2 Sam 23:1-7; Dan 7:9-10; Rev 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37
Cathedral of the Incarnation, Baltimore
This is the final Sunday of the church’s liturgical year. It is the Feast of Christ the King. All of the passages for today reflect on kingship, David’s, God’s, Jesus’. Although Christians in America are far removed from direct experience of a king, there is much these passages can teach us about our own political life. I don’t simply mean political life in the U.S. This reading also can teach us about how we live together here in this particular manifestation of the body of Christ in Baltimore.
We have recently completed an election cycle that seemed to last forever. It was certainly enough time for us to see both the best and the worst of our politicians. Whether you are pleased or in mourning over the results of the election, I suspect that very few people think that our politicians are best characterized by their deep commitment to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Whatever their party affiliation, our media and money-driven method of campaigning for national office invites politicians to use shards of the truth in the service of something else, such as gaining or retaining power. Although some politicians are corrupt, we should not assume that all politicians are opposed to the truth. It is simply the case that in our desire to get what we want, in this case, power, it is very easy to make the truth instrumental to our desires. Rather than conforming our desires to the truth, we use and manipulate the truth to get what we want. Of course, it is easy to point to examples of this among our national politicians. I suspect that it is equally easy, though a lot less fun to recognize how we might do the same things in our own relationships. Any of us who are either parents or children are aware of how easily we can subvert, neglect or ignore the truth about a person or a situation in order to get them to do what we want them to.
I have always assumed that an attitude much like this one was part of Pilate’s question to Jesus, “What is truth?” It is, of course, possible to take Pilate’s question as the genuine intellectual inquiry of someone longing to know what is really true. It seems more likely, however, that as a representative of the Roman empire, Pilate found this obscure Jew’s commitment to understanding his kingship in terms of truth to be quaint, naïve and largely harmless. Jesus might have to be executed, but from Pilate’s perspective, Jesus’ views held little threat for Rome.
Nevertheless, in this gospel reading Jesus does speak of himself as a king. As such, he is engaged in politics. Moreover, Jesus goes on to relate that he is a king with a specific mission. He has come into the world to testify to the truth. For Jesus, the truth is not instrumental to some other political purpose. He does not use it to support his power or authority. He does not subvert, neglect or ignore the truth in order to get what he wants from others. Instead Jesus claims that truth is the decisive identity-marker of his kingdom and of his followers. This is what Jesus is trying to make clear to Pilate. They are “of the truth” rather than “of the world.” In John 17, prior to our gospel reading for today, Jesus has already made this point in that poignant prayer he offers for his followers. There he mentioned that his followers do not belong to the world just as he does not belong to the world. Then, on behalf of his followers, Jesus asks the Father to “sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” That is, in this prayer for his followers, Jesus wants the Father to use the truth to make us holy.
If it is not clear to Pilate, it should be clear to those reading John that this is a very different version of politics. Jesus’ kingdom is a kingdom based on truth and the truth can make the citizens of this kingdom holy. If the idea of a king whose mission is to bear witness to the truth seems hopelessly naïve, then a kingdom whose purpose is to make its citizens holy may well seem scary, dangerous and cult-like.
Even if we are not repelled by the notion of a kingdom directed towards holiness it is wise for us to be wary of the notion. Both inside and outside the church we are pretty quick to detect and reject forms of self-acquired holiness as nothing more than superficial acts of piety. These acts often disguise aspects of our lives that are distinctly unholy. We know that some sorts of piety can disguise a deep and profound absence of holiness. Such façades of holiness keep the truth about us and others hidden. Because we know this to be the case, we need to be careful about kingdoms and other political movements that might claim to make us and the world holy, when in truth they are simply covers for other less-than-holy motives and actions.
Despite our dis-ease with a kingdom directed towards producing holy citizens, we Christians must also recognize that holiness, true holiness, is one of God’s deepest desires for us. God desires holiness for us, but this is not so that God can be proud of us or so that we can look good to the world at large. God’s desire for holiness is a function of God’s desire for the type of unbroken intimacy between God and humans that characterized life in the Garden and that will characterize life in the New Jerusalem. Our holiness enables deeper intimacy with God and each other. Holiness “fits us” for friendship with God. Let me try to explain this a bit.
There are many types of friendships. There are Facebook friends; friends we work with, but never see outside the office; friends from our past whom we only see once in a while and many other types of friendship. Friendships of the best sort, the friendships that animate our lives and without which we would be much poorer, are based on holding important things in common, having a common love and a common goal. We should think of our friendship with God in this light and we should think of the holiness God desires for us in this light, too. God’s call to holiness is an invitation to love what and whom God loves, and to love them in the way that God does. If we think about holiness as loving what and whom God loves, we might find some concrete examples of this in the Sermon on the Mount. In the first verses of Matt 5 Jesus proclaims the Beatitudes, distinguished by their repeated use of the term “blessed.” Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God. Lastly, blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. In these verses, Jesus is not offering his followers direct commands to become poor in spirit or peace makers or anything else. Rather he is offering declarations about those citizens of the kingdom of God who are highly valued by God. It is not surprising that these are not people that our current political system brings to the forefront. If we are to become holy, to love what and whom God loves, we are invited to love these people, too. In fact, if we desire real holiness, not the fake type, we have little option but to love these people whom God loves. Indeed, loving the peacemakers, for example, may actually help form us to become peacemakers.
If we think of holiness in this way, we will see that it is far more than pious actions, though it involves those things, too. Holiness, loving what and whom God loves and loving them in the way that God does, binds us in a deep friendship with God. It also invites us to be bound to one another. Those bonds are formed and lived out in our common worship, shared meals, working together in such places as Sandtown or the public schools or with ERICA. Living out those bonds with one another over time is precisely what lies at the heart of politics. This is why the New Testament in particular is soaked-through with political images about such things as the kingdom of God and the body of Christ. In their words, in their deeds, and most particularly in their life together the first Christians tried to manifest the politics of Jesus their king
This is clearly not a politics of those who “belong to the world” as John’s gospel puts it. It is important to remember, however, that in addition to praying that his followers would be sanctified in the truth, Jesus prays that his followers will not be taken out of the world. Indeed, he explicitly sends them into the world. It could hardly be any other way. If holiness leads us to love what and whom God loves, and if we are followers of the king who both is himself “the truth,” and bears witness to the truth, then this kingdom must send its citizens out into the world to bear witness to the truth in word and deed in faithful imitation of their king.