Christ The King
Last Sunday After Pentecost
You might be surprised to know that one of my biggest challenges in seminary was learning to decipher the church calendar.
If I am supposed to keep track of days and dates, I need a big rectangle with little squares. Before going to seminary, saying Advent comes before Christmas, and Lent comes before Easter was the extent of my church calendar knowledge. I struggled to find scripture readings according to the lectionary. More than once, I wrote prayers or a sermon to the wrong one. I had to keep asking, “What year are we in?”
That seemed silly when a beautiful laminated church calendar hung outside my dorm room. It had colorful artwork, and a cool design.The trouble was, in order to get your bearings, you had to already know where you were! I couldn’t keep names like sixth Sunday after Pentecost in my head. I couldn’t remember which of the first three letters of the alphabet was currently on top. I refused to write it down, sure I wouldn’t forget.
The church calendar, like a fiscal year, follows a different twelve month cycle. Throughout my lifetime, I seem to recall hearing the same scripture readings, year after year. The church calendar seemed like a big hamster wheel, turning around to offer spiritual exercise.
Then, someone suggested that the lectionary portrays a spiral, like a propeller. It serves to move congregations forward, each time they cycle through years A, B, and C. The weeks of the calendar year work like threads of a screw being tightened. Until we are drawn closer to this day, the day when Jesus stands before us as Christ, the King.
But, in his day, standing there before Pilate and the judging crowd, there was a question about his title. So, I thought before we begin singing, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and offer glory to the newborn King, it might be a good idea to contemplate our passion for Christ.
John’s gospel narrative sets numerous scenes, introducing many characters. Following the dialogue back and forth is almost like watching the Passion Play. Has anybody here seen it in Oberammergau, Germany?
Here’s a little background to what happened there: The Thirty Years War in central Europe was especially devastating because widespread poverty and the Bubonic plague continued to kill thousands. In 1634, the little town of Oberammergau lost 80 people and they made a sacred pledge to perform this play every ten years, if God would protect them. It has been reenacted since then, all over the world.
As church congregations reenact the Passion of Christ aloud each year, we read scripted lines and play all character parts. As a child, and to this day, I dislike hearing voices of accusation, rowdy betrayal and condemnation. But, I have to admit, it is fitting to hear ourselves, because In real life, we step into these exact character roles.
We are chief priests whenever our business profile feels threatened or our competitive nature kicks in. When a cashier opened up a new register right between two long lines of customers, each of us had to weigh our hurriedness. Being gracious is a choice, as is looking to clear the path ahead and secure our position.
Like the chief priests, our political views make us so sure we are right that we feel we must act. Fear insists we do something drastic. Like the Jewish authorities, our upbringing encourages us to leverage what we know, or who we know. We feel the need for some aspect of our identity to give us an advantage. Unfortunately, when people get desperate for power or protection, they think the only thing they have to leverage is violence.
Like a good attorney, Pilate solicits a reply that he hopes will either convict or acquit. “Are you King of the Jews?” One definitive answer would seal Jesus’ fate and reveal truth at the same time. Jesus may have thought, “You want the truth, I am the truth.” The truth is as much a part of Jesus’ identity as kingship, so, how could he give only one answer?
In return, Jesus asks Pilate, “Did you ask this on your own or did others tell you about me?” Because Pilate answers defensively, he obviously felt challenged. When Jesus asks what sounds like sarcastic or snarky questions, everyone should pause to remember that His words are always sincere, directed at our hearts, and not necessarily our heads.
I’ve been visiting recovery groups in a effort to offer better pastoral care. Since I love making connections, I have hopes to build a bridge between group members and the church.
When I heard that belief in a Higher Power is a must, I thought, “Well, it’s a start.” I wasn’t keen on hearing people give credit to a generic God. Of even greater concern was what sounded like encouragement to construct a Do-It-Yourself version. DIY Christianity was how the Reformation appeared to the Catholic Church. Elements connected to earning merit and forgiveness were non-essential. Lutheranism seemed secular and independent of the church.
I was encouraged when I discovered how closely the twelve steps follow biblical concepts of confession, forgiveness, reconciliation and trust. I realized this path to healing was still being offered and delivered through God. As each person shared in turn, I heard how they gradually acknowledged a lack of control over their behavior, how they came to realize that drugs, counseling and human resources couldn’t help them. Pleading for help from their Higher Power wasn’t a climactic event, but a daily one.
I was pleased to hear testimony by individuals who had discovered for themselves who God is. Their understanding surpassed being “raised” a certain way. It sounded better than knowledge based on what others say. Suddenly, I heard Jesus’ question of “Do you ask this on your own or did others tell you?” as an appraisal of faith. Jesus said, “Where are you coming from Pilate? When you, yourself, look upon me, who do you see?”
Rather than see truth, we, like Pilate, become proud and defensive. In contrast to fundamentalism, I heard myself nearly bragging about how Lutherans don’t make the choice whether or not to believe.
Knowing faith is the pure result of grace, not only helps us see Jesus as the truth, it’s an opportunity to see the truth about ourselves. God always offers truth to the extent we are capable of receiving it. Jesus came to deliver a God of human understanding, with whom we could identify.
The first step to getting on the plane for San Juan was showing a form of ID that matched who I really am. When Pilate asked Jesus, “Who are you?” He was just doing his job, making sure the person matched the paperwork handed to him by the authorities. Like the TSA, he wanted to verify identity before proceeding to the next step.
Even a full body scanner couldn’t reveal the intentions of the crowd and the person before him. Jesus was already stripped down, no shoes, no pockets to empty. Pilate and the authorities found nothing on him they could possibly deem threatening.
Jesus’ question to Pilate is posed to us. Do we call Christ the King because we know him as such, or are we merely quoting his title?
Belief in a Higher Power is necessary to successfully work the twelve steps of AA. In meetings, I’ve heard, “ I didn’t want to give up believing, just be done with organized religion.” “I told them I didn’t believe in anything.” The answer I got was, “That doesn’t matter. Just make something up and start talking.” The same gentleman continued, “Now I know that they tricked me, because I’ve been talking to God every since.”
After the meeting, we stood outside. I brought up the value of each person finding the God of their understanding. I thought about how believing in God because somebody else tells you to is no different than when Pilate asked Jesus if he was a King, because others told him so.
Believing something because you are told about it is not nearly as credible as knowing for yourself. We all need some experience in life that makes us question and search. Isn’t that the hope of every parent whose adult child has left the church? In time, we hope they come to know and understand Jesus on their own. We hope they see evidence of God’s action in the world on behalf of themselves or others.
The church doesn’t cycle through the calendar like a pinwheel on a stick, after all. It functions more like a spinning wheel with many parts. Many are at work, constructing yarn for the kingdom of God. As the raw material, our faith needs replenishing if we’re to have more to show as every year passes. There’s work to be done if we want more to show.
As we knit our hearts together, more people will see that Christ the King conquers through love. Christ the King gathers subjects by freely giving grace and understanding. Christ rules with mercy and has included many bridges his kingdoms landscaping plan. There are ponds of deep understanding to fish in. Like the seasons, people and things will continue to change for better or worse, and it will all be out of our control. The king hopes we’ll respond gratefully, less judgmentally, and lend assistance to those who struggle.
As you come to understand God through dependance, as you seek God’s wisdom, and rely on God’s strength for everything, you find God, and your own understanding. Not on account of anything, you’ve decided, or done, but because God challenged you to see the truth about Jesus, yourself, the person next to you, and a total stranger with new identity.
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing, glory to the newborn King!”