The Gospel Truth

John 18.33-38

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “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 to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “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.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

I don’t know if any of you remember this but, a few years ago there was this very contentious presidential election. Someone named Hillary Clinton and someone named Donald Trump both really wanted to be president. More money was spent during that election than any other election in history (until the most recent presidential election). Families were divided in a way that they never had been before, or so said the talking heads on all the news channels every night.

I, myself, tried to bring some semblance of fidelity to the season by hosting a prayer service in which I sought to remind people that, through Christ, we have more in common than our political proclivities would allow us to believe. I planned to break bread with all who gathered so that, no matter what happened with the election, we would remember that we belong to the kingdom of God and that we, together, are disciples of the King of kings.

“Welcome!” I intoned from the pulpit to the crowd. “Welcome to our church for our worship service. However, before we begin, I would like all of the Republicans to sit on the right side of the sanctuary, all of the Democrats can move to the left, and anyone else can take a seat somewhere in the center aisle.”

No one laughed.

Apparently, the presidential election wasn’t funny, not even in church.

Well, when the day of the election arrived, I made my way to my voting location which just happened to be the local Seventh Day Adventist Church. I pulled into the parking lot and witnessed Red Hats screaming at Blue Shirts and Blue Shirts screaming at Red Hats. Yard signs adorned every available spot on every available yard. And I can distinctly remember all of the poll workers looking decisively dreadful.

I ascended the outdoor stairs into the church’s fellowship hall and took my place in line. I waited patiently for my opportunity to fill out my vote and did some people watching. I saw slumped shoulders, furrowed brows, fidgeting fingers, and it was as if the previous months of political vitriol had sucked the very life out of our community. 

And then it was my turn.

I filled out my form, brought it over to a machine that promptly consumed it with a ding, and sighed a relief knowing that it was finally over.

Then I looked up.

And right there, stretching across the wall of the Fellowship Hall was a mural of Jesus.

It wasn’t Jesus dying on the cross.

It wasn’t even Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Instead it was a mural of Jesus laughing his butt off.

And it was perfect.

The disciples have betrayed, abandoned, and denied Jesus. Arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, dragged before the High Priest and scribes, and now he stands accused before Pontius Pilate.

“Who are you exactly?” the political occupier intones. Mind you, when Jesus entered the city on the back of a donkey, surrounded by a modest crowd, Pilate was also entering the city, but he came with pomp and circumstance, imagine horses and soldiers and banners and such. 

And now, a few days later, the two of them sit face to face.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” As in, “Are you a threat to my emperor’s empire?”

“Do you really want to know, or did others tell you about me?”

“Look, why do you keep answering all my questions with questions? It’s your own people who have delivered you to my throne, so tell me, what did you do?”

“My kingdom,” Jesus says, “is not from this world. If it were, my disciples would be storming the gates of your palace and doing everything in their power to take your power away. But, as it is, my kingdom is different.”

“So you are a king then?” Pilate asks.

“If you say so. But it really doesn’t matter. For this I was born, for this I came into the world. I’m here to tell the truth. And everyone who belongs to the truth listen to my voice.”

And Pilate says, “What is truth?”

That’s where the text for today ends: this unanswerable question dangling in the air.

But I want to remind all of us what happens next, for I believe it actually answers the question…

After this, Pilate goes out to the religious leaders again and tells them that he finds no case against Jesus. And yet, Pilate knows there is a custom every year on Passover during which the empire’s representative would release one person from captivity. So Pilate goes to the crowds and he says, “Do you want me to release Jesus, this so-called king of the Jews?” And they yell in response: “No! Give us the insurrectionist Barabbas instead!”

Pilate let the crowds choose who they will save, Jesus is beaten and bedraggled, he is adorned with a crown of thorns and a purple robe, he carries the instrument of his own death to the place called The Skull, and they put an inscription over him that says, “This is the King of the Jews.”

Why was Jesus killed?

That’s almost as difficult as a question to answer as, “What is truth?”

