Christ and the Upside-Down Kingdom

November 22, 2015

Bible Text: John 18:33-37 |

So today we celebrate Jesus as Christ the King.

Now there’s something about kingship that can resonate deep within our spirits. I suspect it’s a yearning for what we glimpse in great legends and stories – of King Arthur and Braveheart and the Lord of the Rings – those noble characters who are courageous and strong, who stand up and fight for all that is right and true, regardless of the cost. And only then, when justice prevails, there comes the fitting pageantry of trumpets and feasting and regality.

These stories can trigger deep-felt yearnings for a better world. They have, in fact, become a prayer of sorts for many Christians over the years, giving voice to our hope in Christ who will conquer all evil and be praised for eternity.

When fascism was on the rise in Europe in the 1930s, the church first began celebrating “Christ the King Sunday” as a kind of defiant gesture in the face of Mussolini and Hitler, that only Christ is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords; that his is the triumph and the glory forever and ever, Amen.

And the thing is, it’s all true. Several places in the New Testament use these kinds of kingly metaphors to describe the triumph of Christ over sin and death.

The difficulty is, Jesus never used this language of himself. True though it may be in the cosmic sense, it can be dangerous for us followers of Jesus when we become too enamored of this vision of the kingly Christ. For this vision is based on the world’s terms and the world’s values of power and conquest and control. And Jesus never lived that way with us.

He never called himself a king; that was clear in his interaction with Pilate. Nor would he allow his disciples to fight for him like they wanted, for by so doing they would align themselves to the standards of the kingdoms of this world. Instead, Jesus stood alone before Pilate, with no visible power or force, prepared to give his life – and by so doing – to gain the life of the world.

Jesus never claimed to be king. But he often spoke of a kingdom to which he belonged, a kingdom unlike any other. When his disciples were jockeying for position of power, he told them,

[No. That’s how the world operates.] It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served – and then to give away his life (Mark 10:42-45, The Message).

The Kingdom of God is an Upside-down Kingdom that turns the way of world on its head. At its essence, it is about blessing the other rather than serving the self, regardless of the cost. This is especially the case when we consider the pursuit of justice. From Christ’s upside-down perspective, the pursuit of justice is not about penalization, but rather, restoration.

One form of justice is to stop the aggressor from inflicting evil on the innocent and the vulnerable, even when doing so means putting your own safety at risk. But, of course, the hideous irony in this is that doing so usually requires taking up the same weapons of evil that the enemy is using to inflict evil, and thus becoming complicit in evil yourself. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, chose to participate in an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. He felt it his duty as a German Christian to stand up for justice by killing the Fuhrer. But it was a tormented decision, because by his own ethics he knew himself to be committing sin – destroying an image-bearer of God, distorted though he may be. And as such, he felt himself worthy of God’s condemnation, and so he prayed with earnest lament, Forgive me, Lord, and have mercy on my soul.

And in these days when ISIS is trying to provoke the west into warfare, and thus fulfill their twisted expectations of the end times, our government and military is locked in a Catch-22. To engage them in battle is to participate in their objectives. And history has shown us again and again that warfare begets warfare. But to ignore them is to permit injustice and violence to spread. I don’t know what the answer is, and earnestly encourage you to pray for our leaders, that they would be led in paths that lead to justice.

But there is another face of justice, and that is the one that will stand for the victims of evil with defiant acts of mercy and compassion. Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch Christian in World War II whose family sheltered over 800 Jews fleeing the Third Reich. Despite the enormous risk, her family persevered in living God’s Upside-down Kingdom. Eventually they were caught. The arresting soldiers pleaded with Corrie’s father, Old man, if you will promise to stop doing this we will let you free. And he replied with conviction, I will always open my door to anyone in need.

