My sermon from this past Sunday.
Today, as is indicated on our bulletin cover, is Christ the King Sunday.
Next week we will begin a new church year as we move into the season of Advent. And today we close out the old church year, doing so by celebrating the kingship of Jesus Christ. Our human lives are lived in a rhythm of years – year passes into year. And through the rhythm of our years the truth gospel gives shape to our lives. This morning, the gospel reminds us that Christ is king – the gospel reminds us that in the passage of our days and years there is no moment that is not lived under his lordship, his kingship.
In Canadian society today, of course, the idea of kingship, of royalty, is pretty distant from the thought and life of most people. I recall that just a few months ago there was a debate whether the Governor General, Michaelle Jean should be referring to herself as Canada’s head of state. The Prime Minister’s office intervened, suggesting that Queen Elizabeth is in fact the head of state and that the Governor General is simply her representative in Canada. Most Canadians, of course, heard nothing of this debate, and the vast majority of who did hear about it likely offered yawn of indifference. Whether or not the monarchy is important to our history and society, monarchy provokes a yawn of indifference.
A week or so ago I was listening to the radio program Ideas on CBC, and I heard the first part of a lecture given by Charles, the Prince of Wales, on environmental issues. But before he began his lecture, he spent a few moments speaking more informally, talking for example about the anniversary of his mother’s coronation. He also shared a funny story about an encounter he once had. He was once chatting with various people at one of the many events he attends – and he met and spoke briefly with a woman who shared with him how well she remembered the beautiful wedding ceremony of Charles’ mother and father. And the woman went on – I remember you sitting there at the wedding, your little five year old head sticking up from the pew. Now Charles thought he should try to correct the woman’s obvious mistake: “I think maybe you’re speaking of my mother’s coronation, which I attended when I was five years old.” The woman replied, “no, no no, it was the wedding…. I remember you sitting there on your pew.” [At which point Charles gave up trying to correct her.]
So in on instance we have a debate over whether the Governor General or the Queen is the Canadian head of state – and most Canadians yawn indifferently.
On the other we have an admittedly funny story from Prince Charles – but a story that is about events (a royal wedding, a coronation) which seem utterly removed from what matters in our lives and in contemporary society.
Since kingship and royalty means so little in our society, to declare Jesus as king doesn’t mean a great deal in our context. To say that Jesus is king, doesn’t do much to illuminate our understanding of who he is.
Perhaps if we could get in touch with what kingship has meant historically we would have a better sense of the significance of that title? Often the king had an absolute kind of authority – in the presence of a king there was almost invariably trembling and fear on account of his power – a power often wielded indiscriminately. You don’t mess with a king, who often has legions of soldiers at his command.
Perhaps if we understand what kingship has meant historically we would understand the significance of that tile when applied to Jesus – king Jesus. But then again, maybe not…
In our gospel reading for today from the eighteenth chapter of John’s gospel we find ourselves in the middle of Jesus’ trial – we find ourselves in the middle of the narrative of his suffering, his passion. And there in the midst of his trial we find Pilate, the Roman governor, asking Jesus: “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus are you a king?
Of course if you know anything about Jesus, you will know that he rarely provides a straight answer to a straight question. He rarely gives the kinds of answers that people are looking for – and it’s no different here. Jesus answers: “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 to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
In answering the question of Pilate, Jesus doesn’t say directly: “Yes, I’m a king.” At the same time, though, his answer seems to suggest he is a king. If you say that you have a kingdom, which is what Jesus says, doesn’t that make you a king? Well, perhaps it does.
But why does Jesus avoid giving a straight answer to a straight question? If he has a kingdom, why doesn’t he just say he’s a king? Well, perhaps Jesus knows that if he gives a straight answer to the question, ‘yes, I’m a king’ – if he gives a straight answer, maybe Pilate will think he knows what Jesus means, when in fact he doesn’t. So Jesus gives an indirect answer: “Am I a king – well, it depends on what you mean by king. In a manner of speaking maybe I am a king. But actually, Pilate, you don’t know what true kingship is, so I’m not sure how to answer the question. I’m a king, but not a king.”
To understand why Jesus won’t give a straight answer about his kingship, we should look at Jesus’ insistence that his kingdom is not of this world. Jesus himself helps us understand those words when he adds: “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.”
It seems to me that what Jesus is really saying is that his kingship explodes our understanding of kingship. In Jesus’ time and throughout much of history, kingship meant tremendous power, wealth, and honour. But Jesus seeks neither power nor wealth nor honour within human society. And neither do his disciples seek power and wealth and honour for him by trying to establish his rule on earth or by leading a revolt to set Jesus up on the throne in Jerusalem or Rome or in any other place – thus the reference to the fact that they do not fight to keep him from being handed over.
Of course his disciples were often tempted to do just that – to see Jesus kingdom in terms of an earthly throne – earthly rule, earthly power; control over the life of the nation. Indeed, at the moment of his arrest, Jesus had to rebuke one of his own disciples who struck off the ear of the High Priest’s slave. “Put away your sword – my kingdom is not of this world. It is not defined by the values of this world.”
Jesus is saying to Pilate: I am a king. But my kingdom is not rooted in the ways of this world. If you try to understand what my kingship means by looking at earthly kingship, you won’t have the foggiest idea what the kingdom of God is all about.