After all, wasn’t Jesus just trying to get us all to be a little kinder to one another? If the Gospel, and the ministry of the Lord, is merely, “Treat others as you wish to be treated,” then why did Jesus end up on the cross?

You don’t kill someone for asking you to be nice.

You kill someone when you can’t handle their truth.

What happens in and to Jesus is not something that is personal or private, as we sometimes water down the faith. What happens in and to Jesus is very public and political. If the authorities wanted to be rid of Jesus they could’ve taken care of it easily and tossed his body in some random alley in Jerusalem. But they wanted to make an example of him. This is what happens for those who call into question the truth of the empire.

And yet, here on Christ the King Sunday, we confront the terrifying and life-giving reality that our King rules from the cross. Jesus’ throne is not built on the blood of his enemies. His throne is cruciform. The only blood it contains is his own. 

Notably, Christ the King Sunday is a more recent addition to the liturgical calendar. It was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in large part as a response to the horrific and murderous realities of WWI and the rise of fascism all across Europe. 

Celebrating the reign of Christ is but one way of proclaiming the gospel truth – If we believe that Jesus is Lord then that means something has to change about who we are and what we do. 

Or, to put it simply, what we believe shapes how we behave.

The salvation wrought by cross and resurrection involves making us citizens of a time and space that is in tension with all other forms of citizenship.

The world tells us to earn all we can.

The kingdom tells us we already have what we need.

The world tells us that winners finish first.

The kingdom tells us that the last shall be first.

The world tells us that we are defined by our mistakes.

The kingdom tells us that we are defined only by our King.

It doesn’t get more political than this in church. And yet, inherent in today’s proclamation is the challenge of coming to grips with what it means to pledge allegiance to our King. We live in a democracy, we don’t know what it means to have a King. 

Kings are not chosen.

So, to be clear, Jesus is not our president. And for good reason. We never would’ve picked him. 

Turn the other cheek? Go the extra mile? Take up your cross and follow me?

Those don’t make for very good campaign slogans.

Contrary to how it’s been portrayed in the church or even in our wider culture, we never really pick Jesus. When all is said and done, when the King of kings and Lord of lords comes to dwell among us, we nail him to the cross.

We, to put it bluntly, pick Barabbas instead.

Which makes some of Jesus’ final words are the more powerful: “Forgive them Lord, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Jesus isn’t trying to win an election, he’s not trying to convince us of anything, he’s not offering empty promises about the next 2-4 years. 

Instead, Jesus elects us to a kingdom that we would never choose on our own – he brings the future and the truth to us.

Some of us are here this morning because we can’t imagine being anywhere else. It is Sunday after all. But there’s a good chance that a whole lot of us are here because we are looking for the truth.

For as much as the kingdoms of the world are built on the blood of enemies, they are also founded on fabrications – the world is built and sold and traded on lies.

But not here.

Not in the church.

We are an outpost of the kingdom of God in foreign territory.

We are strangers in a strange land.

Many of us are suffocating under the oppressive power of deception. The powers and principalities of this world are constantly vying for our allegiances. They do everything in their power to convince us that power come through strength, that tribalism will rule the day, and that the most important animal is either a Donkey or an Elephant. It’s why so many of us now dread the Thanksgiving table because it forces us to confront that wayward uncle with the undesirable political opinion who, with every extra glass of wine, continues to say things that boil our blood. 

The Donkey and the Elephant can’t and won’t save us. They, in large part, exist to instill a sense of freedom that actually results in isolation. They attempt to rid us of our baptismal identities to tell us that our political identities are more important. They promise a salvation that just leads to more division.

But here’s the Good News, the really really Good News: Our King rules from the throne of the cross, the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world, ours included.

And that’s why Jesus laughs.

Jesus laughs at our foolishness in thinking that we can save ourselves, that we can fix all the problems in the world. 

You want to know what’s wrong with the world? We are!

When the bonds forged by the names on our bumpers become more determinative than the bonds that are forged in baptism, then we have fallen prey to the elephant and the donkey in the room.

