We come today to the end of the church year, the Last Sunday after Pentecost. Through this past year, we have traveled the course of the Gospel, marked for us by the Creed. We have stood at the stable, at the cross, in the garden of resurrection, and in the upper room as the Holy Spirit swept down like wildfire.
At this year's end, we turn our sights toward the ultimate End, also marked for us by the Creed. We open our arms to welcome the Last Day when "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end." We look for "the life of the world to come."
Our people have awaited the Last Day for a very long time. Daniel caught a glimpse of it years ago in a night vision. He saw an Ancient One, seated on a throne, surrounded by thousands of thousands. Then came someone resembling a person, with the clouds of heaven. To this person - like person, the Ancient One gave dominion and kingship. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed, words which have also found their way into our Creed.
The psalmist has a song celebrating the kingship of God, who made the earth secure. But even more secure is God's rule, mightier than the pounding breakers of the sea.
On this Last Sunday, we also hear about the Last Day from the Last Book, the book of Revelation. John of Patmos, like Daniel, has seen that day in a vision. John declares, oddly and despite appearances, that Jesus Christ is the ruler of the kings of the earth. The rulers are themselves ruled. John seems to stretch out his finger and point, saying, "Look, all of you. He is coming with the clouds. Every eye will see him, even those who pierced him."
After all these mighty pronouncements about the kingdom which God has established and will bring in, we come at last to the Gospel. We come to two lonely men, facing one another, talking across one another. Jesus before Pilate and Pilate before Jesus. Pilate is not a king. He's a civil servant, who serves at Caesar's beck and call. Jesus seems even less like a king. He is a man on trial and is only one step away from being executed. This is not the big splashy kingdom we were gearing up for a minute ago.
Or is it? Raymond Brown, an eminent scholar of John's Gospel, is convinced that the dominant theological theme of Jesus' trial before Pilate is Kingship.
We just heard a bit of the kingship debate:
Pilate: "Are you the King of the Jews?"
Jesus: "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."
Jesus notes that the refusal to resort to violence is a mark of his kingdom.
Pilate asks again: "So you are a king?"
Jesus is noncommittal: "You say that I am king..."
When Pilate addresses the crowd, he consistently calls Jesus "your king." Jesus undergoes a mock enthronement at the hand of Pilate's soldiers. He wears a thorny crown and a purple robe. The soldiers salute him "the king of the Jews," as they slap him in the face repeatedly. Pilate presents Jesus in his silly king costume to the crowd regally, saying, "Behold, the man." The people shout as one in answer -- not "Long live the King," but "Crucify him." Finally, Pilate has fixed to the cross, above the twisted corpse, a placard which says, "...the King of the Jews." So there. Let this be a lesson to you. This is the fate for any pretender to power who would challenge the rule of Caesar, the almighty one.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
Because we have been to the Cross and the garden of the resurrection, we can see through the charade in the narrative. The pretenders to power are Pilate and his higher-ups. The true king is the harassed and seemingly helpless Jesus.
John's narrative shows us a ruler with all the accoutrements of power, with the authority to take away life, who stands powerless in the face of true power, authority and life.
When Pilate asks Jesus the second time if he is a king, Jesus adds "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."
As the Truth, Jesus unmasks all oppressive worldly pretensions to power. Does Pilate belong to the Truth? Will Pilate listen? From this point on, the subject of the trial is not whether Jesus is innocent. Even Pilate knows the answer to that. The man on trail now is Pilate himself and the question is whether he will respond to the truth. Pilate's question to Jesus, "And what is truth?" is telling. Pilate doesn't even know what truth is. He doesn't know Truth when he sees it.
The trial in John's Gospel starkly places before us a choice: the kingdom of this world or the kingdom of Jesus, the truth. The chief priests made their choice: "We have no king but Caesar." Now it's our turn. Will we listen to the voice of truth? Will we be able to take our stand and say, "We have no king but Jesus?"
The very first creed of the Church was simply "Jesus is Lord." A simple message, but a deeply subversive one, because it calls into question all other allegiances and loyalties, whatever they may be. For us, worldly power is no longer concentrated in the person of a king. In our culture, we really have no king but Elvis. What we must face instead is a complex, interlocking ring of earthly powers. This includes the State certainly, but a State wedded to the vast military, industrial, commercial complex, founded upon the Truth of capitalism, efficiency, applied science or what have you, and fed by the advertising media. These are the powers of our world.
The kingdom of Jesus subverts those powers. The kingdom of Jesus is centered not upon clout, coercion, and capital, but upon the cross, the sign of a self- giving love that conquers death, the sign of the victory of God. No more will we be seduced by the slick advertisement, the employee-of-the-month incentive or the stealth bomber. We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
Easy and high-sounding words for a preacher to say, perhaps. More difficult it is to prescribe what to do. Should we then secede from the Union? Hole up in a fortified compound? Form a Christian Political Action Committee? Lead a tax revolt?
No. Christ's kingdom is not from this world. I will tell you two things that we can do, however. First, we can refuse to comply whenever the power-that-be would coerce us to acts which are not Christ-like. Second, we can be the Church, the messianic community, who lives no longer for itself, but for him who died for us and rose again.
He will come again in glory and his kingdom will have no end. AMEN.