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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

Christ the King Sunday

November 25, 2018

 When Jesus Is King

2 Samuel 23:1-7; John 18:33-37

            It is not unusual for a child to grow so frustrated, or so hurt, or so angry that he or she decides to run away from home.  Even Opie Taylor, with the perfect father, on the Andy Griffith Show, decided once to run away from home.  Usually, pronouncements are made, and important items are gathered, maybe some food is stowed away.  For many years, the prevailing wisdom offered by professionals was that parents should engage their child in conversation, acknowledge their frustration, then discuss with them logically where they would go, how they would support themselves, how they would actually live on their own.  Eventually, of course, this wisdom believed, the child would come around, feelings would subside, and the plan to leave would be forgotten.  That is how it worked out with Opie and his father, Andy!

            But I have read that now there is an alternate response being commended by family therapists when children decide to run away.  Parents are now simply to say “No, you can’t run away, because we are family; we belong to one another, and when people belong to one another, they stay together.”

            I like this response for all kinds of reasons, because belonging is such a crucial part of living a fulfilling life.  And belonging is at the very heart of this exchange that takes place in John’s Gospel between Pilate and Jesus.  Pilate is the Roman Governor trying to resolve an issue that is not at all of his own making.  The Jewish authorities know what will rankle the Roman authorities into doing their bidding.  And ever since Jesus of Nazareth rode into town on a donkey to a frenzied crowd, and proceeded to overturn the tables outside the Temple, they want rid of Him.  They do not have the authority to do this, so they appeal to Rome to do for them what they cannot do.  They charge that Jesus claims to be king of the Jews.  To Rome, there can only be one king, and that is Caesar.  So Pilate asks Jesus flatly, “Are you the king of the Jews?”  Jesus then takes control of the conversation.  “Do you ask this yourself, or did others say this of me?”  Pilate says, “I am not a Jew am I?”

            Jesus then says that His kingdom is not of this world – it is not a political one.  Ironically, Jesus’ answer is what any faithful Jew would say.  It is as if Jesus is saying, “My kingdom is the kingdom of God.”  He is led by the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”  Pilate is frustrated by Jesus’ answer, just as he is frustrated by the whole affair.  But what Jesus is saying is important for us to catch: “I belong to God, and my ultimate allegiance is to the kingdom of God.”  Jesus’ understanding of king and kingship is different from Pilate’s.  Gerald Sloyan is a New Testament scholar, and he makes the point that to Jesus, kingship refers to “the sphere of belief in Him who came into the world to testify to the truth.”  It is this truth, to which Jesus testifies, to which Jesus belongs, and embodies, which makes Him king.  Jesus belongs to God, and as such, if He is king, He serves God’s kingdom.

            The question of belonging is a crucial question for human beings.  A number of years ago, in the 1990’s, Robert D. Putnam, a Professor of Government at Harvard, wrote a book called, Bowling Alone.  Putnam noted the proliferation of bowling alleys and bowling leagues in post-World War II America.  It was a social phenomenon.  Then in the 1970’s and 1980’s, bowling leagues abated, and so did bowling alleys.  Fewer and fewer Americans bowled, and when they did, they bowled alone, and not in leagues.  Putnam’s book was not about bowling, though.  It was about the breakdown of community in American life.  He saw television and the mass media as culprits – we had not even yet entered the digital age, where social media emerged as the most disingenuously, dishonestly named entity in American life.  It ought to be called “lonely media,” or “isolating media”!

            Anne Lamott is one of my favorite writers.  In her recent book, Almost Everything, chapter 4 is titled “Unplugged.”  May I read you the entire chapter?  It consists of one sentence: “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”

            We are losing the sources that feed community and form crucial bonds of belonging.  The decline of church attendance in virtually every kind of church in our country is but one sign of this.  And lonely, alienated people do very scary, destructive things.  Perhaps you have noticed!

            Last January, Adam and I spent four days in California at Fuller Theological Seminary at a seminar on innovation in ministry.  The Fuller Youth Institute is in many ways the brain child of Kara Powell, one of the church’s most fertile thinkers in American life.  Kara believes people – all people, but especially adolescents and young adults – must ask three crucial questions, that touch on what Jesus referred to as truth.  Those questions are: Identity – “Who am I?”  Belonging – “Where do I belong?  Who are my people?”  And Purpose – “Why am I here?  What are my compelling reasons for living?”

            Powell says that all people have to find answers to these questions – Identity, Belonging and Purpose – to live meaningful, generative lives.  And all three sets of questions are related, dependent upon one another.  You cannot answer them in isolation, or answer only two of three.  Powell believes Jesus offers the best means to answer all three – by claiming your baptismal identity, as Jesus claimed His.  By belonging to the Church, the body of Christ, the community of faith, where we find ourselves encouraged to ask and answer vocational questions – or callings – believing that God has created us for reasons related to our gifts and graces.  The Church is one of the only places left where people are encouraged to consider who God is calling them to be, and that God in fact is personal, and has a plan, a purpose, for our lives.

            The call of Christ to be a beloved, chosen son or daughter of God is always the call to belong – to be part of a larger community.  The reign of God is larger than any individual.  We need each other to figure out who we are meant to be.  And this need for each other is actually one of the very best things about being Christian.  We do not have to pretend we are self-sufficient, or self-made, or independent.  None of us are!  We are all, beneath the surface, little boys and girls in need of love, of God’s love, and of each other’s love and support.

            Jesus said, “A new commandment do I give unto you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”  This is the heart of the truth Jesus embodied as the Word made flesh, “full of grace and truth.”   And when Jesus is king, love reigns.  Truth is honored, even revered.  Especially Biblical truth.  And we are brought together into communities of belonging, where people discover in community what it means to use their gifts to serve God and the common good – “to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”  Trust me: it beats bowling alone!


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