John 18:33–37 (NRSV)
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 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.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
As we head into the holiday season, we begin by remembering the things of which we give thanks. This is one of the greatest traditions in all of America, and is a tradition that is really unique to our culture. When I was in Ukraine and the students I worked with were curious about our culture, the most common question after how much money I had was, “What is Thanksgiving?” How would you answer that question? We say that it is a religious holiday, but has never been a day universally recognized by the greater church body. That being said it does have a spiritual dimensions to it. If we practice it properly we slow down our lives and reflect on things that have true meaning in our lives. Oddly enough the secular and religious communities seem to consider the same things as important on that day, because it is the busiest period of time for travel. And people travel to meet with family and friends. I want us to consider Thanksgiving, as we reflect on this passage today. The activities that we participate in and why it is that we do those things.
I said that the universal church does not necessarily consider this holiday to be one of their liturgical holy days, but that does not mean that the roots do not have spiritual meaning. The first thanksgiving, the one we learned about in grade school, is a day that the pilgrims celebrated the harvest with the indigenous people of America. The reason they celebrated the harvest was because they were puritans, and the puritans were a group of people that attempted to conform all of life around scripture. They were deeply devoted people, and they only celebrated holidays that were listed in scripture. And the holiday that they were celebrating was a form of the Feast of Booths. This particular holiday in ancient days was a feast that lasted seven days, seven because when God commands a celebration He intends that we really celebrate. But this holiday was to remind the people of their exodus and wanderings, how they lived in tents and shared all that they had because all they had was a direct gift from God. As they moved away from the exodus this festival became one of great importance, they were commanded to leave their house for a week, set up camps, and to share the fruits of their harvest. It was a festival that celebrated the end of the growing cycle, and the abundance that was given to them. During this festival all people were considered equal all were wanderers in the world and if someone wandered to your tent they were treated as a guest and were asked to join in your feast. The first thanksgiving was an attempt at recreating this festive atmosphere where we are mindful that all that we have is a blessing from God and it is not to be hoarded but shared.
Today we read a passage that does not seem too festive. Most of us would not choose to read a passage about a trial that would eventually lead to an execution as something to highlight a time to be thankful, but this is actually a beautiful passage. I will be honest, it has been hard for me to focus on one central theme because as I have studied the passage left me sitting in awe. I have found myself reading and then caught up in the words, unable to move forward because the Spirit of God urged me to just consider what is being said more fully. It has been a week filled with reflection.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks to opens the conversation. This is a loaded question, because no matter how Jesus would answer it consequences would follow. Is he the king? Pilate is not asking if he is a rebel wishing to start a revolution, but he is honestly asking if Jesus is the hereditary king or ordained ruler of the Jewish people. The answer that Jesus gives is actually quite intriguing, “Do you ask this on your own or did others tell you about me?” This is intriguing because it causes Pilate and everyone else that reads this passage to reconsider what was being said. Did Pilate consider Jesus the King of the Jews? Did he come to his own conclusion about the personality before him? Did the political power structure truly believe that Jesus was a threat to their status, or was this simply a case of jealousy by people attempting to maintain some semblance of power? By answering Pilate in this manner Jesus causes his questioner to contemplate not only his politics but also the actions of the man before him. He had to actually look at Jesus’ life and lifestyle, the way He lived and consider why Jesus did what he was doing. For the questioner there is no easy answer. Is He the king?
Pilate does not want to actually consider this, it challenges everything he knows in the world. Jesus did not act like anyone else he knew, he did not seek power yet He stood there accused. So Pilate says, “How should I know I’m not a Jew. But why have your own leaders sent you here?”
This is where this passage gets me. 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.” This single verse is what caused me to stop and think for the past week. Words like fight, from, world, kingdom, and followers all seemed to lunge toward me leapt from the page and implant themselves into my mind. I realized I never really understood what was being spoken.
Imagine yourself in the conversation. Jesus is telling you these words. “My kingdom, what I find most important is not what you think. If it was I would have armed agents keeping me from being arrested. This is not about a debate or a championship bout, the things you spend your day investing in. What I find most important is not territory, power, or fame. I am interested in life.”
