Following Christ the King

November 20, 2018
John 18:33-38a
Rev. Alice Fleming Townley

The year was 1935, and young Howard Thurman chaired a delegation to foster friendship between students from American and students from India, Burma and Ceylon.  As they traveled, there were conferences, dinners, and outings, but it was one late night conversation in Ceylon, after everyone else had left the room, that long stayed with Howard Thurman.

The young man asked how Thurman could be Christian.  “How could you, more than 300 years ago your forefathers were taken from Western Africa as slaves.  The men who trafficked and bought the slaves were Christians. . . Christian ministers quoting apostle Paul, preached supporting slavery. . . You live in a Christian nation in which you are segregated, lynched and burned.  Even churches are segregated. . . I am Hindu,” said the young man.  I do not understand how you can be a Christian as a black man in America.  Their ensuing conversation lasted for 5 hours and stayed with him for years.

Howard Thurman explained that he was Christian, because of the Jesus he knew and loved.   First, he shared, Jesus was a Jew of Palestine, born into the covenant God had with Israel.   When Christianity cuts itself off its Jewish heritage, it ceases to understand Jesus.  Second, Jesus was a poor Jew.  When Jesus was born, his parents had no place to lay him—but a borrowed manger.   “The masses of people are poor.”  Jesus became more fully the Son of Man in his poverty.  And finally, “Jesus was born a member of a minority group in the mist of a larger dominant and controlling group.”  In 63 B.C. Palestine fell into the hands of the Romans.  From this date on, the Jewish holy land and holy places were desecrated, and the Jewish people forced to pay for it with crippling taxes.  Herod became a symbol of shame and humiliation for all of Israel.[i]

To understand Jesus, Thurman explained, you must know Jesus was a poor Jew under Roman occupation.  “Jesus became the word and work of redemption for the cast-down of every generation. . . That Christianity became, a religion of the powerful and the dominant, and sometimes used as weapon, must not tempt us into believing that was the mind and life of Jesus. ‘In him was life; and the life was the light of men.’ Wherever Jesus spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred . . . need have no dominion over them.”[ii]

Today is Christ the King Sunday, a day to meditate and reflect on Jesus.  In 1925, Pope Pius XI declared this holy day.  1925 was a tumultuous time.  One World War had ended, and the currents of the next were moving.  Economies were shifting. Powers and kingdoms were rising and falling and vying for followers.  Fascism, and anti-Semitism were spreading in Europe.  To proclaim Jesus was King, was an act of resistance, and an affirmation of the distinct voice we follow as Christians.  And it was a day to renew courage.  “Lift up one’s eyes to the hills, from whence cometh our strength. Our help comes from the one who made heaven and earth.”  (Psalm 121)

The gospel reading for this Christ the King Sunday comes from the passion narrative in John.  The creating, abiding Word became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus.  He was rejected and betrayed even by his own people.   Perhaps it was from reaching out to those turned away, healing the sick, caring for children, challenging rigid interpretations of religious law, and trusting God more than idols of wealth and privilege.  Perhaps Jesus excited the crowds more than what was ‘safe’ for those who were supposed to stay in line.  Perhaps he was not the Messiah that some had hoped would come as a warrior on a great horse and violently overthrow the Romans and restore Israel to its glory.  Perhaps suspicion, and rage are contagious when people do not think for themselves.  The Jewish authorities handed Jesus over to the Romans for crucifixion.

Somehow Jesus knew this would happen.  Before his arrest, Jesus prayed.  Jesus prayed blessing and strength into his followers.  Jesus drew from his intimate connection, oneness, with God.  Jesus prayed they would know this oneness with God and each other.

Pilate interrogated Jesus, “Who are you Jesus?  Are you the King of the Jews?” and Jesus responded with a question for him.  “Are you saying who people tell you I am, or who you know me to be?”

Pilate repeated, “So are you a King?”

“My kingdom is not of this world. . . Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

Jesus received Pilate’s questions calmly with more questions, inviting him to wonder, to go deeper, and to engage.  Something in this exchange drew Pilate.   After his time with Jesus, Pilate wanted to release him.  “No,” cried the crowds.  “Crucify!”

“Then you do it, not me.”

And Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified.

Jesus at the cross stayed authentic, steadfast and true to his core.  He drew on a strength not of this world, but from his oneness with the Holy.  The Word continued in the broken flesh.  Even on the cross, Jesus was loving and making new, connecting his beloved disciple and mother into a new family; and forgiving the criminal who hung next to him, inviting him into Paradise.  And in Jesus’ resurrection, he bore witness that there is nothing, no persecution or even death, that can separate us from the power of God’s love.

