According to the gospel of John at Jesus’ trial Pontius Pilate asked him a searching question—“Are you the king of the Jews?” And Jesus replied–“My kingdom is not from this world.” But that wasn’t good enough for Pilate and he pressed for a straight answer, “So you are a king then?”
Well, here we are again, beloved, after all these years. We’re both still alive, you and I, and I think we deserve congratulations for that, because staying alive is no mean feat in a world where literally everybody dies. And living in Florida, as my wife and I do, mortality is a fact that is continually being driven home to you–It isn’t easy staying alive in the Sunshine State. For one thing, everybody down there seems to pack a gun, and they shoot first and ask questions later. It’s the law. And the way they drive! Oh, don’t get me started on the way they drive!
So cheers to you, and cheers to me, and three cheers for us both, beloved, for being among the quick and not the dead this morning. It is so good to see you all again! I can’t tell you how good it is!
I remarked to somebody recently that most of the people I know are dead now, and she said—Oh, surely that can’t be true. I replied–Oh, yes, but it is true. In all those churches where I was the pastor over all those years, I have known so many people who have passed beyond the veil, that those of my acquaintance who are still alive are more the exception than the rule.
But I still recognize those faithful departed, and they are still very present to me—especially at certain moments like this one. I feel their presence around me here this morning—Raymond Davis, Dick Oetgen, Charlie Finley, Meg Gartelmann, Jim Pervier, Ben Tucker, Carr and Augusta Glover, Cornelia Rollins, Don Meyers, Shirley Brodley, Paul Senior and Miss Mary Ewaldsen, the Belle of Springfield, and so many more I could not begin to name them all. But you can name them, dozens more, without once pausing to catch your breath.
Because a church like this one is not just a gathering of the living—it is a digit–a finger or a toe–of the mystical body of Christ—a communion of saints, composed of everyone, living and dead, who tried, with varying degrees of success, to follow Christ the King in this place in their own time.
So just pause and consider this congregation, the Lutheran Church of the Ascension, over your astonishing 275 years of life—-just pause and try to calculate how many thousands of souls have communed together here, how many have lived here in faith and died here in hope. Why, this morning, as the writer of the Book of Hebrews puts it, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses as thick as molasses in January.
And then just pause and consider, beloved, what all those souls endured here and remained faithful—what plagues, wars, depressions, what divisions, scandals, and congregation free-for-alls, what bad times and good, good pastors and screw balls—the thought of it all simply boggles the mind. And yet in spite of all that here we are again, beloved, after all these years. It is nothing short of a miracle!
This church is not perfect–was not and never will be—but the angel of this church—and every congregation has an angel, a guardian spirit, a corporate identity and personality, the sum of all those living and dead who are a part of that church—the angel of the Lutheran Church of the Ascension is a warrior, the battered and battle-toughened veteran of many conflicts. And at certain times the angel of this church has been truly great, clothed with the Spirit from head to toe in fire. And since we are here together anyway this morning, beloved, it is worth considering what that true greatness means.
Because greatness is the subject of the gospel lesson for today—two kinds of greatness, each radically different from the other, contrasted for us in the personalities of two quite different men. We have before us the encounter between Jesus of Nazareth, who is on trial for his life, and Pontius Pilate, a man who would have cast his fleeting shadow across the stage of history and then vanished completely if he had not been the Roman governor of Palestine at the time of Jesus’ trial.
But because Jesus was crucified “under Pontius Pilate” we recall his name every single Sunday we say the Creed. He is remembered in perpetuity for his part in the greatest injustice ever committed. But what we forget is in his own time Pilate was a real person and a considerable one in his own right.
He was a successful politician—in some ways Pontius Pilate was the ultimate politician. We can easily imagine Pilate standing among that mixed lot of wannabes on the television hotly debating among themselves which among them would the least objectionable choice to be our president. Pilate would have been right at home among those politically ambitious women and men. Like them he was somebody who would have defined greatness in terms of wealth—great wealth–billions of real—and imaginary—dollars. And like them Pilate was somebody who would also have defined greatness in terms of family connections. He knew that it in politics it matters who your father was and who you are married to.
But most of all Pilate was somebody who knew that in order to achieve political greatness you have to be a dog who will eat a dog. He knew that to survive in the dog eat dog world of politics you have to be willing to say whatever is necessary, and that truth is only the direction the wind is currently blowing. Pontius Pilate was somebody–somebody who would have defined greatness in terms of himself and people like himself, who live only in this world, by the rules of this world, for the prizes this world offers.
And so he found Jesus of Nazareth a source of great puzzlement. Here before him stood a man with no visible wealth, no high-flying family connections, a nobody in this world—a man who had achieved some modest fame as a popular preacher and worker of miracles, but who had dropped to zero in the polls, despised by his own people and abandoned by his own followers, apparently helpless in the face of death—yet so composed and serene was Jesus that he was positively scary.
Here was something uncanny Pilate had never encountered before, a greatness not from this world, and he was puzzled by it. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asked, even though he did not for a moment believe that Jesus was a king in any political sense of the world. But he did realize that he was in the presence something else, a greatness not based on wealth or class, and Pilate struggled—as you and I struggle when we encounter the Man from Nazareth–to get his head around what makes this one different from all the men and women who are great with the greatness of this world and nothing more.
