November 22, 2015
Reign of Christ Sunday, Pastor Javen Swanson
In their book The Last Week, authors Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe in great detail the final seven days of Jesus’ life—the days we remember each year during Holy Week. The focus of these two scholars’ work is on reconstructing the historical Jesus, asking questions about what Jesus really did and why he did it, what he really said and why he said it. The book begins with an in-depth chronicle of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem—the event we recall each year on Palm Sunday—and follows him through the Last Supper, his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, all the way through Easter morning.
Their description of Palm Sunday is especially interesting. They suggest there were actually two triumphal entries into Jerusalem. On one side of town, Pontius Pilate, the regional Roman governor, led a procession of imperial cavalry and soldiers. The celebration of Passover was just a few days away and it was standard practice for the Roman governor to be in Jerusalem for major Jewish holidays—not out of a sense of reverence or devotion, but to maintain order and enforce Roman rule. The holidays often stirred up nationalism among the Jews, particularly during Passover, which celebrates the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt centuries before. In Jesus’ time, Israel was subject to Roman authority. It was part of the Roman empire, and Rome intended to keep it that way. So, on this day, Pontius Pilate made a grand entrance into Jerusalem, flanked by enough Roman soldiers to make it clear to everyone that there would be consequences for those who might find themselves swept up in any sort of anti-imperial fervor.
Borg and Crossan invite their readers to imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city. “A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a “counterprocession” was taking shape. At the center of it all was a man on a donkey. He was surrounded by a crowd of peasants. Some of them ran ahead of the procession and threw their cloaks down on the ground before the donkey, a poor man’s sort of rolling out the red carpet. Others waved palm branches as the procession passed, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” What this humble band of peasants had organized was a political demonstration. It was a protest. It was intended to mock the Roman empire’s displays of military might and hold forth a different understanding of power and authority. “Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God.”
I know: Today isn’t Palm Sunday. It is Reign of Christ Sunday, or what we sometimes call Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church’s liturgical year. Next Sunday is the first Sunday of a new liturgical year, the first Sunday of Advent, the season of watching and waiting for the birth of Jesus. But today, on this final Sunday of the church year, we celebrate Jesus Christ as the one who reigns as king forever. And when I consider what it means for Jesus to be a king, I can’t help but think of those two processions on Palm Sunday, one representing the power of the empire and the other representing the kingdom of God.
The scene in today’s reading from the Gospel of John takes place just a few days after Palm Sunday. Having led his humble procession into Jerusalem, Jesus has gone on to challenge the religious authorities over and over again and has made them furious. Now he has been arrested and brought before Pontius Pilate for a trial. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks Jesus. That’s a question Jesus never answers directly. Is it because he is trying to avoid condemning himself? Is he afraid to be seen by Pilate as an insurrectionist who has come to overthrow Roman rule in Jerusalem? I’m not so sure. I don’t really think Jesus is afraid of Pilate. I think the reason Jesus evades Pilate’s question is because he doesn’t want to be understood as a king in the usual sense of the word. He doesn’t exercise power the way kings usually do. The word “king” is loaded with meanings and implications that are at odds with the kingdom of God, which has been at the center of Jesus’ preaching and teaching all along.
So in reply to Pilate’s question, Jesus gives a cryptic response. He says that his kingdom is not of this world. “If my kingdom were of this world,” he says, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” What in the world does that mean?
I like how David Lose, the president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, makes sense of what Jesus is saying here. “Were [Jesus] and his followers of this world,” David Lose says, “then naturally they would use the primary tool this world provides for establishing and keeping power: violence. But Jesus is not of this world and so Jesus will not defend himself through violence. Jesus will not establish his claims by violence. Jesus will not usher in God’s kingdom by violence. Jesus will make no followers by violence.” If Jesus were the kind of king the world is accustomed to, he would use violence to achieve his goals. But Jesus isn’t that kind of king. Rather than exercising power through violence, Jesus exercises power through love. Jesus rejects violence and shows us the way to love.
Have you felt as heartbroken as I have as you’ve watched the news this week?
Just a couple days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, the French military retaliated by hitting several ISIS targets in Syria. A few days later, after officially announcing that an airliner en route to their country had been brought down by an ISIS bomb, Russia launched attacks across Syria as well.
Responding to a suggestion that one of the Paris attacks was carried out by a Syrian refugee, politicians all across the United States have called for our country to close its borders to Syrians fleeing the violence and destruction inflicted upon them by ISIS.
In north Minneapolis, the suspicious death of another black man has stirred tensions between the community and police, and some people on both sides of the issue have spent the week spewing vitriol against those they view as their opponents.
Violence, fear, intimidation, contempt: These are the tools earthly rulers use to wield power and exercise control. The world teaches us that the only way to respond to violence is with more violence, that the only way to respond to hate is more hate. Is that so? This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. had to say about that: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Yesterday morning I made my way to the fourth precinct police station in Minneapolis to be with the crowd who has gathered there for the past week. I’ll admit that, for as much as my heart is with the Black Lives Matter movement, I do have my own misgivings about some of the protestors’ tactics. But hearing so much about the protests at the fourth precinct on the news and on social media, I felt like I needed to see it for myself. So I showed up yesterday morning just to listen and observe. I immediately struck up a conversation with a man in his mid-forties who told me his own story about being a black man living in Minneapolis. I heard about his daily experience of racism, how he is constantly on edge. “Jamar Clark could have been my son,” he said. “Jamar Clark could have been me, 20 years ago.” As he talked I sensed that he was grateful that somebody like me was taking the time to listen to somebody like him, grateful to be seen as a fellow human being worthy of love and respect, created in God’s image. At the end of our conversation we shared a hug—two people brought together by an act of violence, responding not with more violence but with compassion for one another, finding love in the midst of fear and pain.
Right now, the world needs to feel the love of God. We are all desperate for the love of God. We need Jesus Christ to be a king who rules in our hearts with the love of God. We need Christ the King to reign in our world today. Jesus Christ, reign in our world today.
Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem (New York: HarperCollins, 2006).
Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon, 1967).
David J. Lose, “Christ the King B: Not of This World,” on …In the Meantime, 2015, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/11/christ-the-king-b-not-of-this-world/