Rev. Todd Weir
Reign of Christ Sunday, November 25, 2018
Scripture: John 18:33-33
Click on play to listen.
What does Jesus mean when he says his Kingdom is not of this world? He makes a number of these cryptic statements. “Be in the world, but not of the world.” “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s.” Some have interpreted this text to mean we should stay away from political life, which is fraught with vanity, ego, desire for power; perhaps even believing that the political realm is unredeemable and evil. Just focus on living a good life so you can get to heaven. In medieval times, religious vocation was monastic, withdrawn from the world, which was left to Kings and Lords. Many Mennonites do not vote or run for office as an article of faith. Over time a common interpretation of the separation of church and state is that religion is a private thing, dealing with our personal morality, but should stay out of political life. Focus on Jesus’s teachings, love one another, and trust in God’s forgiveness of your sins. Is that what Jesus is saying in John’s Gospel?
It’s hard to argue against love and forgiveness, so I won’t. In fact, more of that, please! But that understanding doesn’t sit well with this text. If Jesus just went around showing unconditional love for everyone; blessing, healing, teaching wise things and volunteering at the soup kitchen twice a week, don’t you think they would vote him “Man of the Year” in Jerusalem? Instead, Jesus’s message of love provokes animosity. An odd coalition of strange bedfellows can unite for the purpose of killing him. Now here he is before Pilate on charges that will lead to his death.
What did Jesus do that provoked murderous anger? Each of the Gospels has a different angle.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has a series of confrontations with the religious leaders over things like healing on the Sabbath, forgiving sins, and is in direct conflict over interpreting the religious law. The religious leaders decide he must die by chapter 3 in Mark.
Luke’s Gospel focuses more on social justice. Jesus begins his ministry preaching good news for the poor, freedom for captives, healing for the blind and lame and the forgiveness of debts. Health care for all, forgive student loans and medical debt, prison sentencing reform and more social spending. No wonder they wanted to crucify him. Oscar Romero, who was assassinated by the military government of El Salvador while saying mass, once said, “When I fed the poor, everyone said I was a saint. When I asked why they were poor, they called me a Communist.”
Matthew’s Gospel portrays Jesus as the new Moses. We all know what Moses did, freeing the people from bondage from Pharaoh. John’s Gospel is the least overtly political, focusing on the Jewish religious leaders, who decide Jesus must die after he raised Lazarus from the dead. That is what they felt as the deepest threat to their authority. A quick sidebar on John’s language here. His continued use of “the Jews” is troubling. In European history, this text is drenched in blood. From the crusades, to pogroms, to the Holocaust, this text has been used to blame Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus, and therefore they can be killed too. Everything Jesus taught was against killing people over religious or political differences. I read this text as an example of what most authorities do when their power is threatened. They suppress people who challenge them, often with violence.
All four Gospels, and all the early Christian creeds, and Roman records agree upon is that Jesus was crucified. Crucifixion is a death sentence of the Roman Empire, reserved for people who opposed and undermined Roman authority. The sign above Jesus read, “King of the Jews” and as the religious leaders proclaim to Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar.” It’s unlikely that Jesus had any interest in taking Pilate or Caesar’s place as a King. As Jesus says, he is speaking and living truth. Clearly, they can’t handle the truth. “What is truth?” said every authoritarian leader ever. Truth is what they say it is.
The text reveals the uneasy relationship between Christian ethics and political power. If you want to love people, you cannot avoid politics, because oppression hurts the people we love. At the same time, ethical people are wary of power and its temptations. When we start to equate the Kingdom of God with our Empires, or our political party, we are engaging in idolatry. When we only see people through our political lenses, we are off track. This is the tension. Love requires taking public policy, corruption and the unjust use of power seriously. And love requires that we also see error in ourselves and our own loyalties.
