A sermon by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
22 November, 2015
This is the formal greeting, written in the form of a letter. It is from John to the 7 churches of Asia, what we today call Syria. The book of revelation is written to give hope to a church that is being persecuted. Even though times are tough, the author begins the book of Revelation with great hope that is found in being saved through Christ.
Grace and peace to you from the one who is and was and is coming, and from the seven spirits that are before God’s throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ—the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To the one who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 who made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father—to him be glory and power forever and always. Amen.
7 Look, he is coming with the clouds! Every eye will see him, including those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of him. This is so. Amen. 8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “the one who is and was and is coming, the Almighty.” (Common English Bible)
The passage takes place after Jesus has been arrested. The conversation with Pilate centers around Jesus being king of the Jews. This would be a fright to the Roman authorities, especially Pilate whose reputation depends on keeping everything in the Roman kingdom peacefully suppressed. To Pilate, Jesus is an idealistic person who seems to have grand political goals. Jesus stands before this Roman official whose goal is to get out of Jerusalem and move up the ladder of power establishing his own part of the kingdom. The world of Pilate is made up of many little kingdoms each fighting for their share of control; Christ’s world is held together by God who calls us all to share in the bounty of love that God has. Listen as these two different points of view clash.
One: Pilate went back into the palace and summoned Jesus.
Pilate: “Are you the king of the Jews?”
Jesus: “Do you say this on your own or have others spoken to you about me?”
Pilate: “I’m not a Jew, am I? Your nation and its chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”
Jesus: “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.”
Pilate: “So you are a king?”
Jesus: “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.”
Adapted from the Common English Bible
In the time in between World War 1and World War 2, there was a movement among protestant Christian educators that promoted an idea they called “The Democracy of God.” The main ideas here were that education could instill in us moral character, and Christian education could instill a particular Christian moral character and that morality was best exemplified in collaborative decision making – processes that allowed every voice to contribute, from their point of view, to the ongoing processes of a shared identity. In other words, these Christian Educators were declaring democracy and the ideals of a democratic society are the best way for us to live in relationships with other people as God intended us to live. They would further claim that the democratic social forums in which all people are encouraged and enabled to share their ideas is the purest social organization wherein God’s will can be discerned.
Educators who subscribed to the ideas of Democracy of God felt that God was at work in our human relationships. God is to be found, they would say, in the every day interactions of our homes, our work, our schools, even in our politics – and we should seek to make those relationships the best expressions of God’s justice and peace that we can by using the best information collected from science, philosophy, history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and the breadth of wisdom found in the arts.
This view was hopeful for the future. They had already seen so much progress that could only be attributed to the variety of ways God works in human history. God who has created the universe continues to be active within it, especially through human relationships that seek together to discern God’s activity in the world so that they may join with God. This is a God who is very familiar – perhaps so familiar that we may not recognize God’s presence unless we pay very close attention.
After World War 2, a different theological system rose. This theology called itself “Neo-orthodoxy,” “Neo” means new, “ortho” means right or correct, “doxy” means opinion or way of thinking. Orthodoxy is a traditional interpretation of church doctrines, and Neo-Orthodoxy sought to return the church to a correct way of thinking.
In this theological system, God is transcendent, above and beyond creation. God’s ways are bigger than, greater than the ways we can discover in the universe – be that natural laws of physics, psychological laws of the way we think, or moral laws of the way we behave. Neo-Orthodoxy promoted God as completely different from anything in human experience. What we know, especially through science, is at best suspicious – because it tries to predict what is going to happen in the future based on what has happened in the past. But God is not limited to acting in the ways that God has acted in the past: God may interrupt history in ways that God has never done before.
In this view, the God who has created the entire universe is also the controller of the universe. This is a God who cannot be disregarded. This is a God who reigns like a king – a king who loves us and cares for us and seeks the best for us but who is also very different from us.
I bring up these two different theological schools because they understand God’s relationship to humanity so very differently. These theological differences help us ask questions of faith. I do not believe that sincere questions are a sign of a lack of faith but rather the sign of a faith dedicated to improving itself by better understanding itself. Questions prompt us to clarify who we are and what we are trying to do.
For instance, let me ask you “How would you describe the relationship between God and humanity?” You probably would not go to the title “King” right away. The title of king has meant many things through human history. Certainly what king meant for David and Solomon, ancient kings in Jerusalem, was not the same as what it meant for the Babylonian King who conquered and destroyed Jerusalem – or the king of Persia who conquered Babylon. And what the title king meant to them was not shared by say King Henry VII of England – or his daughters Mary and Elizabeth. The qualities of Christ’s kingship were mostly likely different to George III of England and his contemporaries leading the American Revolutionary War.
Since we – and much of the world – are no longer governed by kings, the name of this particular Sunday has changed from Christ the King to Reign of Christ. How is kingship different than reigning? Can we just substitute one governing title for another? How does our relationship to Christ change if instead of the divine king we pray to a divine chairperson or president or caliphate or sultan or Ayatollah?
Here’s another big question: in our relationship with God, what do we expect from God? What do we expect to happen when God’s reign is at its fullest? Will it be like a kingdom or will it be like a democracy – or will the fullness of God’s reign be structured like a military organization with a single commander ordering generals to move their troops – or like a business with department heads with specialized tasks and responsibilities that each contribute a small part to a larger task – or will it be something entirely different?
Does God lead by being among us or by being apart from us?
How do our expectations of how God relates to us change the ways we relate to one another? I have some family members who expect God to be a valiant warrior, and so they live their lives as a series of rather militant campaigns to be won – which means their opponents are defeated or eliminated. I have other family members who expect God to be a gentle healer, something like a massage therapist who gently squeezes away all our hurts, but that means they only go to God when they hurt and are in pain. Yet other family members understand God to be an artisan who has lovingly created each and every detail of the universe we live in – from the delicate colors of flower petals to the rough hide of an elephant, from the subtle hues of clouds carrying snow and rain to the brilliant shades of flamingoes and iguanas, from the distinctive honk of Canadian geese to the unmistakable cries of our own children. Because God has attended to such detail to personalize the universe, they take time to make sure the details are always just right to express their mood, their relationships almost as though they are God who can control every detail.
How we perceive God at work in the universe finds expression within the ways we relate to others. How we perceive God’s reign finds its expression in the way we organize ourselves to do the work of being a community of faith. How we expect God’s reign to be in the future affects the way we live in God’s present reign.
Now, as we arrive here on this last Sunday of the Christian calendar, I ask you, “What do we expect from the fullness of God’s reign?” That is going to be an important question in upcoming weeks as you proceed, as a congregation, to consider the kind of settled pastor you desire to call. For now, let us give thanks for the congregation we have where we may explore such questions together.