This is why this passage struck me as beautiful. It is a testimony of peace and freedom, but not because it has been liberated but because it is released. So often we think of our faith in Christ as a battle between good and evil, a war between what is right and wrong, but in our fights we can become distracted. Jesus says if my kingdom was the same as yours my followers would fight. The word fight used here is to describe a contest between athletes in an arena or a debate within a forum. These are the things that are important to the world. Connected to a “fight” in this sense of the word is fame, fortune, entertainment, and power. The idea of convincing people that you or your ideas are the most important or that you are the champion. It speaks of numbers, votes, status, and wealth everything that the world deems as being symbols of status and worth in a society. Jesus is saying if that is what I wanted you could not have touched me, but that is not at all what is important. What is important is much deeper.
What then is his kingdom? If he is not interested in the fight, or the debate what is important? This is the heart of the feast of Thanksgiving. The feast of Booths and the day of thanksgiving revolves around everything Jesus came to bring us. A life of abundance, a life filled with joys of companionship. We gather in the dining rooms on a holiday for no other reason than to enjoy the company of other. We visit with the people that we do not have to fight with to be seen as acceptable.
In my family Thanksgiving was probably the most important holiday of the year. As I am speaking here today my family is making their way from Texas, Colorado, and all across Kansas to meet together in a small town in the middle of nowhere. My family has a wide range of political views, they have various careers, and differing ideas on religious practice (though predominately Quaker). But when it comes to family all those differences fall away. My salary is of no concern, my job only matters if it brings joy, and politics might make interesting conversation but they do not really care. The important thing is that we are there together. If we cannot be together someone will pick up a phone and everyone will yell their greetings. We eat, we laugh, we enjoy a game, and we sing. Everyone gives something and no one leaves without a deep sense of belonging.
His kingdom is not from the world. His kingdom is from something deeper, a place that connects us together in ways that go beyond the superficial. His kingdom is life. His kingdom revolves around our relationships with each other and with God. It removes all the things our society deems important. Everyone sits together equal, sharing what we have to encourage and bless those around us.
Pilate listens to Jesus as He basically told him that everything he stands for is pointless, and Pilate ask, “So you are a king?” Pilate missed the point. He acknowledge that Jesus had something great, that there was something that gave Jesus power over the people but he did not quite understand what the use of that power was for. He did not get it because he is a man from the world instead of a man dedicated to life. Jesus responds again saying that he came for one reason, to testify to the truth, and that everyone that belongs to truth hears his voice.
As I sat this week contemplating this passage, it occurred to me that often I am just like Pilate. I miss the point and I enter into the fights of the world. I engage in debates trying to convince those around me that my way of thinking is the right way and if they disagree they are wrong. I spend my time chasing after the things that hold value in society, a job title and the influence that that can bring as well as the income. That is why it struck me so hard. I toil and struggle wondering if I am a success or a failure, and all I really need is right here around me. It is in the screams of joy I hear when I walk through the door. It is in the songs of praise I lift up on a Sunday morning. It is in the shared meals that I have with friends and family every day of the week. The most important things are not the achievements or the gains but it is the things shared. It is the shared life and the holy rhythm that Jesus taught us a life of worship, prayer, and service. The life of loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. That is why Jesus came, he came to save us from the emptiness of the world so that we could know the truth of life. Life with Him and each other.
As we enter into this time of Holy Expectancy and communion in the manner of Friends, let us reflect of the truth that Jesus brought us. Let us consider the life he wishes to give us, and let us be released to live the truth of Thanksgiving.
11 And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” 13 and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,
16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds,”
17 he also adds,
“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
A Call to Persevere
19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
It is on days like today that it is hard to be true to the faith that I profess. On days like today I, with the rest of the world cry out to God wondering why awful things happen. Days like today I want to walk down to the nearest recruiting station and sign up to join a fight, I want to teach someone some sort of lesson and rid the world of all the wrong. To see and hear about bombings and shootings in Lebanon, France, and Iraq rips my heart out. To look at the world and realize that it could be very soon that we see the next war to end all wars. I find it odd that that term was one that was used for a war that was fought one hundred years ago. A war and the men and women, the families that were dramatically affected are remembered every year on the eleventh of November. We call it Veteran’s day but it began as a day to remember the ending of the First World War. Yet as we remember the true cost of war the horrors of violence continue to play out before our eyes. This past week we remembered the cost of war, and this week we remember that war remains.
