Psalm 93, John 18:33 – 37, Revelation 1:4b – 8
As I’ve mentioned a few times over the years, I am an adopted child. When I was young, like kindergarten and first grade, I would wonder who my birth parents were. I would wonder to myself, “What if my birth mother is the Queen of England? What if I could be a king, or at least a prince or a duke or something?”
I don’t wonder that any more, but sometimes when I’m watching or reading something about royalty, either current day royalty or famous kings and queens in history, I do wonder what it’s like. I wonder what it’s like to have all those servants, and all those royal houses throughout the country, and does the king or the queen ever just wish they could sit around wearing a crown and eating pizza in their underwear or something?
I sometimes wonder what it would be like to meet someone like that. What would we say if for some reason the Pope came to worship here, or the President, or someone like that? What would we say? What would we do? How would we change what we usually do, and if we did would it would we somehow change the reason this famous person came to visit us? I’m sometimes not even sure what to say to the District Executive. If Gene Hagenberger is too much for me, how would I ever deal with President Obama?
There’s a story about Jim Thorpe. Thorpe was a Native American, and he was certainly the greatest athlete of his time, maybe of all times. He was an All-American football player in college, and he was a pro football star. He played six years in major league baseball. In the 1912 Olympics, he won the gold medal in the pentathlon and the decathlon – events that no one tries to do at the same time anymore. He was also fourth in the high jump and seventh in the long jump.
Back then all of the medals were presented at one time at the end of the Games. It is said that when Thorpe was being given his medals by King Gustav V of Sweden, the King said, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” Thorpe is said to have replied, “Thanks, King.”
I like that. Don’t worry about protocol. Don’t worry about whether he’s Your Highness or Your Excellency. Don’t worry about whether to bow or to kneel or to look him in the eye or to offer him a toast or to shake his hand. Just “Thanks, King.”
Thursday is Thanksgiving. Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent. And today is a special Sunday too! Today is Christ the King Sunday. It comes around every year, usually either on or just before the first Sunday of Advent. As holidays go, Christ the King Sunday is not a big deal – I don’t think any of us have tomorrow off to celebrate it. And as special days of the church go, days like Advent or Lent or something like that, here in the United States Christ the King Sunday isn’t nearly as big as some of those other days I mentioned. It started for Catholics back in 1925, and most Protestants began observing it around 1970.
I think it’s good that Christ the King Sunday is so close to Thanksgiving. I think the two go together. I think if we don’t recognize that Christ is King, we really can’t celebrate a true Thanksgiving.
You might think that our Gospel reading this morning is unusual to use just before Christmas. Christmas is the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life, and this reading comes from near the end of his earthly life. Jesus and Pilate talk about the nature of kingdoms, kingdoms that are of this world and kingdoms that are not of this world.
In Protestant theology, this is called “Two Kingdom theology.” It’s the belief that Christ’s kingdom, both the heavenly kingdom and the kingdom of God here, the church, is separate and distinct from the kingdom of the world, the political kingdom. For Anabaptists, which the early Brethren were, it goes a little further than that. Not only are they two different kingdoms, but the two kingdoms aren’t to interfere with each other. The state is supposed to stay out of matters involving the church, and the church is supposed to stay out of matters involving the state.
That’s why a lot of the early Brethren in the United States didn’t take part in the Revolutionary War. Not only was it wrong to kill, they believed, but it was wrong to get involved in matters of government. Let King George do what he was going to do, and let the colonists fighting him do what they were going to do. Either way, we’ll stay out of it and we’ll obey whoever wins as long as they don’t infringe on our practices and beliefs.
One of the formative stories for me about this kind of separation of the two kingdoms is the story of John Naas. Many of you may know this story from the children’s book “The Tall Man.” The story goes that back in the 1700’s the King of Prussia wanted John Naas to serve in his army, because Naas was tall and strong. When Naas refused, he was captured and tortured, to the point of being hung up by his thumb and his big toe. After this torture Naas was taken before the king, and asked if he would join the army. Naas said that he couldn’t, because he was already enlisted in the service of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. The king was impressed, and released John Naas, and eventually Naas came to America where he was one of the early leaders of the Church of the Brethren.
For a long time the Brethren didn’t vote, and for an even longer time they didn’t hold political office. Now, of course, it’s different. Most of us vote, some of us lobby the government on various issues, some of us work for the government; I don’t know if anyone here has run for office, but Brethren have served in political office. Some of us sometimes struggle with where we draw the lines between our citizenship in the kingdom of the world and our citizenship in the kingdom of God. I know that I do.
