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Our Kingdom Not of This World

Lexi Boudreaux
Sun, Nov 25

Text: John 18:33-38


           Will you please pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the mediations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, oh Lord, our rock and our redeemer, Amen.

 I recognize that our lectionary text for this Christ the King Sunday contains some difficult content. Knowing this, I’m going to ask us to just check in with how we feel in our bodies and hearts after hearing this portion of our sacred scripture. What feelings are coming up for us? Did your heart beat pick up? Did you feel a little or a lot of discomfort? Or, was this experience completely uneventful? When I encounter this translation of the text I definitely feel a complicated mix of emotions. If that is true for you too, I hope this is something that we can think through and prayerfully consider together this morning.

 It was a Friday. Not Good Friday, on which this passage from the Gospel of John is often read in Christian communities across the globe, but the Friday of the first Shabbat since the Tree of Life shooting occurred in Pittsburg several weeks ago. Like so many of you I have been struggling with this act of violence. One of my responses to this tragic event was to go to Shabbat services. It was dark and the air was damp as I walked with some fellow students towards the entrance of the church that housed the services we planned to attend. We walked by a group of clergy and members of the church guarding the entrance. They showed up that night so that their siblings in faith and their allies would not fear for their lives as they gathered for worship. We were running late, which if you know me is not something I like to do. I wasn’t sure what to expect when we arrived and was a little hesitant to enter a space that was unfamiliar to me. As I entered the small hall of the building I was met with a room full of people singing sitting in close concentric circles lead by a woman about my age sitting in the center of the configuration. In the warm light of the hall they were soulfully and joyfully singing these words: “Healing is possible, May it be so; Healing is happening, May it be so; Liberation is possible, Liberation is happening, may it be so. Transformation is possible, Transformation is happening, May it be so; And we believe, what we need most are the hearts of each other; Right here.”

 And as I joined in singing, members of this vibrant God-filled Jewish community handed me a prayer book with kind smiles and pointed to the phonetically spelled out lyrics to the sung prayers in Hebrew so that there would be no barrier in the way of my participation. Our voices blended together in praise of God as we clapped and stomped our feet in reverent rhythm, holding the burden of our grief communally, with the light and love of each other’s presence for over 2 hours. Moments of joy and dancing mixed with prayers of tearful mourning as we worshiped God’s goodness with broken hearts. With each line sung together and with each prayer said from the depth of our being we loved each other into healing and hope for a better world. God was with us in that makeshift synagogue set up in that church hall. God had yet again defied our expectations, helping us hold onto love for the world and for one another.

 As I journeyed home from this experience with a depleted voice and a full heart the passage that we read today from John’s Gospel kept coming up in my mind. It is our lectionary text for this final Sunday in our liturgical year: Christ the King Sunday, a day marked to celebrate Christ’s kingdom. On first reading, I found it surprising that, as we prepare for the coming of Advent and Christmas, we are made to confront a text that is usually read on Good Friday and is a part of the passion narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection. What do we do with this scene in Pilate’s palace with adult Jesus? Can’t we just get excited about the anticipation of baby Jesus already?

 As I looked at the text my lungs gave way to an involuntary sigh of uneasiness. This part of the passion narrative most often referred to as “the interrogation of Jesus”, is rife with language about kingdoms and empire, mockery and misunderstood translation, inflexible absolutes and many more aspects of the Gospel of John that I find challenging. To be honest, I felt very uncomfortable as I re-read Pilate’s statement that Jesus’ own nation and the chief priests have handed him over to the rulings of the Roman Empire. I winced at the repetition of the words “the Jews” because I know that this statement has been referenced countless times to support the rhetoric of antisemitism. My heart grew heavy as I reflected on the influence the Christian church has had on the hatred of the Jewish people. I feel a deep sadness that passages in our sacred scriptures have contributed to antisemitism throughout the history of Christianity. And, because of this, I feel a responsibility to speak about it.

