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John 18:33-38a

Show and Tell

Here’s a chart of classroom rules. The rules are important, but they’re not what we learn. They’re how we all learn together. Here’s a set of rules that tell us how to learn what God is like – let’s listen together.

Hebrews 13:1-8


In one word, can you tell me what (or who) God is? A good answer today would be “King.” Others might come up with “Father,” “Sovereign,” “Love,” or “Creator.” When he reflected on images for God, Gandhi argued that only “Truth” could truly capture what God is; he said that unlike love, power, or relationship, truth is the one thing you can’t convincingly fake or do poorly.

Evidently Gandhi had read John’s story, with Pilate’s haunting question: “What is truth?” Coming from someone with his power, perhaps he means this as a taunt, as in, “What difference does that make?” But given how he vacillates throughout his trial of Jesus, I suspect that he also knew the painful side of his question: “What good is the truth when the crowd doesn’t care about it?” That’s the flip side of being king, you must always be aware of where your power comes from. Pilate’s power? It comes from the violence of Rome. Jesus? His power comes from the truth of God. We understand, especially after the resurrection, that Jesus’ truth is far greater than Pilate’s “reign.”

The choice of this story for celebrating the reign of Christ is intentionally counter-intuitive. Jesus is not the kind of king we would expect. He certainly wouldn’t have been elected president, of Rome or the USA. That’s not just because his views (on the distribution of wealth, the protection of life, health care, or whatever your pet position is) are too radical, but because he said out loud, “My kingdom doesn’t belong here.” Who would vote for someone whose ultimate loyalty wasn’t the USA? Think of the political pundits who like to call the President “anti-American.” Whether it’s founded or not, that’s a serious charge. After all, what else should have the president’s loyalty?

By contrast, Jesus claims outright to be “un-American” (and “un-anything-else). He answers only to Truth and Love, and his kingdom can’t take a back seat to any nation. It’s not that serving higher principles means you don’t have to compromise – this is a messy world, full of hard decisions – and even seeking the kingdom of God is difficult. Jesus lives out Truth and Love in his flesh and bones; he has no higher loyalty. And we know how that goes: Jesus goes through Pilate to death, and through death to life.

It’s not that we should see Christ’s reign as impractical. It’s not electable, but it is livable (not that I can live it perfectly. It’s a matter of finding the deepest value that guides everything else. The reading from Hebrews talks about what citizenship in God’s kingdom is all about. It includes some self-evident ideas and some more-challenging thoughts. But they’re not just rules. Like any good rules, they’re really a program. What’s described here is how to live into the kingdom.

It’s like Grinnell College basketball that way. My alma mater made national news when Jack Taylor scored 138 points on Tuesday night. It was an event made possible by the unique offense-focused system Grinnell uses. It’s an aggressive way to play that lends itself to standout performances; just last year, another player scored 89 points in a single game. Games routinely combine for 250+ points. “The System” calls for the team to make a certain number of shot attempts, rebounds, steals, and so on. The target numbers give The System a practical shape, but the statistics aren’t the point. They’re just how you get there.

That’s important to say about religious rules like we read in Hebrews. They’re not a destination, they’re a map. We can’t just decide we’ve completed the list, and we can’t judge each other for working on it at a different pace. Rather, the point is that we follow them to become more what we were called to be. Look at the rules called for in Hebrews. This is a particular picture of what faithfulness looks like, a map from one context and journey. We can see how it shaped (and can shape) Christian life. Some of the rules are obvious, like that we should keep loving each other and honor marital relationships; living in family and friendship teaches us the true challenge and blessing of love. More challenging maybe is the call to care for strangers, prisoners, and the suffering. Care for the “neighbors we don’t yet know” has always marked Christianity; it’s part of how we live out Christ’s welcome for us. The call to be careful with money is a reminder that our resources are part of creation, they aren’t God themselves; we serve with our money and remember that God is faithful. That “rule” is all about learning to trust God. That’s the ultimate idea. God doesn’t abandon us and Christ doesn’t end; with that support, this is faithfulness in action.

We could add more guidelines, or we could reduce the list further. The point is not any particular set of rules. Instead, the point of how we live is how we build this life on the foundation of God’s love. May we all venture boldly down this path.