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Not of This World

Sermon - 11/22/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 18:33-37

It's hard to believe that here we are at the end of the church's year.  Next Sunday is the beginning of the liturgical calendar, the church calendar, the first Sunday of Advent.  Always seems to come earlier and earlier, right?

And that is one way to remind ourselves that the seasons of the church are not synonymous with the seasons of society.  And so we have the liturgical calendar with its own little particularities. And one of those is that the last weekend of the liturgical calendar of the church's year, today, is known as Christ the King Sunday.  It's a time when we reflect on the nature of the kingship of Jesus.

And so our text for this morning, to help us reflect on that, is taken from the 18th chapter of John's gospel, and it is the story of the arrest of Jesus.  Much of that story is familiar to you, and we're going to look at just one little part of it.  It's of course a much larger story, a gripping drama, a chess-match of wits between two powerful figures.

The part we want to look at are verses 33 through 38, and if you follow along in your own Bible (or use the pew Bible, which is the same version that I read from -- the New Revised Standard Version), you'll note that I'm going to make one small change in the text.  A change that is made in the contemporary English version, to remove to inherent anti-Semitism that traditionally has been used to falsely blame the Jews for the death of Jesus.  I've spoken on that topic many times before so I will not address it further today, other than simply to note that it is historically, theologically, and morally wrong to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus.  And therefore, we must change the way we read the text, and hence this small word change that is just one small step in a much larger effort to that end.

So, reading from 18:33-37:

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘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 our leaders. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. 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.’
38Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’


To fully appreciate this text, we need to look at two other texts.  First of all, John 14, after Jesus washed his disciples feet, he engaged in a long dialogue with the disciples on the meaning of discipleship before his arrest.  In that dialogue (chapter 14, verse 6) he said "I am the way, the truth, and the life".  So we who have read the gospel story, who know that story, know that when Pilate asked that question "What is truth?", the answer is standing there right before him and he fails to recognize it.

And then the second text that aids in our reading, is the prologue to John's gospel, in chapter 1, where we read:  "In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, the Word was God, He was in the beginning with God, He was in the world, the world came into being through Him, yet the world did not know Him, and the Word became flesh and lived among us".

Thus, when Jesus says to Pilate that his kingdom is not from this world, it is clear that Jesus is not speaking about location but rather about origin. 

Speaking of out of this world, how 'bout those Ducks (beat Arizona in overtime the night before :). 

So when we read this text, to read it in such a way as if Jesus is only talking about heaven, the afterlife, or that he's talking about a purely spiritual kingdom, is to mis-read the text.  Yes, Jesus is talking about a spiritual reality but it's about living according to that reality in this world.  To bring heaven to earth, so to speak.  Giving that reality flesh and blood, as did Jesus.  The Word of God that lives among us.

I like the way that LeRoy put it in his Heart-to-Heart column about a month ago, writing for the Register Guard in that Saturday column, LeRoy (a retired Minister, an Elder in our church) asks:

How in the world, literally, can the prayer many of us Christians pray regularly, ever come to be — ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’?

So, for me, “kingdom” goes far beyond place or thing.  It has to do with all of us, and God’s will in our lives.

When I think of “heaven” I do not think of a place and all of the trappings one usually envisions, but as an essential presence with God.  So when I pray for that perfect relationship with God “on earth as it is in heaven,” I am praying for all of God’s creation — land, sea and air, birds, animals and people.  All people are equal there, all have responsibilities and all have the opportunity to experience that essential presence with God.


As John 1 makes abundantly clear, that presence with God is most fully manifested and made evident to us through Jesus, through the life of Jesus.  So if we look at the whole scope of Jesus, what do we see?

We see Jesus healing the blind, healing the sick.  We see Jesus feeding the crowds of hungry people.  We see Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.  We see Jesus challenging the authority of the rulers and bankers.  We hear Jesus questioning the values of the rich and powerful.  We hear Jesus praising the values of that widow who puts in her last 2 cents in the treasury of the Temple.

We hear Jesus blessing the poor and meek.  We hear Jesus telling us to turn the other cheek.  To love our enemies.  To forgive those who have wronged us. 

And we watch Jesus risk it all, putting his life on the line and on the cross, showing the extent and the power of God's love that cannot be defeated by the powers of this world.  Not even by death.