 This word, hoi ioudaioi translated as “the Jews” is used in the Gospel of John frequently and as a result, the translation of this word has been debated at length in the scholarly community and also within local congregations in recent years. I am aware that First Church has had some discussion about how this translation of the word hoi ioudaioi has contributed to the rhetoric of Christian Antisemitism and we have made efforts to modify our translation of it. This word could mean a multitude of things including the people of the Judean region. First Church has chosen to translate this word as “the people” or “the religious authorities” in order for the meaning of the word to be represented more accurately. 

 With this as a foundation today I’m going to ask us to turn our attention to what Jesus has to say in the passage from the Gospel of John about his relation to the power of this world, the power that is so deeply connected to Anti-Jewish rhetoric. 

 Pilate comes to the conversation with Jesus with politics on his mind and fear of losing his powerful position in his heart. Afraid that Jesus is a political threat to the enforced peace of Roman Palestine, Pilate demands an answer to his question “Are you king of the Jews?” Jesus never answers him, refusing to engage in the plane of conversation Pilate is operating within. The exchange is decidedly strange, as both Pilate and Jesus don’t ever answer each other’s questions directly during the length of the interrogation. This initially is frustrating! It would be so satisfying to be privy to an open dialogue where Jesus explains exactly what is happening and what we should know. But this is not the way of our scriptures. The inability of Pilate and Jesus to engage on the same level suggests an innate disconnect between the power of the state and the power of God.

 During their exchange, Jesus distinguishes his metaphorical kingdom from worldly political powers. Jesus is king, but not the kind of king Pilate can imagine or expect. He is certainly not the kind of king Pilate fears he might be. Pilate’s fear renders him incapable of understanding the potency of God’s power. The power that is in embracing the vulnerability that is required of self-sacrificing love in order to maintain true connection and relationship with humanity

 This kingdom or this family of God establishes new relationship. The kingdom is not of statehood or of political power, but of right relationship with God and with each other--of love and vulnerability. This kingdom is about encountering others with an open heart in order to see something within them that society tells us not to see, but that Jesus compels us to see— everyone’s inherent worth, human dignity, and cherished status in God’s eyes. What we read in Psalm 145 tells us that God is good to all and has compassion on all God has made, that God is slow to anger and rich in love, and that God is trustworthy in all that God promises.

 This message became harder to hear as Christianity grew from a Jewish sect in Galilee to an institution with considerable worldly power. In 313 C.E. with the Edict of Milan, Christianity became the official favored religion of Rome under Emperor Constantine, resulting in the end of the frequent persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. In the centuries following this major shift from being persecuted to possessing political and social power, Christianity, the religion that was inspired by a pious, itinerant Jewish prophet, was co-opted by empire in the process of trying to survive as a religion. As a result Christians were tempted to base their worth on the worldly power of Pilate –that precise thing that Jesus rejects in our passage from the Gospel of John. The Anti-Jewish rhetoric that has become so visible in recent years of political polarization draws on the dynamic that comes from Christians trying to access God’s love through the power of this world, through establishing hierarchy and perceived security, through perpetuating the empire that Jesus refused to be a part of.

 So, what is truth? In order to access the kingdom not of this world we must step away from putting our trust in the hierarchy of empire and step into the relational life of God’s redemptive and boundless love. We must dissolve the delusion that the story of our faith is a zero sum game of defining ourselves over and against the other. We must belong to the truth of the Gospel of our still speaking God. The true story of our faith is Jesus’ message of radical love and grace-- the message that he proclaimed throughout his life and ministry up through his trial and execution. How do we embody this kind of love?

 This kingdom rooted in the power of love instead of the power of domination is the good news that we are called to live out as Christian community. Jesus never operated within the confines of worldly power. The good news is that his way was always--and still is--the way of God’s love. The truth is, the power of this world is not going to save us. It will not quiet our fear of the vulnerability and precariousness of living a human life. The truth is, Love is our salvation.

