Reign of Christ    The King of Subversion 

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                                    Nov. 25, 2018

John 18:33-38a

Amongst his many other attributes, Jesus was simply brilliant. Such was the case when he was dragged before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea. The Roman rulers had begun to use mass crucifixions to keep the masses down. They used the reign of terror to keep the Pax Romana—the peace of the Roman Empire. The Romans were no fools. They knew that they must also build allegiances with local leaders and therefore some of the religious leaders amongst the Jewish community were brought into the services of Rome. These scribes and priests knew that their own lives were at stake if a Jewish insurrection was to happen. This actually did ocur  36 years later during the first Jewish-Roman war from 66-73 C.E. and resulted in mass murders and enslavement of the Jews. The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time wisely knew that this would be the inevitable outcome of any armed resistance to Roman Imperial Powers. And so, they were desperate to keep their own people from rebelling.

The people were understandably upset—they were heavily taxed and brutally punished by the Romans. They were looking for someone to lead them to freedom, and many believed that Jesus was the Messiah who would help them defeat their Roman oppressors. With high hopes, Jesus’ followers swelled into uncontrollable crowds and the religious leaders were justifiably afraid. They began to realize that a sacrifice of one of their own would quell the passionate resistance of the rest. Sacrificing Jesus would save the people.

And so, they went to Governor Pilate with charges of treason against Jesus. “He calls himself the King of the Jews,” they cried. “He is a threat to the Roman Empire and must be stopped.” But when Pilate questioned Jesus, he was not convinced. Jesus had no stockpile of arms, no plans of insurrection. He was just a simple-minded idealist who was no harm to anyone. Pilate didn’t even want to waste his time questioning him. But—he knew that could not afford to lose the confidence of the priests and scribes. He needed to make at least a pretence of taking their charges seriously, or he might have to deal with their insurrection. The Emperor must never hear rumours of weakness about his own governance.

And so, he called for Jesus and asked him outright, “Are you the Kings of Jews?” He expected Jesus to deny it, of course—as anyone who valued their life would—but he was taken aback when Jesus perceptively read his own doubt and dilemma of losing control over the religious leaders. “Yes,” Pilate conceded, “These charges do not come from me. I doubt that you are any threat, but your own people have turned against you, laying these treasonous charges that would cost your life. So what have you done that has so incensed your own leaders?”

Jesus began to answer with the truth, but Pilate saw it only as more idealistic gibberish. “My kingdom is not of this world—otherwise my followers would be armed and rise up to rescue me.”

“Ah-hah!” Pilate cried, sure that he had caught him, “So—you do admit that you are a king.”

“So you say,” replied Jesus. “But I have come to testify to the truth. Anyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

“What is truth?” Pilate sneered with postmodern sensibility and promptly turned heel to pronounce to the crowds, “I have found nothing that condemns this man.”

The religious leaders knew otherwise and they were right. Jesus was testifying to an other-worldly truth—the truth of God’s realm that reigns with peace and justice. But the leaders had also heard Jesus testifying to the implications of this truth that were very much of this world. Jesus had already upturned the tables selling holy sacrifices and he was inciting the poor to upturn the unjust laws of both religion and state. They were correct in their assessment of the danger Jesus posed. Jesus truly was the King of Subversion.

Jesus’ response to Pilate’s interrogation has continued to sound throughout the centuries. Do we belong to the truth? What is the truth? Where do we hear Jesus’ voice today? Theologian Dorothy Soelle suggests Jesus’ truth consists of discerning obedience to the reign of God that requires constant vigilance, with eyes open. It means never to be completely content, complacent, and therefore complicit with the status quo. It means to read the news and social media with a discriminating mind, asking ourselves how it fits with God’s reign of grace and forgiveness. Hildegard of Bingen frequently envisioned the embodiment of discernment as a person that was clothed in eyes as if to say with Dorothy Soelle, “Be awake, be watchful, be prepared to turn your world turned upside down for the sake of the gospel.”

A month ago, I read a story in the Free Press about Sears intentionally developing a policy that subtly subverted the Jim Crow era of racism and segregation. In the late 1800s and early 1900s,”purchasing everyday household goods was often an exercise in humiliation for black people living in the south…rural black southerners typically only had the option of shopping at white-owned general stores…store owners [routinely made] black customers wait until every white customer had been served and [forced] them to buy lower-quality goods.” In 1894, Sears began sending out its infamous catalogues and it “made an effort to accommodate customers who were barely literate, enacting a policy that the company would fill any order it received regardless of the format…But even more importantly, the catalogue format allowed for anonymity, ensuring that black and white customers would be treated the same way.” Some even credit the Sears catalogue for the development of Delta Blues music because it offered affordable steel-string guitars for $1.89—the equivalent of about $50 today. “By allowing black people in southern states to avoid price-gouging and condescending treatment at their local stores…the catalogue subverted racial hierarchies and undermined white supremacy in the rural south.”[1]

I realize that there are some difficulties regarding Sears’ recent bankruptcy closures, but it is also good to remember these commendable historic stories. By being able to keep a higher truth in view, Sears was able to upend the status quo of prejudice and live into the ideals of God’s peaceable kingdom.

These opportunities continue to exist today, if we have eyes to see them. In last week’s Sou-wester, there was a story of Nathan Sichewski. Nathan is an 11-year old, whose favourite subject is math and favourite sport is hockey. He also enjoys cross-country running. He finished in the top 20 in his first two races and prepared to run his heart out for the third race. But then he began to think about another boy who finished last in both races and he decided to help him out. So—he ran with him, encouraging him along the route. “He didn’t finish last in the 3rd race,” Nathan explained to his family, “I did.” His Dad and his 3 brothers were initially silent around the table, trying to process what he was saying. This upended all the norms of competitive racing. His Dad then said, “Maybe it is something we should all think more about.” When Nathan told his story to others, he said, “I would like to thank my parents. I’ve been raised to be a good kid.”[2]

May God give us eyes to see a higher truth that can set every one of us free. With the words of Daniel Charles Damon, please pray with me:

Eternal Christ, you rule keeping company with pain;

            with love and truth as tools, come build in us your reign. Amen.

[1] “Sears Subverted Racial Hierarchies,” Winnipeg Free Press, Oct. 20, 2018.

[2] “The day Nathan came last,” Troy Westwood The Sou’wester November 14, 2018.