Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, November 22, 2009, the Last Sunday after Pentecost: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-38
“My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus says to Pilate, putting his followers in a never-ending dilemma from that moment until the present day. If we are followers of Jesus, we are citizens of this “kingdom not from this world,” which means that, at best, we hold lightly to our affiliation with the kingdoms of this world.
The early Christians knew this well and it found them at nearly constant odds with the Roman Empire. Not that the Christians were taking up arms against the Empire. They absolutely were not. But the Romans knew their loyalties seem to be aimed in a different direction, symbolized by their calling Jesus of Nazareth kyrios, “Lord,” and not Caesar.
By the time of the emperor Constantine in the 4th century, Christians were growing weary of persecution, and when Constantine jumped at the chance to co-opt them, they jumped back and church and state became bedfellows for the first time. It has largely remained thus ever since.
Most of us grew up in the church assuming that the church supported the state, that one of the jobs of the church was to help make good citizens. This was especially true in the white church. The black church had a different enough history that caused them to be suspicious of the state.
It was the 1960’s when this dynamic began to change. The black church naturally spoke out against ongoing systemic segregation. The white church hesitated, with gradually some clergy and then some national bodies taking up the cause of civil rights. The rank and file largely opposed this and eventually many voted with their feet. Those were the days when places like old St. Luke’s shrunk dramatically.
Whole denominations were changed by this shift. In the 1950’s and early ‘60’s, the Episcopal Church was known as “the Republican Party at prayer.” Within twenty years no one would think of calling us that. But we have paid a price in much smaller numbers.
All of this history had to do with the question about just who is king and to just what kingdom do Christians belong?
On the one hand, the answers are clear. Jesus is our king, and we belong to the kingdom of God. But what does that mean in a practical sense? There are things that it does not mean as well as things that it means.
It does not mean that we are not citizens of our country. Of course we are. We can be grateful, loyal citizens of the United States. A symbol of this in the Episcopal Church is that Independence Day is a feast day on the church’s calendar.
It does mean, however, that we wear our earthly (for want of a better word to call it) citizenship lightly. We are never afraid to be critical of our country when the values we hold as believers are challenged. As it is sometimes said, we are unafraid to speak truth to power (which means, of course, that it will sometimes be spoken to us). We certainly never give in to extremist patriotism that feeds off anger and hatred and misinformation, and there’s a bunch of that going around today.
Belonging to the Kingdom of God does not mean that we are not members of a particular ethnic or cultural group. We can’t deny that in ourselves, and we shouldn’t. It’s part of our God-given createdness.
But belonging to the Kingdom of God does mean that we have a larger vision of all peoples gathered around a throne. It is the vision of Daniel we heard this morning:
To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.
This vision echoes through others of the prophets and is carried into the Book of Revelation. To quote from chapter 5, using some of the same language as chapter one that we just heard:
By your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God.
That is our vision: all people as equal servants of God, equally gifted to offer what we call “the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”
One more thing about this “kingdom not of this world” that we are called to live in. It is a non-violent kingdom. Notice how Jesus goes on when responding to Pilate.
My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.
Jesus’ followers, he points out, are not fighting back. That is not what he taught them. There was a little temptation to do so in the garden, with the flash of the sword, which Jesus rebukes. It is not his way. His way is the way of sacrificial love. He will become the king of which Pilate speaks only by offering his life as an innocent victim.
This is not the kind of king and kingdom we want. We want a king who will fight for us and inspire us to fight as well. We want a king who will react to our anxieties and do whatever it takes to keep us on top. We want a king who will prop up and feed our myths about ourselves and our country (or even our religion).
That is not the kind of king we get. We get a king on a cross, about as big a paradox as you can get. But we believe the power released from that paradox was enough to save the world, truly save it, which is why we do call him “king.”
Fellow citizens of the kingdom of God, blessings in navigating the tricky waters between your citizenship of Jesus’ not of this world kingdom and your citizenship in this earthly kingdom we call the United States of America.
One piece of advice: know where your loyalties lie ahead of time.