When it comes to Jesus, the truth is . . .
A Sermon on John 18:33-37
I hope you had a good Thanksgiving! I am grateful for the time I enjoyed with my wife and family in Tennessee. Rev. Jessica is still on her Thanksgiving vacation and will return to worship with us next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church year. Today is the last Sunday, then, of this church year, which always ends with emphasis on Christ as King, who reigns over God's kingdom.
I begin today's sermon with a confession. For some time, I did not like to preach about the image of king in this, a country without royalty – except, perhaps, our celebrities. Even though the men of the Kennedy family were once compared to kings, our country is a democracy, not a monarchy, regardless of how it seems sometimes.
More to the point, as an Episcopalian, I was increasingly bothered by the use of “king” in referring to Jesus, although there is great precedent in both Scripture and tradition for it. I was bothered because using the word “king” makes it easier for those, even in our own Anglican tradition, even in 2012, to hold the position that there is no place for women as ordained leaders. You may have heard that, after many years of debate, the Church of England, our mother church, has officially rejected women as bishops, even though today, more than one-third of their priests are women. This is a discouraging, even devastating development for countless Anglican women and men.
But I am also well aware that Jesus was a man who came to reign over God's kingdom. He used the phrase “the kingdom of God” all the time. And we use it every Sunday when we pray, “thy kingdom come.” If it is bothersome to us, what are we to do with this “king” image and language? How can 21st century Christians, leaders and followers, women and men, embrace the reign of God Jesus had in mind?
In the years before I came to Frederick, I was part of a group of clergy and lay leaders called the Memphis School of Servant Leadership. Some of you may know that “servant leadership” is a theory and practice also popular in the corporate world. One of the classes I facilitated with Deborah, an African-American woman, was called “Racism to Reconciliation: The Peaceable Kin-dom, Now and Here.” In that class I learned how Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision of the “beloved community” – united as sisters and brothers, with deep kinship in Christ – was all about God's kin-dom, all “peoples, nations and languages” who serve God, as our lesson from Daniel puts it.
For this year's observance of Christ the King Sunday, we hear a small part of Pontius Pilate's trial of Jesus. After some back and forth in what can only be called a kangaroo court, Jesus says, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” The lectionary ends this passage before we hear Pilate's question, “What is truth?” Jesus does not answer Pilate's question with words. He answers with deeds. He answers with his true servanthood and his humanity – with his very life. On that day, in Pilate's headquarters, it all came down to Jesus. And when it came to Jesus, the truth was this: Christ the King was going to die.
What's interesting about the word our New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates “testify” is that the Greek word is one from which we get our English word “martyr.” The Greek word for “martyr” is used 64 times in the New Testament. It implies a willingness to give your life for what you have seen or heard or experienced. For Jesus, the experience of martyrdom was literal. For us, it probably won't be. To testify to the truth may mean, however, to give up some part of our life – perhaps something religious we hold a strong position about – for some truth we are now experiencing. To be a true martyr like Jesus is to surrender some part of our life because of some new thing we have seen, heard or experienced, some new thing we now want to be part of, some new thing waiting to change and even transform us.
To testify truthfully, to witness to the truth, or, to “not bear false witness,” as the Eleventh Commandment puts it, will also, sooner or later, mean this: to speak some truth, often to some kind of power. I have come to love the Book of Common Prayer's rendering of this Commandment, in our Catechism: “To speak the truth, and not to mislead others by our silence” (BCP, 848). Here's an example of breaking out of the conspiracy of silence and speaking truth to power: Today, women and men are observing a day first marked in Latin America in 1999. It's the International Day for the Elimination of Gender-Based Violence, and it's sponsored in the United States by the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University, which “continues to. . .challenge. . .and explore the deep socio-economic structures. . .and privileged violent forms of masculinity. . .that perpetuate gender-based violence.” This, I suggest, is a non-religious form of testifying to Jesus' truth in the kin-dom of God: women should never, ever be second-class, let alone objects of discrimination, hatred or violence.
