(John 18: 33-38a; 2 Samuel 23:1-7)
Are you King of the Jews?
It’s a simple enough question, right? There are two possible answers: yes or no. You either are, or you aren’t. It’s simple.
Are you King of the Jews?
Unless….unless it isn’t simple. Unless it’s more than that. More than a yes-no question. Maybe it’s something deeper; maybe it’s a question of identity. That’s not a binary kind of thing, is it? Who someone is. Who Jesus is.
Who are you, Jesus? That’s the real question Pilate’s asking, isn’t he? That’s what he really wants to find out – who Jesus is. The “king” thing is less about a title and more about – well, more about the truth. “King of the Jews.” There’s a whole lot wrapped up in those four little words; a lot that Pilate wants to know, needs to know; because these are crazy times he is living in, and knowing the answer to that question, knowing who Jesus really is, just might mean the difference between “Roman peace” or the world turned upside down.
Are you, Jesus? Are you King of the Jews?
See, it had been a mixed bag when it came to kings in Hebrew history. There was David, of course, the standard by which every other king was measured. It was David who, long before, slayed the warrior Goliath as a boy, creating the legend. It was David who centralized power and worship of God in Jerusalem, the holy city. It was David who wrote songs of praise and thanksgiving:
The spirit of the Lord speaks through me,
his word is upon my tongue.
The God of Israel has spoken,
the Rock of Israel has said to me:
One who rules over people justly,
ruling in the fear of God,
is like the light of morning,
like the sun rising on a cloudless day,
gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.
David, the great king of Israel. But for every David there was a Saul. A Solomon. A Jeroboam, an Ahab, a Zedekiah. More bad kings than good, because, as the old saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Or at least it makes it very, very easy to.
Are you King of the Jews?
Pilate asks the question, knowing full well that the man before him is not a king in the classical sense. For Jesus of Nazareth is nothing more than a Jewish carpenter, a peasant; far, far down the pecking order in a Rome-centric world. Through the world’s eyes, Jesus poses no threat to a man like Pilate. Not a one.
But Pilate also knows that a conquered people, a people like the Jews, are at their most dangerous when they have hope – and when that hope is embodied in one who people see as something more than what the world might see in them. Pilate knows that “King of the Jews” is more, much more than a title. And that’s what concerns him.
Pilate knows exactly what he is asking Jesus. Here’s the question: do we?
Do we really?
Do we really understand what we mean when we call Jesus our “King?” Do we really know what we are proclaiming when we celebrate “Christ The King Sunday?” Do we know how powerful and provocative and dangerous this really is?
See, the world, from the very beginning, has pushed back on this notion, this idea of Jesus as king. The world is not friendly to this idea, because it throws out the window the very foundation of how the world understands things, how the world operates, how it perceives power and authority and things of that nature. People of God, it is not as innocent a thing as we might think, proclaiming Christ as king.
Cleve May is one of the pastors of CityWell United Methodist Church in Durham, a church created on the premise of intentional community and hospitality; with the goal, per its vision statement, of becoming “a people who receive the ways of Jesus as our way of life, for the sake of His glory and for the sake of the world” – which sounds a lot like proclaiming Christ as king, doesn’t it?
I got to know Cleve from our days together in Mount Airy, when he was director of the Young Life chapter there. Cleve and I jammed on guitar a time or two with our mutual friend Jerry; we attended a concert a couple of years ago here in Charlotte. When Cleve and his wife Amy had their first child, my wife hooked them up with one of her renowned taco pies. Cleve is one of the kindest, warmest human beings I have ever known, and I have always admired the way he’s striven to be an authentic reflection of Jesus in his own life and in the larger world.
Yesterday morning I saw my friend’s mug shot posted on WRAL’s website in an article about something that happened this Friday. For the past eleven months, Cleve and his church have housed in their sanctuary a man by the name of Samuel Oliver Bruno, an undocumented immigrant who’s lived in this country for 22 years. He has an ailing mother here, as well as a 19-year old son.
On Friday, Oliver Bruno made his way to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Morrisville for an appointment that authorities had scheduled so he could complete paperwork toward his citizenship; he was accompanied by Cleve and other members of his church. While there, he was suddenly and without warning detained by plain-clothed Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. The whole thing was a setup. Cleve and nearly a dozen members of his church were arrested as they formed a human wall around the van that Oliver Bruno was placed in.
