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.

Someone Reigns!

Psalm 93.1

The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength. He has established the world; it shall never be moved. 

On the evening of December 9th, 1968, Eduard Thurneysen had a telephone conversation with the theologian Karl Barth. Later that night, Barth died in his sleep. Thurneysen explain later that much of their conversation dealt with the world situation at the time and that Barth’s final words were as follows:

“Indeed, the world is dark. Still, let us not lose heart! Never! There is still Someone who reigns, not just in Moscow or in Washington or in Peking, but from above, from heaven. God is in command. That’s why I am not afraid. Let us stay confident even in the darkest moments! Let us not allow our hope to sink, hope for all human beings, for all the nations of the world! God does not let us fall, not a single one of us and not all of us together! Someone reigns!” (Barth In Conversation, Volume III).

Karl Barth was never one to shrink away from speaking truth to power. He was removed from his teaching position in Germany for refusing to pledge allegiance to Hitler before the second World War, he publicly ridiculed the United States for it’s criminal justice system in the 1960’s, and wrote against the atrocities that took place during the Vietnam War. 

And it brings me great comfort to know that with some of his final breaths, he still remembered that, even in the darkest moments, the One who chose to come and dwell among us (still) reigns over the cosmos. Barth’s final proclamation is decisively Christians in that we, as disciples, know how the story ends which feeds us for “joyful obedience” to a kingdom the world would never choose for itself.

The Gospel is something that comes to us from outside of us. We are saved by God in Christ not because we deserve it (just turn on your TV for five minutes, or scroll through Twitter, and you’ll see how little we deserve to be saved), but because God chooses to do so in God’s infinite and bewildering freedom. That is what the Gospel is – it is our salvation granted to us by the only One who ever could – the judged Judge who comes to stand in our place – the shackles to sin and death have been obliterated forever and ever.

Which is all just another way of saying, Christians see the world differently. We see the world through Christ which means that all earthly means of power fall powerless to the King of kings who rules not from a throne built on blood, but instead from a cross marked by his own blood. 

Therefore, we, through the power of Spirit, have the courage and conviction to rebel against the insidious power of despair and, instead, seek the means of grace and the hope of glory that are the brick and mortar of the Kingdom of God.

Someone reigns! That Someone’s name is Jesus Christ! Thanks be to God. 

The King of the Kingdom

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the Reign of Christ [B] (2 Samuel 23.1-7, Psalm 132.1-18, Revelation 1.4b-8, John 18.33-37). Josh serves Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including liturgical history, DUNE, soundtracks, last words, running with the sun, the undoing of death, clean hearts, righteous clothing, atonement, the already but not yet, contrasting kingdoms, the son of the father, and lives of reflection. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The King of the Kingdom

King Jesus

Matthew 25.31-46

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they will also answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

The Lord Jesus Christ is Lord and King over all creation!

Easter and Christmas Eve are remarkable moments in the liturgical year, but there’s nothing quite like Christ the King Sunday. 

Today, for Christians, is our New Year’s Eve, it’s time for champagne and fancy clothes and bad renditions of Auld Lang Syne.

It is our once-a-year opportunity to look both backward and forward. We look behind us to the story of Jesus as we followed his moves from a manger to meeting the disciples to ministering with the last, least, lost, little, and dead to table-turning to Holy Week to Easter to Pentecost and to the Ascension. And then, as the first Sunday of Advent comes a-knockin’, we look forward on this day to the second coming of the Lord, to the re-arrival of the once and future King.

In church lingo, we often refer to Jesus as the Lord, but we don’t live in a world of lords so to call Christ as such can feel a little empty handed. And yet, to confess Christ as Lord is to express faith in One who was, is, and will be the ruler of the cosmos.

But, when we talk of Jesus, we love to speak of him as a teacher, or a healer, or a rabbi, or a sage, or a spiritual guru, or the perfect moral exemplar. And all of that stuff is good and fine, but if that’s all he was, is, and will be, then he is only one of many and he isn’t really worth our time.

What makes Jesus Jesus is the fact that he is God in the flesh, dead on the cross, raised from the dead, master of all things.

He, to put it rather pointedly, is our King.

