Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, January 18, 2022
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Kingdom and World

Revelation 1:4-8 and John 18:33-37

For those of you with a mind for jurisprudence; those who have watched too many courtroom dramas; this is Pilate’s cognition of Jesus, the Latin word for “inquiry.” Pilate is the procurator, governor, of Judea, and as such he is the almost final authority in matters of law. The only higher authority is if the case is appealed to Caesar. But for now, Pilate is judge, jury, and executioner.

The Jewish religious elites want Jesus dead, but they can’t carry out the death penalty without Pilate. Aside from violations of the Temple Law, they are not allowed to carry out executions.

But Pilate doesn’t really care about their problems or their religious scruples. He actually hated being appointed to Judea, thinking it was beneath his dignity. He doesn’t care if Jesus claims to be Messiah. So they bring the charge that Jesus has claimed to be a king. That was sedition. Now Herod the Great had the title of king, but only with Rome’s blessing. He was a “subordinate king.” When his son, Herod Antipas, asked for the title, not only did Caesar say no, but he banished him just for asking.

In the common concept of Messiah among first century Jews, he was supposed to be a king, a military and political figure. Jesus repeatedly distanced himself from that, but if they needed a charge against him, claiming to be king would work.

So Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And after a little back-and-forth, Jesus says, “I am not an earthly king. If I were my followers would rise up and fight. But my kingdom is not of this world.”

We know every word of that is true. Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world. It comes from God. It is not an earthly kingdom. But we know, as Revelation reminded us earlier, that someday, in the New Creation, Jesus’ kingdom will extend over all creation. But not for now. For now, his kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. So his followers don’t take up arms to fight. Except for Peter, in the Garden of Gethsemane, with the sword, cutting off some guy’s ear. It kind of sounds like a game of Clue, right?

If this is the situation: We are not part of an earthly kingdom and not to take up arms, then why does the Church keep acting like Peter? Why are we so tempted to follow in his footsteps and try to grab power by worldly means?

Back when I was in seminary, I remember learning about the “Four approaches to the question of Kingdom and world,” the relationship between Christ and the culture around us. It’s stuck with me all these years, and lately, it’s been something on my mind as I see a lot of what goes on with Christians and politics.

The first approach is “Christ apart from culture.” The most obvious examples of Christ apart from culture are the Mennonites and Amish. They separate themselves from the world at large, at least as much as possible. “Come out from them and be ye separate,” as the King James English said. Don’t vote in elections. Don’t use modern technology. Don’t engage with the world. Be a separate culture.

I think the short-coming of this approach is, “Then, how can you be salt and light? How can you effectively bring the truth and goodness of Christ into the world?”

The second approach is “Christ beneath culture.” This is the “separate spheres” thinking. “Jesus is Lord of my Sunday morning, and maybe my bedtime prayers, but the rest of the time, it’s business as usual.” Go along with the world. Don’t make a scene. If that’s the way of the world, so be it.

I once heard a politician say, “Well, yes, I’m a Christian, but my faith doesn’t affect my politics.” Actually, I think I’ve heard it more than once. Really? It doesn’t affect how you think about politics? Then why bother being a Christian? Why bother telling me you are? Oh, because you think I might vote for you then!

Obviously, I don’t think much of this approach.

The third approach is “Christ over culture.” This is the idea of Christendom, an earthly kingdom where Christ IS king, a worldly “kingdom” ruled by “Christian politics.”

This is the thinking of religious fundamentalism. In Islamic countries, it’s called Sharia Law, where everyone has to live under Islamic law regardless of their faith. And ironically, some of the same people who decry Sharia Law in other places would be happy to have a Christian version of it here.

In Christendom thinking, everyone HAS to be a Christian. But as someone famously quipped, “Where everyone is a Christian, no one is a Christian.”

The fourth approach is “Christ transforming culture.” But the transformation is through influence, not power. Sometimes the transformation is a subversive influence, undermining the political powers-that-be.

This was what the early Church did so effectively. They had no political power. They could only change the world through influence. And they did. Some of the worst practices of the Roman Empire ended because of Christian influence. One was the “exposure of infants.” In Roman society, if a father decided he didn’t want a child, it was exposed to the elements, taken to the edge of town and left there to die. Many children didn’t die. Instead they were picked up by slave traders. Christians couldn’t end the practice with power. Instead, they just started picking up all the infants and raising them in orphanages. Eventually, society at large was shamed into stopping the practice. A similar thing happened with the “gladiatorial games,” where slaves and POWs were forced to fight to the death to entertain the masses.

Later Christians adopted the same tactics to address slavery and segregation. Christians started the Underground Railroad and later marched and were imprisoned for their opposition to segregation. Eventually, the political powers acted to outlaw these evils. But it wouldn’t have happened if Christians had just said, “Well, that’s the way it is. Business as usual.”

None of these approaches is perfect. And none of us operate in only one of them. But I think the Church has been at its best when we have engaged with the world through influence rather than trying to seize power.

Pilate says, “So you are a king, then?” And Jesus says, “I am. And I was born for this purpose; to bring truth into the world.” At this point, Pilate dismisses Jesus as a harmless philosopher. Philosophers like to talk about truth, but politicians don’t care for it.

But there is more to it. Truth, in the Old Testament, was “God’s covenant faithfulness.” Jesus brings God’s covenant faithfulness into the world. God promised he would redeem humanity, and he did through Jesus.

And there’s even more. Truth was also used as a name for God, because in Hebrew, the word truth, EMET, is made of three letters: Aleph, Mem, and Tav; the first, middle, and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. “The One who always was, and is, and is to come.” In the Greek New Testament, the same idea is expressed by the phrase “Alpha and Omega,” the first and last letters of the Greek Alphabet. Jesus doesn’t just bring God’s covenant faithfulness into the world; Jesus brings God into the world.

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