There is a short video on Twitter of Cleve being led away by officials. He is cooperating fully. He’s wearing a green stole around his neck, which is blowing about in the chilly Friday morning breeze. Sounds of a murmuring crowd and the click-click of cameras can be heard in the background. The video moves from the front of Cleve and the officer to their back, and zooms in on Cleve’s hands bound in white plastic handcuffs.
And it stays there as you hear Cleve answer a question that’s been asked of him – you can’t quite hear the question, but you assume it’s about who Samuel Oliver Bruno is, or more likely, why Cleve would do something like this for him. And through the noise of all that is happening around him you hear Cleve answer softly, “because he’s a father and a husband; and because he’s my brother in Christ.”
Like I said, it is not as innocent a thing as we might think, proclaiming Christ as king.
Because to proclaim Christ as “king” is to consequently proclaim that no one else is. Right? You can’t have two kings. You can only have one. To proclaim Christ as King is to proclaim that no one else is deserving of the same allegiance and devotion. No government, no president or political leader, no Fortune 500 CEO, no one. Just Jesus. And to claim Christ as king is to align ourselves completely with his power, not any power of this world. Not military might, not coercion, not oppression. Nothing but the power of his love.
To proclaim Christ as “king” is to have faith that, while we live in the harsh reality of a broken world, that brokenness can be healed and is being healed. It is to engage fully in this world God is healing, and not simply pine for the world that is to come. To claim Christ as king is to accept that an alternate kingdom is being built right now among us, even as wars rage and terrorists terrorize and leaders fail.
In fact, to proclaim Christ as “king” is to refuse to succumb to fear of the future or fear of “the other” or fear of any kind, because we hold fast to something else – and that is hope. To claim Christ as king is to defy those who seek to undermine that hope – and defy them not with brute force, but with compassion and love.
To proclaim Christ as “king” is to look straight into the eyes of the world and say, “I have no idea what tomorrow will bring, but the one thing I do know is that fear and hate will never win, because Jesus’s love is stronger than all of that.” And then live as “a people who receive the ways of Jesus as our way of life, for the sake of His glory and for the sake of the world.”
That is what it means to claim Christ as king. And it may be, perhaps, that Christ the King Sunday falls on the very last day of our liturgical year precisely because it takes us all that time to fully comprehend what that means. Advent and arrival, Christmas and Epiphany and the life of Jesus. Lent and reflection, Holy Week; the horror of Good Friday followed by an empty Saturday and then glorious Resurrection morning. The Easter season and Pentecost and the Spirit, and the chunk of time we call “Ordinary Time” even though there’s little that’s ordinary about it. All of that leads to this day, Christ the King Sunday, our liturgical New Year’s Eve; a full year’s journey needed to bring us here.
We need all that time to begin to understand what it means to claim Christ as king. Because you and I live in a world that has a nasty habit of fashioning Jesus to our own liking, to our own purposes and end. We have used and are using Jesus’ very words to support discrimination and segregation; violence and war; bigotry and fear and hate. We use Jesus to justify things that run counter to the very gospel Jesus came to proclaim in the first place.
And it is no wonder why we do this, is it? Because when we fashion Jesus to our own liking, when we mold Jesus to fit our will and not the other way around, we can then claim Jesus as king without having to change a thing about ourselves.
And that, my friends, that is why this question that Pilate asks, at its heart, is so terrifically dangerous. Did you notice in his response, Jesus doesn’t offer a clear answer, he’s not pigeon-holed into a simple “yes” or “no?” Is it possible Jesus doesn’t offer a clear answer because he doesn’t need to; because Pilate already knows? Is it possible we already know?
This question changes everything, friends. Everything. And not just for Jesus. For us.
Are you king, Jesus?
Well, are you?
Because if you are king, it means no one else is. You, only you.
If you are king, it means that I must live my life as if that’s the case. It means I put you first, above all others. It means I pledge allegiance to you, above all others. It means I recognize you as the ultimate authority in my life, in the world; the final power, not the powers of this world.
No government. No political leader. No ideology concocted from human minds.
You. Only you, Christ.
And because you are king, then the next question is one we must each ask of ourselves:
Are we followers of our king Jesus?
Well, are we, people of God?
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
To learn more about Samuel Oliver Bruno’s story, the story of CityWell Church, and to offer your support, visit https://sanctuaryatcitywell.org.
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.