Sunday, November 26, 2023

Christ the King Sunday

John 18:33 37

33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” 

34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost, known as Christ the King Sunday. It is the final Sunday of the Christian year. Advent, the opening of the Christian year, begins next Sunday. 

Christ the King Sunday was celebrated for the first time in 1925, inaugurated by Pope Pius XI. World War I had ended only seven years before, a war brought on by demagoguery and allegiances to ideologies which killed and injured many millions. Pius watched as Mussolini’s Blackshirts marched past the Vatican. He knew about Hitler’s rising star in Germany. 

 Pius could read the writing on the wall. It was time, he thought, to forestall the coming future, to place something in the way of the coming tragedy which he saw taking shape. He believed it was essential to proclaim openly that the world had lost its sense of what leadership was and what it meant to rule. He wished to give people an alternative to fascism and Nazism and their false god of socialist ideology.

And so Pius originated a new festival day in the church, that of Christ the King. What would Pius say if he could observe events of the twenty-first century? 

It is one Sunday before Advent and I am writing about Jesus standing before Pontius Pilate, who sentenced him to death. We are about to begin the season of Advent to anticipate Jesus’ birth. Today’s passage seems out of place, more suited to Easter week in the Spring than in November.

Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday of the Christian year. It reminds us that the end of the story is that Christ’s reign is established forever: “And of his Kingdom there shall be no end,” says Luke’s Gospel. One week from now is New Years for the Church. 

If Christ is king, then there are two crucial questions: what kind of king is he? And over what kind of kingdom is Jesus sovereign? Jesus stands in front of Pilate, the personal representative of the most powerful ruler on earth, the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar. Pilate has been told that this man Jesus is called the king of the Jews, a kingship that the Jewish hierarchy strenuously denies. Jesus has not refused the title of king, though. Not only that, but he talked and taught and preached about his Kingdom more than any other topic. Kingship seems to have been a title Jesus was comfortable with.

So Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 

Pilate wants to know whether Jesus’ kingship, whatever it was, represented a threat to Roman rule. The chief priests had told him it did. They had emphasized to Pilate the political implications of Jesus being acclaimed as the Messiah who would bring the Jewish people to freedom. They had accused Jesus of treason. Pilate wanted to know was whether Jesus was just a harmless religious dreamer, or a dangerous insurrectionist bent on leading a rebellion. 

Historians say that Pilate was not terribly competent as governor. But he ran a good intelligence operation, and he knew about the Jewish people’s hope for a messianic king. Jesus, bedraggled, beaten, and exhausted as he stood before Pilate, could not have seemed very threatening, but Pilate wanted to make sure. 

But Jesus won’t cooperate. Pilate asks, "Are you the king of the Jews?" and Jesus answers basically, "Is that your idea or are you just repeating rumors?" It is a response that challenges Pilate to make up his own mind. 

Jesus’ response to Pilate echoed what Jesus had asked the disciples on the road one day: “Who do the people say I am?” In other words, what are the rumors? Then point-blank to the disciples: "Who do you say I am?" 

Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of God.” It is sadly not an answer that Pilate can give.

On the other hand, Jesus throwing the question back to Pilate might have been a good defense strategy. Pilate is both judge and jury. Jesus acknowledged there was a lot of hearsay about him and then forced Pilate to consider what he actually knows about Jesus. Pilate must make up his own mind.

That is the same challenge Christ the King Sunday makes us face. We have heard a lot of things about Jesus: he healed the sick, he told some parables. We’ve even heard he is the son of God. But are each of us convinced of that, or do we merely repeat what others have told us without thinking them really true? 

Americans are fairly anti-monarchical. We’re not quite sure what “king” might mean for us. We get our notions about it from Hollywood, mostly – a bunch of sycophants standing around some English monarch muttering, "Yes, m’lud." So we tend to dismiss the royal character of Jesus as ancient metaphor with no contemporary significance. But doing so downplays the cosmic authority Jesus has. There is a great deal more to Christ than human decency. He is much more than a friendly fellow who is reliable and kind, tells interesting stories and is nice to children. Human affairs and the destiny of the universe itself are in his hands.

Asking Pilate what he thinks about him was no academic question for Jesus. It was a matter of life and death for him. There were only two possible answers Pilate could give: either Jesus was a pretender to the throne who must he stopped, or he was truly a king requiring recognition.

So Jesus answers: What have you heard about me, and what do you say for yourself?