So, beloved, that brings us around to the occasion of our being here together, the anniversary of the Lutheran Church of the Ascension, the celebration of your astonishing survival through two hundred and seventy-five years of uppity up ups and downitty, down downs. Your endurance, that you are still here, is a great accomplishment, and I would be the last to sell it short. But we are living in evil times, beloved, and in evil times endurance is not enough. In such times as these a different kind of greatness is called for.
Here in America we are living in a time of the profoundest moral confusion, when those who have no values talk of nothing but their core values, when selfishness is exalted as strength of character, and kindness, decency, common courtesy, and respect for the opinions of others are treated with contempt.
This is the Age of Lead, beloved. Our world has already entered upon a century of violent religious conflict. There are forces of destruction already unleashed among we cannot yet imagine. Last year in November 2014, just to take one month, there were 664 jihadist attacks in 14 countries, killing a total of 5,042 people. In the last thirty years 1.5 million Christians have been killed by Islamist militias in Sudan, not to mention the rape, the pillage, the abduction of young girls. And the violence is spreading. What happened in Paris last week, horrible as it was, is nothing to what is coming. Fasten your seatbelts, beloved; it is going to be a bumpy night!
But in these evil times we still have a choice—the eternal choice, as individuals and as the angels of churches, whether to pursue one kind of greatness or another—the this-worldly greatness of Pontius Pilate or the true greatness of the man from Galilee. We have a choice whether to turn in on ourselves, protect our property and our principal, and let the rest of the world go to hell in a handbasket, or to hear the call of Jesus to live in his kingdom.
It is a real and immediate choice. Because every single day of our lives we wake up a different person, and each single day some measure of true greatness is available to us. Every single day we can be a little like Jesus. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate to make his greatness available to us.
And wherein did the greatness of Jesus lie? Come on! After all these years do I still need to tell you? We can see it as clear as day in our gospel lesson. There Pilate asks Jesus—“Are you the king of the Jews?” And Jesus answers him, “My kingdom is not from this world.” We live in nation and a world torn apart by conflicting political agendas. The violence of our political dialogue, fueled by the media, is shocking, and that violence has entered all our hearts, beloved, to one degree or another. And that firestorm of loathing and disrespect threatens to engulf us all.
But Jesus is not to the left and he is not to the right—his kingdom is not from this world. He is enthroned as King above all political parties and nationalities and religions. And those who desire to live in his kingdom must treat each human being as Jesus Christ incarnate, the image and icon of God. In Jesus’ kingdom people are not labels–they are souls each with an earthly dignity and an eternal destiny. In that kingdom there are no aliens, no illegals, no migrants and no walls to keep them out.
As long as there are human beings there are going to political differences among us. But Jesus was not only the Son of Man he was also the Son of God, which means that he is neither liberal nor conservative, alien or citizen, black or white, rich or poor. He is simply The Truth. And churches and individual women and men who desire to live in his kingdom and share a measure of his true greatness must seek not only tell the truth, but to be the truth, which means not only saying what you know to be so, but also living as if you believe what you say.
What got Jesus crucified under Pontius Pilate was that he never lied; he was never trepid and cowardly, nor was he ever silent, in the face of lies, and if we follow King Jesus, neither can we be, beloved. He was Truth, but at the same time he was also Mercy. The compassion of Jesus extended to the whole world, even to Pontius Pilate, and so must ours–compassion not just for each other and nice, respectable people like ourselves, but mercy, mercy, mercy for those think very differently from ourselves– wrongly perhaps—and active compassion for those out in the square, for the crazed, and the irreverent and the lost.
The angels of churches, even great angels old enough to know better, sometimes get confused about their true business and begin to pay too much attention to money and too little attention to needs of those who have none, too much attention to the condition their carpets and too little attention to welfare of the souls that walk upon them. But the only legitimate business of your angel, Ascension, is suffering humanity—yours and mine and theirs—because suffering humanity is the only real concern of Christ our King.
Now I know what you are thinking, beloved. You’re thinking–that old man doesn’t know when to stop. But that isn’t so. I haven’t always stopped when I should have, but I do know when to stop.
My daddy back in North Dakota never wanted me to be a preacher. He wanted me to be a cattle auctioneer, like his good friend Slim Johnson. “There’s good money in cattle auctioneering, Billy,” he told me. You get paid for every head you sell. And it’s a gentleman’s occupation—not like being a preacher.
But daddy suspected that I didn’t want to be a cattle auctioneer, so he added—“But if you are dead set on being a preacher, Billy, then for Heaven’s sake promise me that when you get done saying what you have to say you’ll have sense enough to sit down stop talking. Many don’t.” And I’ve tried hard to do that, daddy.
But before I stop completely I want to express my hope that as it approaches three hundred years of age the angel of the Lutheran Church of the Ascension will look outside this beautiful box and reach out for the true greatness of Jesus, the greatness that flows from mercy and compassion for the lost and the lonely, and not the worldly greatness of Pontius Pilate, which does not last.
Pursuing that true greatness is never easy, beloved, and if you try ever so hard to achieve it, that still will not change the trajectory of this world. This world will go on chasing its own kind of greatness, to whatever end this world is destined.
But if you pursue true greatness–as the angel of this church and as individual followers of Jesus–it will most certainly change you, beloved. I promise you that. It will change you. You will be able to face whatever terror and confusion is coming with the serenity of Jesus standing before Pontius Pilate. You will be able to smile at a future and live in this crazy world without fear. You will be worthy of your history, Ascension. The angel of this church has at times in the past been truly great, so I know it can be again. And upon my soul, beloved, I hope it will. I hope it will.