Belonging to the Truth
November 23, 2003
There is an old Chinese tale about an emperor who wished to groom a young child to be his successor. Therefore he devised a test. He invited all of the children of the kingdom to the palace and to each of them he gave a clay pot filled with dirt and a single seed. He said to the children, “This seed will determine your future. You are to take it home and plant it, water it, and care for it. In one year bring your pot back to show me the fruits of your labor.” Now among the children who came that day was a young boy by the name of Ling. He took his pot home and planted the seed. He carefully watered it and placed it where it could receive the sun. But nothing happened. Even after months of care, his pot remained barren. So when the time came to return to the palace, Ling did not want to go. But his mother said, “Ling, you have nothing to be ashamed of. You did exactly what you were told. Go and show the emperor your pot.” So Ling went.
When he came to the palace he was amazed at the beautiful flowers and plants that filled the pots of all the other children. When the emperor came in he surveyed the entire scene and his eye landed on Ling’s barren pot. “What is your name young man?” the emperor said. “Ling, sir.” Then the emperor bowed to Ling. He addressed the other children, “A year ago I gave to each one of you a pot and a seed which had been boiled so there was no way it would ever grow. Yet, when I come here today, I see pots filled with all the plants of my kingdom. Master Ling alone among all of you was the only one who had the integrity and the honesty to bring back the barren pot, even though by doing so he risked ridicule and rejection. Living with honesty and truth is difficult; but it is also a sign of greatness. Therefore, let us now all bow to Master Ling, the next emperor of our kingdom.”
Living in the truth is not easy. It requires courage to face what is real in our lives and to respond to that reality wisely. More importantly living in the truth is not primarily about refusing to lie to others. It is chiefly about refusing to lie to ourselves. Those who live in the truth refuse to live a lie. Because living a lie can not only hurt us; but can, in time, destroy us. All of us are aware how strong emotions can upset and disturb us, so sometimes we choose to live the lie of serenity, even as deep forces churn within us. Upright persons, however, face the emotions that are present in their lives and admit: I am angry, I am fearful, I am unhappy. The honesty in facing those emotions can lead us to discover what is causing such strong feelings and perhaps resolve them. But living in silence, keeping our emotions quiet is living a lie. It is not living in the truth.
All of us want to live in peaceful and happy families with good relations with every one. So sometimes we choose to ignore the real problems that are present in our families and in our relationships. If we experience abuse, whether it be verbal or physical, if there is someone who is manipulating us with shame or fear, if there are resentments in our relationships that push us apart, we can choose to ignore those problems. We provide excuses, saying “That’s just the way things are. There is nothing wrong. There is nothing that I need to face.” But in making that choice, we are letting those problems in our life strangle us. We are not living in the truth.
All of us want to be independent, want to be in control of our lives. So sometimes we choose to live a lie, ignoring that there are forces controlling us. We can be addicted to food, or alcohol, or drugs, or pornography, and all the time say to ourselves, “I can stop whenever I choose. I am still in control.” But we are not in control. We cannot stop, because we are living a lie. We are not living in the truth.
Perhaps the reason that it is so tempting to live a lie is because we cannot really imagine facing the truth. Perhaps we surround ourselves with so many false illusions, because we cannot see how we could ever have the courage to face the reality that is present in our lives. If that’s the case, then today’s feast is good news for us. Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. This feast tells us that the authority of Christ is supreme, that the power of Christ is real and active in our midst. The Church consciously chooses to place this feast at the end of the liturgical year to make the point that if our faith means anything, it means that whatever forces control us, whatever problems attack us, whatever truth we have to face, Christ’s power is greater. If we turn to Christ as our King, we can find the courage to face the truth and then move on to greater life.
In today’s gospel, Jesus tells Pilate, “All those who belong to the truth, hear my voice.” Today we are called to belong to the truth, to claim what is real in our lives and to follow the teaching of Christ. If your pot is barren, admit it. If there are problems in your family, own them. If there are addictions that control you, admit that you are helpless before them. That step into the truth will lead to other steps that will lead to life. But the first step is to claim what is real and to live in what is true. Christ is our King.Christ is our Truth. Today, let us claim his kingship. Today let us belong to the Truth and hear his voice.
