Church of the King!
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
In last Sunday’s Gospel reading, we heard about Jesus predicting the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Recall that as they left the Temple mount, Jesus’ disciples expressed their admiration for what was, truly, one of the wonders of the world in those days. ‘Look, Teacher! What wonderful stones and buildings!’ they exclaim; but Jesus answers: ‘You see these great buildings? Not a single stone here will be left in its place; every one of them will be thrown down.’ And about 40 years later, it came to pass, as the Temple and the city were destroyed by the Romans after a terrible siege.
Just a few days after that conversation Jesus had about the Temple been destroyed. Jesus has been arrested, and put on trial. The first trial was before the religious authorities, and what might have been a mangled version of his conversation about the Temple with his disciples has been used in evidence against him. Matthew’s Gospel tell us that, ‘Finally two men stepped up and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to tear down God’s Temple and three days later build it back up.'”‘ (Matthew 26.61). On such tenuous evidence of blasphemy, the Jewish Council condemns Jesus and hands him over to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
The vital question comes is when Pilate asks ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ For Pilate is not especially interested in the theological disputes which have brought Jesus to this situation. His concern is with politics and power- the world he knows about. So he asks about kingship. He wants to know if Jesus is setting himself up as a king. The Roman Emperor already allows someone to call themselves the King of the Jews- King Herod gets to rule part of Israel, but he’s a puppet king, who rules only because the Roman Emperor allows him. Anyone else calling themselves ‘King of the Jews’ is clearly a rebel, thinks Pilate. If Pilate can get Jesus to call himself a king, then he has a legal reason to execute him. It would mean that Jesus was setting himself up as a leader of a rebellion against Rome.
For Pilate is struggling here. He can’t quite see what to do about this man. ‘What have you done’, he asks Jesus at one point. ‘Are you a king’ he asks again. To which Jesus answers in ways Pilate just can’t understand: ‘My kingdom is not of this world… You say that I am a king… I came into the world to speak about the truth’. Pilate, whose only king and god is the Emperor, is frustrated and puzzled. He’s trying to understand this kind of kingship. But to know the truth, Pilate would have had to listen to Jesus: ‘Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me’, says Jesus.
Today there are many people who are still puzzled by the followers of Jesus. And today, as has always happened, the Kingdom of Christ and the kingdoms of this world encounter each other daily. The fact that Christ ended up on trial for his life before the Roman governor should remind us that relationship between Christ- and his followers- and the world of power and politics is never simple. ‘What is truth?’ people ask… and then, like Pilate, don’t wait for an answer. For it turns out that to hear the truth, they would have to listen to Christ.
Our world loves power; but in the Kingdom of God, the last are first and the first are last. The world loves wealth and profit, but in the Kingdom of God it’s about respect for love of neighbour people and care for creation. The world loves glamour and celebrity, but the Kingdom values humility. The world thinks that we can understand everything in purely physical and material terms, but those who live in Christ’s kingdom know that God cares for the sparrow and makes the rain fall on good and bad alike. The values of the Kingdom of God often oppose the values by which the kingdoms of this world are governed. So, of course, there’s conflict.
Later in this trial, an exasperated Pilate cries, ‘Remember, I have the authority to set you free and also to have you crucified’. Poor Pilate- he thinks he has all the power. But Jesus answers Pilate: ‘You have authority over me only because it was given to you by God’. This claim, from man who’d just been whipped and beaten, and who is about to go to his death by crucifixion, is the most scandalous claim of all. For Jesus is asserting that it is God, and God’s values, which will ultimately triumph. Pilate cannot make head or tail of this. He washes his hands of him, and Christ goes to the gallows.
It is easy for us in the Church of today to feel powerless, hopeless, in the face of all that is against us. And yet: Christ is King. And this is the Church of the King. Before Pilate, Christ looked powerless. But he still spoke the truth, even if Pilate did not want to hear it. Friends, that is the place where the Church is today. Whenever people say, ‘What is truth?’ the answer is still Jesus Christ, whether they stop to listen or not. He’s the King, whether they know it or not. The values of God will ultimately succeed, whether they wish it or not. And so our purpose, as followers of Christ today, is to continue to stand for truth and love and hope and all these great values which are so often ignored. But how can we do it?
As I prepared for this Sunday, I did something I’ve never done before. I chose as one of this Sunday’s readings a passage we read last week. That’s because as I pondered it, it seemed to speak to me. For in recent weeks, we have been wondering together about what it means to be the Church in this time and place. How best can we, as a congregation, be faithful to Christ, both now and in the future? This has been our Future Focus, and we will be continuing to focus on the future in the weeks ahead.
Within forty years of Jesus’ death, Rome collided with God, and God seemed to come off worse. The Temple- and Jerusalem, the city of God- was destroyed. The Letter to the Hebrews is one reaction to that event. It’s a letter written to Christians who had Jewish origins. For them, as for all Jews, the loss of the Temple- their spiritual home- would have been like a terrible bereavement. So he writes to them in their crisis. And the passage we reread this Sunday talks about three ways for the Church to respond to crisis, to strengthen us and help us keep the faith.
