The Kingship of Christ
Today is Christ the King Sunday, also called the Last Sunday after Pentecost. Next week is the first Sunday of Advent. So today is a pivotal point in time. The season after Pentecost is the time when the readings focus on the life of the church, which includes us. The other half of the year is when we focus on the life of Jesus. On the Christian calendar, this is the end of the year, and next Sunday is the beginning of the year.
So what do the readings give us to think about today? There are two things that pop out at me. One, of course, is the “kingship” or reign, of Christ. The other is the conversation about truth that Jesus has with Pilate.
It is the sentence that is missing from our Gospel lesson this morning that is striking. Jesus has been brought up before the most powerful man in their world, and instead of acting like a prisoner, he challenges Pilate. We can kind of see that this is interesting to Pilate, someone who is not afraid of him. But then he says the question that is missing from our reading: What is truth?
This is a great existential issue. Unless we are particularly interested in philosophy, we don’t generally sit down and think much about “what is truth?” And the accompanying question, “how do we know something is true?” This leads into: “how do we know what we know?” Well, we know what we know because we believe it to be true, and we believe something is true because we give authority to some means of knowing. Our typical means of knowing are sensory and communal.
We understand sensory knowledge. I touch something and it feels hot to me, and therefore I believe it is hot, and I accept it as truth, that this is hot. This seems to be self-explanatory. But something can be so cold that it feels hot to us, it even causes a burn on the skin. If you go to the doctor to get a wart taken off, they squirt nitrogen on it, which actually freezes a burn. So our sensory knowledge is good, but limited. In the same way, if we see something that we do not recognize, our brains will try to reshape it into something we know, so that the brain can categorize it and thus not be overwhelmed by it. The same thing happens with sound. We have to be trained to see and hear.
If someone is trained to hear the 8 note octave, then they can hear something that is a quarter-tone “off” of the exact pitch. But the Indian scale starts with 12 notes within the same range, and the quarter-tones are not understood as being “off” but rather part of the scale, just as sharps and flats are understood within the 8 note scale. What this means is that someone trained to the Indian scale actually hears more notes.
In the same way, we are trained to see gradations of color. When I was making stained glass for people, I would bring them over to my studio, and we would look at the different colors of glass. It was very obvious to me that some people simply did not see the gradations. They were not color-blind. They could see that this was the blue section and that was green, this was red and that was purple. But within each section there are many gradations, and they simply did not see them. And, this, like the music, is a skill that can be taught.
So the point of this is that our sensory awareness is limited by our training, and therefore, is a limited means of knowing the truth. The other way we decide on truth is by giving authority to others. I do not have to test out everything for myself, I can believe someone when they tell me that the paint is wet. Some people do not like to do this, they have to put their fingers onto the freshly painted surface themselves. Then there is the problem of the “wet paint” sign being old. The paint was wet yesterday, but probably by today it is dry. Do I trust the sign, or do I look carefully at the surface, and here I’m back to trusting my own senses, I can see that now the paint looks dry, and lightly touch it? Why am I going on and on about this? Because the question of how we decide what is true is really terribly important. Here is the big question: “Who do I trust to tell me the truth?”
Phyllis Tickle tells us that the big upset of the age is the question of authority, and she is right. It used to be that we trusted our government leaders – well, that’s gone by the wayside! It used to be that we trusted the Church. That’s long gone for most people. So how do we know what is true? What holds authority for us now? For those of us old enough to remember a time when people did trust the leaders in government and in church, it is hard sometimes to understand how young people function in what seems to be a world without guidance and boundaries. And yet, they do, and we do as well, because there is still guidance, but it looks and functions differently. The boundaries are more fluid, but that does not mean they are not boundaries.
It is like learning to walk on ice. When you are used to walking on less slippery surfaces, and then step onto ice, usually you just fall down. But if you are living in a place where there is a lot of ice, you better learn how to move in this new environment, or you can literally kill yourself. The best thing is to get something new to help you keep your balance. You can put special things on your feet, you can have something to hang onto, you could even hold onto balloons so that they would keep you upright. None of these things are necessary to walk on land, but when your surface changes dramatically, you better be willing to do something different, because the “truth” that your body knows about walking, isn’t true any more.
We have entered a religious land of “ice.” That is to say, the old rules do not work very well any more. The old ways of being do not work very well. The young ones who have learned how to move on ice do not believe us when we talk about how to be in the world, and why should they? We are talking about being in a world of dry land, but there is much ice now, and they know it does not work for them. It also does not work for us much of the time, and so we stay in our smaller and smaller dry pieces of land, that is, staying inside, instead of looking at what it might mean to move on ice. There is great danger in moving on ice. There is also great joy and beauty. And there are new skills that must be learned. When they gave me a pair of ice skates, I put them on, but my ankles were not strong enough. But! When I was given an ice scooter to use, it was suddenly great fun to go out when there was ice. I did not worry any more about falling down. I could move quickly and gracefully. What might our “ice scooters” be in the new religious landscape?
All of these questions are very important when we look at this issue of Christ the King. The older way of saying this is “Jesus is Lord.” It is an interesting thing, because the reason the Romans killed Jesus was that his followers were calling him a king. The Romans were very tolerant of religious differences, and totally intolerant of any threat to the Emperor. As long as Jesus was called a prophet, even a major prophet, the Romans basically didn’t care. As soon as Palm Sunday happened, and it started to look like Jesus was a king, and people were calling him “lord,” there was not question, he would be executed without question. So Jesus, the “King of the Jews,” is a real title in history. If we confine Jesus to the role of a religious leader, someone who went around saying nice things and performing miracles, and he becomes just another good man, like many others. Elijah said good things, performed miracles and healed. Elijah isn’t king.
What we are talking about here is that authority thing again. The question is put to each of us, to whom do we give authority? Are we willing to give allegiance to this king, this lord, and give him authority over us?
[pullquoteright]Jesus says: 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.” Are we listening? Do we recognize God? What does that mean to us, here and now?[/pullquoteright]“Christians exist to tell the world that it belongs to God, not to us, not to nation states, but really and truly to God. Christians exist to tell the world that it has an anointed Monarch, Jesus the Lord.
This seemingly impractical acknowledgement that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that therein is” empowers and enables us to engage in the work of God in our communities, as God claims them, and restores them into God’s image. We then go on to engage in what our church terms “the Marks of Mission”: in telling about Jesus; in caring for people in their need; in fighting for justice; in announcing forgiveness and mercy, enabled and empowered to live as the church, as Christians. Because we know just who is boss, whose realm this bit of territory we call our parish is. Unless we get this right, Christianity and our church is merely a compartment of life, a club for do-gooders who enjoy a religious experience.” (the Very Rev. Anthony F. M. Clavier in Sermons That Work)
Jesus says: 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.” Are we listening? Do we recognize God? What does that mean to us, here and now?
Our Readings Today
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