 The answer matters. In a way, we of the church are sitting in Pilate’s seat now. Each day the same question sits before us all. Each day we can desert our Christian calling. Or we can tame it and make it safe and comfortable. We can turn inward and make our churches social clubs for the saved or a fortress for the spiritually pure. We can make up our minds that Jesus is a convenient reason to get together to feel good about ourselves or to have a nice place for family activities.

Or we can make up our minds that Jesus is the son of living God, crucified and risen, who takes away the sin of the world and demands that to follow him we have to deny ourselves. And we could understand that to believe that fact obligates us to be the presence of Christ in the world now, to live as and lead others to become disciples of Jesus Christ. 

Each day we have to make up our minds. 

So there Jesus stands with Pilate. It is quite a contrast: Pilate, the representative of the most powerful empire the world had ever seen, confronted by a man with no armies, no palaces, no courts, but who claimed kingship, nonetheless. What kind of king, what kind of kingdom? Well, not one like Pilate knew, not of Pilate’s world. Pilate beheld a man said to be king, but who said his kingdom was not like those of the rest of the world. 

And so it is not. Jesus tells Pilate that if his kingdom were like Pilate’s, his subjects would be fighting Pilate’s soldiers even as they spoke. But they were not. The kingdom over which Christ is sovereign is a kingdom where the ordinary rules of power politics and the social order don’t apply. The kingdom of Jesus Christ is not a place, but a community of persons enveloped by God’s grace. It is a kingdom that transcends place and time, class, nation and worldly status.  

Pilate cannot even imagine such a kingdom. He doesn’t even ask Jesus to explain what he means. Finally he orders Jesus crucified. Pilate’s sentence is the logical end of the way of the world, using systems built on competition or conquest or power, intended to make subjects of people. But Jesus has no subjects because only kings of the fallen world have inferiors whom they can rule. Jesus called his disciples friends, not subjects. Jesus’s kingdom will not be brought about the way Pilate knows, by conquest and domination. Pilate’s only contribution will be ordering his soldiers to hammer nails through the hands and feet of the man Pilate rejects as king, ironically guaranteeing that Christ’s Kingdom will be established for eternity. 

Standing before Pilate, Jesus looks forward to a world ruled by love, perfectly expressed in the self sacrifice of his life. It is a love confirmed by God raising Jesus up from death. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus says. The kingdom of Christ is one-part heaven and one-part earthly. It is a kingdom that is within us and among us when we confess Christ as risen Lord. Yet it is not fully here, it is always in the process of becoming and fulfilling. It is a kingdom of people who know Christ as savior.

Jesus’ kingdom is populated by people empowered by the Holy Spirit to live together as God intended from the beginning. Its citizens are transformed by Christ’s resurrection into a community of faith, hope and love. We of Jesus’ kingdom reject the standards of this world that say that for every winner there must be a loser, for every gain there must be loss. 

Paul wrote that if life in Jesus is not anchored in eternity, then we are pitiful creatures. But Jesus’ kingdom isn’t only the sweet by and by. If Jesus’ kingdom is nowhere at all but some angelic realm, what good is that now? Jesus said he came to grant life more abundant – here, today, now. 

 That is the truth Jesus came to testify. We are born into world systems which just do not work the way God intended. We cannot always act the way God wants us to act. The only way out is to get a visa to a new place to live: the kingdom of God. You don’t have to move your home, just your soul. But be forewarned. The entry fee is high. You have to believe something clearly incredible: that, as the apostle Paul wrote, in Jesus dwelled God bodily, that Jesus really died and really was raised from the dead. Merely agreeing to a proposition won’t do. Jesus said that if we believe in him, we’ll act like it. We will do what Jesus would do if Jesus were here.

The church stands in front of the world. If it is to be true to its Lord, it must say, “Our way of living is not your way of living.” We act in contrast to the way the world works. We have no armies, no palaces, no courts of law, but we claim dominion over the world, nonetheless. We are a kingdom not of this world. 

In this kingdom, God comes into our lives to renew our redemptive purpose, heal our wounds, and sustain our place in our community of faith. He sends us to carry each other’s burdens, to meet one another’s difficulties, to rise above despair and anxiety. He calls us to himself, to seek his face in our hearts and the hearts of others. So we gather as citizens of Christ’s kingdom and pray for the Holy Spirit to touch us, to lift us up, and send us out of the church into the world where we live and work. There we will be part of Jesus’ ministry to the world which began so long ago, with only a choir of angels singing to shepherds far from town, and which Pilate thought could be ended by nails in a cross and a stone rolled over a rocky tomb.