Firstly, Hebrews exhorts us, to ‘hold in firmly to the hope we profess, because we can trust God to keep his promise’. Hope is an important Biblical word. But too often in the Church, we don’t really take it seriously. We live in an age when the rate of change, in the Church and in society, has been so great that it leaves many people hankering back to imagined past, when things were so much better, of course! It’s a great temptation to look back and remember the days when churches were full and Christianity had much more influence than today. But there’s no hope in that kind of attitude. It’s just wallowing in nostalgia. And if we do have that kind of attitude when we try to move forward as a Church, we’ll be crippled, for the best we will be able to imagine is that we can somehow get the Church to how it once was.
Hope, however, points us to the future. Hebrews says we should hold onto the hope ‘because we can trust God’. Hope and trust are closely related. You see, the trouble with the future is that we don’t know what it’s going to be like. But if we trust God, we can depend on it that whatever the future looks like, it’ll be God’s future. Hankering back to the past is not trusting God. Hope involves trusting that God will make the future- we trust God with the future, because he’s promised to go into the future with us!
The next chapter of Hebrews offers a famous definition of faith: ‘To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see’. We cannot see the future; but if we claim to have faith, then we’ll also have hope, because we’re certain God will be there, even in the future which we cannot yet see. So in this age of great change, as we ponder the future of our congregation, and as we inevitably have concerns about the state of Christianity as a whole: one thing we cannot do is to lose hope. The Jewish Christians must have been tempted to lose hope, as they saw Jerusalem and its Temple destroyed. And so this letter to the Hebrews says to them- and to us, as we face world-shattering and faith-shaking events- don’t give up on hope!
The second principle which the writer of Hebrews recommends to Christians is this: ‘Let us be concerned for one another, to help one another to show love and to do good’. Showing love and doing good is what, I think, ought to set Christians apart. That’s why Christians have, over the centuries, been ‘do-gooders’, trying to make the world better. Ian Hislop recently presented a documentary TV series on the Victorian do-gooders who worked to reform prisons, end child labour and abolish slavery. Again and again, he pointed out how so many of these famous reformers were inspired by their Christian faith- people like Wilberforce and Dr Barnardo. Yet nowadays, being called a do-gooder is almost a term of reproach. We’re suspicious of attempts to make life better for others. But be do-gooders- that’s what the letter to the Hebrews says to those early Christians.
It means, also, that we are to look after one another. At our Kirk Session conference earlier this year, we decided to try to find ways of improving the way we care for each other in this congregation. We’re looking at how we can make sure that we all feel we are looking after each other: being ‘concerned for one another’, as Hebrews puts it. Sometimes we get caught up in structures and organisational matters in the Church. We can forget that we are all supposed to be concerned for one another. That means that we are there for each other, that we share our joys and sorrows, that we know that we can turn to others in the Church when we need to. And all that goes to strengthen our life together, and, I think, makes a better impression on the world around us. In the first few centuries after Christ, it was said that the pagans sometimes said, ‘Look how these Christians love one another’ (quoted by Tertullian: ODQ 802.9). And how and whether we truly care for one another will always make an impact on the world around us. So in our day, too, we need to be doing good in the world, and ensuring that we make the children’s hymn ring true:
The Church is wherever God’s people are loving,
where all are forgiven and start once again,
where all are accepted, whatever their background,
whatever their past and whatever their pain.
The better we care for one another, the better we will be fitted to be faithful Christians and a Church which can continue to hold out the truth about Jesus Christ.
Now, of course, the first verse of that hymn begins ‘The Church is wherever God’s people are praising’. Which brings me to the third important point in this text from Hebrews. It’s an interesting sentence: ‘Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing’.
Recall that back then, there were no church buildings- the meetings were in people’s homes. And by meeting, we don’t mean a Board or a Session or a committee meeting. What’s referred to here is the meeting for worship- the most important meeting of all. The writer of Hebrews urges that Christians should not ‘give up the habit’ of meeting together regularly for worship… ‘as some are doing’. I’d love to know who the ‘some’ were, and why they had apparently given up. Was their faith so shaken by the destruction of the Temple that they had abandoned the Church? Were they finding that they wanted to do other things when the Church was meeting? Had they found another religion among the many in the Roman Empire, one which was sexier and more exciting than Christianity? We don’t know, all these centuries later, who these people were, and why they stopped coming. But what we do know is that coming to worship- staying in the ‘habit of meeting together’ is essential to a healthy Christian faith.
For worship is an encouragement (or at least, it ought to be). When people fall out of the way of worshipping, then they usually soon stop being Christians in any meaningful way. I know that would find it hard to keep the faith if it were not for worship. If you want to see where the Church is, then- ‘The Church is wherever God’s people are praising’. All else flows from that.
In the face of Pilate’s hostility Jesus did not respond with hostility. But he quietly and courageously bore witness to the truth. How do we bear witness in a hostile world? Hebrews suggests: hold firmly to our hope, we show concern for one another and our neighbours, and we continue to be in the habit of meeting for worship. That sounds to me like a picture of a faithful Church.
Today we meet together around the Lord’s Table. And here, in ways we can hardly put into words, we are reminded of all that the Gospel is about. Here we encounter God, in hope and trust and faith. Here we share bread and wine with one another, just as we are to share love and do good for one another. Here is the best encouragement of all: the body and blood of Christ, given for us, so that we might be strengthened to be his faithful people: Christ’s body in our world.
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2012 Peter W Nimmo