Perhaps there’s something we need to clarify here. When Jesus says ‘my kingdom is not of this world’, we have a tendency to turn Jesus kingship into an other-worldly, spiritual thing – we turn it into a kingship that has nothing to do with the goings on in this world and our lives. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. While Jesus kingship is not of this world – his kingship nevertheless makes all the difference for our world. Jesus’ kingship comes to expression in our world – he is king of our world. When he says that his kingdom is not of this world he is simply saying that his kingdom is not defined by the values of earthy kingship – power, wealth, and honour.
I can think of no better way to explain and explore all of this than by turning again to a biography of faith. In the past couple of months we have considered the lives of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, of Joni Eareckson, and of Elizabeth Fry. We have considered what their lives can teach us about following Jesus. This morning we briefly consider another life in order to consider what it means that Jesus’ kingship is not of this world. We consider the life of Eric Liddell.
You will remember Eric Liddle as portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire. Eric Liddell was a young Scottish man who grew up in a Christian home and who experienced a conversion during revival meetings sweeping Scotland when he was 18 years old. Having experienced this conversion, he himself joined a traveling, tent revival meeting – doing so he encouraged others to follow Jesus Christ and to honour God with their lives.
Another thing about Eric Liddell, of course, is that he was fast. In 1921 several of his friends saw how fast he was and suggested that he try out for the Olympics. He trained for three years while also working for the revival meetings – and following his training he won the right to represent Scotland in the 1924 Olympics in Paris.
Of course a difficulty arose when it was discovered that the heats for his race – the 100 meter dash – were to be held on a Sunday. As someone who was committed to observing the Sabbath – who took seriously the principle that the Sabbath was a day for worship and for rest – and not simply for everyday pursuits – Eric Liddel faced a very real challenge. Either, give up his quest to be the fastest person alive, or abandon his Christian convictions.
We know the story – he refused to give up on his Christian convictions, and so forfeited his chance to win gold in the 100 meters. As the familiar story goes, of course, Liddel was given the chance to run in the 400 meters, which was not his race, and ran to the gold medal. Chariots of Fire has a beautiful fairytale ending.
But we do not quickly forget his refusal to run on Sunday. We remember that Eric Liddell stood up even to pressure exerted by the Prince of Wales – that he should run for the sake of his homeland. Eric Liddell stood by his conviction that Christ had invited him to a particular way of life – to a way of life that went against the grain of his culture – to a way of live that didn’t necessarily jive with what many in his society valued. And by doing so Eric Liddell shows us what it means to live under the lordship of him whose kingdom is not of this world. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world – we live according to the purposes of his kingdom, not according to the ever-changing values of this world.
We recall again that Jesus’ kingship is not defined or determined by wealth and glory and power. His throne was a cross – his way was the way of humble service and love. We recall the glory of Easter morning – that his way has been vindicated and affirmed in his resurrection and his ascension to glory.
But again, we have to remember that to say that Christ’s kingdom is not of our world is not to say that his kingdom is some spiritual realm disconnected from our world. His kingdom is not of this world, but it makes all the difference for our world and for how we live in it.
Let’s get back to Eric Liddell for a moment. Eric Liddell didn’t simply withdraw from the wider world into some merely spiritual life. Indeed, one of Eric Liddell’s most famous comments has to do with the delight he took in running. Eric Liddell once said: “I believe that God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure.” Our physical, material world was created through Jesus Christ and he is king of this physical, material world. He is not simply king of some other-worldly spiritual realm. Our king delights in, and invites us to delight in, the world made through him. When I run I feel God’s pleasure.
But there’s more we can add. What you may or may not know about Eric Liddell is that he was actually born in China in 1902, to parents who were missionaries. And in 1925, after the Paris Olympics he himself went to China as a missionary. For many years he served as a teacher in the Anglo-Chinese College in Tianjin, also serving in the Sunday School of the congregation where his father was pastor. In 1941 the situation in China became difficult for all foreign nationals on account of the war between China and Japan. At that time the British government advised all British nationals to leave China – Eric’s wife (who was pregnant at the time) went, along with their two children, to stay in her family home in Toronto while he stayed on, moving to a mission station in Xiaozhang. His brother served there as a medical doctor in Ziaozhang and for the next two years the brothers served the poor of the region. In 1943, when the Japanese army captured the area surrounding Ziaozhang, all foreign nationals were confined to an internment camp. Nearly all of those interned in the camp were Christian missionaries.
Less than two years after his internment, Eric Liddell would die in that camp of an inoperable brain tumour. But even during those many months in the internment camp, he served as a witness to the way of Christ Jesus – the kingdom of Christ Jesus. He kept himself busy by helping the elderly, by teaching bible classes at the camp school, by arrandging games for the childre, and teaching them science. Even in the camp, until his deat in 1945, he continued in the spirit of love and service, the spirit of Jesus Christ, that had drawn him to China in the first place.
Langdon Gilkey, who went on to be a widely known theologian was interned with Eric Liddle at Weihsien camp. Gilkey wrote these words about the feeling in the camp after Liddell’s death. “The entire camp, especially its youth, was stunned for days, so great was the vacuum that Eric’s death had left.”
Christ’s kingdom is not of this world – it is a kingdom defined by a unique vision of human life. It is a kingdom defined by the way and truth of Jesus Christ himself. It is a kingdom of humility and service. It is a kingdom of cross-bearing love. It is a kingdom of courageous and thoughtful service to Christ. His is not a kingdom of this world, but it is a kingdom that makes all the difference for our world, and for our life in it.
Thanks be to God, through Christ our King, Amen.