Sermon Text: John 18: 33-38
If you have not yet seen Steven Spielberg’s glorious film Lincoln, get up now and go to the nearest theater.
Or try to see it soon. That movie has inhabited my soul these last few days and will for days to come. It is a love poem to America, a prophetic call to be who we can be. The events of those divisive times and the words of that iconic president open up many themes. But on Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday, a day we might dedicate to contemplating Christ’s power, I can’t help contemplating how Lincoln understood and used power. And I wonder how Lincoln’s power resembles and differs from the power of the Christ—and of ordinary folks like us.
At a pivotal moment in the film and in U.S. history, when hope for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment was waning, Lincoln fiercely wills his supporters to fight on for slavery’s abolition. He roars with uncharacteristic imperiousness: “I am the president of the United States . . . clothed in immense power!”
The humble Lincoln we’ve come to love through history books and folklore wore the privileges of his office lightly but wore the power of the presidency as a heavy care. In Spielberg’s current portrayal, the president drinks from a tin cup, eschews fancy gloves for his rough hands, strategizes in a kitchen scullery, kneels on the hearth to build his own fire, and walks a drafty White House draped in a rough blanket. We’ve always believed his power was not about pomp but about the power of his convictions, though the film shows us clearly how those convictions evolved and then were tempered by necessary compromises. We’ve always appreciated his powers of persuasion with words and wit, and the current movie indeed sends those words soaring and helps us love again the dream that is our country. We see lawyer Lincoln’s confidence in the power of the U.S. Constitution—as well as his awareness of its potential for competing interpretations and manipulations. We have followed the arc of history that one particular leader set in motion through his intellect and character and sacrificial devotion to saving his riven country and that empowered us to be better, freer citizens of a united nation. But how did he specifically conceive of his own authority when he thundered that he was “clothed in immense power”?
Apparently he saw his power as coming from the people. The movie reminds the audience that the vote on the 13th amendment occurred shortly after Lincoln’s reelection, underscoring the people’s mandate. The people who had invested him with power had then reinvested him with that power. Mary Todd Lincoln urged her husband not to squander this power on the impossible task of eradicating slavery. “The people love you,” she tells him. “You have great power. Why waste it upon this futile effort?” But that is the very reason Lincoln dared the impossible. Throughout the film—in brief encounters with a soldier here, a young engineer there—the people’s love and trust and insight clothed Lincoln in immense power that shaped his strategies and confirmed his resolve and made possible a freer nation—of the people, by the people, for the people.
In some sense you and I must agree to grant power to Christ. Christ has only our hands and feet to bring justice and peace to this world. Likewise, the historical Jesus’ authority depended on the people, even in a political setting far different from a modern democracy. Certainly Jesus changed lives with a power that he said came from “the Father who sent me,” but that power had to be transmitted through his followers as he sent them out into the world. Bear in mind that you and I can follow Jesus's powerful way while honoring the spiritual paths that others take toward God. Sadly, Christian scriptures show people again and again refusing to use their power.
According to John’s Gospel, in a passage that precedes today’s verses, Pilate at first refused custody of the arrested Jesus, telling the temple authorities it was up to them to convict Jesus. They, in turn, tossed the case back to Pilate again. He reluctantly interrogated the prisoner but found no evidence against Jesus (v. 38) so, in the verses following today’s reading, Pilate offered the gathered crowd the option of releasing Jesus. The people at that moment could have enacted justice. They had the power. But they relinquished it.
Not only did the people fail to recognize their own power. They—even his closest disciples—also misunderstood the nature of the power Jesus, preacher of peace, exercised. Because he liberated and healed, exposed injustice and shamed those misusing power, his enemies taunted him with sarcastic title King of the Jews. But Jesus was the un-king, the one whose power was based on compassion, not might. When soldiers had earlier come to arrest Jesus, Peter had drawn his sword, severing the ear of one soldier. But Jesus repudiated the violence and healed the soldier. Jesus ruled with creative nonviolence. His power came as the Lord of Love, not a Commander of Armies.
Although the Gospels make this point clear—that Jesus stood beside the lowly, served instead of being served, turned the other cheek, exposed injustice —over the centuries many who claim to follow Jesus have continued to miss this essential point. In fact, this particular feast day on the Christian calendar challenges each of us to resist the temptation to image Jesus as a king lest we create religious empires out of Jesus’ simple way, support systems of hierarchy instead of joining Jesus’s egalitarian movement, sound a note of triumphalism rather than sing Jesus’s song of peace. Christian art is stocked with images of Jesus crowned like a European monarch, proof of our tendency to turn Jesus into a totem for our side. Christian hymnody, too, reveals our eagerness to make Jesus into a crusader or colonialist.
Remember the hymn we sang earlier that described Jesus as one who rules by “keeping company with pain,” by “enduring ridicule,” by “dying”? That hymn rightly describes Christ’s reign within our hearts.[i]
In contrast, hear these words to a well-known hymn written during the colonialism of the early 18th century and still sung by many today. Notice how Jesus is cast as an emperor exacting tribute from the conquered tribes:
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Does his successive journeys run;
His kingdom spread from shore to shore,
‘Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
From north to south the princes meet
To pay their homage at his feet;
While western empires own their Lord,
And savage tribes attend his word.
People and realms of every tongue
Dwell on his love with sweetest song,
And infant voices shall proclaim
Their early blessings on his name.[ii]
Jesus Christ, King of the Jews, was an ironic title for a man executed by the state. Jesus as King is utter irony. Irony. Jesus was, in fact, the un-king. “Call me what you will,” Jesus responded when Pilate asked if he were King of the Jews. Jesus had no power to defeat the religious and political systems of his day. He had only the power to forgive, to care, to die if necessary while indicting the power of violence.
“Are you king of the Jews?” Pilate asked.
“If you say so,” Jesus answered.
If we say so. We have the power to declare Jesus to be our leader, our guide, our teacher, our lord. We have the power to treat one another as equals and thus, by our actions, turn slaves into citizens, even into sisters and brothers.
Pilate had the power to do justice. But he vacillated. “What is truth?” he asked, as his half-hearted interrogation of Jesus devolved into personal introspection. What is the truest, realest kingdom? he may have wondered.
Jesus was subverting the notion of empire when he announced the coming of the kingdom of God. God’s power can never be wielded with sword or scepter, can only be maintained if we have “malice toward none and charity for all.” The Greek words interpreted as “kingdom of God” in the King James Version of the Bible, basileia tou theou, is a phrase better translated as “the reign of God” or “the rule of God” or “God’s domain” or even, more loosely “Love’s reign.” Jesus was not trying to establish a kingdom. There was no territory to rule or a political movement to lead or a future apocalyptic event to endure. Instead, the basileia tou theou was an encounter with the transforming presence of God, with a cosmic power greater than even Rome’s empire, a reality in which the first are last and the last are first, a realm in which God’s shalom holds sway, a way to live that Jesus followers could already begin to glimpse and live into in the here and now, not the there and then.[iii]
To enter this experience of God is within our power. Which means this upside-down kingdom depends on our ability to give up notions about power as domination. So that we live by love alone. So that we can be clothed in a more “immense power.”
Even in Lincoln’s mouth, that claim to power sounds more spiritual than imperial. His phrase puts me in mind of the metaphor Paul developed. Writing to the Galatians, he explained, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3:27). Paul believed those who dedicated themselves to the Way of Jesus were clothed with and sharing in his authority. We do not need to wear Superhero costumes or stovepipe hats to wield power; instead, we wear the power of compassion within.
Power hungry though humanity may be, many of us fail to admit our capacity for using our power for God’s purposes. We abdicate our power. We convince ourselves that our voice isn’t needed or our actions won’t count for much. But the 13th amendment to the US Constitution that ended the scourge of slavery in this country was passed by a margin of only two votes. Our voice, our actions can be used to usher in not a political theocracy, but a spiritual basileia.
Jesus had no aspirations to rule an empire. He was pointing us to a way of life in which we are united in God’s love. His way, though peaceful, is powerful. But we can misunderstand Jesus’s power of love and instead fall in love with power.
A more subtle mistake, however, is to fail to use our power. Like Mary Todd Lincoln, we might fear our power—of influence and ingenuity, of persuasion and sheer presence—will be wasted on a hopeless cause, forgetting we are the very ones needed to bring a just dream to reality. Or like Pilate, we sometimes wash our hands of messy situations and let someone else figure it out. Like the fickle crowd gathered before Pilate, we pretend we have no power and miss the chance to defend the very one—the scapegoat, the child, the marginalized group, the endangered piece of our planet—that can in fact be part of our own saving. You and I can tell ourselves that the world’s problems are too complex and someone else has all the power while forgetting that each of us has some role in addressing complex crises. At home, at church, on the job, in society . . . we forget that we are clothed in immense power. That is not arrogance. It is challenge. To pretend otherwise only means our true power will dissipate or will be appropriated without our consent.
We are “clothed in immense power,” bound together as we are in a spiritual enterprise of love and care. We, across all national borders, are united, indivisible, under God.
Hear as a prayer the closing and deeply empowering words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, spoken one month before the Civil War—and his own life—ended:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
May it be so, O God. Amen
[i] “Eternal Christ, You Rule” in the New Century Hymnal. Hymnwriter Dan Damon credits a sermon by UCC minister Ansley Coe Throckmorton as inspiration for this text. To the question, “How does Christ rule?” Throckmorton replied, “By keeping company with pain.” Note also how the New Century Hymnal alters another hymn traditionally sung on Christ the King Sunday. In “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” we do not “crown Him Lord of All” but “crown Christ servant of all.”
[ii] “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun” in the Baptist Hymnal (1975 edition). Words: Isaac Watts, 1719. (verses 1, 2, 4).
[iii] Jenks, Gregory C. The Once and Future Bible: An Introduction to the Bible for Religious Progressives. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011 (147-149).