For This You Were Born
First Reading 2 Samuel 23:1-7
Psalm Psalm 132:1-12 (13-18)
Gospel John 18:33-37
This weekend I took my kids to see The Rise of the Guardians. I will admit that there were aspects of the film that went about as expected. I will also admit that I really enjoyed the film, even though it is a cultural affirmation of everything secular and nothing sacred about the major holidays of the Christian religion (and a few other fairy tales) with the exception of one thing – hope.
The unlikely hero of the story is Jack Frost, and he is chosen to help fight off a growing fear and foreboding that is welling up to replace the innocence of childhood. A Russian version of Santa challenges the brooding and reluctant Jack with a stack of nesting dolls that reveal different characteristics of the mythical benefactor - ending with a baby in the center. I wish I could tell you that they did not waste an opportunity to reference the Christ child, but we’ll just have to make that leap of faith on our own.
The child is, instead, a symbol of wide-eyed wonder that informs and fills all of Santa’s passion and vitality. The challenge he leaves for Jack is to find out what is at his center. What drives his gut instinct? What is the true North that gives direction to his compass?
As Christians, we point to Christ, of course – or do we? This is the question of Christ the King Sunday, and it confronts us every year. It confronts us right after our time of re-dedicating our lives and our resources to the church through our financial commitment. It confronts us right after we have celebrated the Saints of the Church past and present – holding on to the faith they have demonstrated and letting go of their human limitations. Christ the King Sunday confronts us right after a time of Thanksgiving for life in all of its complexity. And this year it even confronts us right after a national election.
No matter who you voted for, the question remains. Do we accept the Lordship of Christ in our lives, and do our actions reflect our acceptance of Jesus as the ruler of our hearts and minds? It’s a good question to ask, because it is a question that is answered over and over again – whether we realize that we are answering it or not. It is not a new question. It may even be the oldest question, and it connects directly to our desire to be in charge that began with a story about an apple and found fullness in the tower of Babel that was built to lay siege to the Kingdom of the Lord of Earth and Sky.
The question of the Lordship of Christ is one we have attempted to answer over and over again in this country. As recent as 1954 we attempted to answer it by adding “One Nation Under God” to our Pledge of Allegiance, and in 1956 we changed “E Plurabus Unam” (Latin for “out of many, one”) to “In God We Trust” on all of our money.
Yet in 1960, H. Richard Niebuhr suggested that – try as we might – we were not a monotheistic culture. He wasn’t talking about pluralism, competing religions, or some confusion of spiritualism. He was talking about centers of value. What is it that you think about when you make the choices you make? What is the choice before the choice? Niebuhr argued that we, in the Western Culture, do not have one center of value that we orient toward and move out from – we have hundreds! Some might even be good things – family, work, even service to others – but if the thing that motivates us – the thing in which we live and move and have our being – is anything other than the love of God, then it is an idol and a false God.
That does not mean that we need to abandon those good and meaningful relationships and things that God has given us. It just means that we must not use them as a way of understanding our own value. It means that our true center must be in the knowledge that God created us; God loves us enough to let us fall; and God loves us too much to allow us become defined by our falling. Instead we are defined by God’s capacity to forgive and by our ability to respond – however imperfectly – to God’s love.
We are not defined by our claim on God, but instead by God’s claim on us. That’s what we affirm when we baptize a child. That’s what we mean when we say that we are part of a Kingdom that is both visible and yet to come!
Singer, song writer, and Christian disciple, Derek Webb said it this way in his song, King and a Kingdom:
Who's your brother, who's your sister?
You just walked passed him
I think you missed her
As we're all migrating to the place where our father lives
'Cause we married in to a family of immigrants
My first allegiance is not to a flag, a country, or a man
My first allegiance is not to democracy or blood
It's to a king & a kingdom
That is certainly a differing politic – and it might even be offensive to some of you. The point is not to offend, although I believe the gospel is offensive to our politics. The point is to acknowledge the opportunity to be what Niebuhr calls “The Responsible Self.” The point is to acknowledge the responsibility we have of responding to God’s grace in every relationship and every chance encounter that we are given by God.
Of course, no one says it – or does it – better than Jesus. In John 17 he prays that his disciples will be sanctified because – just like him – we are not of the world, even though we are in the world. Notice that he does not ask that we be taken out of this world. For we live in the uncomfortable place between becoming and actually being holy. In the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, we generally affirm that those who claim to be holy most likely are not. Yet those who live their faith with vulnerability and trust are the ones that we hold up as examples and leaders. That is not the way the world does things. We are in the world, but we are not of the world.
So while we guard against those who claim self righteous truth on behalf of God, we believe that we were yet born for this end - to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God, to be imitators of Christ, to love as God loves, and to proclaim the truth of salvation and sanctification that is God’s brilliant and playful way of saying, “Tag – you’re it!”
But how? How do we play? Is it as simple as asking WWJD (What Would Jesus Do)? Maybe, but I can guarantee you that Jesus would not have been in some of the situations I have been in because he made the choice before the choice to love God with all of his heart, mind, and soul, and to value his neighbor as an equal. Wow. Did you catch that? The God-man, Jesus; King Jesus; the Lord of Lords chose to live and love and value you as an equal.
Suddenly it seems that LLJD is more appropriate. Love Like Jesus Does - even Pilate. See, I told you no one does it quite as well as Jesus. He asked Pilate why he wanted to know if Jesus was a king. “Is this for you?” he asked. “Do you want to enter the Kingdom?” And so he asks me as well. Can I love Pilate like that when I see him? Even knowing that Pilate is going to be Pilate, no matter what I offer him; even knowing that what I know to be true is only partial – limited by my experience and knowledge; even knowing that sometimes I, myself, can be Pilate – betraying Jesus with my lack of compassion – can I love Pilate like Jesus does? I don’t know! But I know this – I can try.
And I know this – even with all of our human limitations – we are invited to a King’s feast! We are the honored guests of this King who condescends to rule in our rebellious hearts. Even so – can our first allegiance truly be to God and to God alone? Can we allow ourselves to be led by one another because we are serving in the name of the servant?
Yes. I believe we can. And I believe we must – even if it means failing along the way. In fact, I believe that is what we were born to do. In the PCUSA we elect Ruling Elders – not to boss us around or to be the work horses we whip or the scapegoat for the stuff that does not get done. We elect them to encourage mutual forbearance under the Lordship of Christ. That is our center – mutual forbearance under the Lordship of Christ; that is the place we orient toward and move out from. It fills and informs all that we are and all that we do. And it finds its expression in every relationship and every chance encounter we are given – especially here and now at the table of Christ. For in our common union we find that each of us is chosen as guardians of hope against fear and foreboding. Now, may God be glorified in all that we say and do – for even the mistakes we make draw us back to the table of grace for a taste of eternity and a glimpse of the Kingdom that is both present and yet to come. Amen.