Howard Thurman developed that late-night conversation with the Hindu man in Ceylon into a book, Jesus and the Disinherited. It was the book that his student and family friend, Martin Luther King, Jr. kept in his pocket for so long, he knew it by heart.  In the book Thurman also reflected on the story of the woman caught in adultery who was brought to Jesus. She was brought to Jesus with ‘no name,’ with no perceived ‘value,’ no ‘humanity.’

“The law says she should be stoned, what is your judgement?”

Jesus said,

“Let he who has not sinned throw the first stone.”

One by one the men left.  Thurman said that in doing this,

“Jesus placed a crown over her head which for the rest of her life she would keep trying to grow tall enough to wear.  Free at last, free at last.  Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.”[iii]

Ginger Gaines-Cirelli is pastor at Foundry United Methodist Church, in Washington DC.  Foundry has historically been a church of prophetic witness, but as she says, recent months have pushed her to live her faith more deeply and courageously.   The support of her congregation, and staff have helped her tremendously in this. The title of her recent book caught my attention: Sacred Resistance.   Putting those two words together suggests that the work of resistance is a holy calling, an act of faith.

“Sacred resistance is anything—any word, deed, or stance—that actively counters the forces of hatred, cruelty, selfishness, greed, dehumanization, desolation, and disintegration in God’s beloved world.”[iv]

This is the work that Jesus did and calls us to join.  Jesus calls us to be in the world God loves.

And we, in the world hear and see and struggle with so much systemic injustice and human cruelty, some of it done even in the name of Christianity.  At times we weep, and we wonder what to do, or if there is anything we can.  A few weeks ago, Imam Sohail, Pastor Rob and I sat around a table in the fellowship hall, grieving the recent anti-Semitic and anti-refugee shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue.  “We must do something,” encouraged Imam Sohail.  And so, we began to brainstorm ways to offer support our friends, our area rabbis.

In response to the prayer vigil that followed, a letter from Steve Flaster appeared in the Lansing State Journal. “I am a Jewish man, and I am still reeling from what happened in Pittsburg on a recent Saturday morning.  What gives me comfort is that I believe it is not just the Jewish community who is outraged. . . On Thursday, November 1 . . . there was an inter-faith service at my Jewish synagogue, Congregation Shaarey Zedek, to commemorate the Pittsburgh massacre.  Every seat was taken, and in addition, hundreds of people stood through the service.  Every parking space in our large parking lot was filled, and people had to settle for parking spaces across the road and walk through the pouring rain to get to the synagogue.  These weren’t just our congregational members.  They were members of religious houses of worship throughout the Lansing area including many forms of Christianity and Islam.  Their leaders occupied places of honor along with our Rabbi and participated in the service.  It was both a sad evening and a wonderful one.  Wonderful because the good people of all faiths were there with us to share our pain.  It was an excellent example of how different groups should support each other when disaster strikes one of them. . . Wherever I go, wherever I live, I will believe that good will triumph over evil if we all band together to comfort those who have been attacked and if we all stand together to fight evil.”[v]

On this day, as Christians, we affirm the way, the truth, and the life that we follow.  As Howard Thurman reminded us, we remember who Jesus was, a poor Jew who lived under Roman occupation.  In Jesus, the Word of God became flesh.  Jesus came along side, taught, fed, healed, suffered with, questioned, and made new.  Jesus stayed true, even during suffering and death.  In Jesus resurrection, we saw God’s life-giving power triumph.  As Christians, we have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, with other Christians across time and place, age, class, gender and race.  We remember our baptismal blessing, of God’s Holy Spirit filling us, continuing to breathe in us, to abide in us.   On this day we affirm our baptismal vow to resist evil in whatever form it presents itself.  We affirm our calling to be the body of Christ, the hands and feet and voice of Jesus in our world. Let us gather fresh courage.  Let us live and share the good news with the world. . . that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred have no dominion over us.[vi]

Free at last, free at last.  Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.[vii]

[i] 3-8, Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited

[ii] 18-19, Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited

[iii] 95-96, Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited

[iv] 1, Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, Sacred Resistance

[v] Steve Flaster,”Lansing Interfaith Community is Comforting in Wake of Pittsburgh Attack,”  Lansing State Journal, November 11, 2018.

[vi] 18-19, Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited

[vii] 95-96, Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited