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Paradox: A Kingdom Not of This World

Reign of Christ Sunday, Common Lectionary Year B

John 18: 33-38

©2018 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

Audio file – click to play

Today, following this sermon,
and thanks to this choir, we will hear
Christus Paradox, a powerful, provocative hymn
written by UCCan minister, prison chaplain, and poet,
Sylvia Dunstan,
reset into anthem form by Fedak,
with deliberate dissonance to capture the quandary
of so many of us,
and of this day;
the paradox that is Jesus Christ.

The dictionaries define paradox as
“a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory
or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.”
Contradictions, absurdities, possible truths.
There you have it.

After a year in the Gospel of Mark,
what do we now know about Jesus,
and what about him
makes him a paradox?
The embodiment of contradictions, absurdities,
and impossible possibilities?

A Galilean peasant of questionable parentage,
who never wrote a word,
who appears to have led a counter-cultural peripatetic lifestyle
of teaching, healing, religious rule breaking,
and table fellowship with all the wrong people,
adamantly peacefully, non-violently resistant
to forms of oppression and systematized injustice,
who was crucified as a criminal social agitator
by a Roman imperial machinery
in collusion with the local religious establishment…..
yet this man is claimed
by about 2.1 billion of the world’s current population
as “Christ, Messiah, Anointed One, Saviour and “King.”

John’s text doesn’t resolve but deepens the paradox
The religious leaders are stumped by a spiritual man,
and Pilate – the embodiment of Roman imperial power,
is likewise stumped by this utterly calm agitator.
Let’s not fall into the typical dramatic trope of the villain as stupid.
When he asks the question “Are you king of the Jews?”,
he is actually asking a politically pragmatic and astute question,
designed to deal swiftly with this misbegotten mystic.
If Jesus says “no” then Pilate can slough him off back to the religious elite to deal with.
If Jesus says “Yes,”
then he’s guilty of political treason, and thus political suicide,
writing his own death warrant;
for the only ruler in Judea,
is the one whom Pilate represents:
Caesar, the August Emperor.

But Jesus turns the question back on him.
“Have you been put up to this?” (What a question!)
And then he doesn’t deny or affirm,
but leaves the paradox unrelieved;
and speaks, a truth, a reality that Pilate recognizes as such,
but cannot grasp, nor accept,
much like most of us.

Jesus speaks to the ruler of his known world,
of the Kingdom of God-which is not of this world!
In fact it at first appears to be the absurd opposite
of what passes for the kingdoms of this world.

The kingdom Jesus
preached and practised, and lived,
he did so in company with
fishermen, children, tax collectors,
blind beggars, and hemorrhagic women,
society’s outsiders, failures, or politically expendable minorities.
The privileged aristocracy of the Kingdom of God
–those who receive the best of God’s gifts –
are the broken, the healed, the restored, the forgiven.
Its economy is founded on
the banquet of five loaves and two fish,
Sabbath-picked grain, cups of cold water,
shared generously among those with little or nothing.
Its armaments, nothing more lethal
than the words of life and light and truth, and hope,
and the repeated, targeted, acts of compassion,
healing, care, and love.

Of such is the Kingdom of God.
And of such kingdom is Christ the King.
And for such we pray using Jesus’ own words
that this “kingdom come on earth,
as it is in the blessed dream of God’s heaven.”
And yet, for many who share this world with us,
and sometimes for us too,
it’s not a paradox,
but pie in the sky;
a kingdom
either unattainably difficult,
or hopelessly weak,
or outrageously outmoded,
or dangerously complicit in those earthbound systems
which hurt and destroy,
rather than bring peace on earth.

So what do we do?
With this Kingdom,
and with this paradox that is Christ?

I think we do what Pilate did.
We take this prisoner into our household,
we look carefully, and we listen
to his truth.

For in this human, holy one,
this Prisoner before Pilate,
the kingdom of God,
the Dream of God
in all its winsome, mysterious longing
for all creation’s blessing
is personified.
In the paradox of his cradle and cross,
in the paradox of his death and life,
in the paradox of his narrow way that reaches wide
in the paradox of his cosmic vision confined for a moment
to history and defeat.

Yet, true to paradox in all its absurdity
is one possible truth that claims us:
before us stands the possibility that
we too,
through the perils and predicaments of our own flesh,
are actually called upon to
this Kingdom of God
“on earth as in heaven.”

What would happen if we stood before the Pilates of this world,
speaking the truth of God’s kingdom
into a world sullied by lies?
What would happen if we lived a life of compassion
among the kingdoms of cruelty and disdain?
What would happen if we held upon the doors
of welcome and inclusion for all,
against the closed borders of bigotry and fear of the other?
What would happen if we embodied healing wholeness
within a world of pain and suffering?
And oh what joys may come on earth if we were to enflesh
grace, gratitude, and abundant generosity
in a world pinched by the myth of scarcity!

Now that is both the cost and the gift
Jesus paid for living the kingdom of God,
and it is, if we’re willing,
the gift and cost for us too,
of living God’s Kingdom on earth, not just in heaven.

Anthem (audio file below).

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