Sunday, November 21, 2021
For my eighth birthday, I invited my friends over for an art party. I don’t remember much of anything we did other than probably painting or crafting of some kind, but I can still picture the handmade invitations I worked hard on with my mom, which were shaped into cardboard colorful paint palettes. I think this was the first time I took charge of hosting my own party with a little help from my mom, and it was a learning experience. What I remember most, for example, is that only about half of my guests brought me a birthday present, or even a card. You see, I had forgotten one tiny detail on the invitation – to mention it wasn’t just a fun art party, but my birthday party I was inviting my friends to! I was old enough to just be happy to have friends over for a party without needing a bunch of presents, and I was more embarrassed than happy when several of my friends gave me presents after the fact almost as an apology that they didn’t know it was my birthday.
This is one of my first memories of learning the rules around friends and birthday parties, and it hasn’t been the last time where I’ve wondered if I could just have a party or do something nice for someone else without expectation of getting anything back in return. In our culture, we often have certain expectations of how people should behave and what should be done in terms of reciprocity. If you get invited to a birthday party (at least as a kid), you bring a present. If you get invited over for dinner, you bring a bottle of wine or perhaps a side or dessert. You return the invitation when it’s your birthday, or reciprocate by hosting dinner at your house. If you go out to dinner and you pay the bill, then the next time the other couple pays the bill. If you’re good enough friends, maybe you lose track or don’t care. It does become almost a natural instinct, doesn’t it, to feel like you should give someone a present in return if they give you something. We live in a transactional culture where we tend to expect an equilibrium of fairness in giving and receiving.
What are our expectations, then, when we call Jesus our King? Obviously, we don’t live in a monarchy today, but both the Old and New Testaments frequently refer to God as our King being a good thing. Perhaps what first comes to mind is Jesus sitting on a throne with a crown and scepter. We see this in paintings and photographs of royalty and Jesus as King is described this way in our readings from Daniel and Revelation today. We may be reassured by the thought of Jesus as our righteous judge or the fact that God is in control and is all powerful when many things in this world, including world governments and politics seem out of our control.
But then we get to the gospel of John, today of all days, on Christ the King Sunday, and Jesus’ kingship is described as nothing we’d expect of a usual king. Pilate doesn’t understand it. He asks twice if Jesus is really a king…”Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus was born in a manger, an animal feeding trough, to peasant parents from Nazareth. Not only does he not have a palace, he has no residential address, no regular home to lay his head. The simple clothes on his back and sandals on his feet are his only possessions. He’s come into Jerusalem not on a chariot but riding on a donkey. And the title “King of the Jews” is not meant to honor but to mock Jesus and his followers. He will not wear a crown of gold but a crown of thorns, and he will be killed on a cross in between two common criminals. Jesus certainly defies our expectations of what it means to be a king. How can anyone like this possibly be the answer to all of our world’s problems? It doesn’t make sense, and in fact, that’s the point!
While our culture is very different from the Roman Empire of the first century, the Roman empire was also a transactional culture where wealthier patrons supported the lower classes and in turn earned their loyalty and political support. In the gospel for today, Pilate as governor of Judea is functioning within this transactional system. He expects loyalty and support from his subjects, and in turn offers a promise of law and order, the “peace and security” of Rome. But many Jewish people are suffering under the high taxes and Roman hierarchical system. The traditional monarchy or rule of the Emperor isn’t working. They are looking for something different. The promise that Jesus is the Messiah gives them hope that God has seen injustice and their suffering and has come to do something about it. But even for Jesus’ closest followers, the gospels tell us, Jesus’ death on a cross was not what they expected of a Messiah and king.
Jesus does not live up to our expectations as king but rather tells us, “My kingdom is not from this world.” Jesus comes to us as a different kind of king to offer an alternative vision of God’s kingdom, which is different from the world as it is. In his preaching and teaching, in his ministry among all kinds of people rich and poor, powerful and the least of these, Jesus tells us about a kingdom where love is stronger than hate, where peace is more prevalent than conflict, where truth wins over lies and joy triumphs over the pain and sorrow we experience. The miracle of faith is believing that Jesus is our King as he hangs on a cross, conquering death through death, and offering us the promise that life, not death, is God’s desire for all of us.
In the transactional systems of the world, you give to get, you compete to get on top even if it means winning at the expense of others, and our lives easily become a rat race of meeting obligations, keeping track of what we owe others and who owes us. The Latin phrase the world operates by is “quid pro quo,” “This for that.” On the cross, Jesus shows us he’s a different, “pro bono,” kind of king, offering his life for our sake without any obligation or need for us to do anything for him in return. That’s grace. A free gift of God, not because it’s our birthday, or Christmas, or because we deserve it in any way. Grace – the undeserved love of God. And that gift frees us in turn to live more “pro bono” lives of grace out of thanksgiving for what Jesus our King first does for us. Our kingdom is not of this world. Thanks be to God we are members of Christ’s kingdom where love, peace, truth, and joy reign. We live by different rules where we can give and receive without keeping score. And we don’t have to wait to get out of this world and into the next; Christ our King frees us to live now with the knowledge of this grace.
In a few moments, we will welcome first communicants to the Lord’s table. We talked about in our first communion classes that each week when we have communion, it’s a celebration, but of course, it’s a different kind of party. Christ our King invites us all to the table, regardless of who we are, or what we’ve done or failed to do. God’s grace in bread and wine is offered to all of us for the forgiveness of sins, and there’s no expectation that we bring anything in return. Come to the party, for all are invited. Receive God’s grace, and give thanks! Amen.