Sermon for Christ the King Sunday -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
“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.” So says Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson from St. John. (John 18:33-37)
The traditional interpretation of this lesson is a good one and I have used it in preaching many times in the past – Jesus is disavowing any connection to this world, to any kingdom of Pilate and Jesus’ accusers. Jesus is asserting his independence – the world and its powers cannot determine Jesus’ ultimate fate. Scholar David Lose suggests this is similar to Jesus’ statement in John 10 – “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”
Jesus is saying that he and God are ultimately in charge. Earthly powers have no hold over him, no matter what they may do, what they are going to do, to Jesus. Thus, since this is not Jesus’ kingdom, Jesus’ followers will not get involved in a fight to save Jesus.
However and especially in light of the tragic events in this world over the last few weeks, events which have included terror attacks in Egypt, Paris, Beirut and Baghdad to name only four, I wonder if a different interpretation is in order, especially for these times.
You see, Jesus may be saying that, if he and his followers were of this world, they would use this world’s primary tool for establishing and keeping power – violence. But, since Jesus is not of this world, he will not defend himself through violence. Jesus will not establish his claims by violence. Jesus will not usher in God’s kingdom with violence. Jesus will take no followers by violence.
Rather, Jesus has come to witness to the truth, the truth that God is love (John 3:16), and that because we have not seen God and have such a hard time imagining God (John 1:18), all too often our imaginations are dominated by our experience. So rather than imagining that God is love, we imagine God to be violent because we live in a world of violence. Rather than recognize the cross as a symbol of sacrificial love, we assume it’s the legal mechanism of punishing Jesus in our stead because we have way too much experience with punitive relationships. Rather than believe that God’s grace and acceptance are absolutely unconditional, we assume God offers love, power, and status only with the conditions that we fear, obey, and praise God because so much of our life is quid pro quo, an exchange of goods and services, one for another.
But Jesus is not of this world. And therefore his followers will not fight for him because to bring the kingdom about by violence is to violate the very principles of this kingdom and cause its destruction.
We live in a world dominated by the view that the only answer to violence is more violence. And the end result of that view is death.
Does that mean Jesus is calling us to be pacifists? Some traditions – particularly Mennonite, Quaker, and Church of the Brethren believers – have given vivid testimony to the power of Christian non-violence. These witnesses cannot be quickly discarded. Dr. Lose suggests that our Lutheran tradition, influenced by what Martin Luther called God’s two kingdoms, has stressed that temporal authorities like armies and law enforcement have a critical role to play in creating a more orderly and more just world. Standing in this tradition, I think the perpetrators of the violence in Paris and terrorists everywhere should be opposed vigorously, fought tirelessly, and brought to justice whenever possible so that there is less such violence in the world.
But in the church, we need also to witness that there are limits to the reach and outcome of force. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., another champion for Christian non-violence, wrote,
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” (quote from “Where Do We Go From Here?” MLK, 1967).
What does this mean for us and our lives today? How do we respond to all of the hate and violence in this world? I believe our call is to pray and witness: To pray that God will comfort those who mourn, strengthen those who seek to thwart terrorists and bring them to justice, change the hearts of those who can see no other way forward but through violence, and equip all of us to work for a peace born of equity, for only such a peace will last.
And after our praying, we are called to witness: to witness to the One who demonstrated power through weakness, who manifested strength through vulnerability, who established justice through mercy, and who built the kingdom of God by embracing a confused, chaotic, and violent world, taking its pain into his own body, dying the death it sought, and rising again to remind us that light is stronger than darkness, love is stronger than hate, and that with God, all good things are possible.
This is the message the world needs now more than ever and it is our task to share it in our words and deeds: light is stronger than darkness, love is stronger than hate, and still and always, with God, all good things are still possible.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Christ the King – a NO to Violence
Sermon for Christ the King Sunday
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
November 21/22, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California