Our King, according to the strange new world of the Bible, was born as Jesus from Nazareth in the reaches of Galilee. He was poor and had no standing in the world whatsoever, but he went out talking about the Kingdom of God, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, befriending the friendless, and it attracted a whole lot of attention. And for good reason – he spoke to a people who, for centuries, lived through exile, defeat, abandonment, and foreign occupation all while waiting for the promised Messiah.

And so it came to pass that, after a flirting with popularity and controversy, the religious and secular authorities (church and state) finally got their acts together and put his little ministry to an end.

He was betrayed, beaten, abandoned to die alone on a cross, and buried in a tomb.

Later, his discredited would-be followers started moving from Jerusalem throughout the Mediterranean, and they delivered the news (we call it the Gospel) that this crucified man was the Lord and King of the universe; that even after his horrific and degrading death, even after being left dead behind the rock, he was resurrected and now rules at the right hand of God.

He’s the King.

And we pause on this proclamation for a moment because this runs counter to just about everything we think we know about power and glory and vindication.

It’s even more confounding that this One, this King, can speak to his followers as he does to us in our texttoday. These words comes to us from his final moment of teaching before his arrest, execution, and resurrection.

Listen – When the Son of man comes in his glory, he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gather all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

Think about how strange this is! Jesus was born to nothing, he didn’t graduate at the top of his class, he didn’t have a full ride to Jerusalem University, he held no bank account, he had no job or mortgage or stock portfolio. And this man, who was about to be judged guilty under the guise of law and order, tells his followers that he is going to come again at the end of all things to determine the fate of every single human being who has ever lived.

Jesus is about to go on trial and he chooses this final teachable moment to tell those within earshot about the Great Trial, the one in which he will be the Judge.

Jesus will judge humanity, and its not just all of humanity that will be there – you and I are going to be there too.

Now, I know that sounds a little strange, but with talk of divine courtrooms and eternal Kings, it can can all feel a little above us. But this Jesus comes to us, to live among us, and, ultimately, to judge us.

Which leads us to the parable at hand, the parameters of separating the sheep from the goats.

These words are fairly well known among well-meaning Christian types – “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you welcomed me… just as you did to the least of these you did to me.”

Generally, when we refer to this final teaching from the Lord, we (that is: the church) use it as a way to encourage more do-goodery from congregations. We hang it over the heads of those who follow Jesus in order to convince folk like you to serve at soup kitchens, donate gently used articles of clothing, and, at the very least, drop a few extra bills into the offering plate.

And yet, in looking over the parable, the response from those who are told they are about to inherit the kingdom is remarkable – they are amazed! They are amazed because they didn’t even know they had ministered to the hidden Christ among the least of these. That they are vindicated in their goodness is strange considering the fact they were not even aware they had done anything good at all!

On the other side, appropriately, the response of those on the King’s left are similarly surprised. They have no idea they had neglected to do the goodness so described by the Lord. 

Surprises are in store for everyone, apparently. 

If we are ever in the mood for self-congratulation, Jesus seems to say, the we are precisely those who have not done what we were called to do. The moment we think we’ve saved ourselves is the beginning of our end.

And if we think we can rely on explaining our lack of goodness away for lack of Jesus’ obviously identifiable presence, it becomes the end of our beginning.

There is therefore good reason to fear this parable – for it to leave us scratching our heads rather than comforted in the knowledge of our vindication. 

Because, who among us can present a laundry list of more good deeds than bad deeds? If we take Jesus seriously, we need only think of adultery to have committed it, we need only think jealous thoughts to have stolen from our neighbors. 

The end and beginning of discipleship is the recognition that, as Paul puts it, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understand; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

This, to put it bluntly, is a rather terrifying prospect. But that’s exactly what makes the parable so good. 

For all of its terror, it is also the last laugh in Jesus’ ministry of salvation – it is the bestowal of the Kingdom of God on a bunch of dumb sheep who not only didn’t know they were doing good things for Jesus, but they also never knew they were faithful to him.

The language of separation remains, of course, but Jesus tells us the King will separate them one from another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats and, lest we forget, Jesus is the Good Shepherd. 

And the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, but he also lays down his life for the goats as well because on the cross he draws all to himself, which is why all nations will be gathered in the end.

