Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Today is Christ the King Sunday.  Today we celebrate Jesus, the King of Glory.  It makes sense to celebrate Christ the King today, the last Sunday of the Church year.  This Sunday often falls just after Thanksgiving, and there are so many vibrant, loud, flashy, hymns that might just keep those of us who are still in a bit of a Turkey coma awake through church.  So today we’ll sing good hymns, we’ll celebrate Christ the king.  But where is Christ’s Kingdom?

Where is this kingdom Jesus spent so much time talking about?  Where is Christ King?  Can you find this place on a map?  The hymns we’ll sing today are great for folks tuckered out by tryptophan and too much shopping, but the Gospel text really is not.  We have this strange back and forth between Jesus and Pilate that turns into a philosophical discourse, and it all just seems a little too much.  There is a lot going on in this little dialogue, too much to unpack in a single sermon, but I think by paying attention to the question of “where” we can get an important window into what exactly is going on.  

You might have noticed that I asked Gini to read a couple of extra verses at the beginning of the Gospel text.  I promise we’re not in a conspiracy trying to make church longer.  I think the introduction, which speaks to where this dialogue takes place, is important.  The temple authorities bring Jesus to Pilate’s palace, to the praetorium, the house of the Gentile governor, but they stop on the front step.  They can’t go in, or they will become ritually unclean.  They sort of toss Jesus in to Pilate, like you’d toss food into a lion’s cage, and stay on the outside.

I want to stick on this point for a moment, because it is not something common in our time.  In the first century Jewish worldview, Geography was sacred.  Certain spaces were considered sacred.  Others were profane.  If you grew up in this culture, you knew not to enter a gentile’s house if you planned to sit down at your mother’s passover table later that day.  This concept is foreign to us, as it would have been to Pilate, and I think that this helps us to understand the exchange between Christ the King and Pilate the governor.  Pilate seems perplexed, and eventually gets exasperated with Jesus, who won’t answer his questions.  For Pilate, the question “are you the King of the Jews?” had geographical importance.  Do you claim to be King of this territory, this land where I am governor, where Caesar is Lord?  If Jesus claims this land as his kingdom, Pilate has a case against him.  

But Jesus gives this cryptic answer: “My Kingdom is not from this world,” and it sounds as odd today as it sounded then.  We can almost see long haired, hippy Jesus saying, “my kingdom doesn’t obey the constraints of time and space man.”  We can understand Pilate’s frustration, but we have to see the backdrop.  Jesus is not the only one behaving strangely, by Roman standards.  Pilate also looks on as Jesus’ accusers stand at the edge of his steps, refusing to come in because of their odd ideas about space, time, the holy and the profane.  

Pilate is the governor of the Palestinian territories, and he can draw a map of the land under his charge, but where he sees rocks, trees, water rights and mineral resources, the Jewish people see something else.  They look at the map and they see the sacred stories of their ancestors.  They see places so holy that to enter them is to risk your life, and places so profane that walking through can send you into exile.  This is the reason the conflict in Israel/Palestine today is so intractable.  To the Jewish people, and to the Palestinian people, the land is enchanted.  Resources and stories are layered together in the contested sacred terrain.

Sunset on the Sandias
Sunset on the Sandias, New Mexico

When Jesus says, “My Kingdom is not of this world,” this is the backdrop.  Jesus speaks to Pilate, looking at the map of his territory, and Jesus sees another map, an enchanted landscape.  In Washington, we do not often have a strong sense of this enchantment, but I just came back from New Mexico.  I spent the week of Thanksgiving, as I often do, with my father’s family outside of Santa Fe, in that State they call the “land of enchantment.”  If you’ve never heard New Mexico called the “land of enchantment,” ask someone from New Mexico why they call the State by that name.  If they are anything like my dad, they will go on and on about the natural beauty, the sunsets, the food, the history, the native cultures, the history of the missions, the spirituality.  Maybe it is the thin air up there, but the people of New Mexico are really sold on their State.  The land is enchanted.

After awhile the enchantment grows on you.  When I stepped out of our rental car in Santa Fe that first night last week and caught the first whiff of that winter air, it was magical.  The air is literally fragrant with the smoke of piñon and the smell of mountain sage.  Religion and Ethics Newsweekly did a piece on Northern New Mexico a few years ago, remarking on the number of spiritual communities that have come to the high desert to set up camp.  Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Benedictines, Sufis, even some wild-eyed Presbyterians, they have all come to this enchanted land to find a “thin space,” a place where the veil between the material and the spiritual world is a bit thin.

Which brings us back to Pilate, and Jesus’ strange talk about his Kingdom not being of this world.  Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk has said of Jesus’ teaching of the Kingdom: “It is not the the Kingdom of God is not available to us, but that we are not available to the kingdom.”  We are not available to the Kingdom.  Pilate sure isn’t.  “What is truth?” he asks.  Pilate is a cynic.  How often do we cynically dismiss the spiritual side of life?  Cynicism is poison to faith.  Cynicism is poison to spiritual experience.  Cynicism is poison to love, and light, and hope.  Cynicism blocks out the Kingdom of Jesus.

If we follow Jesus’ logic, the kingdom of God is available, is not limited to a sacred space like Israel or New Mexico, is not limited to a specific time.  The Kingdom is available here, now.  Our world is enchanted, we’ve just been to busy to notice.
Here before Pilate, Jesus is vulnerable.  One of the hard truths of the spiritual life is that for the Kingdom of God to break through, we have to be broken open.  Sometimes that breaking open is painful, but we have to be broken out of our cynicism, out of our routine.  Jesus is a vulnerable king, and the way to his kingdom is through vulnerability.

Of course there are moments when the Kingdom breaks through, when it is so inescapable that we can’t fail to see Jesus’ reign.  Sometimes the poor are fed.  Sometimes the lame walk.  Sometimes the blind see.  Sometimes alcoholics recover.  Sometimes people finally ask for forgiveness from one another.  Sometimes forgiveness is given.  Sometimes political parties come together to get work done to help the vulnerable.  Sometimes people fall in love.  The Kingdom breaks through.

Where has the kingdom broken through in your life?  Have you glimpsed this other-worldly place of peace, of joy?  Sometimes Christ’s Kingdom breaks through, but I wouldn’t be here, you wouldn’t be here, week after week, if you didn’t think we could make our own approaches to the Kingdom of God.  Prayer, worship, giving, pilgrimage, there are many maps to Jesus’ Kingdom, many different spiritual practices that seek to bring us there.  Each of them seek to open us, to help us to glimpse the enchantment in each moment, to glimpse the map of Christ’s Kingdom each and every day.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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