Scripture: John 18:33-38a
When I was in college, I remember a discussion that took place in a class I was taking. Someone in the class said they were an atheist. They didn’t believe in God. In response, we read a book by a long-ago, tremendously perceptive theologian named Paul Tillich. Tillich, my favorite theologian, wrote a book called The Dynamics of Faith. In it, he argued that there really is no such thing as an atheist. And the reason it’s impossible to be an atheist is that everyone believes in something. Everyone puts one value above all others. Everyone has some primary allegiance in life, some lens through which they see the world. Some people, for example, organize their lives around money. Nearly every decision is geared toward saving money or maximizing profit. I may or may not see hints of this in myself. When I fill up my gas tank for $2.39 a gallon, and see it for $2.29 in the next block, I grimace and grit my teeth. And of course it can get debilitating in those who pursue this priority obsessively. Others are fixated on power or prestige or getting ahead. They may be attached, even addicted, to alcohol or pornography or opioids, and build their lives around it.
Some priorities seem, on first glance, to be more innocent. There are people who devote endless hours to a hobby, or to self-grooming, or to voraciously pursuing every yard sale and Black Friday bargain. Others take every opportunity to foist their political or economic views on unsuspecting neighbors and strangers. I once had a friend who was always listening to music. I mean always. He owned every single release on numerous different jazz labels. On my part, I confess I exercise obsessively, walking or running every day. When I was a teenager, in fact, I remember thinking to myself, with some real anxiety, that I would never be able to get married, because I loved playing and watching sports so much that I would never have any time for a spouse!
Some people may think they’re atheists. They may try to convince you they don’t believe in anything. But everyone is devoted to something. Even if it’s just despair or anger or lethargy. Something orients every single life. Something is at the center for everyone.
And Tillich’s question, really, is: is your primary allegiance worthy of the weight you give it? Will it stand up to the demands of life? When you lose your job, will a hobby alone sustain you? When you’re going through a divorce, will alcohol get you through the tunnel? When a parent or child or you yourself are lying on a death bed, will the fact that you found cheap gas that day give you the peace you crave?
In the last hours of Jesus’ life, he’s subject to a trial by the Roman authorities. Pilate, the Roman ruler of Judea, is grilling Jesus about who he is and what he’s about, trying to determine what Jesus has done wrong, and what punishment might be appropriate. So he asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33). Kingship here has various layers of meaning. Pilate is, at one level, trying to gauge whether Jesus is a political threat. ‘Are you gunning for my job?’ we can hear Pilate wondering. This is a reminder to us that spiritual allegiances always have political overtones. If Jesus is sovereign, that means Caesar isn’t. If Jesus is sovereign, that means Pilate isn’t. If Jesus is sovereign, that means Donald Trump isn’t. That means Nancy Pelosi isn’t. If Jesus is the one who rules our lives, that means every other value is defanged, every other claimant to the throne is dethroned. When Jesus rules, every other contender is shown to be a pretender. When our allegiance is to Jesus, that means every other would-be ruler is made at best a deputy.
I know some people hate it when we bring up social or political issues in worship. And I sympathize. If you’re looking for peace, for a respite from the political infighting, then this may sound like fingernails on the proverbial chalkboard. If we’re to put Jesus first, though—and that’s what’s asked of us, after all, as people of faith—then with every social and political and economic and ethical issue that comes our way, we’re always asking: what would Jesus do; what does Jesus stand for; how does a follower of Jesus act in the issues of the day? The question isn’t, “What would a Republican or Democrat do; what would a conservative or progressive do; what would a socialist or capitalist do?” Those are secondary questions. The only question that really matters for people of faith is: what would Jesus do? War? What would Jesus do? People mired in poverty? What would Jesus do? Racial privilege shaping economic opportunity? What would Jesus do? Saving human life or protecting gun rights? What would Jesus do? Energy drawn from coal, or from sun and wind? What would Jesus do? When we put Jesus first, we’re saying essentially, ‘No other authority has sway. In everything that matters, we look to him.’
To put Jesus first affects every dimension of life. And as the trial before Pilate illustrates, to declare Jesus as sovereign is often to resist the competing ways of the world. It means opting for some practices and ways of being that resist the habits that seem so often to dominate.
To exalt Christ as sovereign may, for example, be to practice a daily discipline of prayer. The world screams at us that there is way too much to do for us to take time to pray, which from one angle looks a lot like stopping and doing nothing. A sovereign Christ, though, beckons us into a relationship, a relationship that asks our participation, that expects our affection and attention. To pray is to dwell, often in silence, in the presence of the One who gives us life and holds us close. To pray is to heed the whispers of the One who points to the heavens and shines a light on the ways of life. Praying, especially when we think we’re too busy, is a primary way of enthroning Christ.