This is a cycle that continues throughout history. A cycle of power hungry people seeking to bend others to their wills. A cycle of history that continuously repeats because so often we are controlled by pride, greed, and lusts failing to open our eyes to the humanity of those around us. Instead we see only means to an end, enemies to conquer, potential profit centers, and political supporters. We claim to remember the cost of war, we give platitudes of peace but do we really seek it?
The letter to the Hebrews was written just prior to possibly the most devastating event of Jewish history. It was written just prior to the final bout of the Jewish War. This war was not just a war that was fought in a forgotten corner of the Roman Empire but it was a war that shook the world. Many scholars have connected the battle in Palestine with the removal of Roman forces from Britain. This war changed the very courses of history yet many even remember it happened. It was a war that was fought for independence, religious freedom, nationalism, and cultural identity. It was a war waged by humanity in the name of God, and the result of this war sent the people that followed the God of Abraham into a cultural tailspin. It destroyed the temple and with it disconnected the people from the mercy of God.
War is not of God. Wars are fought because of humanities inability to live at peace. Wars are fought because of petty jealousies and contempt have gotten out of hand. They begin not with nations but with individuals. Cain was jealous of Abel so Cain removed the one that cause his discomfort. Cain, according to scripture, went on to develop the first city, the first civilization, the first empire, and violence was used to protect his legacy.
At the dawn of this war that ripped the Jewish people from the land of promise, a new era was beginning to emerge. An era that began with a rabbi that walked among the disenfranchised people that were forgotten by those in the seats of power. It began because a rabbi began to change the focus of the teachings of the prophets and the law to focus on the people instead of the nation. This rabbi questioned the status quo, began to personalize the religious practices, and caused people to consider the heart of the law instead of the letter. This teacher introduced people to a God that cared for them.
This was not anything new really. It had been taught throughout the ages, it was taught by the prophets of old prior to the exile of Judah. It was taught by the great law giver Moses. Yet people were distracted. Their minds were focused on things around them instead of God, they were focused on their own selfish gains instead of the humanity of those that lived next door.
The writer of Hebrews remembers the prophet Jerimiah and he quotes, “I will put the law in their hearts and I will write them on their minds.” This new era that was ushered in by Jesus, the era we call the new covenant, is one that is based on relationship instead of sacrifice. It is an era where we can each be directly connected with the Spirit of God and not have to rely on a priest to intercede for us apart from God himself. Consider this quote for a moment. What does it really mean to have the law in our hearts and written on our minds?
To have the law in our hearts goes well beyond knowing scripture. It is becoming the embodiment of scripture to the world around us. Living the scripture out to the fullest extent, taking it to heart means that it becomes the very essence of who we are. If we were to take the law “do not steal” to heart let that become the very essence of who we are as a person, what changes? The very idea of theft sickens us, the possibility of potentially taking what is not ours and defrauding someone of their own possessions becomes unthinkable. If we were to live by this concept every aspect of our lives would be moved from our own personal gains and entitlement and would focus instead of mutual benefit. The heart of the law condemning theft is building relationships, respecting others, and mutual profit.
Think about the other laws, do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not bear false witness, each if they are taken to heart, if they are lived instead of followed takes us to a completely different place. Respecting the individual instead of considering them a means to an end, honoring others by seeking truth instead of building ourselves up on falsehoods. Recognizing that every individual no matter who they are or what they believe should live and we should honor and protect their lives.
Do we allow God to place the law into our hearts? Are we allowing His Spirit to saturate our being to the point that His ways become the very essence of who we are? This is why my heart grieves today. I grieve because I can see in my own life that I have failed in so many ways to take the laws of God to heart. I grieve because somewhere along the line the people that are claiming Christ have failed to provoke one another to love and good deeds. And if the people that have encouraged me to come to faith can fail, where does that leave me?
Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” As a leader of a group of people that were mistreated and often hated for no other reason than the color of their skin they had every right within the laws of man to rise up and fight against the oppression. But they instead took a different approach. I did not live through that era in history. I know that that time was not filled with peace I know that it was not an easy path for any that lived through that period of history but I also know that it made a difference. It can be summed up in a simple statement, “we cannot give what we do not have.” Hate breeds hate, violence breed violence, war breeds war just as hope breeds hope, respect breeds respect, encouragement breeds encouragement.
