Nov 21, 2015

Sunday: A Kingdom of Justice, Love, and Peace

Dn 7: 13-14
Rev 1: 5-8
Jn 18: 33-37

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

That famous line, first coined in 1887 by the British historian known as Lord Acton has been used to described the reality of what happens when power is either grabbed by those who have not the best of intentions or to those in whom power and position have been too narrowly concentrated.  History has proved this to be true.  Think of the Roman Emperors who declared themselves to be gods or the self-proclaimed French leader Napoleon who really wasn’t French at all or the notorious German dictator Adolf Hitler who was responsible for unspeakable suffering on millions of innocent people.  But, they are gone and their rule of terror and corruption is ended as a dark historical memory. Yet, what they promoted still lives on.

History also has shown us that while there have been a few good and even saintly kings and queens, for the most part too much power does corrupt and what could be a benign ruler over people often has become a rule by fear or intimidation.  We might say that Queen Elizabeth of England is much loved by the British.  Well, she may be in many parts but it is probably because she has no power.  Her rule is symbolic and historical but she has no power to effect law as head of state.  

Yet, this Sunday on the last one of our liturgical year, the Church turns our attention to another king.  One proclaimed to be “King of the Universe.”  For those who have had a lust for power such a position and claim would have been a further hope.  Yet, Jesus is a king.  In fact he preached on the kingdom of God numerous times in his public ministry.  He taught many parables on what the “kingdom of God is like.” 

In Matthew 13 we hear the kingdom of God is like: a sower with seed in the field, wheat and weeds growing together, a mustard seed, like yeast in bread, like a hidden treasure in the field, good and bad fish caught in the same net.  These are not proclamations of a dictator but the words of a wise teacher which seem to invite us to personal transformation.

All of which makes us wonder what sort of “King” is Jesus?  In fact this title is not one that Jesus ever claimed for himself.  He was proclaimed as King by the adoring crowds as he entered Jerusalem after the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  Jesus could have stopped the frenzied crowd but he did not – he rode in on a donkey with olive tree and palm branches waving, a scriptural image of the Messiah. 

So, what sort of king is Jesus?  Certainly he had all the power of the Universe at his beck and call.  He healed the blind, fed 5,000 hungry and desperate people with a bit of bread and fish, he calmed a ferocious storm on the Sea of Galilee by his command, walked on water towards the frightened disciples in the boat, and he raised a man back to life who was known to be dead for four days. Such power could only be labeled absolute.  But, Our Lord was anything but corrupted by it.  In fact she shunned it and often wanted to heal away from the crowds.  So, he is a humble king.

The second reading of our Mass from the book of Revelation says: “Jesus Christ is the faithful witness . . . and ruler of the kings of the earth.  To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father, to him be glory and power forever and ever.” (Rev 1: 5-6).

This is a ruler who did not call for the blood of others but shed his own blood for the sake of his flock. He is a ruler who referred to himself not as despotic King with a lust for power but a Good Shepherd who would give his life for his sheep. (Jn 10: 11). This is a leader who would gather to himself the lost, the forgotten, the rejected and abandoned and invite them to experience not a jail cell or a gas chamber but infinite mercy, forgiveness and love. He is a teacher who touched the deepest hunger in the human heart for value, meaning, dignity and purpose.  This ruler shared the power of forgiveness and mercy with all who would follow him. He rules with the power of love and mercy and speaks in a way that respects the lost and powerless. He offers a new vision of God who is a loving and forgiving Father not a heartless and terrible judge.    

Our Gospel this Sunday from John 18 may be the most revealing, however. This shepherd and teacher, healer and merciful man stands in humiliation and shame before a representative of the greatest earthly power of ancient times, the Roman Empire, and is questioned by Pontius Pilate: “Are you the King of the Jews?” That claim in itself was a direct threat to the Romans.  That anyone from this tiny eastern Mediterranean country would dare to claim superiority over the Romans was high treason.  It was not a dare Jesus made for himself but one that was forced upon him by his accusers, likewise aligned with Rome as strange bedfellows.

Jesus refers to that claim as he questioned Pilate about his suspicion – “Have others told you about me?”  Our Lord does not back down but offers a somewhat spiritual yet absolutely true answer: “My kingdom does not belong to this world . . . my kingdom is not here.” The power Jesus does claim is that found in his followers: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Its’ a strange conversation between Pilate and Jesus and may have left Pilate more confused than convinced.  But, in the end Jesus’ kingdom is not political or earthly.  Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, his kingdom is a kind of alternative kingdom.  It is about God’s desire for humanity; not about destruction and fear but about resurrection and eternal life.

His truth reminds us that God wills for us that we hear the voice of his Son.  If we follow in the way he shows us, we can help create a new social order between people in which everyone feels they have worth and dignity.  Jesus’ way is that of justice, love and peace.  Rather than emphasize power and control, he invites us to unite ourselves with him and to receive in faith what he offers us.  To hear and follow his Word is to hear the voice of God and the truth he bears witness to by his life, death and resurrection.  While the world would rather think small God’s kingdom in Christ is open and expansive inviting all to taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

Our celebration of the Holy Eucharist brings us to experience a taste of this.  United in Christ, by our common baptism and faith, we mark our diversity not as separating nationalities one from another, or creating rivalries between us but as a reflection of the beauty of God.  We gather to hear the word of the King and to feast on his body and blood, his very life poured out for us so that we may do the same for one another. 

Do we follow this King with all our hearts as we lay aside our own agenda of power, control and individualism? What will it take for me to accept his mercy and forgiveness? 

". . . he might present to the immensity of your majesty an eternal and universal kingdom, 
a kingdom of truth and life,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love and peace . . ."

(From Preface for Solemnity)