Remember – Jesus came to raise the dead, not to teach the teachable or fix the fixable.

What the Gospel stresses, what Jesus proclaims, what we are called to keep at the forefront of our minds, is the fact that Jesus is both Lord of the universe AND he identifies with the lowest and the least among humanity. And it is precisely the combination of both things that makes his final teaching ring clear. Otherwise it just descends into a Santa Clausian nightmare in which “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice, Jesus Christ is coming to town!”

That’s not what Jesus is saying here! The division of the sheep and goats is not based on who is good and who is bad. If that were the case, then we’d all wind up among the goats.

It’s based, instead, on who the Shepherd is and what he’s been up to this whole time.

For, from the foundation of the cosmos, the triune God has been engaged and involved in the good work of drawing all into the salvific work of the cross and resurrection. The great story of God with God’s people has been one of rectification, not damnation. 

The only thing we have to do, particularly since we don’t even know that we’re doing good things when we’re doing good things, is to take Jesus at his word and trust him.

Because, in the end, our King Jesus cares so much for the last, least, lost, little, and dead that he is willing to die for people like you and me who deserve not one parcel of his grace, replacing our unrighteousness with his righteousness, becoming the judged Judge standing in our place.

Our King, counter to every other king in the history of all things, looks upon our miserable estate, takes all of our sins, and nails them to the cross upon which we hung him.

And he leaves those sins there forever.

No one can earn or deserve salvation. No one can even know that he or she is saved. We can only believe it. We can only trust it.

You know, for all of the talk in the church of doing this, that, and the other, for all our talk of who is in and who is out, for all our talk about what is good and what is bad, this final teaching from Jesus offers a different understanding of the way things were, are, and shall be forevermore – we, even the brightest and most faithful among us, we don’t know what we don’t know, we are incapable of doing what we’ve convinced ourselves we have to do, we are, to put it simply, sinners in need of grace.

And even if we can’t rest in the trust that Jesus is good to his Word (for he is the Word), it’s all still Good News because Jesus is in the raising-of-the-dead business and he is very very good at his job. Jesus is the Love that refuses to let us go, he is the fatted-calf slaughtered on our behalf, he is the Divine Father rushing out to meet us in the street before we can even open our mouths to apologize. 

And he also happens to be our King. 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

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We Have No King But Jesus

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?”

Political signs and bumper stickers are a strange practice. I understand the fervor that’s behind people wanting to display their political hopes and affiliations, I can even appreciate the very rare but very good pun made on such signs, and in a time such as ours I get the desire to draw clear lines in the sand.

But, what are we really trying to communicate when we display those particular names, or those particular political mascots?

I mean, how many people have been persuaded to vote for someone else because of a bumper stickers or a lawn sign? Is that why we do it?

Or are we purposely trying to anger the people stuck behind us in traffic or that wayward neighbor from the other side of the aisle?

It boggles the mind that for being one of our so-called private subjects, we certainly love to air out all of our political laundry.

And what’s funnier is how long we keep those signs/stickers long after the race is over.

Just drive anywhere around the church and you’ll likely see a Make America Great Again sticker, or a wind battered “I’m With Her” sign. And if you’re looking for it, you can find some other great reminders down memory lane.

In the last week I saw three W stickers, two for Clinton/Gore, and believe it or not, I saw a Nixon/Agnew sticker on the back of a pickup truck that no longer had any business being on the road.

It’s one thing to proudly display whether we lean red or blue today, but what does it say if we are living in the far political past? I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had conversations when someone said something like, “I wish ______ was still president.” And then he or she will lay out all of the reasons it would be better for us as a country, never mind the fact that Ford, Nixon, Regan, and JFK are all dead.

But the funniest and strangest political sticker of them all is one that I see far too often these days: Jesus for President.

Have you seen one? It has all the trappings of a normal political announcement: it is usually filled with the patriotic red, white, or blue, and with a slightly skewed angle you’ll see the words “Jesus for President” or “Jesus Christ 2020.” 

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Most of them are so well done that you have to look twice before you realize they’re talking about the baby who arrives in the manger and not some political hopeful who believes he can fix everything with our country.

Friends, let me tell you something, we don’t want Jesus to be our president. 

