Reign of Christ
Lesson: John 18:33-38
This sermon was preached during an At Table worship service. During these Sunday services we worship in the tradition of early Christian meals around tables with food and drink to share.
What is truth?
This morning’s story is an exchange between Jesus Christ and Pilate, the Roman ruler who would sentence Jesus to death. This is a snippet of Jesus’ trial. But, who was really on trial here? In the gospel of John Pilate is the Roman authority, he is a ruler “of this world” that rules by force, worships power, money, and Caesar as god, doesn’t mind that there are great disparages between rich and poor because he is rich; and he uses fear tactics to rule. And there is Jesus, wily as ever. Pointing out to Pilate that there is no real case against him and challenging him to consider that power might be found—truth and peace might be found—outside the typical paradigm.
This scene reminds me of a story you might also remember; a story about a man who also held all the power, all the wealth, he could muster. This character was so consumed by holding onto his own power, it took not one, but three divine encounters to rattle him into the light. Three visitors force him to face his fears, facie his life, and finally help him break with his famous quote: Bah. Humbug!
Yes, I’m referencing Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol. Yes, it’s early to talk about Christmas. It’s not even Advent, I know. Until Wednesday I was not a particular fan of A Christmas Carol. I have not read the book, although I downloaded it this week. The versions I’ve seen of this story always seem saccharine and overblown. I have seen the Muppets’ version once or twice but, hey, it’s the Muppets. The worst guy in the world becomes the most generous because he has a bad dream. Yes, I like dear ol’ Bob Cratchit, who slaves away to feed his family. And, who wouldn’t enjoy Tiny Tim the angelic son with a bad leg? But, huge, life-altering and behavior-modifying dreams with weird ghosts and perfect timing…come on! It’s too much.
When my brother, Brian, suggested we spend an evening watching this particular play, I was hesitant at best. I visited him in Chicago last week for Thanksgiving. True, he is a professional thespian, but surely he has better taste! This is not a play I would choose to see, let alone spend my precious vacation watching—not in Chicago—there must be something more interesting to do in Chi-town! But, Brian was very excited. “There’s a really wonderful actor that I want to see,” he said. So, being the martyr of an older sister that I am, I agreed.
Truth is, my fears were unfounded. Brian was right, although let’s keep that between us.
The play was the best theatre I’ve seen in years. It had high production quality, beautiful sets and costumes, and a hilarious use of physical comedy woven throughout. Who’d have thought? The Goodman Theatre in Chicago is known for their production of A Christmas Carol and I now know why: they nailed it.
You remember the storyline, right? Three specters dig through a lifetime of stories, decisions, and experiences. The ghosts shake Ebenezer up enough to allow him to question, reprioritize, feel, and listen. The play opens with Scrooge as the living embodiment of selfishness; an empty person whose complete trust is in his own, material power. As you may recall, when asked for a donation for the homeless, Scrooge rants about social services being too expensive and suggests that if the poor die, it would serve to “decrease the surplus population.” He’s a mean one.
The Goodman’s staging of this novella made Ebenezer’s journey towards truth and freedom seem delightfully possible. For rather than one decisive moment of complete repentance and reversal, Scrooge went through a process of small moments, back and forth. He developed. He struggled to change his behavior. The ghostly visitor of Christmas Past revealed tender moments that were turning points in Scrooge’s path: the mean headmaster, a loving sister, falling in love, losing his wife because he prioritized money and work over their relationship. As Ebenezer relived his memories, the audience was able to watch him feel pain and delight as he struggled to reacquaint himself with the rest of humanity. Christmas Present revealed the true bitter and pitiful thoughts of those that know him best. That had to hurt.
What I noticed this time around, was that it seemed as if the opportunities to acknowledge truth, to acknowledge love, to reach out with compassion were always possible throughout his life. He was stuck in a series of poor choices and at a loss for compassion. It took Scrooge some time before he was able to testify to the Truth with a capitol “t.” But, he managed. As he woke on Christmas morning, he hired a young boy to buy the large turkey and send it to the Cratchits’ home. Scrooge’s tone began with a touch of the harshness we experienced in him at the outset. But, he caught himself, and tries to act with kindness, although it took him a few moments to get the right words out of his mouth. He stammered and finally over corrects and hands the boy much more money than is required.
The most touching scene for me was when Ebenezer entered his nephew, Fred’s, home for Christmas dinner. He wore a red scarf Fred had given him for Christmas. Initially, Ebenezer said, “Bah. Humbug!” to the gift and dinner, but there he was. Fred cannot believe his uncle was standing before him. Ebenezer stammered, “I’ve come…Fred…for dinner.” Fred reached out, touched the scarf, looked into Ebenezer’s eyes, and the two men embraced.
“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” (John 8:32). Ebenezer was set free.
Christ’s voice speaks in the past, present and future. Christ’s presence is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. We celebrate the reign of Christ this morning even when wars, sickness, poverty, fear, and isolation abound. Yet, we celebrate the supremacy of God in Christ whose kingdom is here and now. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever we pray. Christ’s reign is not of this world’s power scheme of Pilate or Scrooge. Christ sets a higher bar: love God; love your neighbor as yourself. It is a truth worth living, and worth sharing.
Jesus says he came to, “testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” You’ve heard my story of discovering truth in God’s love this week. I rediscovered an old story and I learned to trust my brother’s judgment. Christ’s voice, God’s love was present. Now at your tables I invite you to share with one another a story from your life, perhaps from this past week, when you heard or experienced Christ’s voice in your life. Or perhaps your table might consider, what it means for us to say that Christ reigns? What is Christ’s voice saying to us this fall? We’ll take some time now for conversation. Remember that everyone is invited to participate as you wish: good listening is as important as speaking.
© Diana Bell 2012
 I am told the story officially says a goose, but the Goodman Theatre used a turkey.
Image: Nicolai Ge, What is Truth. Christ and Pilate. http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/nikolai-ge/what-is-truth-christ-and-pilate