Every once in a while, I am reminded of how bizarre our faith can sound to others. When a child asks a seemingly basic question, or when a non-believing stranger asks me a question that is not easy to explain, I can imagine how strange my responses sound. But having been raised in the faith, the strangeness never bothered me. And if I really was not sure about something, I found myself comfortable with the explanation, “It’s a mystery.”
But lately, I have been barraged by incidents where “It’s a mystery,” just does not cut it! The first instance was the First Holy Communion class I did with David and William a few weeks ago. David and William actually went pretty easy on me. But those classes are always challenging because they do not allow you to simply experience Holy Eucharist – I have to explain Holy Eucharist: from why we process and reverence an instrument of death (the cross had the same purpose as our modern-day electric chair); to what to do when we don’t necessarily believe everything in the Nicene Creed; to why the priest holds out her hands during the Eucharistic prayer. The second instance of “It’s a mystery,” not cutting it was in Bible Study class last week. The group is reading John and John’s rather gory discussion of eating flesh and drinking blood. The group wanted to know what Episcopalians believe about what happens to the bread and wine when the priest consecrates the elements – and how that differs from what other denominations believe. I am fairly certain that if I had told the group that what happens in Eucharist is a mystery, they would not have let me off the hook so easily. The final instance of “It’s a mystery,” not cutting it has been in reading the book, The Year of Living Biblically. In this past week’s assignment, our author, A.J. Jacobs finally makes his way into the New Testament. As an agnostic Jew, the author discusses his fears about trying to live the Bible literally if he cannot get behind the idea of Jesus as the Messiah and the idea of Jesus being both human and divine. As a cynical New Yorker who confesses he has no desire to convert, I am sure my “It’s a mystery,” explanation would get him nowhere.
The challenges of our faith are not limited to worship, Eucharist, and Jesus’ divinity. Today we celebrate yet another bizarre element of our faith – Christ the King Sunday. On this last Sunday of Pentecost, before we enter into the season of Advent, we declare Christ as our King. On the surface, that is not a bizarre claim, I realize. Many communities have kings, and the way we venerate Christ is not unlike the way many kingdoms venerate their kings. Given the familiarity of that image, we might imagine that Christ the King Sunday is about regal processions, festive adornments, and praise-worthy songs. In fact, we will do some of that today. The problem though with Christ the King Sunday is not that Jesus is our King. The problem is what kind of king Jesus is.
We have seen evidence of what kind of king Jesus is. Most famously would be the Palm Sunday procession. Jesus does not ride into Jerusalem on horseback with a sword and an army. No, he rides into town on a borrowed donkey, accompanied by a little crowd – nothing newsworthy really. There are other clues too. There is that time when the Samaritans refuse housing to Jesus and his disciples. The disciples ask, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”[i] But Jesus just rebukes the disciples and keeps on going. Even when Jesus knows Judas is going to betray him, he does not stop Judas. Instead of stopping Judas or outing Judas, Jesus quietly lets Judas leave to betray him.
So we should not be surprised today at the interaction between Pilate and Jesus and why this passage, of all passages, should be selected for Christ the King Sunday. Pilate is perplexed by this man who is being labeled (or more accurately, is being accused of having claimed to be) the king of the Jews. So Pilate asks repeatedly whether Jesus is indeed the king of the Jews. Jesus mockingly explains that if he were a traditional king, his people would be fighting to save him – which they are decidedly not doing. Jesus cryptically further explains that his kingship does not look like kingship in the traditional sense – and in fact, his version of kingship is the only kind of kingship that can save anyone. Violence, retaliation, and revenge will not work.[ii] A battle of wills will not win control. The only thing that will win is sacrifice, selflessness, and ceding. Jesus will not overcome the evil of the world by matching wills with rulers like Pilate. Jesus will only overcome by allowing himself to be overcome. When we really think about Jesus’ kingship, his kingship is yet another bizarre thing about our faith. Who pins their faith on a weak, non-violent, forgiving man?
Given the multiple terrorist attacks we have witnessed over the past week, the irony of Christ the King Sunday is not lost on me. Just this past week, at Lunch Bunch, we were discussing the challenges of engaging in war to stop terrorism verses isolationism. The discussion we had was the same discussion that hundreds of theologians have had for centuries. I have even witnessed top scholars debate the ethics of intervention versus non-violence. We watch Jesus turn the other cheek – in fact, Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, give away our tunics, go a second mile, give to borrowers, and love our enemies.[iii] But we watched what happened in World War II when we stayed out of the war as long as possible – a genocide happened. And we have seen what sanctions do in foreign countries – though they are non-violent, the brunt of the restrictions hit the poorest of the country. And yet, we are also only one country. We cannot possibly fight every force of evil, have troops in every country, and wage war every time evil emerges.
This is one of those times when I would love to say, “It’s a mystery!” We say that phrase because the answer is beyond our knowing – or because we just do not know the answer. Any kind of guessing about “What Would Jesus Do,” is not likely to get us very far. We know that Jesus does not fight Pilate today, and has no intention of answering evil for evil. But we also know that Jesus is wholly other – the Messiah, the Savior, the sacrifice for our sins. His death is different from our deaths, and the kingdom he brings is both already and not yet.
Despite the fact that I cannot give you answers about what we should do about ISIS, about terrorism, or about violence, what I can tell you is that the ambiguity of Jesus’ identity as Christ the King is actually good news today. Now I know ambiguity does not sound like a gift. But in this instance, I believe ambiguity is where we can put our faith today. Ambiguity is a gift today because ambiguity makes us uncomfortable. Because we do not have definitive answers, we are forced to stay in prayer and keep discerning God’s will in this chaotic world. Because we do not have a king who answers violence for violence (which is quite frankly, a very easy black-and-white formula to replicate), we are forced to contemplate our faith in light of the world. Because we follow Christ the King, we do not get to say, “It’s a mystery,” as an excuse not to wrestle.
As I think about the conversations I have had with David and William, with our Thursday Bible Study Group, and even the conversation I would have with A.J. Jacobs, I realize ambiguity is the most honest, vulnerable, real way we can start any conversation about faith and Jesus Christ. And if we ever want a young person, a non-believer, or even someone wise beyond their years to trust that they can have an authentic, meaningful conversation with us about faith, then we have to be willing to step into the ambiguity of faith. One of Jacobs’ advisors talks about the “glory of following things we can’t explain.”[iv] That is what Christ the King offers us today – the opportunity to follow things we cannot always explain. Jesus invites us share our ponderings and struggles with knowing this king who is sometimes counterintuitive. He invites us to relinquish our angst about the ambiguity, and instead to celebrate the King of ambiguity. Amen.
[i] Luke 9.54.
[ii] David Lose, “Christ the King B: Not of this World,” November 16, 2015 as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2015/chirst-the-king-b-not-of-this-world/ on November 19, 2015.
[iii] Matthew 5.39-48.
[iv] A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically (London: Arrow Books, 2009), 203.