Common Wealth of Light Versus the Empire of DarknessPosted: November 25, 2012
Common Wealth of Light Versus the Empire of Darkness
Probably none of Jesus’ followers were present at the interrogation of Jesus by the Roman Governor Pilate. They had all gone into hiding. This conversation between Jesus and Pilate was almost certainly the creation of the imagination of the author of John. The conversation reflects the confrontation between the Roman Empire and the followers of Jesus in the late First Century, when the church emerged on the Empire’s radar screen. The church was considered a Jewish sect, and enjoyed the toleration the Empire had extended to Judaism. As more and more gentiles were recruited into the life of the church, however, the Romans became aware of this strange sect as a threat to the Empire, when in 64 A.D. the Emperor Nero initiated the first Roman persecution of the Christians.
In our scripture this morning, the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the Empire was on display, when in verse 38 Pilate admitted that he found no crime in Jesus, but he went ahead and ordered his execution anyway. The Empire stood convicted of executing Jesus, just as the Empire was guilty of persecuting and executing the followers of Jesus. And I want to give the author of John some real credit for faith. John was writing, during the persecution of the Christians under the Emperor Domitian about 90 A.D. The author could not look ahead and know that ultimately the church would convert the Empire in 323 A.D (And he also didn’t know that the Empire would co-opt the church under Constantine.) Therefore this conversation between Jesus and Pilate that played out in the imagination of the author of John was a real testament of faith — faith that ultimately the way of Jesus would prevail over the power of the Empire.
Now let’s pay special attention in the text in verse 36: Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.”
Verse 36 is often misinterpreted to mean that the Kingdom of Jesus is off in heaven, it is an otherworldly Kingdom that has nothing to do with this earth. The Lutheran doctrine of the two Kingdoms can be traced to this verse. But let’s examine the verse more carefully. Jesus is not claiming that his teaching is only meant to get people into heaven, rather he is saying that his teaching of non-violence means that his followers will not physically or violently contest with Rome’s power. The spiritual struggle to try to redeem the Empire from its murderous pursuit of power, wealth and oppression will be non-violently pursued by the followers of Jesus.
And that is why the truly great spiritual movements of the 20th century focused on confronting oppression and violence with love. Mahatma Gandhi freed India. Martin Luther King set in motion a movement to end racism in America. (We still have a ways to go.) And Nelson Mandela brought down the forces of apartheid in South Africa. Suffering non-violent love is a costly kind of love. It cost Jesus his life. The way of Jesus has cost many martyrs their lives, but in a world that is possessed by the insanity of violent oppression, suffering non-violent love is the only sane way to live. And that is the message of the gospel as we close out the season of Kingdomtide.
Jesus was the light of the world, the Empire represented the dark side of human nature. Jesus teaching was always consistently opposed to Empire. For the moment let’s consider four principles of Empire:
Four Principles of Empire
1. Human beings are best ruled by hierarchy from the top down. Any other form of governance results in chaos.
2. The top 1% in the hierarchy will accumulate the majority of the power and wealth.
3. The Golden Rule of Empire: He who has the gold makes the rules.
4. The Social Order is ultimately maintained through violence.
Jesus taught the opposite of hierarchy, the first will be last and the last will be first. If you would be a leader you must be the servant of all. Leadership according to Jesus is for the purpose of serving the needs of others rather than self. Too often we see leadership abused — leadership that is self-serving. Especially in our current political climate, money buys elections, and professional politicians serve their own ends and the desires of their donors, rather than addressing the needs of ordinary citizens. The Commonwealth of God on the other hand inspires servant leaders, men and women who use their spiritual gifts to minister to the needs of others.
Can a community survive without hierarchy? One small way as followers of the way of Jesus we seek to subvert the hierarchies of social status is by welcoming everyone into our community of faith. At United Church, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” A second way at United Church we offer an alternative to hierarchy is the Sharing Table. On Thursday evenings everyone who comes is fed. There are no distinctions at the Sharing Table – all are welcome.
Two years ago when we invited the congregation to participate in asset mapping, we worked together from the bottom up. Everyone was invited to bring their gifts and talents to the table, and as we connected the differing gifts of individuals, new projects and ministries began to emerge. That was a very creative time in the life of our congregation.
Jesus also opposed the concentration of land and wealth in the hands of the Herod’s and the Sadducees. He advocated for fair wages and for sharing. When wealth and power become too highly concentrated in a society it leads to stagnation. Economic growth requires enough money in enough different hands to go out and spend it in order to drive the economy. When power is more widely shared the decision making process becomes more creative seeking innovative solutions rather than relying upon the same old answers.
Finally, Jesus rejected the use of violence. You have heard that it was said, “an eye for an eye,” but I say to you if someone strikes you on the right cheek offer him the other also. You have also heard that it was said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. If a Roman soldier compels you to carry his pack one mile, prove to him you are free to love by carrying it two miles. Jesus rejected the use of violence. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “And eye for an eye only leaves the whole world blind.” Just look at Israel and Gaza.
1. Blessed are those who need God and know it, for theirs is the commonwealth of heaven.
2. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
3. Blessed are the gentle and humble hearted, for they will inherit the land.
4. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
5. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
6. Blessed are the authentic of heart, for they will see God.
7. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
8. Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the commonwealth of heaven.
How different the way of Jesus is from the way of Empire. Pilate was speaking on behalf of pragmatic rulers down through history. “It’s not the earth the meek inherit, it’s the dirt.” But in a world of nuclear weapons violence has become in the words of Isaac Asimov the last refuge of the incompetent. The violence of hierarchy may seem practical and pragmatic, but the way of Jesus is the only sane way to live. The way of Jesus is the way of light. The way of Empire leads to the dark side and destruction. “What is truth,” asks Pilate?
And Jesus answers, “Everyone who is of the truth, hears my voice.” Can you hear the voice of Jesus? Jesus says, “if you need God and know it, then you are blessed.” Jesus says, “if you are vulnerable enough to mourn, you will be comforted.” Jesus says, “If you are gentle and humble hearted, you will inherit the earth.” Jesus says, “if you seek justice, not revenge, you will receive your heart’s desire.” Jesus says, “if you are merciful others will treat you with compassion.” Jesus says, “if you are authentic and transparent with others, you will see God.” Jesus says, “if you are a peace maker, God will claim you as one of his own.” Jesus says, “if others persecute you because you seek the way of love, then the commonwealth of God will be yours.”
This is the last Sunday of the church year. Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, the season of waiting for the coming of Christ into the world. And how did the Christ come into the world? As a child of a peasant family cradled in a manger, a feed trough for animals, because his parents didn’t even have the cost of a room in the Inn. A child whose birth was attended by shepherds, shepherds of all people, about as low on the social ladder as you could get. The Jesus of the Christmas story tells us that God appears in unlikely places to turn the social order upside down and subvert Empire. As followers of Jesus let us take heart for we are children of the commonwealth of God.