As I think about the Syrian refugee crisis and the fervor that’s erupted this week in the United States, I must believe that a Christian ethic insists on showing mercy to the refugee, even if it is risky and costly. It is an unequivocal theme in scripture. It grieves me to see how the debate is splitting on partisan lines. But I am encouraged to read reports that Christian organizations in America, which have previously fallen into opposing partisan camps, are standing in solidarity on this issue. As we enter into this holiday season, it bears reminding that Thanksgiving is a holiday that celebrates the survival of refugees who’d fled political and religious persecution, and that our Christmas story ends with the Holy Family fleeing as political refugees as well. If we will celebrate these stories in history, must we not choose to honor them in the way we live the present?

Corrie Ten Boom told her story in the book, The Hiding Place. And in these days when the news is filled with threat and fear I’ve decided it’s time to reread her story – to turn my soul towards one who knew full well the reality that surrounded her, yet chose instead the path of Christ. It’s not just her actions I want to recall, but her spirit I want to feel – a spirit that saw the world through the eyes of Jesus.

Fearsome times call, not merely for patriotic bravado, but for genuine courage. As we all know, courage is only truly courageous in the face of actual fear. Otherwise, it’s only so much propaganda and bluster.

Fear is normal; it’s part of our reptilian brain. We are, after all, creatures like any other. Built into us is an instinctive reflex to “fight or flight”. But unlike the other creatures, we are also created as the Imago Dei, the Image of God – which means that fear is not the final word for us. What begins in fear must move towards faith – even when that is a fearful calling.

The movement towards faith is neither flight nor fight, but a positioning of ourselves behind Jesus. Like the child on the playground who cries to his tormentors that he’s going to go get his big brother, we need to get behind Jesus. Let him be our big brother.

But this is where the kingship language of Jesus becomes tricky. The kingdoms of this world rejoice when defeating an enemy. And the temptation is always to merge a nation’s political prowess with the heart and will of God. But what we have learned in Christ is that – though he stands in the face of all evil – his compassion also extends to all people. And the ultimate expression of his power and authority was not destruction, but forgiveness.

So when we get behind Jesus, we want him to defend us and all people from evil. And we also need him to do that harder work: Forgive them, Lord, and all their evil. And forgive the evil that resides us. It’s too hard to do alone. So do this work for us, and keep us safe in you.

And then, if we want to maintain our security in Christ our brother and king, then we must keep moving wherever he moves – even when it is into scary places.

Whenever I take my dog Marty out for a walk he’s usually several feet ahead of me. When we come to a fork in the trail he’ll head one way or the other. But as soon as he sees which path I’ve taken, he’ll always come rushing to catch up with me, with this bright, eager look on his face, as if he’s saying, Oh wow! I didn’t know we were going on THIS trail! Let’s go! and he takes off. And I always think to myself, I wish I were more like Marty. I’ve got my own plans and my own agenda for each day. And it’s not to say that they aren’t reasonable plans and agendas, but they’re by no means filled with all wisdom and insight and graciousness. I’d like to be more like Marty, that when I see Jesus leading us on a different path, I’d just come rushing up to join him there, eager to be where Jesus is, doing as Jesus does.

In these days I think it’s especially needful – everyday – to have a heightened attentiveness to where Jesus is taking us. Who are we loving today, Jesus? How are we making peace today? What acts of deliberate, upside-down-kingdom-love are we committing today? It is when we are most apt to pull into ourselves in fear that we must choose the defiant gestures of faith that insist, Fear shall not reign. For that is not the Kingdom Jesus showed us.

We cannot live a worldly life, by its standards of power and control, while claiming hope of a different kind of heavenly kingdom. Christianity has always insisted that the salvation we hope for in the life to come be lived out in our midst today. That is why Christ taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” If you dream of a heaven where the lion lies down with the lamb and the child can play over the hole of the asp, then the choices we make today must be forging such a world.

There is certainly risk in following Christ. But should we choose this path, there’s even greater joy. How could it be otherwise, if our lives are aligning with the God of all truth and all mercy?

 

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