“Sunday of Doom”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, November 20, 2022
Reading: John 18:28-38a
What sort of calendar governs your life?
There is the holiday calendar, which keeps putting out merch for the next consumer field day just hours after the last one. There is the parenting and grandparenting calendar, which has chauffeuring little people from event to event until they’re not so little and we’re not so needed. There is the sports calendar, which, I’m told, breaks Torontonians’ hearts with astonishing regularity. Households have calendars of birthdays and anniversaries: Jaylynn had our anniversary date inscribed inside my wedding ring so that when I forgot there’d be no excuse. Haven’t forgotten. Yet.
Well, the church has its own calendar, different from these others. And according to the church’s calendar this is the last Sunday of the year. Next week is the first Sunday of Advent, the start of a new year. This Sunday ends a long stretch of what the church calls “ordinary time.” The time between holy seasons. I like it because most of our lives are pretty ordinary. Next week begins the extraordinary. Christmas, then Epiphany, soon after Lent, then Easter, finally Pentecost. A flurry of holy days. Soon a small army of good folks will decorate this great church for the season, and it will look even more magnificent than usual. Happy new year next week. The church calendar is weird.
This last Sunday of ordinary time is not so ordinary. We call it Christ the King Sunday. In some settings it’s called the Sunday of Doom. The idea is that at the end of the year, at the end of our lives, we’re judged by Jesus Christ himself and none other. This is good news. The one who judges us is altogether and only mercy. If most folks think of heaven and hell at all, they figure we’ll be judged on whether we’ve been a good person. Good ones go to the good place, bad ones, well. . . Let me be as clear as possible here: That is not true. It is a lie. We are judged on the merits of Jesus Christ alone. God looks at us and sees not our track record but that of his beautiful Son. Many people look at themselves with harsh eyes of judgment. Why am I not happier, more beautiful, more successful, more, more, more? This is not a rational system of judgment, it’s just a negative feedback loop, fed by consumerism. But God looks at us and sees not our resume or bank account or physical beauty. God sees his gorgeous Son. And loves him. And so loves us. It’s called grace. And it’s really good news.
But that’s not the only sort of judgment God renders. There’s another sort. It’s not individual or about our individual lives or hearts. It’s over history, nations, the macro, not just the micro. Vladimir Putin does not one day get to say, sure I started a needless war, but my heart was in the right place. My bad, it’s all good now, right? No. God remembers every act of harm and God will make them right one day. In North America we’ve only recently realized the harm European colonialism has wrought on native peoples, the way racism has infected our cultures. Five hundred years is a lot to repent for. Oh, and we may have destroyed our environment for our descendants too. This is not just liberal whining. It’s a recognition that Christ is King and is coming to judge. And we can’t fix creation or history by ourselves. We can’t even fix ourselves by ourselves. Only Jesus Christ can. Christ the King Sunday says he will—one day soon.
With names like Christ the King, or Sunday of Doom, you might think this Sunday is quite ancient. It’s not. It’s quite new. It sounds positively medieval but it’s positively 20th century. In that century of totalitarianisms from the right with the Nazis and fascists, and from the left with the Soviets and Maoists all claiming absolute authority over all life, the church says, “No.” There’s only one ruler in the cosmos and his name is not Lenin, or Hitler, or Mao, or Pol Pot, it is Jesus, and before him every knee will bow. It was a Catholic pope in 1925 who kicked this feast off, but then other churches also said yes, at the end of our calendar, on the year’s crowning day, there is one crown in the universe, it is made of thorns, and rests on the wounded head of one Jew. And this king commands us to love enemies. He melts divisions between peoples in baptism. He lays down his life rather than defend it. He suffers punishment and does not inflict it. What is doomed, on the Sunday of doom, is doom itself.
Now, one reason we mark the calendar this way, is because Christians have often been toothless in the face of despotic regimes. Pious people, concerned only with our souls going to heaven, often have nothing to say when demonic governments come to power. Or nothing good anyway. Christians rushed to arms for Hitler, held up Apartheid’s brutal walls, cheered on Jim Crow in the US South. Christ the King shows us these are desecrations. Our faith is not private. It is entirely public. So, in South Africa, some other Christian leaders, like Desmond Tutu, didn’t stop when someone accepted Jesus into their heart, no, no, no. A Christian also needs to stand up for their oppressed sisters and brothers, because Christ is judge and will remember when we don’t.
In the early 20th century, Karl Barth was a young pastor in Switzerland, educated in Germany’s most elite universities. He was horrified to watch his professors support Germany’s aggression in World War I. And he started to wonder whether Jesus rules, and not professors however admirable, or any supposedly tolerant modern state. Later when Hitler came to power, Barth knew to say no, we have only one name to fear and trust in life and death. Where the church has said “Jesus is Lord” most loudly, we have been more likely to resist totalitarianism; where we muffled our confession of Jesus, we were more likely to go along with the powers of darkness.
