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Glimmers of the Coming Kingdom

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church
Sikdaway Island, Savannah, Georgia
November 22, 2015

Glimmers of the Coming Kingdom
John 18:33-37

Right conquers wrong. Good conquers evil. Love conquers hate.

I want to hold on to this ethic of love, yet with the echoes of attacks in Paris ringing now through Belgium, where Brussels is on lock down and fears are escalating, how can I assert that right conquers wrong and good conquers evil? How can love defeat cold, calculating hatred?

Certainly, we never seen evil standing alone. Even in the deepest darkness of human history, glimmers of goodness can be found. An airliner crashes into the Potomac River on a snowy night and a pedestrian jumps into the water, pulls dozens to safety, dying in the effort. As the towers of the World Trade Center fall, they take with them the lives of firefighters, policemen and paramedics who ran into harm’s way to save others. A gunman takes over an Amish school and a 13-year old girl tells the killer to kill her first, hoping to buy time for her classmates.

A rabbi friend told me once that had there not been a man like Oskar Schindler who saved Jews from death in the Holocaust, then we would have invented him. But the rabbi knew and said that we never had to invent men like Schindler, or Maximilian Kolb, the Catholic priest who offered to die in the place of another man, or the many other stories of Holocaust heroism. And now to these stories, we add new names of those who acted selflessly in the face of death.

Ludovic Boumbas was enjoying a friend’s birthday party at La Belle Equipe, when a gunman in a bullet proof vest launched his attack. Congolese born Ludo launched himself at the gunman, blocking the bullets from hitting a woman who was injured, but lived.

Nearby, Eric Doninichetti first pulled his girlfriend to safety behind the bar, then the former French Marine started working to save those who were shot even as the bullets continued to fill the air.

Across Paris, 20-year old Jasmine El Youssi crouched behind the bar holding a woman who fled for safety when shooting started. Security cameras show how Jasmine then risked her own safety to assist the injured in the street. She later told a reporter, “I would have preferred I die, than let them die. I didn’t want the people who had been shot to think they had been abandoned.”

Imagining a loving God in this tragedy, it would be easy to wish that the killers, would have been struck down by a lightning bolt out of a cloudless sky as they prepared to launch their assault. Why didn’t Jesus intervene with a blinding light and a commanding voice to set things right? That’s not how the world works.

That doesn’t make God weak, but loving. For God cannot both give humans free will and take away that free will. If God took away our choices in order to make sure that there was no pain and suffering in the world, we would no longer be free and without freedom there can be no love. Love must be a choice.

On this last Sunday of the church year, our Gospel reading takes us into the heart of darkness as Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate in judgment. In this story we also find how love does indeed conquer hate.

The Roman governor Pontius Pilate asks “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks this as if the accusation against the Rabbi standing before him makes no sense. Charged with insurrection, Jesus remains oddly quiet. Pilate knows revolutionaries as the Roman governor in Palestine, he has dealt with little else.

In fact, we know that Pilate was in a bind that Passover when Jesus of Nazareth stood before him. The governor was not soft on sedition. Pilate had a few years previously given a small show of force by placing Roman standards within his palace so that they could be seen from within the Jewish Temple. The Jewish leadership saw this as placing idols in sight of their holiest of holies. This act by the Rome was an affront to their faith. Jews revolted. Pilate had them put to death and more Jews rose to take their place until even Pilate had to stop killing. A governor can only put so many people to death and still govern. Pilate relented, removing the standards from his own palace and an uneasy peace returned. Now Pilate is on watch whenever festivals bring crowds to the Temple.

It was into this uneasy peace that Jesus rode on a donkey as the crowd shouted Hosannas and cried out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” So much for the peace. Now within the week, the one who came in peace stands before Pilate charged with treason.

Pilate asks this erstwhile king, “What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

From this point, the situation quickly turns much darker. Pilate is never actually squeamish about putting someone to death to keep the peace. Kill the agitator. Show the might of Rome. Restore peace. Snuff out the light of rebellion. And with the hindsight offered through the lens of the resurrection, we know Jesus could have saved himself, but as he prayed on the night before he died, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

Jesus proved his power in powerlessness. That doesn’t make God weak, but loving. For God cannot both give humans free will and take away that free will. If God took away our choices in order to make sure that there was no pain and suffering in the world, we would no longer be free and without freedom there can be no love. Love must be a choice. Jesus came and lived among us, choosing love even when he was abandoned by his friends and put to death by his enemies.

