Sermon, November 22, 2015

John 18:31-37


This Sunday, today, is the last Sunday of a major turn in the historic church?s institutional history. You and I try to live as much as possible in today; we try to be existentially as present oriented as we can pull off. But, we are surrounded in our lives of faith development and how we understand God and the world with this thing called the Bible and how we read it and understand it. Christianity has long had a lectionary reading cycle. Jesus and his Jewish world did as well.

You might remember in the opening of Luke?s Gospel story that Jesus reads during the Sabbath Day services from a biblical scroll of the Hebrew Scriptures. It was a scroll of Prophet Isaiah and it read, ?The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord?s favor.?

Every year on the same Sabbath Day that Scripture was read because our ancient Jewish ancestors followed a regular, prescribed lectionary pattern. They would unroll the scroll. It was not like they could easily move forward and backward like we do in our books. This pattern of readings was scroll bound and centuries old.

When Christianity first was forming, these early Jewish followers of Jesus followed the same lectionary readings as they met in synagogues, and later in the service they would debate, argue, and discuss whether Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.

Some fifty to a hundred years after Jesus had died, along with most of the early disciples, the Gospels began appearing on the religious scene. They would read the gospels after reading a section or a lection of Hebrew Scriptures. When possible they tried to match themes. The Eastern Orthodox tradition of Christianity still follows some of the most ancient patterns of reading Jewish and Christian texts. We follow a lectionary cycle called the Revised Common lectionary. Everyone who follows this ritual of readings, however, shares at least one common reality?today is the end Sunday of the Church year. A new year begins on the first Sunday of Advent?next Sunday.

In our tradition we have been reading through Mark?s Gospel nearly exclusively for a year. Mark is short, however, and when they want more material they jump over to the Gospel According to John. On our last Sunday of the yearly cycle we have been given Jesus? last moments of life as he meets with Pilate. The writer (or writers) of John?s Gospel constructs this more than likely nonhistorical dialogue (i.e.,this is most likely a made up story of what might have happened) between Jesus and the Roman Government around Pilate?s questions, ?What is truth? and ?Are you the King of the Jews?? (John?s Gospel is not at all to be taken literally?it is sort of like a song written to remember a historical happening, full of truth, just not actual happenings.)

Jesus was expressing the truth that he knew. Pilate represented the truth that sustained him. It was one of those pivotal moments in time when John?s Gospel give us, in literary form, one of the most unique expressions of the fullness of God, Jesus, coming face to face with one of the most evil expressions of governmental oppression of an occupied people, in the Roman governor Pilate.

This morning?s Scripture lesson from John?s Gospel also has Jesus calling himself as a king. While I seriously doubt (along with a world full of scholars), that Jesus ever called himself a King, I do believe (as do the other gospels) that Jesus was killed by the Romans for leading a very strong Jewish resistance movement; and he was called the King of the Jews derisively by the Romans as a reason for killing him.

We are people of a book of faith that is often not very historically accurate. It is oftentimes a book that tells what an author wanted to have happened, who then surrounded it with a few facts to make it read well. It is a book of faith that must be studied and also a well of the rich traditions of many faiths. It is a book that many claim to be holy, immutable, perfect, without error, and some even go so far as to suggest this is the Word of God.?? When I meet with pastors who are much more traditionally conservative than I am, I try to begin our conversations by asking for the recognition that through 2,000 plus years of Christian history; isn?t it wonderful that so many people have sought to know God intimately and that has resulted in so much grand diversity in Christian faith? I do not need others to agree with me and be the same as me in regard to belief and practice. What I do think makes the most sense is for everyone to recognize the phenomenal diversity of faith and practice which is reflective of this book and its many messages.

There is no one Christian message in this Bible. There are as many beliefs as there are authors and most them are writing because someone is disagreeing with them about what is correct belief. ?Oftentimes we are given only one side of a very good argument. Even the Apostle Paul says as he writes that not everything he says is inspired by God. Sometimes, if not nearly always, he is simply sharing his opinion and just because he, or I, or you share an opinion?, that should not be construed as a correct or universally agreed Christian doctrine. It should be thought about, prayed over, lived with, and practiced over a long period of time. And perhaps, even if an idea has been phenomenal, perhaps as time progresses, even previous good ideas, good doctrines, must be shelved for a new day of religious expression. There have always been, and always will be, great diversity of belief among Christians, as there is amongst Muslims, and Jews, and Hindus, and Buddhists. We are groups of people who affirm denominationally that God is still speaking, and therefore new awarenesses and demands upon us in our spiritual development are to be expected.

