Out of this World
Every once in a while, someone will ask me, “So, what do you do?” I appreciate the question; I understand that my title, “Dean of Religious Life and of the Chapel” might not leave many people with a concrete idea of what I actually do day in and day out. I am glad to tell them. I like to describe it as a three-legged stool, one leg being pastoral work, another leg being administrative work, and the third leg academic. I give details for each of these areas if the person still seems interested! Another way of thinking about it comes from one of the Early Church Fathers, Tertullian, who famously asked, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” What has the church, or religion, to do with the academy, the university? I think the answer to the question is, “Everything!” but then again, I get a paycheck to live at that intersection of Jerusalem and Athens. I have a foot in each world. I straddle them. It’s no strain at all - to me the combination is real, natural, and even a blessing.
Are there multiple worlds that you live in? Do you straddle parallel universes? Are they family and work? Ethics and practice? What you believe versus the way you act? What your job requires of you versus who you want to be? Or very different languages, concepts, and realities for your school life versus your home life? Do you straddle worlds (if you do) in positive ways, ones that complement one another, that complete or enhance one another, that augment the other’s strengths? Or do you straddle worlds that compete with one another, would try to cancel out one another, that negate the very values of the other? Or do you straddle worlds (if you do) that relate to one another in a complicated mix - that sometimes affirm the other and sometimes contradict, that sometimes blend seamlessly and sometimes are entirely disjointed, that sometimes seem to make for a life of complex harmony and at other times seem to make for a life of competing, irreconcilable claims, a fractured life, a life of divided loyalties, a life in which we switch back and forth between completely unconnected realities, ethics, and demands?
Jesus Christ is interrogated by Pontius Pilate, who asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” This is not a religious question; it’s a political one. The only kind of kingship Pilate knows is the kind that lives in a palace and makes decrees about the material lives of citizens. He has no concept of the spiritual leadership, of religious identities and codes of ethics that shape the whole of a person’s life. He cares nothing for belief. He wants to know, “Are you a political threat to me? Are you a competitor for my power? Caesar is King of the Jews, and I am his Jerusalem-based representative.” Jesus, of course, understands the dichotomy very well. He is the king of all who believe in him; Jewish or gentile, no matter which temporal rulers they pay their taxes to. He wants nothing of Pilate’s power - Pilate and Rome can have it all - their faces stamped on coins, massive residences, people waiting on them at the snap of their fingers, income from taxes, luxury, ruling by fear, deciding the fate of individuals or whole communities. No, Pilate has nothing to fear from Jesus - Jesus wants none of this! Pilate, indeed, can have it all.
The two rulers couldn’t be more different. Pilate wants power and authority for what it gets him. He wants more, more, more of everything and he wants if for himself. He reinforces his power through the rule of terror. People do what he tells them because they fear violence, because they or their families could be harmed or everything they cherish be taken away from them while they are left destitute. The followers of Pilate, just like their boss, use terror to reinforce the power of the King. From the top of the system down to the bottom, there is violence - from the violent occupation of the land by Rome down to the lowest servant of the regime - there is greed, exploitation, and cruelty.
And then there is the reign of Jesus, which is the complete opposite. Jesus has infinite power, but he does not use it to promote or enrich himself, he uses it to empower others, especially the most lowly. He does not make people serve him hand and foot; he washes their feet. He lowers himself, he humbles himself, in the social practices of his day, to kneeling in front of modest people and washing the dirt off their knobby, filthy feet, between their toes and under their long toenails. He becomes not the master but the servant. He doesn’t send them off to die for him in battle; he doesn’t sacrifice their lives, as does Pilate to augment his own power. He dies for them. He sacrifices his own life so that they might have life in abundance. He doesn’t plunder their meager resources to add to his own wallet. He takes nothing from the people but gives them everything possible in this life and the next; loaves and fishes for the hungry now, eternal life to come. Not only does he not bring them terror, as does Pilate, he brings them peace in the middle of the terror, inhumanity, loss, and violence that surrounds them. He lives amongst people in desperate circumstances, he identifies with them, he is one of them, in their dark night of oppression and violent occupation. He testifies among them in his life and in his death to peace that flows like a subterranean spring; a deep peace that flows like a river under the tumult on the earth’s surface, where so much is cruel. He testifies with his life and with his death to a peace that is high above us, in heaven, our destiny. And Christ testifies with his life and with death to a peace deep within us, already realized, the indwelling of his Holy Spirit at the center of our souls, whether or not we feel it in every moment. The peace that Christ the King brings to us is already realized, and yet it is not. Jesus is the sovereign of true peace, the peace for which the global human family has forever longed, right unto this very morning. It lives within us, in the realm where Christ is king, yet remains beyond our grasp, in the world where temporal sovereigns rule. Pilate, as we know, is everywhere.
Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is “not from this world.” It is out of this world indeed! All Pilate can understand is a political reality for ruling, but Jesus’ reality, rule, and sovereignty are a religious and theological one. Jesus invites us to live fully in the material, practical world (it's what we have!) and to live just as fully in his own realm of faith, integrity, and peace. We need not be schizophrenic; we can inhabit both worlds seamlessly. Think of Christians through the ages who have lived and done their best in the material world while they prayed and reflected their way through lives of deepest discipleship to Christ the King. The most inspirational have been the ones who knit them together best - Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Dag Hammarskjold, Dorothy Day, beginning with the millions of subjects of Christ the King whose names will never be proclaimed from pulpits but whom we know well - maybe your grandparent? Aunt or uncle? Colleag ue? Child? Friend? God bless them all - living in this world fully as they testified with their lives to the next. Out of this world!
I began these thoughts by sharing how my own work can be seen to be straddling two worlds - Jerusalem and Athens, the church and the University, and I asked you to think about how you may straddle worlds. We are not alone in any of this work; countless forebears and contemporaries join us. It is where we need to be - where Christ has called us to be - in this world but not of it. How to live this way, with feet planted in two realms? It is a rich and full life to be fully engaged on every level - to devote all of ourselves to the world around us - Athens, if you will - teeming and tumbling with life, with challenges and joys, with questions of justice that draw on our deepest faith commitments. We devote ourselves to the human beings around us, however we might know them - we work for and with them, we live as neighbors, we may not know them or intersect with them but their suffering is something we can’t ignore. We work our fingers to the bone for the sake of the material world around us that claims our attention, compassion, and precious time.
And , simultaneously, we remain citizens of, and subject to, a very different realm, one in which Christ is King. Here, too, we devote ourselves to the human beings who surround us, even globally, even those we may never come to know. We do, as Christ did, nothing for the sake of our own power or reputation, but only that others might be blessed. We serve our lives away for the sake of the spiritual life that is around us, the in-breaking realm of God and of Christ the King, a realm both here and not here yet. We make it here by living according to its principles, loving God with all our being and our neighbors as ourselves. We testify to the fact that Christ is King whenever we witness, even very humbly, and even without others’ noticing to his reign in our midst - when we love, serve, forgive, humble ourselves, become agents of peace in the presence of strife, and perform acts of mercy over and over and over again. Jesus was no threat to Pilate and neither are we - Jesus didn’t want his material power, wealth, and prestige, and neither should we. Then again, perhaps Jesus was the greatest threat to Pilate, and so should we be - with two feet planted solidly in two worlds, we testify to God’s justice, truth, love, and mercy. We make the Pilates, the despots of the world, nervous: We don’t want what they have!
Long Live the King!
Jaime Clark Soles, www.workingpreacher.org ; Nov. 25, 2012, John 18:33-37
Feasting on the Word , ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year B Vol. 4, John 18:33-37, pp. 332-337