“Between Heaven and Earth.” John 18:33-38. Donald W. Dotterer, PhD, 11/25/18.
It happens to all of us, once a year. That is our birthday. Like Christmas, ready or not, here it comes. We all get older with each passing year.
Well, if you’re not happy about that, you could follow the lead of a man in the Netherlands. Emile Ratelband has launched a legal battle in his hometown of Arnhem to change his legal age from 69 to 49.
He argues, “You can change your name . . . Why can’t I decide my own age?”
Mr. Ratelband is a “positivity trainer.” That means he trains people in the science of positive thinking and positive living. And getting older tends to get in the way of living a positive life. There is that unfortunate fact of life that as we get older, many people suffer physical ailments and mental decline, among other problems, of course. Mr. Ratelband told the BBC News that he feels discriminated against in his career and on online dating sites. He says when his profiles show that he is 69 years old, he doesn’t get any responses. He says that “When I’m 49 with the face I have I will be in a luxurious position.”
Ratelband describes himself as “a young god.” So humility isn’t one of his virtues.
A judge hearing his request to change his age wanted to know what would become of the 20 years that would be erased by changing his age. The judge asked, “Who were your parents looking after then? He wondered, “Who was that little boy?[i]
Well, we’d probably all do that if we could. Who among us wouldn’t take off 20 years so that we could gain another 20? But unfortunately there are some things in life that we just can’t change, and our age is one of them.
As they say, you can’t beat Father Time. Our age is just a fact of life. Our age is one of the truths that define us, whether we like it or not. That’s why in almost every article you read in the newspaper, no matter what the story is about, they give the person’s age.
There is such a thing in this world as unchangeable and inalterable truth. Truth, you see, is eternal. Truth does not change. And that is one of the lessons that we learn from our gospel lesson for the morning.
Today is the day known in the church calendar as Christ
the King Sunday or The Reign of Christ Sunday. This is the last Sunday of the year in the Christian calendar before Advent next Sunday, which begins the countdown to Christmas. On this day we confess the truth that Christians have believed for centuries: that Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, is King of the universe, and that he sits eternally at the right hand of God in heaven. But what does that mean in today’s world?
As you know, we live in a world in which very few countries have kings and even fewer nations have kings who have any real power and authority. In America we are most familiar with the British monarchy, with the kings and queens of England.
We understand that the British throne is today a mostly ceremonial office. If you look at supermarket tabloids as you wait in the checkout line, you would think that British royalty is mostly about entertaining the masses with their celebrity weddings, babies and so forth.
Today, there are only 10 nations in the world that have monarchs who actually rule their countries. One of them is the Vatican, which is ruled, of course, by the pope. Another is Saudi Arabia, which has been in the news a lot lately because of the alleged actions of the crown prince.
The only two European nations with kings are the tiny nations of Monaco and Liechtenstein, two of the smallest countries in the world. You may remember that old movie “The Mouse that Roared” about the kingdom of Liechtenstein. ”I saw it as a kid at a school assembly. Now that shows my real age!
But in Jesus’ time, kings and emperors really did rule their people. In fact, they had absolute power and absolute authority. The Roman Emperor Caesar not only ruled most of the known world, but he was also worshipped as a god.
In today’s lesson from the gospel of John, Jesus is about to be executed for the declaration by his followers that he is the new “King of the Jews.” Jesus stands on trial before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the Jewish homeland of Judea. Pilate is Caesar’s agent, charged with making sure that the Roman king’s empire and rule is not threatened by treason and rebellion by those who challenged his power and authority.Jesus had been brought to Pilate after being tried for being a blasphemer by the Jewish Council. They believed that he had committed the sin of blasphemy against God by claiming that he was the son of God. This is the basis of their charge that Jesus was a criminal and was “doing evil.”
So Jesus’ enemies had determined through their kangaroo court that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy. But as subjects of the Roman Empire, they lacked authority to impose the death penalty.
The Romans wouldn’t care about the charge of blasphemy. To them, this was just a bunch of Jews fighting among themselves about their God. The Romans believed that the real god was Caesar.
So Jesus’ enemies had to come up with another charge, one that would stick with the Romans. That charge would be treason against the Roman Empire. And the substance of that charge would be that Jesus and his followers identified him as the “King of the Jews,” a rival king to Caesar.
Pilate is both amused and perplexed by this. He sees the gentle, helpless man standing before him. He knows that Jesus is no threat to the mighty Roman Empire. But he has to question Jesus anyway. That was his job.
So Pilate goes back into his palace and calls for Jesus, and the interrogation begins. Pilate is interrogating Jesus as to what kind of king he was. Jesus’ life was on the line here, so it mattered how he answered Pilate’s questions. Pilate asks Jesus directly, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Like any rabbi, Jesus answers the question with a question, in effect saying, are you asking because you want to know? Or did somebody put you up to this?”
Pilate admits, “Do I look like a Jew? Your people and your high priests are the ones who turned you over to me.”
