Christ the King B2018
by Pastor Sarah Stadler
Two decades ago, Barbara Kingsolver published her novel The Poisonwood Bible.
In it, she tells the story of the Price family who in 1959 moves from the southeast United States to Congo in central Africa. The protagonist of the novel is the teenage daughter Leah, a serious, thoughtful, hard-working young woman filled with integrity and faith. Among her parents and three sisters, Leah is the only one who builds genuine relationships with the people of the village in which they live, the only one who comes to not only respect but also value the giving and caring of the community, a contrast to her father. Her father is a preacher and the conversion of the Congolese people his primary motivation for moving his family to Congo, a conversion not respectful of the people and their culture, a conversion not genuinely interested in the welfare of the community. Once the family settles into the village, a young man named Anatole comes to translate the preacher’s sermons so that the people of the village can decide for themselves if they want to follow Jesus. Becoming good friends with Leah, Anatole affectionately calls Leah “Beene-beene,” a name he doesn’t explain to her. Finally, one day, Anatole tells her Beene-beene means “as true as the truth can be.” Anatole names this young woman who lives with integrity and seeks relationship above all other goals Beene-beene, true as the truth can be.
Today in our gospel reading from John, Jesus stands on trial before Pilate. Pilate clearly doesn’t care who Jesus is, unless who he is happens to threaten the power of the Roman Empire. Pilate isn’t the one who brings Jesus into be tried; it’s the Jews who demand that Jesus be examined and punished. While Jesus never directly admits his identity as king, he does say: “My kingdom is not from this world… for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." Though not included in today’s passage, the next words out of Pilate’s mouth are “What is truth?” Jesus doesn’t answer his question, and Pilate simply leaves. But of course, for readers or listeners of John, we already know the answer to Pilate’s question: What is truth? For Jesus says earlier, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Jesus himself is the truth.
For Jesus to be truth does not mean he holds within himself absolute knowledge and power—for we know that he was human just like all other humans of that age who believed the earth was flat and very few of whom read and wrote, Jesus likely among them.
For Jesus to be truth does not mean that we know all truth simply because we believe in Jesus.
The truth that is Jesus unfolds in real time. The gospel of John begins: In the beginning was the Word…and then, the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth. Luther Seminary professor and John scholar Karoline Lewis teaches that these words from the very beginning of the gospel of John set up readers to discover what grace and truth look like—by seeing what Jesus does. In the gospel of John, grace and truth look like contributing to a community celebration by changing water into wine. Grace and truth look like befriending a marginalized Samaritan woman. Grace and truth look like bringing sight to a man born blind so that he is no longer ostracized. Grace and truth look like calling the one without sin to be the first to judge—and thus freeing the sinner from judgement. Grace and truth look like feeding hungry people. Grace and truth look like washing the disciples’ feet. Grace and truth are not ideas to discuss or words to preach but acts of grace and forgiveness, acts of generosity and love. That is truth. Jesus is true as the truth can be.
Jesus declares that we who listen to Jesus’ voice belong to the truth. Not the truth as a set of beliefs about God. Not absolute truth as in I’m right—you’re wrong. We belong to the truth that is Jesus, an unfolding grace discovered in the life of Jesus: building community, befriending marginalized people, easing the hurt of another, freeing ourselves and others from judgement, feeding people, serving others. And the places where this truth—this grace—come alive is the kingdom of God.
On Christ the King Sunday when we celebrate the kingdom of God where Christ is king, where truth takes the form of acts of grace and forgiveness, acts of generosity and love, we may also mourn that a different kingdom, a different truth has taken hold. We may have questions, such as: Is Christ actually reigning? If so, is Christ’s reign effective? I, for one, re-read materials about Martin Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine and pondered the details of the kingdom of God’s interface with the kingdom of the world. I read and reread the passage from the gospel of John many times. I puzzled over questions from a friend who helped me by playing devil’s advocate. After all that, I turned to these words from the Roman Catholic monk, mystic, and author Thomas Merton. He wrote: “Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”
What I hope and pray for us on this Christ the King Sunday is that we might struggle less and less for an idea of God’s kingdom and more and more for specific people. And in building relationships with people, relationships marked by grace and forgiveness, generosity and love, we will discover the kingdom of God. It’s not so much that we strive after that kingdom as much as discover it because a relationship of grace and forgiveness, generosity and love is the one God already has with us.