"Christ the King and Refugees" - John 18:33-37
Then Pilate entered the headquarters, summoned Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered him, “Do you ask me this on your own, or have others told you about me?” Pilate said to him, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus said to him, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were from this world, 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.” Pilate said, “So, you are a king, then?” Jesus said to him, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
I heard a story at a retreat a couple of weeks ago about the horrors and persecutions heaped upon Tibetan monks at the hands of the Chinese. The story goes that an invading army would quickly sweep into Buddhist monasteries to destroy and decimate both the people and the place, as an exercise of fear, power, intimidation, terror, and control. In one instance, every person was either destroyed or fled just before the army arrived – everyone, that is, except one particular monk – the oldest and wisest of the monks in that temple.
Curious about this old, odd, singular remnant, the army’s general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this monk was to have stayed put. The wise, esteemed, gentle, poised, peaceable monk was justifiably, righteously indignant in the face of his enemy. When the general wasn’t greeted with respect or treated with the deference and submissiveness he was used to, he was furious. "You fool!" he shouted, and grabbed his sword. “Don't you realize you are standing before a man who could run you through with his sword, without blinking an eye!?"
The old, wise, master of monk – despite the threat – was unmoved. He replied, calmly, "And do you not realize, that you are standing before a man who can be run through with your sword, without blinking an eye?"
All of this strikes me as the same conversation that takes place between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Pilate, like the Chinese military general, is the one with the force of all the world’s power at his fingertips. He has the choice to please the angry mob outside in the public square and send Jesus to be crucified. Or he has the power to release him, to set him free, which – even he admits – the evidence seems to suggest would be the right thing to do.
Of course, we know the choice Pilate made. Pontius Pilate “runs Jesus through with his sword,” as it were. Jesus is sentenced… beaten… whipped… flogged… crowned with thorns…crucified…murdered…without blinking an eye. Jesus lets it happen. He goes “uncomplaining, forth” as the old hymn suggests.
And what does this mean for you and me? What does this mean for our life of faith in the world? What does this mean if we’re to “belong to the truth,” as he says, and truly follow Jesus?
Strange as it sounds…as hard as it seems…as impossible as it may appear…as counter-intuitive as it is…I think it means we’re called to this same way of life, as Christians.
This “Christ the King” we celebrate in Jesus is not meant to look like any other king or ruler in the world as we know it. The King we worship in Christ did not and does not rule like any other king on earth. The King we follow in Jesus, did not and does not lead us in the ways of this world. Where the world casts judgment, Jesus extends grace. Where the world is proud, Jesus is humble. Where the world is afraid, Jesus is faithful. When the world excludes, Jesus welcomes. Where the world is hostile, Jesus extends hospitality. Where the world fights, Jesus bears peace. Where the world doubts and despairs, Jesus hopes and brings joy. Where the world seeks death, Jesus offers himself and new life in spite of it.
At the same retreat where I heard the story about the Buddhist monk and the military general, it was also suggested – to a room full of pastors – that if we aren’t preaching and teaching about Jesus in ways that make our people want to crucify us every once in awhile, we should probably consider the value, validity – the faithfulness and Truth of our message. So sharpen your pitch-forks and light your torches…
I think Jesus would welcome Syrian refugees – and that he would want us to do that, too.
Now, this is just a very timely example. It may even be too close for comfort and too hot a topic and exactly why I said to get your pitch-forks and torches ready. And I understand the desire and need for caution and care, because I’m afraid, too, by what recent events have cast upon the prospect of this proposal.
But if Christ the King Sunday, means anything, it is a call and command to radical humility and grace and mercy and welcome and vulnerability, too – even to the point of death. (I know, right?) But the cross of Christ the King was dangerous, and risky, and terrifying, and unfair, and illogical, and unprecedented – just like all the reasons I hear for keeping the refugees out, and for keeping ourselves safe, and for protecting our own interests, and for letting the terrorists have it, too. (It’s dangerous, risky, terrifying, it makes no sense, it’s too much to ask, right?) And believe me, this is easier to preach than to practice for me. It’s hard to swallow and difficult to sell – just like the discipleship “Christ the King” calls us to.
And all of this is as practical as it is holy. Because until there are more safe people on the planet than scared people, none of us will know real, abiding peace, anyway. Until there are more full bellies than empty ones God’s kingdom won’t thrive for any one of us, anyway. Until there are more homes than there are homeless…until more of God’s children feel hopeful than they do helpless…until justice sings louder than injustice screams…the reign of God is only a dream; something up there and out there and off in the distance, in a galaxy far, far away.
But Christ the King came to bring the Kingdom – and he wants us to follow his lead. So maybe you’re not down with the refugees yet. And maybe it’s too soon to forgive the terrorists. And I’m not sure any of us is or should be ready to fall on a sword or climb onto a cross.
But let’s not deny that that’s what Jesus did and what he would do again. Let’s not deny that that’s what Jesus would have for this world as we know it. Let’s not deny – but let’s aspire to and practice – that kind of kingdom-living in whatever small or large ways we can manage: where grace wins; where love rules; where fear doesn’t govern our choices; where mercy and justice and forgiveness are the order of the day; and where the reign of God is here and now, in as many ways as we can make it happen, not “then and there” in all the ways we pretend we can’t.