And so we see what Jesus is doing -- bringing heaven on earth.  Living according to those values of the kingdom of God.

Confronted with the representative of Rome's power, in Pilate, Jesus makes very clear the difference between the way of Rome and the way of God.  The way of the world, and the way of heaven.  'If my followers were of this world', says Jesus, 'they would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to our leaders, and to you, Pilate'.  In other words, that's the way you do things, Pilate, that's the way Caesar does things, that's the way Washington does things, that's the way empire is. 

But the way of God, the way of Jesus, is not like that.  It's an entirely different way of being in the world.  To live according to a different set of values.  And so we remember Peter taking out the sword and striking off the ear one of the soldiers and Jesus said 'Put away the sword'.

In the chapter of Marcus Borg's book that we are reading in our Tuesday night class, The Heart of Christianity, this week in our reading Borg notes that you cannot speak about the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven without addressing political dimensions of the gospel.  Now, we can get all worked up about politics and church.  But we really shouldn't, if we understand what that means. 

Borg notes that the word "politics" comes from the Greek word for the city, "polis".  And it simply means the shape that we give to life in the city.  Politics is about the shape and the shaping of human community.  How we go about organizing human society, and all of the systems that govern our lives.  Not only the systems of government and the rules of law, but also economic systems and the rules of finance, belief systems and the rules of ethics and morality.  All those systems that make up human society and determine whether or not that society is fundamentally just.  Whether every person has the opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential. 

Or whether it is basically 'injust', where one class of citizens benefits at the expense of another.  And at the core of the Biblical message, from the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt to the proclamation of Jesus, who says the 'spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor, to release the captives, to proclaim recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free', how we go about shaping human community is central to God's desire for our world.

"God cares about justice", writes Borg, "because the God of the Bible cares about suffering".  And see, you cannot be serious about relieving that suffering unless you are serious about addressing the sources of that suffering.

So, pick your issue, I don't care which -- healthcare, immigration, poverty, hunger, war, environment, whatever -- the fundamental issue is the same;  though we may differ on the specifics of how we get there, the basic question is this:  which direction moves us toward the kingdom of God.  That is, closer to a just world where all have that possibility and opportunity to fulfill their potential as one created in the image of God.

How do we then continue what Jesus began?  Putting shape to this community to be more like God's community?

As Dominic Crossan likes to say, "Heaven is in great shape.  It's on earth where the issues are".

I want to bring this home, and get very personal, and talk about our own attitudes, specifically about our attitudes about the homeless, those people we see on the streets, those people who come and worship with us, those people who are part of our community.

At City Club on Friday, David Robertson (who has just been hired by St. Vincent DePaul to be the coordinator for the Egan Warming Center, in which we are going to be one of the host churches when it is 28 degrees or below) shared in a very powerful way, helping us to re-think the way in which we see the homeless by thinking about their stories.  And I just want to share that with you as we listen to David share with us:



Well, Thursday of course is Thanksgiving.  As we think about those on the street, otherwise others not as fortunate as ourselves, and their story.  I would encourage you not to feel shame or guilt because of what you have and they may not.  But to feel satisfaction that what you have is enough.

The Reverend Tim Score, who wrote the workbook that we're using on Tuesday nights in our class, writes:

"We live in a culture that depends on our living with a perpetual dis-satisfaction with what we have and who we are.  In all kinds of ways we are told 'you don't have enough, you don't know enough, you don't drive the right car or have the right clothes or the right body' and so on and so forth.  To act in a way that denies that cultural message is a powerfully subversive public act.  To say "Thank you, I have enough, and I am enough" is both spiritually, and politically, transforming".

So what if, as a community of God, we lived in such a way that says 'we have enough'?  That we don't need faster cars or bigger homes.  That we don't have to buy expensive gifts to show our love for someone.  Happiness is not found in all that 'stuff' we accumulate.

What if we lived not by the values of this world, but by the values of that world to come?  By the values we learned from Jesus, from the kingdom of God.

What if we see and treat and every person as a child of God?

What if we shape the structures of our society according to that community of God?

What if we lived self-lessly, sharing the abundance of God's goodness and grace with all?

What if?

Well then, I suppose it could be said here dwells a community that saw the truth and loved that truth in the way they lived.

May it be.


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