But we are Jesus people! We believe that telling the truth is the beginning of a revolution of the heart. We confess Jesus as our Lord which means that the most important political animal is Lamb of God!

Jesus is the truth incarnate come to set us free. Thanks be to God. Amen.

King of The Lost

Ezekiel 34.16

I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

Christ The King Sunday started in 1925 when Pope Pius XI instituted it as a day in the liturgical calendar. Mussolini had been in charge in Italy for three years, Hitler had been out of jail for a year, and the Great Depression had rippled effects across the globe. So the Catholic Church decided they needed a Sunday, every year, to remind the (Christian) world that we have our own king and its to him that we owe our allegiance. 

Today, across mainline protestantism, Christ the King Sunday is usually overlooked in order to celebrate themes of Thanksgiving. Instead of reading about the lordship of Christ, we reflect on gathering at the tables and all of our blessings. And, to be clear, that’s all good and fine. However, Christ the King Sunday is a rare opportunity for churches to be unabashed in our convictions about power, allegiances, authority, and a host of other worthy aspects of discipleship.

It is the perfect time to be reminded who we are and, more importantly, whose we are.

The first time I traveled to Guatemala for a mission trip, we stopped briefly in the town of Chichicastenango, known for its traditional K’iche Mayan culture. We were told to explore for a few hours before returning to the van and after I traveled down one too many streets without keeping track of my location, I realized I was lost. 

I decided to try to find a high vantage point in order to get my bearings and I wandered around until I found myself in front of a very old church. The stone steps leading to the sanctuary were covered with people resting, and I had to weave my way back and forth until I was at the top.

I should’ve turned around to look back over the town, but something (read: Holy Spirit) drew me inside the church.

The sanctuary was damp, dark, and devoid of anyone else. The ground under my feet was soft like soil, the walls were covered with black soot from centuries of fires, and the paintings on the wall were nearly impossible to decipher. The smell of melted wax filled my nostrils as I crept closer and closer toward what I imagined was the altar.

It was one of the least churchy churches I had ever experienced.

Without the help of lighting, I stumbled over rickety wooden seats until I stood before the Lord’s Table. And there, poised in front of me, was perhaps the most pristine sculpture of Christ I had ever seen. In complete contrast with the rest of the space, this Christ was unblemished, beautiful, and brilliant. He stood with robes draped over his shoulders with an outstretched hand and a crown of thorns resting on his head: Christ the King.

What kind of king is Jesus?

In that Guatemalan church I was confronted with what it really means to confess Jesus as Lord. For, while I was surrounded by decay, desolation, and disregard, Christ stood firmly before me as King of the cosmos. In that moment, I saw the paradox of the crucifixion – the King of kings hung on a cross to die. 

The prophet Ezekiel reminds us that God (in Christ) is the one who seeks the lost, brings back the strayed, and binds of the injured. God strengthens the weak and destroys the strong. That is the God we worship, that is the King to whom we owe our allegiance.

And on Christ the King Sunday we confess the truly Good News that our King reigns not above us, but for us, beside us, and with us.

I Pledge Allegiance To The Lord

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Lindsey Baynham about the readings for Christ The King Sunday [A] (Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1.15-23, Matthew 25.31-46). Lindsey serves as the Director of the Center for Clergy Excellence in the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Our conversation covers a range of topics including eschatology, RBG, liturgical history, preludes to Advent, stubborn creatures, joyful noises, John Wesley’s preaching, hope at the end of the year, and the King of the least. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: I Pledge Allegiance To The Lord

Allegiance

Colossians 1.11-20

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. 

Our local Wegmans can be a little overwhelming depending on what time you go to the store. For instance, if you left from worship this morning, mere days before Thanksgiving, and went to the store we might have to send a rescue team to find you. There is a better than good chance that today the store will be filled to the brim with individuals and families making sure to stock up on everything necessary for the once a year meal on Thursday.

A few weeks ago, right in the middle of a peak moment while the store was jam packed, I was pushing around my son in a cart trying desperately to get what we needed and then to get out of there. We were going up and down aisles, throwing things into the cart, and my head was constantly darting back and forth hoping to find the next item.

