“If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting,” says Jesus to Pilate. If my leadership, my government, my reign, were from this world, my followers would be fighting.
Deacon Chris asked us last week to keep track of the number of times our favorite news sources encourage us to be afraid – a revealing exercise, I thought – and we could probably do the same with the number of times our favorite news sources highlight fights or arguments. Those headlines like “so and so blasts opponents.” After all, outrage generates page views and adrenaline sells products. So we are all experts these days, I think, in what it looks like when leadership is from this world, and its followers are fighting.
You could raise the question, in this situation, of how wise it is for the church to choose a term that is rooted in political power to describe Jesus. But when we call Jesus a King, as we do today, we don’t mean that he’s no better than our earthly leaders. We mean he embodies the real definition of leadership as God designed it. So what is that kind of leadership? If we’re going to use potentially ambiguous words like “King” or “Lord,” what does the church’s tradition intend by them? What is Jesus’ leadership, and how is it unlike the world’s version of leadership?
There are several hints about that scattered through our second reading today. And I want us to try and mine these texts, and see what they have to tell us about why we can trust Jesus as our leader and how we, as Christians, can let him teach us to mirror his kind of leadership in our lives, and here as we all together make up Emmanuel church.
So let’s look at Revelation. How does it describe this Leader we follow? First, it says twice of Jesus that he “was, and is, and is to come.” This tells us that unlike political leaders whose perspective and skill is limited by their historical era, Jesus is eternal. There is no time to which Jesus’ leadership is irrelevant, there is no era with which he is out of touch. His reign was active in the year 1000, it remains active in the year 2015 and it will still be active in the year 3015 if there is one. The more we root our life as people and as Emmanuel church in him, in the essentials he has given us, rather than either chasing the latest fad or trying to replicate the way congregations may have done things in a different time or a different place, the less prone to being out of date or disconnected we will be.
Next: “He is the faithful witness.” What do witnesses do? Well, they watch, and then they testify, or speak the truth about what they see. Far from being a remote king, Jesus is present to us all the time, and he is ever ready to tell us the truth about ourselves and our lives if we will open up and listen. And he also has the best possible view of God’s ways and of God’s plan, about which he also is constantly testifying, trying to convince us it’s real and it works. Unlike political leaders, he has no mixed motives and no incentive to deceive: he speaks openly, and because of him so can we.
Going right on: “he is the first born of the dead.” Jesus has known the worst life has to offer and come through victorious on the other side. Which lends him a lot of credibility, if you ask me, because this is no Pollyanna leader. Jesus does not offer idealistic, pie in the sky promises. Christ the King has suffered and died; tragedy is no stranger to him, hatred is no stranger to him. He has confronted them head on, and come through them into a resurrected life, that new reality into which he is always trying to coax us to begin moving. We don’t have to hide our pain, we don’t have to try to control the world ourselves. In fact, if we let him, it is precisely those places of vulnerability that Jesus will use to open his risen life to us. If we let him, he will slowly make us people who are able to notice and love the least and the lost and the suffering because we know we are in no way superior; we have no need to pretend, any more than he did.
The next thing I want to highlight is actually a whole group of things. It says, “him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” Now what all these images have in common is that they point to a kind of leadership that is other-oriented, not self-oriented. A leader who loves you is different from a leader who loves their agenda. A leader whose top priority is to set you free is very different than a leader who plans to use you to get something they want. Jesus is the kind of leader who uses his power to empower others, who deliberately gives it away. Some of you may remember how amazed I was the first time I saw the altar dressed as it has been these past weeks, in the Sarum frontal that Jane Lemon, an artist from England, designed for Emmanuel. The frontal is meant to be an artistic statement of our vocation as a parish, our unique call from God, and we see right there in front of us a picture of both the way Jesus shares his power with us, his endless deep self-giving, and the result of it.
The life of God streams down from the tabernacle where we keep the Holy Eucharist, the real presence of Jesus among us. You see the rays of Jesus’ power coming forth, glistening with bright life and falling on us, Emmanuel, pictured as the field of wheat below. Everything comes from him; we have to start there. When we accept that power, it brings us to life first, and then as the wheat begins to grow, that same power begins to flow through us outward. You see, though, as you look at the frontal, that that divine life Jesus is pouring out to us has competition. The field is studded with red poppies, symbols of passivity and indifference. Christ is trying to share his power, but those poppies don’t really care. Still, slowly, as Jane Lemon wrote in her artist’s statement, “The wheat overcomes the poppies.”
And so the field comes to life. The wheat begins to flourish. And the love and power that came down from that Tabernacle can no longer be contained inside the field. They begin to move outward. The artist writes, “The (red) thorns which frame the altar frontal symbolize the problems which surround this city parish, (but) [t]he positive way the parish works with [the neighborhood] is reflected in the golden thorns, good coming out of evil.” I would invite you as you come forward today, to look at how subtly and realistically this aspect of Emmanuel’s call from God is shown. There’s no naïve triumphalism here; what you see is that slow, incremental change in people and energy and sense of mission that is a hallmark of the way Christ the King really works in real parishes. A little red poppy indifference remains on even some of the most golden sites; tiny streaks of gold are beginning to go to work in even the reddest and thorniest places. Because Jesus’ style is to act in you and me and through you and me, as ambivalent and limited as I am and you are. It is via this mixed and ordinary life we share that Jesus is acting, in specific and local and genuine ways, to implement his reign. To bring foretastes of the new heavens and the new earth here and now. It’s him who does it, Christ the King, “him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” We could not get a better picture of our call from God than that frontal.
And finally this last phrase at the end: “Every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.” An ordinary leader is limited to one time or place or political system, but Jesus is for everybody: offering himself to every nation, every creed, every language, every economic class, every stage of life, every kind of person. And as this passage implies, one day all will come face to face with his leadership. You can hold it at bay now, but not forever: every eye will see him, even those who pierced him with rejection, even those who scorned and dismissed him in life. So that is one final unique thing about Jesus: he is the only leader about whom we all eventually have to make a choice. You know, if you don’t want to make a choice about your mayor or whatever, just don’t vote. For most leaders we have the option of emulating the poppies and just not caring. But we can’t abstain from eventually having to decide: is Jesus my God, or not? Does he own me, or do I want to try and own myself?
If we accept Jesus, we are accepting a king who came to free us from the limits and manipulations of earthly power and set us free to be a kingdom and priests, serving his God and Father here at the corner of State and University. We are accepting a kind of leadership that isn’t afraid of honesty and vulnerability. We are accepting a way of life that puts others first rather than trying to get our own way. We are accepting someone who can, and if we let him, day by day will, make us into people who spread that golden life of God all around us, who bear faithful witness, people who know a kind of love that is all too rare in our world, the love God himself has poured out for us. We are accepting Christ the King, unto whom be all true power, glory, and dominion, now and to the ages of ages. Amen.