The world undoubtedly gives us some great messages. But from the perspective of John’s gospel, it also gives us a whole bunch of skewed messages. It entices us to worship other gods. And we are so often tempted to put our eggs in those lesser baskets. When the gospel of John pits Jesus against what he calls “the world” (18:36), he’s not saying that human life and the stuff of daily living are evil. He’s merely saying that there are forces afoot that have their own power and that undermine the beauty and the gift of what God provides.
The world, for example, encourages a kind of self-centeredness. It entices us to take what we think of as ours. It lures us into believing that we’re entitled to various prizes and rewards. I need to “get mine,” we think, because no one else is going to give it to me.
Enthroning Christ entails an entirely different mindset. It says real life isn’t about accumulating power and position and things. Kristi Horner, who delivered a Faith Witness earlier, sends out a weekly email about life. Appropriately, during this Thanksgiving week, she wrote on Wednesday about gratitude. She observes that “people who consciously count their blessings tend to be happier and less depressed.” She says, “Gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions”; it “has lasting effects on the brain.” And we might add: it enthrones and worships Jesus.
And then she gives two simple and striking examples of ways we might give thanks even when we don’t feel like it, even when it seems totally counterintuitive. She says, “I’m thankful for the rain. Without the rain, there would be no rainbows, no waterfalls, no growth in our gardens . . . no life at all.” While it may seem unpleasant, rain is an enormous gift.
Her second example may seem even more counterintuitive: “I’m grateful for PAIN.” Because, she says, “I realize that life’s most painful moments have also brought some of my greatest growth opportunities. These include closer relationships, more connected families, deeper faith, stronger coping, less judging, greater compassion, improved (real) listening and more complete understanding. . .. I celebrate my messy, imperfect, sometimes dark and dreary pain. For each of these moments afford me the opportunity to be a better version of myself” (Courage to Caregivers email, Nov. 21, 2018). To do this, though—to give thanks in suffering, when all we may feel like is complaining—we’re asked to put the way of Jesus, a way of depth and grace, first in all things.
So gratitude is a way of enthroning Jesus. Here’s another way. When Omid Safi, the director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center, was a teenager, he developed a rare disease. In mere seconds, the threat to his life was severe. His father, a doctor, rushed him to the hospital. And not knowing whether Omid would live or die, Omid’s father asked his son what he would like to do if he only had two hours to live.
As a professor, Safi himself now often asks his students to reflect on such questions. He usually begins by asking them what they would do if they had two years to live. “Most talk about travel and experiences. They would want to see Paris, Hawaii, New York City, Istanbul, and so on. They talk about thrill-seeking adventures, like going bungee-jumping, making love on a beach, walking in an ancient redwood forest.
“I then ask them what they would do if they knew that they had two hours to live, and the answers change radically. There’s no more Paris, no more Hawaii, no more bungee-jumping. There is usually a deep silence over the room, and one by one they say:
“I’d love to see Momma. I’d want to say ‘I love you’ to her once more.
“I’d love to go be with my dad, and say ‘I am sorry for that whole period from ages 12-18.’
“I’d love to go back to my true love, and have one more moment to sit together, hold her hand, and see how her eyes look when she is giggling.
“When we are told that we have two hours left to live, what we want is to be with the ones we love the most and to tell them that they are loved. Almost no one says, ‘If I had two hours left, I’d love to have a chance to take revenge.’ This affirms my faith that what is most basic to our divine nature is love, intimacy, tenderness, and seeking forgiveness” (https://onbeing.org/blog/omid-safi-what-i-did-when-i-thought-i-had-two-hours-to-live/). And we might add that, in a world where isolation and busy-ness and resentment and vengefulness so often reign, such focused love is also a way of enthroning Jesus.
“I was born and entered the world so that I could witness to the truth” (18:37, The Message), says Jesus. The truth Jesus speaks about is a deep truth, a truth that is in some ways threatening, because it calls into question other values we hold dear. At its heart, though, the truth of which Jesus speaks is the truth that brings us home. Irenaeus was a second-century theologian, and something he said sticks with me when I try to remember what is most central in life. “The glory of God,” he said, “is a human being fully alive.”
Every day we’re declaring our priorities. Every day, as we seek to be fully alive, we’re asserting who is really God for us. Tempted as we may often be to selfishness and vengefulness and time-wasting and ingratitude and misplaced allegiances, the reminder that comes to us on this Reign of Christ Sunday, which coincides with the richness of Thanksgiving weekend, is to put our trust in God. It’s to establish and maintain a relationship with the One who has given us life. It’s to be generous to others, especially those who are down-trodden. It’s to express gratitude even, and maybe especially, when we are feeling down. It’s to remember and honor the One who is the real heart of the universe, the God and Sovereign who blesses us and who calls into a life of care and tenderness and forgiveness and hope. Each moment, we have a thousand choices about who and what to put first. Who will it be in this very moment, this very day, this very week? We know, don’t we.