No. No. No.

That would be a terrible idea.

Hey everyone, we’ve got to raise everyones taxes, and by everyone I mean EVERYONE, because we’ve got too many people who are hungry, cold, and suffering in the hospital.

My fellow Americans, I am proud to announce our new national initiative: “Turning Cheeks.” Yep, that’s right, from now on if someone hits you, it’s illegal to do anything in retribution except for offering the other cheek as well.

Tonight, I speak to you from the oval office with great news, every weapon in the country has been smelted or melted into plowshares so that we can all work toward a more agrarian economy. I once said that those who live by the sword will die by the sword and I meant it. But today, those who live by the plow will thrive by the plow!

Jesus would be a terrible president.

Can you imagine? He’d always disappear in the middle of something important just so that he could pray with his heavenly father in private. He’d ditch the secret service to go hang out with the homeless around the Whitehouse. And he’d probably wear a dirty robe when he gave speeches from the Rose Garden.

Jesus would be a terrible president.

But he makes a pretty good King…

Today, in churches all across the globe, we triumphantly announce that Jesus Christ is King. We boldly proclaim that our allegiance it to Christ and to Christ alone. And we remember that we, as Christians, humbly bow to no one but Jesus Christ our Lord.

This is the last Sunday in the liturgical year and we dedicate it to reminding ourselves about the lordship of Jesus. It’s not the time for a quaint little parable, or an Old Testament narrative. No, today we put it all on the line: We are either for Jesus, or we’re not. 

And its kind of funny, when you think about it… Taking one day out of the year to talk about Jesus as the King. We usually talk about Jesus in a great number of other ways. We think about Jesus as a teacher, or a healer, or a sage, or a spiritual leader. 

But a king? 

And, seeing as it’s the last day of the year for us, we do well to take stock over where we’ve been, and the one whom we have gathered to worship over the last 12 months.

Jesus was poor. He had no standing in the world. But he preached about the kingdom of God, and it attracted a lot of attention. 

It can be very difficult for people like you and I to grasp the kind of common that followed our King, because we don’t really live at all like the people did during the time of Jesus. But, for centuries, for generations, the Jews experienced nothing but trials and tribulations. They were exiled, defeated, and eventually returned to disasters. They went through various rebellions and foreign occupations, all while waiting for the promised King from the line of David. 

And then came Jesus. He shook things up. He healed people and preached about an entirely new reality. And it made people mad.

So the religious elite, and the secular authorities, took a poor Jew and they nailed him to a cross. He suffered and died in the most degrading and humiliating way possible. And pretty soon after, his former followers, people called disciples, started our from Jerusalem and spread word all over the Mediterranean that this crucified man was resurrected from the dead and was the Lord and King of the universe.

It’s hard to imagine Jesus as our president, but sometimes its even harder to imagine him being resurrected from beyond the grave. 

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But that’s the whole thing right there: Jesus was raised from the dead. That’s what makes him our king. Not because he has the right political strategy, not because he knows who to tax and who to forgive, but simply because he was raised from the dead.

Christ the King Sunday is strange and political and eternal. It pokes and prods at our expectations about what it means to be a faithful people and it leaves many of us, if not most of us, scratching our heads.

It confuses our sensibilities about life, death, and everything in between.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate is confused as well. He is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The people have delivered this poor Jew into his hands and he doesn’t know what to do. Jesus hasn’t really committed a crime, certainly nothing that warrants death, yet that’s what the people want. 

What’s a Pilate to do?

He asks questions – he wants to make sense of this senseless moment. He stands before the one man who will literally change everything. In him he encounters something that is strange and political and eternal. Jesus’ answers poke and prod at his expectations of what it means to hold power and he leaves scratching his head.

“What is truth?”

Oh what a question! It doesn’t get much better than this. For a moment, it’s like we’ve jumped into the strange new world of the Bible and we finally get a chance to ask a question! 

Jesus, what is truth? 

Pilate has the Truth standing right in front of him and he doesn’t recognize it. Perhaps he is kept from seeing the height and depth and length and breadth of God’s love in Jesus Christ on that side of the crucifixion. 

Here’s the truth, the truth that Pilate couldn’t see, but the truth made possible to people like you and me: Jesus Christ is our King because he, and he alone, has been victorious over death.