Jesus ends today's passage from John's Gospel with this statement: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Whether we are women or men, lay or ordained, Christian or not, we who claim the faith of Jesus and want to belong to him, we who have any feeling for or care for, let alone love of truth – we must listen to Jesus' voice. The word “obedience” comes from the Latin, meaning “to listen to.” Obedience to Jesus, truly listening to and following Jesus, is always all about. . .prayer.
People who truly try to live the Lord's Prayer – Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven – have a very different agenda than many of the world's leaders or rulers, whether Republican or Democrat; whether capitalist or socialist; whether autocratic, plutocratic, theocratic or democratic. One theologian suggests, “The Lord's Prayer. . .just might be the most subversive of all political acts” Daniel Clendenin, www.journeywith jesus.net). This is a prayer we “kin” must pray together.
So, the truth about Jesus is this: the kingdom of God he both testified to and lived is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were in charge and the rulers of this world were not. Jesus's trial and Roman execution was a clash between two kings and two kingdoms. I wonder: which one will we choose? The kingdom of this world, with its Black Friday and Super Tuesday? Or the kin-dom of our Christ, a world of “liberation not exploitation, sacrifice (not) subjugation, mercy not vengeance, care for the vulnerable rather than privileges for the powerful, generosity rather than greed, humility instead of hubris, embrace (not) exclusion” (Clenedin, op. cit.)?
There are three Christian leaders – two men and a woman – who continue to teach me about the kin-dom of God and how I, as a leader, might follow Jesus. I'll mention them and their work briefly now. If you read my sermon on our website later this week, you'll find helpful links to their websites. Here are three of my teachers:
Brene Brown, an Episcopal laywoman and social work professor. She keeps teaching me about vulnerability (www.brenebrown.com) Brene is trying to create what I would call “sacred space” for a new conversation about this fearsome human reality. Vulnerability, she suggests, is “whole-hearted living,” coining a phrase based on our Prayer Book Confession of Sin. It's “the core, the heart and the center of human experience,” and we're “hard-wired at birth for vulnerability.” “Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky,” she admits, “but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy - the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinte power of our light” (The Gifts of Imperfection). The truth about Jesus is that he was healthy vulnerability personified.
Parker Palmer, a Quaker, who is one of the most influential teachers in these United States, keeps teaching me about leadership (www.couragerenewal.org) His take on “whole-hearted living” is about broken-heartedness. Parker says, “nothing that happens in the human heart has more power, for better or for worse, than heartbreak.” He writes powerfully about how we can experience broken-heartedness in one of two ways: hearts broken apart, into a thousand pieces, which we pick up and go after someone who hurt us, because we think we'll never be the same again; or, hearts broken open, to receive unexpected gifts which can further open our hearts and minds to be newly-inspired leaders, teachers, human beings. Parker's latest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, is an offering from a man of faith, as he seeks to expand and extend what he has learned about servant leadership in a more public way. The truth about Jesus is that he was healthy leadership personified, opening the way to God for everyone.
Richard Rohr, ordained Catholic Franciscan friar, keeps teaching me about a 21st century Christology, a fresh way of thinking about and following Jesus, our kin and our Christ (www.cacradicalgrace.org) This is what I've been learning from Richard and others through the years:
When it comes to Jesus, the mysterious truth for those who follow him is this: he is fully God and fully human. Jesus is the resurrected God who walks with us and talks with us and tells us how we belong to him and his truth. But first, Jesus is the fully human, Crucified One, the suffering God who saves us. And so, when it comes to Christians, the truth is this: we are resurrected, Easter people, yes. But first, if we are truly Christian, if we truly follow the Crucified and Risen One, we must be like Jesus. We must also experience pain, suffering, vulnerability, and even times when life hurts like hell and feels like death. We will even have to die, like Jesus, in order to rise again with him and become our true, God-selves. “Only people who have suffered in some way,” Richard says, “can (like Jesus) save one another” (Breathing Under Water, p.123).
When it comes to Jesus, the truth is that he was a vulnerable, suffering servant leader, who loved us enough to die for us, who is our kin, if not our king. When it comes to us who seek to follow Jesus, what is truth? What will the truth be about us?
—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
November 25, 2012