Choosing Your Kingdom
November 26, 2006
John 18:33b – 37
So Christ is our King. What does that mean? Jesus dramatically states in today’s Gospel that his kingdom does not belong to this world. What he is trying to say? There are different ways of understanding his words. One-way would be to assume that Jesus is saying that his kingdom is an otherworldly kingdom, that his kingdom is not concerned with the events that go on here on earth but rather with the realities of heaven. We could understand Jesus’ words that way, but we would most certainly be wrong. Because we know that the whole thrust of Jesus’ message was to proclaim the kingdom of God and that kingdom was about establishing God’s love and justice in this world. As we are taught to pray in the Lord’s Prayer “thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.
So what does Jesus mean when he says my kingdom does not belong to this world? He is not saying that his kingdom is to be found in some other place but rather his kingdom which is to be established in this world is based on structures and values that are different then the structures and values which hold dominion over the way we usually live. Jesus is setting up in our midst a counter kingdom, another way of living, a way of living based on different values, different truths. So what is the difference between the kingdom of this world and Christ’s kingdom? It is not an easy question, because there are many things shared in common between these two kingdoms. Both would claim that their purpose is to bring happiness to their members. Both would claim that their goal is to induce the fullness and richness of life. But there is a disagreement between the two kingdoms concerning how that happiness and how that life is to be attained.
We could see no better illustration of that difference than today’s gospel, because the evangelist John carefully points to the divergence between the two kingdoms in the scene between Pilate and Jesus. Each character represents a kingdom. Pilate stands as the agent of the kingdom of this world and Jesus as the agent of the kingdom of God. As we watch these two characters interact, it becomes clear that, although they share some things in common, each is operating out of a different perspective. Each has one overriding value, which determines everything else. For Pilate it is the value of survival. For Jesus it is the value of faithfulness.
Pontius Pilate was not a bad man. He knew that his job was to deliver justice to those who were accused. In John’s gospel he recognizes the goodness of Jesus and Jesus’ innocence. He sincerely tries to find a way to release Jesus. But he cannot find that way, because his chief value was survival. Pilate had worked his whole life climbing up the ranks of the Roman diplomatic corp. He had attained an important position in Judea, providing a level of personal prestige and a good lifestyle for his wife and his children. He understood what the right thing was to do in the case of Jesus, and he would have liked to do it. But it was too risky. If he were to release Jesus, Jesus and his followers could have tipped the delicate balance in the peace that Rome had established in Jerusalem. If a riot or public disturbance had resulted, the emperor would have heard about it and Pilate would have been disgraced. His career would be over. So although he would have wished to release Jesus, it was too dangerous. When push came to shove, Pilate valued his own survival over the life of Jesus and he sent him to the cross.
Jesus on his part would have wished to survive. He did not seek crucifixion. He prayed in Gethsemane that the cup of his suffering would be taken away from him. But Jesus’ highest value was not his own survival. It was faithfulness to the Father’s will. Jesus knew that he belonged to the kingdom of God, and in that kingdom God’s will was supreme. Those who followed God’s will believed that they would attain happiness and life, even if it involved suffering and death. So although Jesus would have preferred to survive, his greatest value was to do God’s will. Acting out of that value, he took up the cross.
There are two kingdoms operating in the world in which we live, and we must decide between them. That decision will determine everything, everything about our lives. It will determine how we live personally and interpersonally, how we live spiritually and politically, how we live emotionally and economically. I wish I could stand here and give you some simple formula by which you could determine whether you were living out of the kingdom of God. But life is too complicated for that. What I can tell you is that those who belong to the kingdom of God do not have survival as their highest good. Therefore their decisions are often different from those many others make in our world. For those who belong to the kingdom of God, decisions will not be determined by what everybody else is doing or what the latest polls say. They will have a different perspective on war, on poverty, on immigration, on healthcare. They will have a different opinion on the value of life whether that life is found in the womb, or on death row. They will have a different approach on what is most important in raising a family and how one should treat one’s enemies.
There are two kingdoms operating in the world in which we live and their values are different. We must choose between them, and the choice we make will influence everything. It will determine whether our highest value is one of survival or one of faithfulness to God’s will. It will determine whether we stand with Pilate or stand with Jesus.