It is helpful to step outside of our own context and learn from another moment in history. Americans have been deeply divided before, especially over slavery. In hindsight, its easy to say slavery is wrong, and the North was on the right side of history. Yet before we all sing, “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” we have to recognize that the North was also complicit. Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionists were on the right side of history, but that does not mean they were perfect, or even models of racial equality and acceptance. Northern merchants became rich on the slave trade, and the products of slavery; rum, cotton and sugar. A few years ago, the UCC church in Andover did some research for an anniversary. They discovered that their church building and assets were in part from the wealth of textile mill owners who processed cotton from slave labor. They chose to give away a portion of their endowment as reparations for their ancestor’s participation in slavery.
Last week about 10 of us went to hear Ijeoma Oluo, speak about her book “So You Want to Talk about Race.” Oluo started writing about racial identity trying to figure out her own experience. Her father is from Nigeria and her mother is a white woman from Kansas. She lives in the very liberal city of Seattle, but as she began to write about race, she found many of her friends pulling away, even getting angry at her. Apparently, liberals are not as “woke” as we think. When she went to the movie “Twelve Years a Slave” several friends afterwards commented, “I would have been an abolitionist.” It sounds logical, right? If you had been alive in 1860, wouldn’t you have been one too? What about as early as 1826, when Sojourner Truth escaped from slavery, not from the Deep South, but from near New Paltz, NY? Or what about in the 1740s right here in Northampton when our famous theologian, Jonathan Edwards, owned a slave?
The church I served in Poughkeepsie, NY was founded as an abolitionist church by the Beechers. Their story is that in 1836, an abolitionist speaker came to the Presbyterian Church and delivered a lecture. Afterwards, some of the leading Elders of the Church took him into the alley and thrashed him and told him to never come back. A dozen young men formed a secret society that contacted the Beechers and formed a new Congregationalist Church, that was against slavery as one of its primary tenants of faith.
A Vassar historian in the congregation discovered two interesting pieces of church history. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union formed a joint committee with the Smith Metropolitan AME Zion Church in town, an historic black church. It was one of the first real efforts at solidarity between a black and white congregation, perhaps in the whole United States.
Also, the Missionary Society helped purchase Bibles to ship to Kansas in the 1850s. Why would they do that? The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 established the Kansas Territory and allowed that the residents could vote on whether to be a slave or free state. So, both sides were sending settlers and the pro-slavery factions were attaching abolitionist settlers. The Beechers organized support for the settlers, but they were not just sending Bibles. Underneath the top layer of Bibles being transported West were rifles. So, the missionary society members were technically supporting gun running. Occasionally someone would say I was being political from the pulpit, and I would nod and remind them of their history. It’s not like I’m advocating gun running.
At the General Synod one year, I met a woman from the Beecher Bible and Rifle Church of Wabaunsee, Kansas. They are not members of the NRA. The church was founded in 1855 by 70 Congregationalists from New Haven, Connecticut. You can visit the small limestone church, and in Wikipedia it notes, “The main space was divided down the center into men’s and women’s sides.” The abolitionists had not yet discovered feminism.
To me this says, be bold in the pursuit of justice, determined to live the truth, and love passionately, especially people at the margins, and at the same time realize that we have blind spots. Jesus said he was bringing good news to the poor, and also to remove the speck from our own eye before tackling the log in someone else’s eye. And Jesus talked ceaselessly in all Gospels about the Kingdom of God. This kingdom was not just in heaven but intersected the earth. It is present, not when we seize power, but in any moment where we see love and justice being lived. It works like leaven in bread, seeds in good soil, good deeds rippling out, loving even the least among us.
Let me conclude by being really concrete about what this means today. What is the role of the church in our deeply divided nation? As Micah 6:8 said, “Do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. It takes all three. I believe our greatest contribution to our divided nation is to live into being the beloved community. We need to show in the microcosm that it is possible to truly welcome, include, respect, live mutually and justly as a community. Activists often want to use the church for their agenda. I want to do the opposite. I want to help people be disciples of Jesus, so they go out into the world and make it more like the Beloved Community, not just as activists, but as teachers, health care workers, administrators, parents, volunteers and just decent loving people whose hearts are kindled by the love of God. This is to be the school of love.