In this morning?s passage Jesus is bullied by Pilate. History is replete with sources that tell us that Pilate was cruel and mean and did not need evidence in order to do what he wanted to do. He created the reality he wanted. Jesus had a following. He had a strong following and it was on an edge of potentially creating social and religious disorder. Pilate and the Chief Rabbi were political allies and neither saw any reason NOT to get rid of Jesus permanently and to let his movement fade into oblivion. Pilate and the Chief Priest most likely made up ?this man thinks he is King of the Jews.? It was cruel mockery at best.

When I think of Jesus, the term King rarely comes to mind, except in the Christian liturgies and music that have been produced in the centuries following Jesus? life. Jesus fought being labeled and if there was a title he sought it wasn?t King, it was servant.

Jesus was not a King and he had no dream of being a King. What he had was a soul filled with God?s presence to such a degree that people could scarcely not follow him. Folks wanted him to be a King and to call forth an army to overthrow the Roman oppression. Jesus said to Pilate, my kingdom is not anything like yours. He probably had tried to say that to his disciples so often that he felt like a broken recording of himself. Jesus, please save us from these Romans. And, I bet Jesus responded, ?You are already saved from these guys. You have enough to survive well without them?; he demonstrated this after the four to five thousand learned to share what they had. The miracle was that they shared out of what they already had?they held nothing back, but gave freely.

Caesar is not Lord, God alone is Lord. It was the typical Jewish response to Roman political leaders who loved to be elevated to divine status.

*Jesus became a king in Christian liturgy for days like today?this is Christ the King Sunday. In our 21st century mindset this is nearly meaningless. Even the term Christ and Messiah are words that most of our non-church friends and associates find to be empty. Christians shouting, Jesus is Lord, Jesus is God are held in equal contempt to terrorists shouting God is Great as they shooting angrily and without remorse into crowds of people.

We had a song back in college that we would sing around campfires that surely defines what really matters: ?They will know we are Christians by our love.? Nowhere in that song did it suggest that anyone would know who we are by our correct belief about Scripture, or about creeds and doctrines or how short or long our sermons were.

On many nights, working at the homeless shelter, I have been approached by guests who are acutely aware that YOU provide food and shelter and structural management support for those experiencing homelessness, sheltering three nights here, and seven nights in total in Bloomington. They approach me and say, ?Pastor, you and your people are truly Christian for doing this work.?

My favorite response is to say, ?Thank you, and by the way, many people who make this shelter happen do not give a hoot about Christianity. Many do. Several even find Christianity detestable. But, they care, and they believe that they ought to be giving to those who need food, and shelter from the stormy blasts of life. I tell these guests who are homeless, as I tell you now, that Christians through the centuries have let millions die of starvation, have slaughtered millions of indigenous people and built economic, systemic, and structural systems that perpetuate wealth being located unfairly and unjustly, and continue to maintain a most horrifying reality of racism right here in our country.

Having the title Christian or Muslim is increasingly becoming, in our post-modern world, an ugly political-division-creating label at a time that we need less division and more unity. When asked, I rarely confess Christianity. I daresay that no one is any more Christian or a follower of the way of Jesus than I, but I refuse to allow my faith to be a divider rather than a uniter. ?I am a person of deep and abiding faith in the Holy,? is my favorite reply.

I am in this world of faith systems, one with the God of Jesus, Mohammed, and Moses. While I appreciate the differences more than most, I am increasingly wary of being known as different from my Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist brothers and sisters. I am a person of faith and I deeply respect and hold as equal others of faith, no matter who their touchstone is. Mine is Jesus.

Terror is present in the excesses of every faith system and we must begin at home to eradicate the very premises of our own faith systems that give rise to differences that unnecessarily divide. Our world is much too fragile for us to allow faith to be used as a major force of destruction or as an advertising label by politicians who then go on to deny immigration rights to war torn people.

Jesus never understood himself as a King, a superior. Jesus understood himself, as should we who follow him, as a servant, and as one who embodies the reality that God loves us and lures us to be Christ-like…, as among those who invite in the strangers. Jesus who was born in a stable because the people of his day would not take his immigrant parents in.

Jesus would today hug the French and the Syrians and then wave us over and say, These are my sheep, take them in and care for them. It is the word of God for the People of God.