November 22, 2009
Today’s gospel is about power. By calling Jesus a king, the Gospel associates Jesus with power. The gospel calls us to reflect on what kind of power does Jesus have? What kind of power does Jesus exercise? In one sense that question is easy to answer. Jesus has absolute power, because he exercises the power of God. But God’s power is unique. Although it is absolute, it is not coercive. Think of it. God does not force any of us here to do anything. God gives us life, gives us free will and asks us to follow. Although God’s power is absolute, God makes room for our free will and our response. So God’s power, although absolute, does not use force. This makes the power of Jesus very different than the power we usually experience in our lives.
You see the power in our world is usually coercive power. It is the ability to bend someone to our will, to achieve whatever we desire. When Joseph Stalin was told by his staff that the Pope objected to his invasion of Poland, Stalin is said to have quipped, “The Pope! How many military divisions does the Pope have?” You see for Stalin, power was to be equated with coercion, with military force. Jesus’ power is different. Jesus says, “My kingdom (and therefore my power) are not of this world.” Now this does not mean that Jesus’ power is only exercised in heaven. Jesus’ power is different from the normal coercive way that we experience power in our lives.
It is because of this truth that Pilot cannot figure out Jesus at all. You see Pilot thinks that he, Pilot, has the power. He knows that he has the power to crucify Jesus and to get rid of this peculiar Jew. Pilot exercises that power and Jesus dies on the cross. But despite the brutal force of Pilot, the crucifixion was not the end of Jesus. Jesus possesses the power of God.
So the challenge of today’s Gospel is for us to believe that Jesus’ power of love and service is stronger than the power of brutal force. That is what we are faced with today. We must decide whose power is greater, the power of Pilot or the power of Jesus? You and I know well that the power of this world, when it is exercised by such men as Joseph Stalin has the power to crush thousands. Dare we believe that the power of Christ is greater? Perhaps an example will help us decide.
A couple of weeks ago at 95 years of age, Norman Borlaug died. Now most of you don’t know Norman Borlaug. But he was a man with real power. He was a botanist and he dedicated his life to developing new strains of wheat, wheat that could grow in the most inclement areas of the world. Living in poverty and under great stress in many third world countries, Borlaug worked until he was able to develop a high yield grain that allowed the poorest people of the world to feed their families. It is estimated today that half of the world’s population is fed by grains that Norman Borlaug developed. So here is what we must decide. Who had the greater power, Joseph Stalin or Norman Borlaug? Whose power should we adopt in our own lives, the power of Pilot or the power of Jesus? What the Gospel challenges us to believe is that the power of non-coercive service is greater than the power of brutal force. We are challenged to believe that we will be more successful in our families, at our jobs and in our lives when we opt for sacrifice rather than manipulation, when we opt for service rather than control.
Now I know that the power of Jesus can often look weak. It can look like we are giving in, even like we are dying. But our faith tells us that this is the only power that can truly change people’s hearts and build the kingdom of God.
Dare to believe that Jesus’ power is real. Dare to make his way your way. Dare to trust him, to claim him as your king.
The World as God Sees It
November 25, 2012
John 18: 33b – 37
The challenge we face on this feast of Christ the King is to see the world as God sees it, to recognize the kind of kingdom over which Christ our King reigns. One thing is clear: the kingdom of Christ is very different from the world in which we now live. Jesus says to Pilate in today’s gospel, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.” When Jesus says this he is not saying his kingdom is in heaven or that he is going to leave this world behind. What he is saying is that in the kingdom of God this world will be changed, will be renewed, will be recreated. In Christ’s kingdom this world will be transformed because it will be freed from evil and sin. It will be the world as God sees it.
So how does God see the world? Modern technology may provide a glimpse of that world. We have all seen the photos of earth from space: a planet with blue oceans and continents viewed through swirling white clouds. Unlike the pictures of the world that we know from maps and globes, this picture from space does not distinguish one country from another by a different color. There are no borders or barriers visible, no walls or fences, only oceans, deserts, mountains, forests, and icecaps. The world is one planet on which one human family dwells. It is the world as God sees it.