Provoke one another to love and good deeds. The writer of Hebrews is saying the same thing as Martin Luther King. The only way to change the course of history is to stop or change the cycle you are perpetuating. We need to actively pursue the very things we are hoping for in Christ. We need to become the embodiment of the law. Have it become the essence of who we are and what we hope for. Actively pursue without neglect, it cannot be passive but can only be lived.
Today we each face a challenge. It is a challenge that we have faced many times before at many different junctions on our pathway through life. Will we provoke those around us to love or will we continue the cycle of hate. Will we recognize the humanity of those around us or will we live life pointing fingers at others that have slighted our egos? Will we be instruments of war or peace?
I do not care about converting people to an institution of religion. I do not care about changing people’s political stances. But I care about people, I care about life, I care about the future that my children will inherit and the children of those around me. Will it be a world one step closer to the kingdom of Christ? Will it be a world that is willing to forgive and reconcile or will it be a world that holds onto the sins against them? Will we as a church provoke love and good deeds, will we encourage each other closer to God through Christ, or will we teach the ways of the world?
As we enter this time of open worship and communion as friends. Consider again what it means to have the law written in our hearts and on our minds. Consider what that means today and what it means as we train up the next generation. Consider. Will we as individuals, and as a community become people of God? A people who are loving God, embracing his Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others? Consider just what that might mean and are we willing to sacrifice our lives to allow that type of kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven?
Hebrews 1:1–4 (NRSV)
God Has Spoken by His Son
(Cp Jn 1:1–4)
1 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3 He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Hebrews 2:5–12 (NRSV)
Exaltation through Abasement
(Cp Ps 8:1–9)
5 Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. 6 But someone has testified somewhere,
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
or mortals, that you care for them?
7 You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned them with glory and honor,
8 subjecting all things under their feet.”
Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, 9 but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12 saying,
“I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”
There are many things that peak my interest. When new technologies come out I am interested in what has improved and what has stayed the same. I will spend time reading about the newest things just because what humans are capable of creating fascinates me. But the emerging technologies can eventually get a bit dry for me. I many get excited about these things when I am upgrading my phone, or when someone I know begins to consider a change. My brother and James could probably quote you the technical specifications of pretty much every device that is currently on the market and about to be released.
The other thing that really excites me is the latest news in genetic studies. I get a weekly newsletter that speaks about the various studies that are being published. Exciting things like the newest emerging vaccines and how they were able to zero in on the one aspect of a virus that would encourage immune response without causing illnesses. To let you know just how interesting this really is medical science is on the verge of finding a vaccine for HIV. The other aspect of genetics that excites me is in the form of agricultural sciences. Many get worried about the presence of genetically modified organisms in our food supply, but without many of these modifications many of the foods we consider staples for our diets would have become so expensive that we would not be able to eat them. Because like a vaccine for humans many of the genetic modifications in crops are modifications that prevent disease, diseases that could potentially cause worldwide famine.
There is one things that I find very fascinating, something that is not the associated with the latest emerging technologies, but instead is related to the ancient past. Ancient cultures, the religions and customs of people from ancient times. I can find myself reading article after article speaking on archeological discoveries. I am fascinated by the various theories people promote about various customs and how they emerged. But one thing that has always had me puzzled is how vastly different the majority of the ancient religions were from the religion promoted by the children of Abraham. I have several possible theories that I like to toy with late at night when I am unable to sleep, but as I consider the letter to the Hebrews something jumped out at me that excites me more than even a potential cure to HIV.
The letter to the Hebrews is one of those letters that we cannot confidently say was written by anyone in particular. Tradition would say that this letter was written by Paul, which many widely accept. But some believe that it could have been written by one of the lesser known apostles. There is something about the author that every scholar recognizes, whoever wrote this letter had a very good grasp of the interworking of the temple. Almost as if they had a firsthand knowledge of the sacrificial systems within the Jewish temple. By first hand I mean that it was likely written by someone that had a priestly background, someone that preformed the rites not just participated in them. Because of this many scholars have looked into the backgrounds of some of the known apostles of Jesus looking for someone that had both a strong grasp of the Greek language as well as a linage that would have placed them in the service of the temple. Of late the likely candidates other than Paul is Barnabas because it is widely believed that Barnabas was a Levite which would have placed him within the hereditary line of priests. This excites me because I have always thought that the most likely alternative to Paul as the author of this letter would have been James.