And the store was loud. There were other frantic parents banging into carts trying to get around a corner, on top of the PA system piping in music that should’ve stayed in 1987, and even Instacart employees who buy your groceries for you so you don’t have to.

It was in the midst of that loudness, in the midst of the frantic searching, that I noticed my son was saying something under his breath to himself.

For what its worth – this is a fairly common experience. We can be anywhere around anyone when he will spontaneously break in song, usually something like “Jesus Loves Me.” Or I’ll be sitting in the other room and I’ll hear him playing with all sorts of toys and having them engage in a conversation together.

So when he first started talking in the shopping cart I didn’t pay much attention until I heard the actual words he was saying…

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…”

“Where did you learn that?” I asked.

To which he replied, “Dad, I learned it at school. We say it every morning.”

My son is three years old.

I share this story not because I want to offend or ostracize any among us regarding our potential affinity for the pledge of allegiance, but I do want to call into question how the pledge has become something so determinate in our lives against, and perhaps in spite of, Jesus our Lord.

Bible-and-Flag

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is a day when, for at least the last hundred years, churches affirm the Lordship of Christ and how our truest allegiance belongs with him over and against anything and anyone else. As a liturgical Sunday it began after the wake of the Great War during a time when Christians needed to remember what it was they really believed in the hope that we would never resort to such horrific violence toward our brothers and sister ever again.

Spoiler warning: It didn’t work.

And yet we still mark this day differently than other Sundays because the Lordship of Christ really does reorient our priorities, our proclivities, and even our politics.

It is a time for us to confront one of the most important truths of the gospel: If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not.

Or, to be a little more on the nose about it: If Jesus is Lord, then America is not.

Paul writes to the church in Colossae with this kind of distinction in mind. Now, what was read for us might feel lofty and gratuitous: “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” But Paul wrote to the early church not with hopes of academic pandering. Instead he used words and ideas to speak directly to problems in the lives of real people struggling to understand what a life of faith is all about.

Whenever we confront new ideas, new world-views, whether we lived in the first century or we live today, the temptation is to take the unfamiliar and fit it into what we already know. It’s how the church, time and time again, takes Jesus outside the content of the Good News he brought and declared through his life, and instead uses him like a bludgeon to beat back our theological or political enemies.

This is perhaps best exemplified with a bumper sticker I once saw that said, “If Jesus had a gun, he’d still be alive today.”

That bumper sticker is fundamentally unintelligible from a Christian perspective. 

For some strange reason, *cough* sin *cough*, we want Jesus to be a lot of things for us – a teacher who teaches the perspective we already have, a healer who heals those on our side while ignoring those on across the line, an ethical guide who affirms our current behavior, and even a political wedge so long as we’re right in the end and the others are wrong.

And, at times, Jesus is those things. But when he is those things it is for the Kingdom, and not for our own opinions. 

Today we declare that among the many things we want Jesus to be, that he is forever our King, and that makes all the difference.

This is why Paul is so inclined to begin and end everything with Jesus. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Paul will not let the world set the terms for the church because he knows and believes its actually the other way around. He writes about how we, those who follow the Lord, are transferred from one kingdom to another. In this new kingdom everything is different – the rules are different, the ruler is different, and all the assumptions about what is good and right and true are different.

Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, brings us into a new kingdom and yet we are forever trying to bring him over into one of our own. We cherrypick verses, or isolate moments in scripture, in order to give meaning and validity to whatever we already think is important.

But if Jesus is Lord then it means he’s the one who tells us what’s important.

jesus-christ-is-lord-by-thomas-hawk

Paul proudly and boldly proclaims that becoming a Christian is like being dropped into a foreign land. Everything we thought we knew gets thrown out the window as we learn a new language, and new customs, and even eat new food. Being a Christian is not about fitting Jesus into our present ways of thinking – Christ has kicked us out of the kingdoms of our own desires and says you’re stuck in this kingdom with me. 

