Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The Empire of Vulnerability: a sermon (John 18:33-37)

Here in Australia, churches have a few problems with today’s observance of the Sunday given the title of Christ the King, or The Reign of Christ.

In our egalitarian society, the idea of kingship rings a note that is artificial for many people; and even deeply offensive for some.

This is further complicated by the fact that, in many countries with monarchs (at least in the Western world), monarchs play a mainly symbolic and ceremonial role.

We ask ourselves the questions:
  • Is this image of Christ the King a symbol that denies much that is good, healthy, and life-giving in Australia’s egalitarian traditions?
  • Does this day of Christ the King speak to most Australians of an irrelevant Christ, a mainly symbolic and ceremonial Christ?

So, we find ourselves with a celebration whose main symbol could be seen as:
  • of limited relevance for most people,
  • artificial for many,
  • offensive for some, and
  • potentially misunderstood by all. 

If we look at the background of this day, the celebration of Christ the King began in the early twentieth century in the Roman Catholic Church.  It was a time when many nations were coming under the rule of dictators, such as Hitler or Stalin.  It was a time when powerful national governments were seeking to control all aspects of human life.  This celebration of Christ the King was a reminder to worshippers - and to the broader community - that no state ever had that right.  It was a celebration of human dignity and human integrity. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, this day of Christ the King became part of the life of many other denominations, such as the Anglican Church and the Uniting Church.  This was when most mainstream churches adopted the three-year lectionary, which developed following the Second Vatican Council. 
 
This day gives us a chance to reflect on Christ’s challenge to all who exercise power over others.  Each year, the gospel for this day emphasises Christ exercising a radically different kind of kingship than that exercised by the rulers of his day . . . and by many of the rulers of our day. 
 
In the coming weeks of Advent and Christmas, we’ll hear of some very unchristlike things being done by rulers:
  • Augustus ordering a census so that he could extort as much taxation as possible from the provinces;
  • Herod ordering a massacre of babies so that he could eliminate a potential rival.
Christ the King exercises a radically different kind of kingship than the rulers we encounter in our lessons for the next few weeks.

We see this in our gospel lesson for today.  Jesus was on trial before the Roman governor.  Pontius Pilate goose-stepped onto the pages of the New Testament as a chilling symbol of all that jack-booted fraternity who exercise power over other people by the sword, the whip, the gun, the bomb, or the noose.

The gospels tended to whitewash Pilate.  Other historical records of his time described him as a cruel and brutal ruler.  By the time the gospels were written, the small and emerging Christian movement was under great pressure to say that Christians could be loyal citizens of the Roman Empire.  However, there was one problem.  Jesus was executed by crucifixion, a characteristically Roman form of execution and torture reserved for those enemies of the Empire whom the Imperial authorities decided deserved a particular level of pain and humiliation in their death.

So the process developed, which was at its most advanced in John’s gospel, by which the cruel and sadisitic Pilate was transformed into a vague and vacilliating intellectual, so that Jesus’ death could be blamed on local authorities, rather than the Empire. 

In our lesson, Pilate assumed he was judging Jesus.   “Are you the King of the Jews? ... So you are a king?”  Pilate soon found that the tables were turned, and Jesus was judging the whole system of “might makes right” by which Pilate exercised his power. 

Now there’s an interesting thing about the word for “king” and “kingdom” used in the New Testament.  The Greek words used here is basileus for king, and basilea for “kingdom”. 
  • So, all through Jesus’ public life, he proclaimed, “The basilea of God is upon you.”
  • So, in this lesson, Pilate asked Jesus “Are you the basileus of the Jews?” ... and later ... “So you are a basileus?”
  • And Pilate’s sign on Jesus’ cross read “Jesus of Nazareth, the basileus of the Jews”.

The importance of these words is that they exactly echo the words that the Romans used to speak of their empire and their emperor.  The proclamation of the kingdom of God, the basilea of God, was seen as a challenge to the basilea of Rome, a challenge to the Roman Empire. 

In response to Pilate’s bullying questions, Jesus spoke about truth:
  • about his role to testify to truth,
  • about the response of those who are sensitive to truth.

Truth wasn’t Pilate’s strong suit.  Pilate was out of his depth here, ethically if not intellectually.  (And possibly Pilate was out of his intellectual depth as well.)  In his discomfort, Pilate responded to Jesus with a sarcastic one-liner:  “What is truth?”  (And I think Pilate’s comment probably came out more like:  “And what the hell is truth, anyway?”)

So in this lesson, we see a head-on confrontation between the power of human force and the power of God’s love.  Pilate, as he exercised the power of human force, believed he was judging Jesus.  Rather, Jesus was judging Pilate.

As we celebrate Christ the King, we reflect today on the judgement of the Prince of Peace upon all who exercise their power in a destructive way.

Jesus challenged the empire of force, but not by an appeal to counter-force.  He challenged the empire of force with an appeal to an empire of vulnerability.  And this inevitably links us as Christ’s followers with:
  • vulnerable communities of people around the world,
  • vulnerable communities of people in our own nation, and
  • vulnerable communities of people seeking refuge in our nation.
In many nations around the world, Christians are a small and, often, very vulnerable minority.  Still, these vulnerable communities of Christians work actively to promote the well-being of their neighbours in many practical ways.  I have seen this myself on my visits to Bangladesh on behalf of the Christmas Bowl.  Our support for the Christmas Bowl encourages these small, vulnerable Christian communities in countries around the world in their work of practical mercy, as part of Christ’s empire of vulnerability. 

Our celebration of Christ the King does not need to be a denial of our healthy, egalitarian Australian traditions.

Our celebration of Christ the King does not need to be a presentation of a ceremonial Christ with no real relevance.

At the first performance ever of Handel’s Messiah in 1742 in Dublin, the advertisements read:  “Gentlemen are requested not to wear their swords.”  This led one later commentator to say “Raw power has no place in the presence of the Prince of Peace”.

We celebrate Christ the King, who turns our cultural notions of kingship on their heads.  We celebrate Christ the King who calls us to the privilege of citizenship in God’s empire of vulnerability.

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