms very intentionally.

He was especially precise in his use of the words in the Gospel of John. When Pilate asks him “So you are a king?” and Jesus says “You say that I am a king” (v. 37), it is the first time Jesus even uses this word in John's gospel.

What Jesus does talk about in this gospel, what he does reveal about himself and why he has come among mortals for a time has to do with a kingdom, not a king.

This kingdom, Jesus tells Pilate, “is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” (v. 36)

The difference between the the use of the word “king” by Pilate, the soldiers and the people, and Jesus' use of the word “kingdom” may be quite nuanced  … a subtle difference in word choice, but I think it's an important difference.

Because Jesus never referred to himself as “King” – he wanted us to understand that what he was ushering into the world was something very different than our human experience of king. It was a revelation of eternal and other-worldly power in the presence of Pilate and the earthly and kingly power he represented and wielded over an oppressed people.

The kingdom is different from our notion of king. Where kings dominate through might and fear, the Kingdom of God brings love and compassion. Where kings seek to win and grant privilege, the Kingdom of God is opened to all of creation equally and abundantly. Where kings differentiate between those who ascribe to doctrine and liturgy and those who do not, the Kingdom of God recognizes that all are created in the image of God and continually invites all into deeper and deeper relationship with God, no matter where any of us are on our journeys.

It is in the spirit of the Kingdom of God – not kings –  that we celebrate the witness of love, compassion, respect and forgiveness demonstrated in 65 years of marriage for Bill and Janet.  It is in the spirit of the Kingdom of God –not kings – that we come together to the table to share in the promise of our eternal lives in the bread and the wine.

Jesus never referred to himself as “King,” but he did bring his kingdom to us. To be in the Kingdom of God is to be in the presence of God and recognize God's power as the foundation of all we know. It takes us all the way back to the very beginning of John's gospel where we can plainly see that our idea of “king” is too small, too temporary, too fallible for the Kingdom of God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

Jesus Christ isn't merely our King. Jesus Christ is our Kingdom.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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