But it did not end, for Christ is the risen King! 

Sunday, November 12, 2023

A reflection on Veterans Day

 2 Samuel 23:13‑17:

13 During harvest time, three of the thirty chief men came down to David at the cave of Adullam, while a band of Philistines was encamped in the Valley of Rephaim. 14 At that time David was in the stronghold, and the Philistine garrison was at Bethlehem. 15 David longed for water and said, "Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!" 

16 So the three mighty men broke through the Philistine lines, drew water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem and carried it back to David. But he refused to drink it; instead, he poured it out before the LORD.

17  "Far be it from me, O LORD, to do this!" he said. "Is it not the blood of men who went at the risk of their lives?" And David would not drink it. Such were the exploits of the three mighty men.

It is appropriate to honor the veterans of our country. I realize that this may seem a little self-serving since I am a veteran myself, but I hope you will trust me that this isn’t for me. As a Cold Warrior, my service was not especially demanding compared to the men and women who served in the hot wars of Vietnam, Korea, World War Two or the wars since 9/11. They are whom I have in mind.

To honor our veterans is not to glorify war. Certainly, no combat veteran would ever glorify war. After the Civil War, General William T. Sherman became disgusted at the rhetoric of glory being used to describe the war’s campaigns. In a graduation speech at the Michigan Military Academy in 1879, Sherman said, “War is at best barbarism. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell!” 

Despite war’s cruelty, there are many admirable features found among men and women in wartime. The battlefield is a place of many emotions. There is fear and anger. There is resignation and determination. There is hope and despair. The chief emotion at work on the battlefield is an unlikely one. It is love. In the desolation of the battlefield, love abides. Warriors love their country but don't talk about it much. Besides, when flies the angry iron, they fight for their buddies. A soldier who fought in Iraq wrote,

I've found the hard way that war is not glamorous. You quickly lose the idea of being a man fighting for his country when you have to carry your comrade who has been wounded in a gun fight. It's not about fighting for the flag, it's about fighting for my life and fighting for my buddies’ lives. These men I am lucky enough to serve with, I have become so attached to it's like they are my brothers.

A Marine major in Iraq wrote of a young corporal, a squad leader, who, during the invasion of Iraq was wounded by an enemy grenade. This Marine refused evacuation and continued to guide his squad until he passed out from loss of blood. 

Recovering at a hospital in Germany, he convinced his doctors to release him, “borrowed” a camouflage uniform from a Navy corpsman, called his wife and told her that he wasn’t coming home because his Marines were depending on him, and then talked his way onto an Air Force transport back to Iraq. He had the “golden ticket.” He was headed home as a war hero with medals to prove it, but he just couldn’t bear to let his Marines down, so he schemed and connived and got himself back into the fight. There are those who will call that kind of response foolish. Then may God grant that I be such a fool. You may question the wisdom of that Marine, but he’s the kind of man you want on your side when the chips are down.

For a couple of years after 9/11 I tried to go back onto active duty as a chaplain. But for arcane reasons I don't fully understand, it was literally against the law for me to re-enter the service as other than an artillery officer. When our forces moved into Iraq in March 2003, I actually felt ashamed I was not with them. I know that is unreasonable, and that other men and women superbly carried the torch I passed on to them. But I still think I should have been there. 

Jesus said there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends. It is a love known well by veterans. Many veterans still grieve for buddies long dead. I knew well a very elderly gentleman who was a stretcher bearer in World War II. He still has bad dreams of wounded men dying as he is carrying them to an aid station.

During seminary I read of a World War I veteran named Cadet Shirer. He was a medic assigned to a U.S. hospital caring for wounded soldiers in France. “One case I never forgot,” he said.

When me and the nurse passed him, he’d say, ‘Sister, can’t you help me?’ He was burnt, blinded in both eyes. . . . He’d had chlorine gas. The nurse said, ‘Take care of this man, he’s going to die.’ I worked with him and I worked with him. I think his suffering controlled my whole life. Later I picked up Stars and Stripes and learned he didn’t die. Was I happy! His name was Stanislaus Nagursky. Would you believe a man could take so much interest in another man that he’d remember a name like that for 79 years? I still see him in my sleep at times. I still see him in my sleep.

