This is the text of my sermon from this morning. Audio will be up soon at Bethlehem’s website.
Today is technically Christ the King Sunday, or Reign of Christ, if you want to be gender neutral, but I’m not going to call it that. I’m not going to call Jesus King because he didn’t call himself that.
While Old Testament visions may proclaim God King of the Universe, and Daniel speaks of an Ancient One that looks a lot like the Jesus of the book of Revelation, Jesus flatly refuses to claim the title for himself. In our gospel lesson from John, the governor Pilate tries, again and again, to get Jesus to answer to the title of King. That is the treasonous charge leading to his arrest.
And Jesus will not call himself king. Instead, he says this, “For this I was born and for this I came in to the world, to testify to the truth.”
The Greek word John puts in Jesus’ mouth here is martureo, which means to testify, to be a witness. And it’s the word from which we get our English word martyr.
In the opening vision of Revelation, Jesus is identified the same way: the witness, the martyr (it’s the same Greek word), the one who testifies. That’s in verse 5 of our second reading today.
So, I’m going to follow Jesus’ lead on the language here and call today Christ the Martyr Sunday.
Now that is a loaded term, martyr. In addition to gory images of the stoning, crucifixion, persecution and death of Christians, the word martyr is used by Islamic terrorists to describe suicide bombers and gunman like those who attacked last week in Paris, in Nigeria, in Mali, and day after day in Syria.
If the image of King is one of protection and power and civility, the word martyr is nearly opposite. Martyr is a word of peril, of chaos, and an entirely different kind of power. A martyr’s power is in the story she shapes her life around, in the conviction which causes her to stand up in the face of danger, against all good sense and say “no”. To say “I do not believe the story that everyone else is telling”. My truth is something else.
Which is exactly what Jesus did, and exactly what got him in trouble. The story he was telling, and the ways he lived out the truth he believed, were powerful. His witness drew people in, changed people’s lives. It radicalized some of his followers so that they gave up their livelihoods and laid down their lives for the sake of the message he proclaimed.
The early Christians for whom the book of Revelation was written faced persecution just like Jesus had, and maybe even worse, from the Roman Emperor Nero. Christians were systematically excluded from the privileges and protection of the Roman Empire. Their very lives were threatened, not unlike what is happening to Christians in Syria right now.
And how did God help them in their time of trial? Not by coming like some heavenly king on a cloud with the same weapons of war their persecutors used. No, God gave them a vision, a new story to encourage, unite, and empower them to resist their oppressors.
This vision, which makes up the book of Revelation, is full of coded symbols that are hard to understand. They described the Roman Empire, exposing it in all its sinful, idolatrous beastliness. This deeply flawed human empire is contrasted time and again with the heavenly realm where there is peace and singing, forgiveness and sacrificial life-giving. On earth, a terrible beast with crowns and horns of power and all-seeing eyes sits on the throne, while heaven is ruled by a wounded Lamb. And in the end, the earthly powers are destroyed, and heaven comes to earth. Everything is re-created just as God intended it to be from the beginning.
The Christians of the seven churches of Asia Minor (which happen to be in exactly the part of the world that ISIS currently terrorizes) clung to this vision, this story. They used its words to find the hope they needed to stay faithful despite threats. They clung to Jesus, the martyr, the one who remained faithful, the firstborn of those who died for their faith, and would come again triumphantly.
That story made a difference in the lives of early believers, many of whom became martyrs, all of whom were witnesses to the same Truth Jesus proclaimed.
Now let me be clear about martyrdom and the call of Jesus to give testimony even when it’s risky. A martyr is willing to die for what they believe, but does not seek death, nor kill others as they die. That is suicidal terrorism, not martyrdom.
And honestly, most of us will never be called to a martyrdom that ends in actual physical death. The death our witness is likelier to bring is that of our personal comfort, and the expectation of easy conversation with those who hold different truths than we do.
So what is our Truth, or the Truth (capital T) as Jesus proclaimed it?
The Truth is this: that the God of the whole universe, the Creator of all that is, came as vulnerable baby when he could have come as a fearsome King. That baby became a child who was a refugee in Egypt, as he and his parents fled the genocidal reign of Herod. That child became an adult who crossed every racial, economic, religious and social boundary in order to give witness to the love of God. And that adult became a threat to every power structure he encountered because he refused to put rules above relationships, or fight with the same weapons that were being used against him.
And the most important Truth of all: that Christ became a martyr, using even his own death to give witness to the Truth that God’s light shines and the darkness cannot overcome it.
It’s a powerful story, and if you’re here this morning, you probably know that already. You’ve likely felt its pull on your soul, its resonance in your experience, its promise in your despair. And it’s a story that needs witnesses more than ever.
In a world that is constantly giving us more reasons to be fearful, we need this story whose messengers unendingly proclaim “be not afraid”. In a world where refugees are never-ending, we need a story that reminds us how often God is met in the stranger who needs help. In a world where so many are hungry, we need the story of a God who multiplies a few loaves and fish into a feast for the multitudes.
And in case you doubt that your witness, a simple telling of the story, can make a difference, I leave you with one example of a time when your stories did just that.
In the darkest night of my life, when my first marriage was ending and I was more afraid than I’ve ever been for my future and Ollie’s, you came to me in person, in cards, in letters and emails. You told me of your own times of trial and the new life God brought you on the other side. You offered your carpentry and cooking and babysitting as a testimony to the love you and and God have for me. You held me together with your prayers when everything was falling apart. Your witness to the Truth of God’s presence in our deepest valleys reminded me I was never alone. Your testimony to the Truth of resurrection fueled my hope.
Your witness, dear friends, can literally change this world. Every time you speak of God’s loving and saving presence to another person, your testimony brings light in this too-dark world. Every time your faith moves you to an act of kindness, you tell the story of a God who cares. Every time you stand up against the fear- and hate-mongering voices of extremists of any faith, you are giving testimony to the greatest Truth there is. These may seem small things, but every big and powerful thing, including what God did in Jesus, starts small.
It is for this that Christ was born, for this he came into the world, to be a witness in his words and deeds to the life-changing power of God’s story. It is into this that we, who belong to the Truth and listen to his voice, are called to follow. Amen.