Thy Kingdom Come


A sermon on John 18:33-38a

[For an audio file of this sermon, click here]

I want to start today by asking you a question, and it is a real question. I actually want you to answer me. Here goes:

Every week, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer together in preparation for Communion we include in our petition “thy kingdom come.” My question is, what do you mean by that? What are you praying for when you say “thy kingdom come?”

* * *

(take your time and think about it)

* * *

Maybe it’s just me, but I forget to ask myself that question the vast majority of the times that I speak those words in prayer. Most of us have probably prayed this prayer hundreds, if not thousands of times. And - even in the sincerity of prayer - that kind of familiarity can dull the meaning of our words.

Not to mention the lack of connection that the idea of a “kingdom” has to daily life. I don’t generally think about “kingdoms” much. My children have mostly outgrown fairy tales with their castles and kings. And I don’t think of my life being ruled by any kingdom.

But even though the word in a bit archaic, the question it addresses is not.

Power is still a reality that we can all recognize. And power is what we are really talking about when we talk about kingdoms…. Right? Who has the power… And how do they use it?

That’s what Jesus and Pilate were talking about in the short scene from today’s gospel reading.

Power is the reason why Jesus was brought to Pilate in the first place… it’s why the religious leaders wanted Jesus killed – because his message was a threat to their power – and it’s why they had to bring him to Pilate – because they didn’t have the power to order an execution.

And power was the only question Pilate cared about in his interrogation of Jesus. In the verses leading up to today’s reading the high priests bring Jesus to Pilate, but they have no specific charge to make. When Pilate asks for one, they simply bluster “if this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you” (John 18:30). So, Pilate supplies his own charge – the only charge he cares about – the charge of claiming a competing power to Pilate’s own.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” (Mark 18:33).

Pilate wants to know if Jesus is a threat. If he is making a claim to authority. And Jesus understands exactly what he’s doing. Jesus also understands the insecurity that lies behind the question, and he exposes it in his response:

Do you ask this on your own, or did other people tell you about me?”

In other words, is it your fear that’s driving you, or the people who brought me here?

That answer, in itself, was a challenge to Pilate’s power, because it put him on the defensive. But when Pilate blusters back in response, Jesus doesn’t press his advantage. He doesn’t point out the lack of charge or evidence and demand release.

Rather, Jesus shifts the foundations of the conversation. He rejects Pilate’s assumption that power is the important question and says that’s not what I’m about:

“My kingdom is not from this world…” (John 18:36), my followers aren’t using violence to defend me because I’m not here to exert control.[1] I’m not here to leverage my power.

Pilate can’t really process that response because it shatters his whole worldview – it rejects all of his assumptions about what matters. Jesus does not fit within the categories he understands.

How can someone be a king if he won’t use violence to assert his power?

What kind of kingdom looks like laying down your life?

Because that is where this is heading, and both Pilate and Jesus KNOW it. The religious leaders have brought Jesus to Pilate because only Pilate has the power to order Jesus’s execution. And if Jesus refuses to defend himself – whether with armed revolt by his followers, or with legal arguments that there is no crime to charge him with – then Jesus is going to end up on a cross.

Unfortunately, here is another example of familiarity dulling our consciousness of what we are really talking about. The cross is so ubiquitous in Christian worship that it tends to lose its horror. We wear crosses around our necks, and render them in stained glass windows, and we forget that they represent painful death.

Today, we have a chance to remember: At the end of the service, we are going to dedicate our new outdoor cross, and the new cross will be carried into the sanctuary, just as we carry in a cross on Good Friday.

I encourage you to look at the spikes in the cross beam, to recognize the torture they suggest. That is what Jesus is embracing when he talks to Pilate about his kingdom.

Not power… but self-sacrifice

Not the ability to impose violence… but the willingness to suffer in order to reveal God’s truth to those who will listen.

That truth is powerfully summarized in the book that our congregation studied this past summer (Inspired, by Rachel Held Evans). In considering the message of the cross Evans writes:

“God would rather die by violence than commit it. The cross makes this plain…. On the cross, Jesus chose to align himself with victims of suffering rather than the inflictors of it.”[2]

THAT is the kind of kingdom Jesus is claiming in this exchange with Pilate. A kingdom whose king joins the suffering in their pain, even to the point of death.

Of course, none of this makes any sense to Pilate. In an effort to reclaim control of the conversation, Pilate asks Jesus “what have you done?” and after saying what his kingdom is NOT, Jesus answers the question about what he has done: he has done what he came to do, what he was born into this world to do…“To testify to the truth” (John 18:37)

The truth that God chooses death over violence.

The truth that God aligns with victims of suffering rather than inflictors of it.

The truth that: “God so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten Son….” (John 3:16).

Jesus’s kingdom is NOT of this world, it is of God. It is defined by self-sacrifice and by love because that is what defines God.

And that has profound implications for us if we are to genuinely pray, “thy kingdom come.” As one commentator I read this week points out: “If we do accept that Jesus is the one who has come from God, if we are willing to listen to the truth he speaks, then one is no longer part of this world, but is part of the reign of God.”[3]

That is gospel – that is good news. But it is also deeply challenging, because it means we can’t live according to the rules of this world anymore… the rules of self-preservation, and of me, or my family, or my country first.

It means we have to accept an authority that is so much more profound than the kind of “power” Pilate wielded. Pilate had the power to have Jesus killed, but he couldn’t claim the authority of truth. That’s why he tried to shrug it off: “what is truth?” he scoffed in response to Jesus, but he didn’t stick around for the answer. He didn’t want to know.

Because truth shatters the illusions of power and cuts to the heart who we are, and what kingdom we really serve.

I started this sermon with a question, and I want to end with a few more, as a way to seek the truth of our relationship to God's kingdom.[4] When I encountered these questions this week, they challenged me, and they continue to do so as I wrestle with what it means to belong to Christ’s kingdom. May we all seek the truth in answering these questions:

Am I willing to accept Jesus as my king?

Do I live the hours and days of my life in the reign of God, following the servant king?

Do I live a life that reflects that service?

Do I reach out to the least and the lost?

Do I seek to serve rather than be served?

Do I testify to the truth of God, the truth that Jesus came to the world to bring love and forgiveness?

Am I a citizen of that kingdom, as is that the citizenship I hold most dear?

Do I live like I really want Christ’s kingdom to come?

Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Amen.

[1] This interpretation is elaborated by David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net/2015/11/christ-the-king-b-not-of-this-world/

[2] Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, Nashville: Nelson Books (2018), p. 77.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3885

[4] These questions are adapted from commentator Lucy Lind Hogan: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3885

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