Mingled with grief for friends who died there is sometimes a feeling of guilt at being alive. The battlefield is not an equal-opportunity destroyer. It often seems entirely fickle. An artillery shell explodes overhead and all around you are struck down, but you suffer not even a scratch. You see a plane hit by antiaircraft fire and fold up in flames just ahead, but your plane escapes. James Jones, wounded at Guadalcanal and author of the classic World War Two novel, The Thin Red Line, wrote that the greatest psychological problem among combat troops was not the threat of death but the shock of remaining alive. Some veterans also carry with them the particular burden of having killed other human beings, which war permits but somehow does not justify.

Second Samuel relates that David was thirsty and homesick and didn’t watch his mouth. David said, "Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!" Three of his veteran campaigners overheard him and took great risks in enemy territory to bring back water from Bethlehem to David. But David poured it on the ground, refusing to drink it. "Far be it from me, O Lord, to do this!" he said. "Is it not the blood of men who went at the risk of their lives?" And David would not drink it.

Americans are free because of the risks of mighty ones who brought them the cup of freedom at great risk. Do we drink from the cup without considering it was bought with the blood of many who gave or risked their lives for it? Far be it from us, O Lord, to do such a thing!

Probably every veteran has experienced a moment when the imponderable awfulness of what soldiers do makes them stop and give cry to the deepest-rooted hope for a better world, populated with better people. Soldiers pray for God to come near when the fog of battle closes in. They see only dimly that out of blood and death there can come a brotherly world. They are alert for signs that the kingdom of God could break in even among ruins and horror.

And the kingdom does break in, without regard to nation or cause. On the morning of June 6, 1944, Franz Mueller, a German soldier, and six of his comrades found themselves in the middle of a division of American paratroopers. They stumbled across two American soldiers attending to a third, who was dying from wounds. Franz spoke English and he told the Americans he was taking them prisoner. But the dying American couldn’t be moved so everyone sat down and waited for him to die. 

Shortly, the two American soldiers knelt beside their friend and began to pray the Lord’s Prayer. After a moment, Franz knelt and joined in. Another German soldier who spoke English joined in, too. The other five Germans didn’t speak English, but they recognized the rhythm of the prayer, so they prayed in German. For this small moment in the midst of war, God’s kingdom broke in: nine soldiers of two enemy armies, suspending their politics and nationality, praying together—four in English, five in German.

Ernest Gordon was a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp. He wrote of a train trip he and his fellows made while in the hands of the Japanese. At a stop in Burma, a train of Japanese wounded pulled alongside.

“They were in a shocking state,” Gordon related. “I have never seen men filthier. Uniforms were encrusted with blood, mud and excrement. Their wounds crawled with maggots. The wounded looked at us forlornly as they sat waiting for death. They had been discarded as expendable, the refuse of war. These were our enemy."

Without a word most of the officers in my section unbuckled their packs, took out part of their rations and a rag or two, and with their water canteens in their hands, went over to the Japanese train. Our guards tried to prevent us, but we ignored them and knelt down by the enemy to give water and food, to clean and bind their wounds. Grateful cries of "Arigato" (thank you) followed us when we left.

I regarded my comrades with wonder. Eighteen months ago they would have readily destroyed [the Japanese]. Now these same officers were dressing the enemy’s wounds.

We had experienced a moment of grace, there in the bloodstained railway cars. God had broken through the barriers of our prejudice and had given us the will to obey his command, "Thou shalt love."

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting our sins against us. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:19). This is the hope and faith we have in Christ when faced with the mournful mutter of the battlefield: that in Christ we can be reconciled with each other and with all peoples.

We all have a personal vision of heaven. Here is mine. When the end of the age has come and Christ has put everything under his feet, the dead shall be raised. And all of us who have borne arms and weapons, whether American, German, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Panamanian, Afghan or Iraqi, we will all meet again. We will not meet in battle, but at the foot of the Prince of Peace. 

Cadet Shirer will find Stanislaus Nagursky and they will have a wonderful reunion. My father-in-law will embrace the men who died on his stretcher and will no longer have to grieve for them. The men who died in the next foxhole or airplane will greet us, smiling. 

And we will find the people whom we have shot or stabbed or clubbed or bombed. We will see them face to face and we will say, “In Christ’s name, forgive me!” And they will reply with elation, “In the name of Christ, you are forgiven!”

That day has not yet come. Let us pray it comes quickly. Until then may the Lord watch over those who are serving now, to make them instruments of justice, enablers of peace, and finally to see them safely home.

Rethinking Marriage

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