Can you imagine if everyone could see the world as God sees it? It would be a world where peace triumphs over war, where people are liberated rather than exploited, where there is compassion and mercy for everyone. It would be a world that shuns violence and cares for the vulnerable first, a world of generosity over greed, a world of humility over arrogance, a world that embraces rather than excludes—the world as God sees it.
Now this is not the world we have today. Some would say that it is a world which could never be. But we cannot claim to be followers of Christ the King and at the same time disavow his vision for the world.
We are all aware of the recent disturbance in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians and the fragile cease fire that is now in place. I caught a radio program this week which offered a panel discussion on the situation. One of the women on the panel said that the standoff in the Middle East has been irresolvable for so long, and with violence on both sides, that it demonstrates that violence is not effective. She suggested that this continuing standoff demonstrates that war is becoming obsolete sooner than we think. Another member of the panel responded to her and said, “What world do you live in?”
That is the question for us today. What world do we live in? Do we live in a world in which we have acquiesced to limited hope and possibility because we have given up on God’s vision, because we do not recognize the kingdom that God is building? The challenge for us today is to stand in our faith that our God is recreating the world and calling us to participate. We are called to believe that God through Christ is establishing the kingdom. How Christ is going to lead us into that kingdom is not entirely clear. But this much is clear: If we are going to follow Christ, we have to begin by claiming his vision—we to see the world as God sees it.
Claiming Our True Name
November 22, 2015
Today we celebrate Jesus as our king. But in the gospel, Jesus seems rather uncomfortable with this title. When Pilate says to him, “So then, you are a king,” Jesus responds, “You say that I am a king.” Why is it that Jesus brushes aside the title that Pilate wants to give him? Partially, of course, it is because Pilate’s notion of kingship and Jesus’ notion are two very different things. But, I think it goes deeper than that.
Jesus refuses to let Pilate give him a name, because Jesus already knows his name. He is the beloved Son of God. His identity is grounded in his relationship with his father. His strength and his mission flow from the deep love that Jesus knows God has for him. Jesus is so rooted in that love, that he will not allow Pilate or anyone else to define who he is.
We are called to imitate Jesus in all things. So certainly here we should also follow his example. At our baptism, we became beloved daughters and sons of God. It is right for us, then, to claim that dignity and live it. We should not accept lesser titles which others may try to give us.
When we allow other people to define us, those definitions often lead to sadness and discouragement. Perhaps it is a parent who we have never been able to please or a brother or a sister with whom we are always in competition. Perhaps it is a friend who we love but of whom we are also somewhat jealous. When any of these people criticize us or tease us or ignore us, they are giving us a name, and that name may call us weak, wounded, or worthless. To the extent that we accept that name, we lessen our life. We end up being angry, doubting ourselves and resenting others. We lose the energy that we need to be good spouses, parents, and friends. We find that we are never truly happy.
On this feast of Christ the King, Jesus calls us to accept our true name, a name that flows from our relationship with God who made us, and saved us and promises us eternal life. Contrary to other voices that would name us as marginal or useless, Jesus calls us to accept our status that flows from the love of God.
When the Pilates of our lives say to us, “So then, you are this or you are that,” we should respond with Jesus: “That is what you say. But I know who I am. I am a beloved daughter or son of God.”
The Arc of the Universe
November 25, 2018
We all have a personal history. Then there is scientific history, and economic history, and American history, and world history. But above all of these we believe that there is God’s history, and that that history is supreme. This is why we can make the claim that we make today that Jesus Christ is the King of the Universe. There is a very helpful image in today’s second reading from the Book of Revelation that centers on this point. God says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. So, God is saying: I am the A and the Z. I am the beginning and the end of time.
We do not have much problem believing that God is the beginning of time. We accept God as the Creator of all things. But sometimes we forget that God is also the Omega, the end of time. This is an important truth to remember because it gives us optimism and hope. By seeing God as the Omega, the end of history, we are saying that everything that happens to us and everything that happens in our world is moving towards a point where God will be all in all. It is telling us that every step we take in history is a step towards God. It indicates that because we believe in the resurrection of Jesus, we see ourselves approaching a moment where God’s goodness and justice will rule over all things.