Finally, Jesus gives the answer that is truth itself—“My kingdom is not from this world.”
Those words explain it all. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Jesus’ kingdom is of eternity.
Brad Roth, in a commentary on this passage, says that Salvador Dali’s painting called Christ of St. John of the Cross has helped him to understand this interrogation scene of Pilate and Jesus. In the painting, Jesus is hanging on the cross. We’ve all seen pictures like that.
But this painting is different. In this picture the cross is not planted in the ground but is instead hanging in the sky. Jesus is hanging in between the power of Pilate on earth, Pilate who had the power to kill him, and the power of God in heaven who had the power to resurrect him.
From this point in John’s gospel forward, until the Resurrection, Jesus hangs between heaven and earth. He hangs between the power of God’s kingdom and the powers that be on earth.[ii]
That friends, is where we are too. In this life, until we reach the next, we hang between the powers of this world and the power of God in heaven. This is a battle that we fight every day. We will follow the ways of this world? Or will we follow the eternal truth of Christ?
And the question that Jesus puts to us is this—which way are we going to go? Will we go the way of Pilate and the world? Or will we go the way of God in heaven? N. T. Wright, the Anglican bishop and prolific biblical scholar, has developed a theory that connects with this idea of us living in between heaven and earth. Some of you participated in the classes we did on heaven few years ago called “Surprised by Hope.”
Bishop Wright says that “The hope of resurrection is more than anticipating that we will leave this world some day and go to heaven.” Rather, it is a bold confidence that God’s kingdom, God’s presence and God’s power are breaking into our world today and that a whole new creation has begun.[iii]
Bishop Wright goes on to say that heaven is not some faraway place we hope to go to some day. Through Christ heaven is very near, and as we follow Jesus, the reality of heaven comes alive in us and is unleashed through us.[iv] He says, “Heaven will not be a boring place, off in distant space where we play harps and sit on the clouds. Heaven is God’s space, filled with love, peace, justice and beauty. Heaven and earth are overlapping realities, and the Resurrection of Jesus has connected heaven and earth, more than we know.”[v]
What this means is that we can have a glimpse of eternity here in the here and now. Throughout the gospels we read that Jesus teaches that we can experience the kingdom of God in our present lives. We can experience glimpses of eternity here and now. Eternal life begins now in our worship, in our prayer, and in our service to others.
One of the ways God brings his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven is through people who bring love, beauty and justice to a world that so desperately needs these things. Bishop Wright says, “The hope of heaven is not something we are waiting for, but it is what enter each day as we follow Jesus
and let his heavenly plans unfold in us.” This eternal life then continues into the afterlife, whatever that may be. The kingdom of which Jesus is king is now, and it is near to us. And yet it is also a future hope to come.
Pilate asks Jesus at the end of his interrogation, “What is truth?” Well friends, this is truth! The truth is that we who have faith live in between heaven and earth. We have one foot planted in eternity and the other in the rough and tumble of life on earth.
As we pray every week, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” And so we live with one foot on earth and the other in heaven. The two can then come together in our hearts.
In the end, of course, it’s all about hope. Hope for the breaking in of God’s kingdom on earth, and the hope of resurrection and heaven in the world to come.
In the Church of England, the denomination out of which the Methodist movement was born, today is “Stir-Up Sunday.” Stir-Up Sunday was a British tradition that was introduced to the Victorians by Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria.
It is traditionally the time to get the Christmas pudding, which is actually a fruit cake, made so that it would have plenty of time for the flavor to develop before it was enjoyed on Christmas Day.
The family would go to church, and when they went home they would teach the children how to stir the ingredients for the pudding. Most recipes for Christmas pudding call for the pudding to be kept for several weeks to mature. However, the spiritual dimension of Stir-Up Sunday is older than 19th century Victorian England. This tradition was inspired by the opening prayer for the day in the 1549 edition of Book of Common Prayer that begins, “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people.”
And so this is a day for us to get stirred up, to get excited about the Jesus whom during Advent we prepare our hearts and minds to receive on Christmas Day. It is interesting to consider the meaning of the phrase “stir up.” In England, the tradition of stirring up the ingredients
for a Christmas pudding means that the ingredients are blended together to make something good to eat.
So it is that church is a place where we can get stirred up together for Jesus. God made each and every one of us here today different and even unique. There has never been and never will be a person exactly like you. If that isn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is.
We are different ages, sizes and shapes. We are different races and nationalities. We have different politics, different jobs and income levels. When you think about it, we really are very different people.
But here, in church, God stirs us up together and makes us one, one in the body of his son Jesus Christ. And when God stirs us together in church, what comes out can be very good indeed.
May God’s richest blessings be upon you as we work together to help build God’s kingdom on earth.
Thanks be to God, Amen.
[i] BBC News, 11/8/18
[ii] Brad Roth, Christian Century, p. 23.
[iii] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, 2010: Zondervan, p. 25.
[iv] Ibid, 39.
[v] Ibid, 40.