But this will all just be stained glass talk and pious nonsense if we don’t somehow connect the reign of God to the very fallen world in which we still live. How can we proclaim a connection between our faith and politics in a world reeling from that deadly combination? How can a Christian form any faithful response to the epic levels of fear emanating from ISIS?

Yet we see that a world created for love means freedom to do great evil as well as good. There is no other way. God gave us choice. And through our choices we can get hurt and we can hurt or kill others. We humans bend our wills to do some very ungodly things and the result includes the deaths by drunk drivers and other accidents. It also means that birth defects can occur from known causes like a mother taking drugs while pregnant or causes less understood at the time such as infants harmed by thalidomide.

A universe where real love is an option means a world in which pain and suffering are not only possible, but likely. And yet, this world of choice founded on love is also what makes possible all the noble acts of self-sacrifice like those that unfolded just over a week ago in Paris. This world is not only a world of pain and suffering, but also a world of generosity, kindness, and self-sacrificial love.

Through our Gospel reading which reminds us of Christ’s passion we see that God did not stand apart from creation but entered into the creation in the second person of the Trinity, Jesus, to lovingly reweave the tattered tapestry of our world. Where is God when tragedy strikes? God is present in the hearts of those suffering. And God is in the hearts of those who help, as care for others reflects that self-giving love that flows from the very heart of God.

How then might this way of seeing larger tragedies help us live differently in our day to day lives? We begin to sort out a response in understanding that when we proclaim Christ as King we are claiming dual citizenship. Christians are citizens of the nation in which they live, but we are also citizens of heaven. The Apostle Paul would write of this saying, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The early Christians were seen as subversive, but they also taught that Christians should obey the laws, pay taxes, and pray for those in authority. Christians were subversive because they claimed that like all other principalities and powers, Rome was passing away and all of Rome’s legitimate power and authority was relative as it would one day be judged by the crucified and risen one.

If our primary citizenship is in heaven, our primary allegiance is to God the Father as revealed by his son Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, then how are we to act? First, we are to be citizens of this world, say our prayers, consider our democratic choices in the light of our understanding and take part in the political life of our nation. We are to be good citizens of this great nation, helping our country to be guided by the better angels of our natures, serving as we are called to serve. And we give thanks for superheroes who wear Kevlar rather than a cloth cape. We give thanks for the first responders who walk toward the gunfire and the carnage left by those who would terrorize us. But we are never to put our trust in Donald, or Hillary, Carson or Sanders any more than we put our essential trust in any leader from Washington to Lincoln, from Reagan to Obama.

Citizen of heaven that I aspire to be, I still can not, in this coming week, do anything to assist with the global threats which rightly grab the headlines. But I can keep my own actions grounded in a different kind of kingdom and so shine light where I may. I saw a glimpse of this on Friday when I took part in a Eucharist led by the Rev. Jamie Maury who ministers to homeless persons in Savannah. During the Prayers of the People a homeless man prayed for victims of ISIS and all could hear one person in need seeing a greater need in others and God was with us.

This week as families gather and even the tryptophan of the turkey can’t quiet the uneasy talk of politics, I can not give into hate. I can start with love of my actual brothers and sister and my in-laws. That’s a good beginning. How might you share love with your family? Is there anyone with whom you need to reconcile this week?

Next, I can look to my own life and actions. How can I embody citizenship in heaven? This should not be a mystery at St. Peter’s where you welcome homeless families with Interfaith Hospitality Network and supply Savannah with a legion of volunteers to aid those who would be lost and left out. For Christians are called to live out love of God and love of neighbor wherever they may be.

Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world, and we can still reflect the values of that coming kingdom in our actions this week. If every Christian would reflect the best of their citizenship in heaven this week, I promise you the world would feel the difference from those billions of glimmers of light.

And beyond this, we see that whenever we find great acts of evil, we find signs of love. The pattern is universal. Though free will can create tragedies, when the dust clears, there are always more stories of light shining in the darkness. More than a mere silver lining, these are the real and tangible signs that the darkness will never overtake the light.

Amen.

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