The Sermon for Christ the King Sunday, November 22, 2015

wengert001_0Christ the King Lutheran Church – Houston, Texas
The Rev. Dr. Timothy J. Wengert, Guest Preacher
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Professor Emeritus
Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia

The Readings (NRSV) and Psalm (ELW) for the Day:
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 93 Ever since the world began, your throne has been established. (Ps. 93:2)
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

What an honor, in such a splendid congregation, surrounded by friends new and old to celebrate your 70th anniversary.  As I often remind you, this congregation and your pastors gave me my life back.  When I lived here for three months in 2003 with my books and greyhound and a heart wounded from the early death of my first wife, I found healing within the body of Christ at this congregation.  I can never thank you enough.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

“What is truth?”  That’s the question that plagues not only Pilate but all of us.  What is truth?  This question is not simply the pastime of Rice professors and their students next door.  It vexes all of us, every day.  As “Black Friday” draws inevitably closer, we worry about truth in advertising.  Who really does get that one 90-inch, surround sound, turn-your-living-room-into-a-jumbo-tron, flat screen TV at Walmart?  Or, as next November’s elections loom ever closer, which candidate, if any, is telling the truth?  I just read an exposé of polls that makes you wonder whether we ever can know the truth about public opinion.  But our search for truth goes even deeper.  It affects our relationships with the people at work.  Does a boss or employee ever really come clean?  It distorts our family relations—between spouses, among parents and children, with the outside world—sometimes even when we can’t be honest with ourselves.

“What is truth?”  The people who designed the twelve-step programs know how slippery the addict is—so that one of the first steps in recovery is to “mention the elephant in the room.”  You see; the opposite of truth is not so much falsehood as it is denial.  And this is not simply a problem for the chemically dependent.  This is the heart of the human addiction to itself, to power, to greed and a host of other deadly sins.  Then it is clear that when Pilate asks the question, he is “heavy into denial.”  The truth about Pilate and about us is perhaps best summarized in that line from a Jack Nicholson film, “You want the truth?  You can’t handle the truth!”

“What is truth?”  The truth about the human condition—let’s start with this—is quite simple: we’re not in control, we’re forever hurting our needy neighbors with lies, and we’re dying but, as Martin Luther famously said, “On top of that we are inflicted with blindness” to that very condition, so that we think we’re in control, think we’re better than most folks at doing the right thing and, at least secretly, think we’ll live forever.  How’s that for a trifecta of trouble?  The snake’s line in the garden to the man and the woman still rings in our addicted ears: “You will not die, you will be like gods, deciding good and evil.”  That’s the truth!

But there’s another truth, so deeply hidden from Pilate’s eyes that he asks the wrong question.  When we go about reading the Gospel of John, we have to remember that John loves to play with words, in order to shock us into believing.  He is forever spouting paradoxes and juxtaposing opposites.  “Light shines in the darkness.”  “The Word, which is God, becomes flesh.”  And, most important of all, Jesus’ moment of glory is the cross.  But here, too, in this little vignette from Jesus’ trial before Pilate comes a remarkable reversal.  “For this I was born,” Jesus says, “and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  But every reader of John’s gospel knows that there is more to it than that.  “The Law through Moses,” John wrote in the prologue of chapter one, “Grace and truth through Jesus Christ.”  On John 8: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  And, most important of all in John 14: “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

Now do you see?  Pilate asked the wrong question.  It is not “What is truth?” but “Who is truth?”  Part of our denial and blindness, you see, consists in imagining that truth is an idea, something we can store in our memory and bring out to admire whenever we want, a splendid piece of human reasoning that will amaze our opponents and thrill our followers.  But for John, indeed, for all Christians, truth is not a thing but a person, one person in particular—Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.  He alone, who witnesses to the truth, is truth incarnate, in flesh and blood.

And the one who is Truth turns all of our lying truths upside down.  Look at what the Truth does to Pilate.  Pilate is seeking a king with horses and men, perhaps an early version of the Game of Thrones or one of those BBC reenactments.  Or maybe he’s even thinking of Errol Flynn and some swashbuckling hero-king.  But Jesus puts the lie to all of his questions.  “You saying this on your own?”  The governor, who is supposed to be in charge, is shown to be a puppet of others.  That’s the truth.

And then this: “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Suddenly, all the talk of Crusades or Christianizing America or all of the other power grabs Christians have concocted in the name of Christ the King are swept away.  Then the remarkable paradox of a crucified King of the Judeans—those very words above the cross—tell the truth, the truth, about God and especially the God made flesh.  Then his glory is really in being lifted up on the cross.  “My kingdom is not from here.” That is, “It cannot be measured by force and might, swords and arms, guns and bombs or the instruments of fear.”  The one who is the Truth tells the Truth, witnesses to the Truth: There is a new day coming, borne not on the shoulders of terror or retaliation or revenge—as sweet as those things may sound to human ears—this is a day, a kingdom, borne on the arms of the Crucified, sleeping in the manger, standing dripping wet in the Jordan River, reaching out to the whole world as Word, Light, Life, Bread, Door, Shepherd, Resurrection, Vine, Way and, yes, above all else, Truth.

Which brings me to the name of this congregation.  So, it’s been seventy years, right?  And in all that time, the mayor’s office or the governor of Texas has not tried to shut you down?  You realize how scandalous your name is now, don’t you?  Five years before I was born, in the year that the worst war ever fought on earth was ending, some folks got together, formed a congregation and named it, not John Houston the King, or Franklin Roosevelt the King, or Stalin or Churchill the King, but Christ the King.  In the most powerful country on earth, in one of the wealthiest states and largest cities, and you named yourself after a crucified criminal who refused to raise an army and drive the Romans out?  Now, I suppose you could change your logo and the letterhead, and put a little asterisk, “Christ the King Lutheran Church*” but we don’t really mean it.  But I think it’s too late.  You’re stuck with it, with a delicious paradox—no, rather, the saving paradox—that this one, hanging on the cross and coming to us in bread and wine, is Way, Truth and Life.  His death is his witness that, in the face of a world wrapped in wars and rumors of wars, with terror all around, he is the truth, our truth, our Christ, our King. And his meal is witness that he is the Bread of Life.  Come, members of Christ the King! Feed on that truth for you. Amen.

May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.