And in Christ’s kingdom, the first will be last and the last will be first.

I’ve noted a few times recently that it often doesn’t help the church to just spend time addressing what’s wrong in other churches. And I want to own that – I know that. But sometimes we have to know what’s wrong in order to know what is right.

If the church tells us that we need to put America first, then it is not God’s church.

If the church tells us that some people are in and some people are out, then it is not God’s church.

If the church tells us that any politician or any leader or any celebrity is more important than the least of these, then it is not God’s church.

We can only know what is good, right, and true because we know who Jesus is. Jesus, to use Paul’s language, makes the invisible God visible. Jesus, to use Paul’s language, is before all things and all things are held together in him, by him, and for him. Jesus, to use Paul’s language, is first.

Jesus is first. 

If we believe that were true, could you imagine how differently we would live and move and breathe in this world? How many things would we toss out forever? What divisions would we destroy? 

Or, if we can’t quite wrap our heads around that thought exercise, let us just rest on this for a moment – Do we really put Jesus first in whatever we are doing and whatever we are talking about?

That kind of thinking can get us in trouble with the world. Its that kind of thinking that calls into question the practices and habits that form us. Its what made me stop when I heard my son saying the pledge of allegiance. 

It made me stop because as a Christian, my first allegiance is to God.

Grace is not about adjusting the words of Jesus to fit into the mold of the world. The grace of God is about judgment, because our King doesn’t rule from a throne or from behind a desk in an oval office. Our King rules from the cross!

The Kingdom of God is a kingdom the world doesn’t want because it makes a difference, and that difference means that we will be different because God has made us different.

The problem in the church today is that we want to seem like everybody else.

God, thankfully, won’t let us have our way.

On Christ the King Sunday, more than almost any other Sunday in the year, we confront the wonder and beauty of the new thing God has done in the world through God’s Son. In the person of Jesus Christ a new creation has taken place and a new Kingdom has been established. And in that kingdom, we are made to be gentle even in a cruel world, we are made to call out that acts of cruelty that result in even more people being little, last, least, lost, and dead. 

And calling those things into question will make the world want to kill us.

It’s why Jesus was killed.

And that’s the whole thing right there. Beyond all talk of allegiance and behavior and worship. At the end of the day we have a King who died for us, who showed us that power comes not with militaristic might, but with meekness – a King who made peace through the blood of his cross.

Advent begins next week. Most of us like to imagine that Advent is that special time set apart for us to get ready for Christmas. It’s why the stores are already decorated and the radio stations are already playing the songs. 

But Advent isn’t about getting ready for Christmas.

Advent, strangely enough, is about the end.

It is about what happens when Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet. Advent shows us glimpses of a time we cannot yet imagine when the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of the Lord who reigns forever and ever.

Which leaves us with one final question on this Christ the King Sunday – To whom will we pledge our allegiance? Amen. 

We Are What We Eat

strangely-warmed-spreaker-header

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for Christ the King Sunday [C] (Jeremiah 23.1-6, Colossians 1.11-20, Luke 23.33-43). Alan serves at First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including a farewell to Year C, the case for weekly communion, King Jesus, outsiders on the inside, sheepish disciples, abstracted justice, Thrice references, flipping power upside down, victory in death, pledging allegiance, family meals, The Highwomen, and praying with Hauerwas. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We Are What We Eat

Screen Shot 2019-11-18 at 9.55.25 AM

I Pledge Allegiance To Jesus Christ

strangely-warmed-spreaker-header

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jonathan Page about the readings for the Christ the King Sunday (2 Samuel 23.1-7, Psalm 132.1-18, Revelation 1.4b-8, John 18.33-37). Jonathan serves as the pastor of Herndon UMC in Herndon, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including bidding farewell to Year B, the particularity of liturgical days, the Christian version of the 4th of July, the end of metaphors, generational evangelism, rebelling against the kingdom, flags in the sanctuary, and the power of lingering questions. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: I Pledge Allegiance To Jesus Christ

Screen Shot 2018-11-19 at 9.44.46 AM