So Christ the King Sunday is important because it makes us think once again about what it is that we really believe, what it is about who we really serve, which kingdom it is that we really want to identify with.
I’ve thought about this some over the last week when I read the various arguments about whether we should accept Syrian refugees. I’ve read a lot of articles and watched a lot of Facebook debates, using the word “debate” very loosely. I also read Jesse’s excellent, excellent sermon from last week. If you weren’t here or if you have not read it, I encourage you to go to our website and check it out.
The debate is primarily on the level of what is best for our nation. There are some people who say that there is significant risk in taking in refugees from Syria. There are some folks who go over the top, but there are plenty of people who are rational and thoughtful about it. They believe that it is possible for terrorists to infiltrate the refugees, and that the risk of that happening is too great a risk for us to take. They recognize that not all of the refugees are Muslim, and they recognize that among those that are Muslim the ones who sympathize with ISIL or other terrorist organizations are a very small percentage, but they use the analogy of candy. If there are 100 pieces of candy and five of them are poison, would I scoop up a handful and eat?
The other side of that debate is that the risk of accepting the refugees is one that is worth taking. There are people who seem to deny any risk, but I think they are too optimistic. Even if there is a small risk, a blanket ban on Syrian refugees, or even worse accepting refugees who can prove that they are not Muslim plays into ISIL’s hands. It turns the war in Syria from a civil war among a variety of competing political and religious groups into a war against Islam. It makes the refugees and their families back home more hostile towards the United States, it runs a risk of radicalizing a significant number of them, and gives ISIL a huge propaganda victory and recruiting tool.
On a political level, I agree with the second position. I understand and respect that there are thoughtful and compassionate and faithful people who disagree with me. I would not scoop up the handful of candy, but I would take a piece and subject it to scientific examination to see if it is in fact poison, and if it isn’t then I’d eat it and start on another piece. That’s my “kingdom of this world” view.
The debate is not being held on a spiritual level. The debate is not being held with consideration of what it means to be a citizen of the kingdom of God. That’s not a surprise. Most people do not see the divide between the two kingdoms. The boundaries have become blurred as the church has often used the state to try to achieve worthy ends, and as the state is happy to co-opt the church whenever and wherever it can. Many Christians do not see a difference between being citizens of the United States and citizens of the kingdom of God, and to the extent they do they often choose to favor the United States because of the constitutional guarantees of religious and other freedoms that are provided here. I understand and respect that position too, and I have many friends who hold it. There are many Christian denominations that do not see a clear boundary between the two kingdoms.
But the debate about what is the Christian position on the refugees really isn’t happening, or if it is I haven’t seen it. That’s because if anyone seriously asks themselves what would Christ say, what would Jesus have me do, the answer is pretty clear. The Jewish people, God’s chosen people, were slaves and then later wandered in the wilderness as refugees for forty years. Jesus, Joseph and Mary were refugees. The kingdom of this world tried to kill baby Jesus by having the wise men scout out where he was, and the adult Jesus was killed by the Roman government, the kingdom of this world. The Bible’s stance on how you treat refugees is incredibly clear. That’s why it really isn’t part of the debate. No one who claims to be a Christian wants to come out and say, “I am choosing to ignore Jesus” or “I love my country more than I love my Lord.”
That’s why Christ the King Sunday is important. It reminds us of who Jesus really is. We often talk about Jesus as our Lord and Savior. We often act like Jesus is our Savior, and we are grateful for the gift of salvation. But is Jesus really our Lord? Is Jesus really our King? Christ the King Sunday says yes.
The message that Christ is king is throughout the Bible. We hear it in our Old Testament reading – The Lord is King! We hear it in other Old Testament books – listen to Daniel 7:13-14: “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” That’s Jesus, given his kingship and dominion by God long, long before the birth of the Christ child.
We hear the message at the very end of the Bible. In our reading from the Revelation it says that Jesus “loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.”
Jesus Christ is not king because you or I say so. Jesus Christ is king because that’s who he is, whether we recognize it or not. Jesus Christ is king because he says so.
I don’t know how King Gustav V felt about Jim Thorpe’s thanks. Maybe he was offended, maybe he smiled. I don’t know. I do know that Jesus would be pleased with it, if it’s not the end of our response but the beginning. If we say “Thanks, King” in word and in deed. If we can do that, then this coming Thanksgiving will be the beginning of a revolution. Not a revolution of terror, or of weapons, or of violence. It will be the beginning of a revolution of love. A revolution that will change the world. A revolution that will put the world where God intended it to be – as a part of Jesus’ Kingdom of love, and mercy and peace. May that day soon come. Amen.