 Our authority as Christians to change our current world for the better comes through love instead of through gaining power over others. It is in renouncing the power of this world and embracing our vulnerability where God resides. When we can proclaim our shared humanity with people we perceive as different than us we are enacting God’s kingdom in the here and now. When we stay silent about hatred of any group of people we are simply ignoring who Jesus is and the good news he brings to us. We are missing the whole point. The issue of who is “in” and who is “out” in regards to salvation becomes a moot point if in the process we are working against the truth that Jesus speaks about in John’s Gospel.

 This all being said, I do not pretend that engaging in systems of power does not have its place in our lived experience. I recognize that it would be hard not to interact with worldly power because we live in a society that is structured on it. We all have to get up and go to work, school, and tend to our responsibilities. We all possess some degree of worldly power, and as Christians we are the ones who occupy the place of a religion favored by empire. Because of this, the responsibility of working against antisemitism lies with us. We can and should use worldly power to uplift those who have been oppressed under the weight of it like our Jewish siblings in faith. When we do act within these systems of power, though, it is so important to approach them as people who are motivated by God’s kind of power, the power to prioritize love and vulnerability and to renounce fear. Our faith in God compels us to delineate what ultimate power we answer to above all others. 

  An example of this way of living came to me from the beloved recesses of the internet, sent to me by a dear friend. The Jewish nurse and daughter of a Rabbi, Ari Mahler, who provided medical care to the shooter from the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre, provided a reflection to the wider community about her interactions with him. She said the following:

 “I’m sure he had no idea I was Jewish. Why thank a Jewish nurse, when 15 minutes beforehand, you’d shoot me in the head with no remorse? I didn’t say a word to him about my religion. I chose not to say anything to him the entire time. I wanted him to feel compassion. I chose to show him empathy. I felt that the best way to honor his victims was for a Jew to prove him wrong. Besides, if he finds out I’m Jewish, does it really matter? The better question is, what does it mean to you?”

 She continues, “Love. That’s why I did it. Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope. It demonstrates humanity. It reaffirms why we’re all here. The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings. I could care less what he thinks, but you, the person reading this, love is the only message I wish to instill in you. If my actions mean anything, love means everything.”

 The values that this Jewish nurse enacted in her care for the shooter of her own people are what I believe we as Christians are called to embrace because of our belief in Jesus Christ. It matters that we see our shared vision of bringing about compassion in the world with our Jewish siblings and to answer the call to be allies in speaking up about hatred towards them. Christian community needs to continue to look to who Jesus is as a way to orient ourselves towards the kind of kingdom we want to create here on earth. And as we do this, our challenge is to not turn our eyes away from our past and from our inherited culpability in perpetuating the hatred of the Jewish people.

 Anti-Jewish rhetoric is a part of our history and is still being perpetuated by people in the world who identify as Christians. I wonder the ways you notice First Church is interrupting this cycle of perpetuating hatred? If we are to recognize this history, we also have to be accountable. We have to speak up and show up. We have a responsibility to be active participants in the kingdom that Jesus shows us, a way of enacting our faith: a faith that welcomes the stranger, upholds the dignity of all human beings, and includes everyone who seeks to know God. God’s love is big enough for all of us and does not need to be leveraged to gain power over one group of people or another.  God’s love and peace is not a prize to be won, but is a gift freely given by grace to both Christians and Jews.

 God’s love is never transactional. It is always transformational. It does not exist within the worldly system of give and take. God’s love can transform hearts, heal wounds, and guide us out of abusing the powers of this world if we only let it. Now, this is not an easy task. It is hard to say “no” to the protection and security worldly power promises. It is hard to say “no” to feeling like we won the argument. It is hard to say “no” to feeling like we are ahead in some way in our lives compared to other people.

 But God’s promise to us holds the potential to give us everything. God’s power rooted in love subverts the structures of this world so that we can live in a kingdom that is not of this earth, but of enduring peace and compassion for our neighbor and even for our perceived enemy. The animosity that antisemitism feeds on is fueled by the belief that there is scarcity of salvation, but God’s message through Jesus Christ is one of radical abundance. Let us live into that abundance together and share the good news of God’s kingdom, the one that continually defies our expectations and provides for all. Healing, liberation, and transformation are possible indeed:

For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

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