Now this is a tremendously important part of our faith. It stands at the center of the gospel. But it is also a very difficult truth to believe, because as we experience our own lives and our own history, there are times when we seem to be taking a step forward, and then there are other times when we seem to be taking a step back. There are times when the world seems to be making great progress, and then there are other times when everything seems to be falling apart. In our own families there are moments when healing takes place and misunderstanding is healed among family members. Then there is another action, and old wounds are opened up again. We elect men and women to political office who seem to be people of integrity and committed to the common good, and we elect others who are erratic and an embarrassment. Our church leaders call us to serve the poor and the marginalized but at the same time fail to protect children from abuse. Some countries make great strides toward the protection of human rights, and yet new wars and incidents of terrorism emerge. So, it is difficult for us as Christians to believe that history is moving toward God, when all of these evils continue in our midst. How do we square our belief with reality?
There is a famous quote by Theodore Parker, an American minister who was active before the Civil War. Parker was strongly committed to the abolition of slavery, and as we know the fight to end slavery was a long and difficult one, with many setbacks along the way. In 1853 Parker gave a sermon in which he said: The arc of the universe is a long one, but I believe that it bends toward justice. What Parker is saying is that the history of our world is long and complex, and it does not always move in the same direction. It takes a few steps forward, and then it takes a step back. Its movement is more like a pendulum than a straight line. But here is the faith perspective: In that long history we believe that we are still moving in the right direction, that the pendulum swings more on God’s side than the other side, that history is still bending toward justice.
When we find ourselves in situations where everything seems to be falling apart, or where things are erratic and unjust, the gospel calls us not to give up hope. We must remember what we believe. We believe that the history of our world is long and complex. But we also know how the pendulum swings. And in the end, we believe that the arc of the universe bends toward justice, bends toward God.
Are You My King?
November 21, 2021
In today’s gospel, Jesus and Pontius Pilate have a conversation. When you read the text, it flows easily enough, but there is a historical problem with this scene. Historians are confident that Pontius Pilate was bilingual. He spoke Latin which was the language of the Romans, and Greek which is the language of commerce in the Roman Empire. Jesus also seems to have spoken two languages: Hebrew, which is the language in which the Jewish scriptures are written, and Aramaic, which is the common speech of Jews in Palestine. So between the two of them, Jesus and Pontius Pilate knew four languages. The problem is they did not share one in common.
So how did they communicate as today’s gospel shows them doing? Perhaps they had an interpreter. We do not know. But this much is clear: Jesus and Pilate would have had difficulty in understanding one another because they did not speak the same language.
And the problem goes deeper because the difference between Jesus and Pilate is not only linguistic. It is also theological. When Jesus says, “My kingdom does not belong to world,” he is trying to tell Pilate that the two of them live in different worlds. Jesus lives the world of God’s kingdom, whose values and priorities are very different from those of the Roman Empire. When Jesus says that he has come to testify to the truth, he is telling Pilate that his truth is not Pilate’s truth. Jesus’s truth is not the domination and glory of Rome, but rather of the mercy and compassion of God. So Jesus and Pilate stand in stark contrast to one another. They do not speak the same language. They do not hold the same truths. They do not inhabit the same worlds.
The question that the gospel poses to us today is whose language do we speak? Whose truth do we uphold? Whose world do we call our own? In the gospel of John, Jesus prays that his disciples may all be one. So the language of Jesus is one of unity and communion. In Jesus’s language, success is not victory for some partisan group or political party. Success is not adding to the polarization that so marks our society. Success is finding common ground and promoting the good of all. The Holy Spirit is the Giver of Life, so the truth of Jesus enshrines the dignity of life. The followers of Jesus strive to protect life, both in the womb and on death row, because they understand that the unborn child and the hardened criminal are both valued in God’s eyes. Jesus spent his ministry proclaiming good news to the poor and to the outcast, so the world of Jesus is one in which economic policies not only protect the wealth of the successful but also take into consideration the widow, the unemployed, and those without sufficient health care. All should be able to share in the goods of society.
If we speak the language of Jesus, if we hold fast to Jesus’s truth, we show ourselves to belong to Jesus, to accept his world, his kingdom. That is the issue that is before us today. Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you a king?” The question the gospel poses to us is different and deeper. As we stand before Jesus, we must each ask ourselves, “Are you my king or have I chosen to follow another.”