Why does this matter to us? It may not mean anything to us right at this moment, but Hebrews touches on some very deep aspects of Jewish theology and ancient understandings of how God spoke to the people. The letter begins, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.” This is what began the excitement in my spirit. How did God speak in the ancient times? In most theological traditions of Christianity God did not indwell humanity during the periods of history before Jesus. God would send messengers or he would grant dreams or visions that would inspire people to speak, sometimes He would speak directly to them. I want us to focus on the messengers for a moment, because these are the spiritual beings that we see visiting the heroes of faith throughout the pages of the Old Testament. There are a couple of messengers we even know by name, Gabriel and Michael. Both of these spiritual beings are considered Archangels, or angels of the highest degree ones that report directly to God. Michael is considered the commander of the heavenly armies that protect the nation of Israel. Where Gabriel is the one that is the herald that speaks to humanity the proclamations of God. Michael met with Joshua and is the one that protected the body of Moses, Gabriel visited Mary to announce the birth of Jesus through her.
Why does this excite me? Because angels were and are considered powerful beings. They have wisdom and strength beyond that of humanity, they were the ones that in the ancient days before Christ were the direct liaisons between God and humanity. Because these being were wise and powerful beyond that of human understanding it would be tempting to consider these messengers to be gods. Which causes me to wonder could angels have visited other cultures, yet man in their fallen state misinterpreted as deities?
The writer of Hebrews begins by telling those that read this letter, in ancient days God spoke to the prophets in various ways but now He speaks to us through a Son through whom all worlds were created. This is important to consider because prior to Christ the oracles of God were brought by the messengers, they spoke to humanity thought direct visits, or through dreams, they spoke words of wisdom and warning, they protected individuals and the nation. These spiritual beings of wisdom and power were the conduit from which the understanding of God flowed. But now the author says we are connected to something even greater, we are connected to the very being through which all things were created. We are entering into a new age, an age humanity has not yet experienced, an age of Emmanuel.
Let us now move to the second section of scripture, “Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels.” The age of Emmanuel, God with us, is not subject to the angels. These wise and powerful beings have a different role, they are no longer the conduit, and instead Christ the very Son of God has provided the way, the knowledge, and the wisdom of God to mankind. This implies that prior to Christ the angels governed the world and the nations.
Do you see what I see? The prophets speak of a spiritual battle that was waged between the angelic hosts, where one third fell and followed Lucifer, Satan, and the devil. Within this spiritual humanity was caught in the middle which the prophets of old say caused the fall of humankind. If these beings were appointed to govern and guide humanity prior to Christ, they then became the gods of all the fallen and depraved nations. They set themselves up as the objects of worship and lead humanity away from the one true God. But for a while God made himself a little lower than these angelic beings, He made himself human for a specific reason to restore humanity back to where they were to be.
Our created purpose was to be the stewards of creation, to manipulate what God has provided to bring praise to Him. But when those spiritual beings appointed to guide our paths rejected God they brought confusion into all of creation. Sin entered the world. Instead of using creation to bring praise to God we began to exploit creation to obtain our own agendas. The results bring death, pain, and sorrow. But Christ came to restore and redeem humanity and all of creation. He came to show us true life, and how to participate in that life. He came becoming the perfect human to provide us with the means and strength to overcome all the whiles of the fallen angels. Because He himself over came the only power the angelic beings lorded over us. They took life and brought in death, and Jesus removes the sting of death and transforms it into glory!
Where is this new age of which I speak? Why then do we not live in a world completely redeemed and restored? Why do we still struggle? That ancient battle still wages on between the spiritual forces, but they are being defeated. The gods of ancient Rome and Greece are no longer worshiped in temples but remain only in art and literature. The deities of Canaan and Babylon are only a dusty page of history. Those angelic beings that set themselves up as lords are now on the run and have cleverly hidden themselves within so many of the things we pursue, even things we perceive as honorable. They still have influence because they have influenced us for ages. We as humans must repent, turn from the things of this world and pursue God in Christ. We must actively pursue His life and lifestyle. Become a people that worship, pray, and serve. Become a nation that loves God, Embraces the Holy Spirt and Lives the Love of Christ with others. We must realign our lives to follow the pioneer of our faith, the hero that broke the chains that bound us in sin, and walk in the light of his Glory and Grace.