November 22, 2015, Playing Defense for the Kingdom – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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I spent a fairly big chunk of my life in St. Louis, Missouri, which is a pretty big city. One of the things about a metropolitan area is that there are a lot more different kinds of people there than we meet from day to day in Norwood, or even in Potsdam where the Universities are. But if you drive around St. Louis very much, you’ll notice that people tend to stick together with people that are like them. When we first got married, our apartment was in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. The synagogue was right down at the end of our street, and if you went to the grocery store or the thrift shop you’d expect to hear people speaking Russian or Polish as well as English, because there were a lot of Jewish immigrants that lived in our neighborhood. There was wonderful folk-dancing at the community center on Saturday nights, and a really good bakery called Pratzels. The ladies at Pratzel’s actually baked the communion bread for our church every week, which was very gracious of them.
There were neighborhoods all around St. Louis that were originally settled by immigrants. I really only knew the most superficial things about them, because I didn’t belong to any of them; I was an outsider. There was the German neighborhood, and there was the Italian neighborhood, and the Greek neighborhood, which is where we bought our first house. There were a lot of neighborhoods that were poor, but even among the very poor neighborhoods, they tended to separate along racial and ethnic lines. Always with human beings there is that tendency to huddle together with those who are like you, and to defend yourself and your family and your traditions from the outside world. That is the way the kingdoms of this world function, from the smallest kingdoms like the kingdom of our home and family, to the biggest and most powerful kingdoms like the United States of America. Human beings stick together and protect their own.
But when Jesus was arrested he stood alone before Pilate, the Roman governor, and said, “If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be out there breaking the doors down, fighting to protect me. But my kingdom is not of this world.”
Today is the very last Sunday of the Church year, which in our tradition is the Feast of Christ the King. Today we honor and praise “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth”, as we read from John’s Revelation. Of course, we honor Jesus as our Lord and King every Sunday, really every day of our lives. But when we call Jesus our King, I don’t think we always realize what we’ve gotten ourselves into. We are citizens of his kingdom, but do we know what kind of a kingdom it is?
“My kingdom is not of this world,” he told Pilate. And what is so other-worldly about our kingdom? “If my kingdom were of this world,” Jesus said, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But it’s not that kind of a kingdom.” Because you know if the kingdom of Jesus Christ was just a regular worldly kingdom, we would take care of our own. We’d be out there every day defending ourselves and our fellow Christians from the assaults of a hostile world. We’d stick together with our brothers and sisters, with people who think like we do, and who share our values, and who care about the things we care about. And if the kingdom of heaven was a kingdom of this world, we would use the world’s weapons – not swords, like Peter, but modern weapons like the legal system and political leverage, and money, and maybe even military strength, to defend our values and our lives and our property. That’s what we would do IF we were a kingdom of this world.
But the terrible thing is, so much of the time that is exactly what we DO as Christians – and I’m not necessarily talking about us, here, in this room, but about the Church as a whole, and especially the American Church. We spend way too much of our time in a defensive posture. We get defensive when advertisements say “Happy Holidays” instead of Merry Christmas because “our” holiday is under attack. We pour our money and our energy into lobbying Washington about issues like school prayer and gay marriage because we feel that we, the Church, have to defend the Christian values of our country. And most recently, we support laws that try to keep Muslims out of our country because we are afraid of them. It seems to me that Christians spend an awful lot of time playing defense against the kingdoms of this world.
Jesus didn’t need Peter, or anyone else, to storm the gates of Pilate’s headquarters and rescue him from the clutches of the Jewish leaders and Roman legions. He is God, all-powerful, all-knowing. Jesus himself said that he had the authority to lay down his life, and he had the authority to take it up again. Jesus was never a helpless victim; he was a willing victim; he chose to suffer and die on the cross out of love for this world. I didn’t come to be served, he taught his disciples, I came to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many.
Jesus Christ, the King, came so that the kingdom of heaven could break in and rescue us all from the dying kingdoms of this world. When Jesus was summoned to stand before Pilate, when his hands and feet were nailed to the cross, when he breathed his last breath, that wasn’t his moment of failure – it was his moment of triumph over the powers and principalities of this world, that had held this creation captive for century upon century, as we all waited desperately for the coming of the true king.
There was a man named William Temple, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War. And he said, “the Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members.” That’s a pretty alien concept in this world. Every other kingdom on this earth looks out for their own interests, but according to Archbishop Temple, the unique job of the Church on this earth is to be a servant, to show mercy, to look out for the interests of others. Our King showed us the way, because that was his way.
And so now we are are here as his ambassadors of reconciliation, as Paul wrote to the Corinthian Church – “ through Christ, God reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation – the ministry of peace and unity – in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” Instead of the world’s weapons of defense – money or political influence or plain old brute strength – as citizens of his kingdom we wield the instruments of his kingdom – love and forgiveness, grace and compassion and kindness – his instruments of healing and restoration.
As citizens of the kingdom of heaven we are wasting our time when we play defense against the kingdoms of this world. We are wasting our authority when we reduce the Church of Jesus Christ to a political party, whether liberal or conservative. But worst of all, we are failing our King when we fail to show his love and mercy to the people for whom he gave his life, whether they are our friends or our enemies, our next-door neighbor or a refugee family from Syria. Christ our King doesn’t call us to rally to his defense; he calls us to proclaim the glorious good news of his victory for people of every color and every family and every nation, as Daniel foresaw in his vision:
behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom is one
that shall never be destroyed.