It’s that simple.

It’s that confusing.

On the cross he drew into himself all of the brokenness and all of the pain and all of the sorrow of the world, and in his resurrection he conquered it, he destroyed it, he obliterated it.

He came into this world as God in the flesh and from his resurrected dominion he rules as the living Lord of life, death, and resurrection.

Jesus is the truth!

On this Christ the King Sunday, as we re-encounter the truth, there is a question that hangs in the air, a question similar to Pontius Pilate’s: Who do we want to be the ruler of our lives? 

The answer, for many of us, is of course: We want to rule our lives. We want to be the masters of our fates, we want to be the captain of our souls. That’s the American way!

Most of us here this morning have come of age in a world and a culture in which the individual reigns supreme. We like to elevate self-made people. And we often want to put them in places of power.

But if we want to be in charge, why aren’t things going the way we hoped? Why do we bicker with the people closest to us? Why aren’t our children doing what they’re supposed to do?

Our heightened individualistic culture is not one that is familiar to our King. 

Being left to our own devices leaves us isolated, and afraid, and full or questions. 

There is no such thing as being alone in the kingdom of God: Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. 

We are not alone, nor are we meant to be alone. We belong to something and someone greater than ourselves. We belong to the Truth who is, and was, and is to come. 

Jesus is our King, not because he makes our lives easier, not because he has better solutions for all of our political problems, and not because he will protect us from the evils of this world. He is simply our King because he is the truth: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that we might not perish but have eternal life.

The incarnation and the defeat of death are the only qualifications necessary for Jesus to become the Lord of our lives. 

There’s a reason that Jesus’ kingdom, to put it in his words, is not of this world. Because this world isn’t the end, it does not determine everything that happens to us, it does not hold all the power. Jesus died and rose again to usher in a new world not defined by those with power, but by the one who points toward himself and therefore at the truth.

And so, like Pontius Pilate we stand before the one born in a manger, the one who wandered Galilee, the one who died in a tree for you and me, and we get to ask the question, “What is truth?”

And what is Jesus’ answer? “I am.”

Amen. 

So It Is To Be

Devotional:

Revelation 1.7

Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.

Weekly Devotional Image

The church was damp, dark, and devoid of anyone else. I was lost in Chichicastenango, Guatemala and had wandered inside a church hoping that someone from my group would eventually find me. Unlike any church I had been in previously, the ground felt alive under my feet as it gave way to my weight. The walls were covered with black soot from centuries of fires lit by those who sought to destroy the faith. And the once beautiful paintings and decorations had completely disappeared from view. 

The small of melted wax filled my nostrils as I began to creep closer and closer toward what I imagined was the altar. It was the least church-like church I had ever seen. Without the help of lighting, I stumbled over rickety wooden seats until I finally found myself standing by the far wall. There, poised right in front of me, was a magnificent and immaculate sculpture of Jesus. 

In complete contrast with the rest of the space, this Jesus contained not a single blemish and almost shined in the darkness – Jesus stood elegantly with his robes draped over his shoulders and in one of his outstretched hands he held a crown of thorns.

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In that moment I was confronted, perhaps for the first time, about the reality of what it means to believe that Jesus Christ is King. I was surrounded by decay and disregard and yet Christ stood before me in glory. It was right then that I saw the true paradox of the crucifixion: the King was hung on a cross to die, a nearly abandoned church had no semblance of life, and Jesus is still in charge. 

I used to foolishly believe that I was carrying God with me when I went to different places and encountered different people, but that day I learned that God is the one looking for me, waiting to confront me even in places like a dark and empty church. 

Look! Jesus is coming with the clouds and every eye will see him, even those who betrayed him, abandoned him, pierced him, and crucified him. And in response the entirety of creation will wail.

So it is to be. 

As we round out the Christian year, and prepare to start over again with the season of Advent, this final word about the one who is, and was, and is to come sounds frightening and maybe even a little convicting. But Jesus, the King of kings, died on a cross for you and me. He stands abandoned in a cross devoid of light with a crown of thorns in his hand. He calls and searches for us through the Holy Spirit on this side of the resurrection.

How else could we possibly respond except by wailing?