We’ve recently had an election in this city. The US had one too that drew a little more international media coverage. We’ve been voting about how to govern ourselves, with some things to cheer, some to worry about. Here’s what Christ the King says: every power falls short. Some shorter than others. God is not surprised. If you look for a positive example of political power in the Bible, you’ll hunt a long time. All the kings of Israel are tied for worst, in the Bible’s estimation. Pilate, the only human being besides Jesus and Mary to find his way into our creed, Pilate is a sorry example of how to lead. Every time we say the Apostles’ creed, we remember one ruler by name who got power all wrong—as if to remind us that they all do. Sometimes after elections we might feel like “our” side won. Today shows even good leaders fall short. There are only sinners available to hold these positions or vote for them. After other elections we might feel like it’s the end of the world. Then we should relax. Christ rules even when we choose poorly in democracies, or when despots claim their false rule. Every rule, no matter how successful or benevolent, falls short. Every rule, no matter how cruel or intolerant, is temporary. The only ruler who doesn’t fail is Jesus. Politicians should look at us Christians and shake their heads — ‘how come those people are never happy?’ It’s because we have a different ruler.
There was a preacher here for a quarter century even before Andrew Stirling’s recent quarter-century. Andrew Lawson was his name, some of you here came under his ministry [if my name were Andrew, I’d have to stay a quarter century apparently. I’d be 78 years old.] He preached a sermon in this space at the height of United Church confidence mid-20th century, when this denomination felt like it ran Canada and had nothing but a glorious future. Since then, our denomination has disintegrated in numbers and power. Here’s what Lawson said before that decline.
Has anybody ever thought of us as troublemakers? Do people look at us as Christians and ever think that we are the people who might turn the world upside down? . . . Does anybody ever consider you, as a Christian, a troublemaker? Does anybody ever think that you, as a Christian, are a disturber of the peace? . . . Christians have always been people who seem to have an uncanny knack of getting themselves into trouble. They always seem to be in hot water.
That which will really make the church really relevant in our day is its ability to stir up trouble; and that which will make the church irrelevant in our day is when it stops stirring up trouble; for, whenever there is an evil, the church must fight it; whenever there is an injustice, as Christians we must do everything we can to eradicate it. Whenever you see a group of Christians gathering together you ought to be able to put up the storm signals indicating that there is rough weather ahead!
We might ask, what “trouble” could United Church in a building like this get you into in 1960? But Andrew Lawson was reading his Bible well. When you serve another king you’re always in conflict with the other power. Here’s why.
Jesus stands before a petty ruler who has the power to crucify him or set him free. The Romans were in the Middle East for similar reasons that today’s western powers are—for resources. For the Romans it was a supply of corn from North Africa to feed their armies, as essential to their empire as oil is to America’s. Pilate’s job is to keep the resources flowing, whatever the human cost. Historians tell us that Pilate was much more blood-thirsty than the gospels suggest. Normally when unsure, Pilate executed first and asked questions never. I get nervous standing before a customs officer looking at my Nexus card. Jesus is standing before a murderous governor who can have him executed or released.
That’s a lot of power in one man’s hands. And I don’t mean Pilate’s.
Frederick Buechner imagines Pilate as a bored bureaucrat, a two pack a day smoker who knows his job requires a quick trigger. Pilate gazes up through the smoke and asks Jesus a question more cynical than any sophomore in philosophy class, “What is truth?” Pilate doesn’t realize that the truth is standing right in front of him. Pilate thinks he holds Jesus’ life in his hands, but actually, Jesus holds all life in his, including Pilate’s.
This story shows us two kinds of power. One the power to destroy. Pilate’s power. The other is the power to give life and to save it. Jesus’ power. His is the power that creates the world and is renewing it. Pilate looks all-powerful in his terrible splendour. He is not. Jesus looks feeble, hands bound, about to be tortured to death. He is not. He is all the power there ever has been or will be, in an accused insurrectionist, about to be torn apart.
Here are some more examples of Jesus’ sort of power. Franz Jaggerstater was an Austrian farmer in the early 20th century. When the Nazis came to power his whole village rose up in excitement. Jaggerstater did not. His priest and his bishop begged him to go along. He wouldn’t do it. All this talk of a so-called Fuhrer saving is wrong. Jesus is the only saviour. Jaggerstater wouldn’t salute. Wouldn’t serve in the army. He was tried for treason and executed. One of the last things he was heard to say was, “Jesus is my Fuhrer.” The Catholic church recently named him a saint—not the priest or bishop who begged him to shut up, but the farmer who refused false power and became a martyr. The great filmmaker Terrence Malick made a heart-achingly beautiful movie about Jaggerstater called A Hidden Life. He recognized the true king, the only judge, is not Pilate, but Jesus. May his memory be eternal, Jaggerstater. I look forward to meeting him one day, don’t you?
Another example. When the Nazis crushed Poland at the start of World War II, people in occupied Poland had a choice. They could keep fighting, fling themselves against the machine, and surely die. Few did this. They could resist clandestinely, blow things up. A few more did this. But not many. One group of university students decided to do something . . . else. They founded an underground and illegal theatre company to keep Polish language and culture alive. Their leader was a man named Karol Wojtyla, later known as Pope John Paul II. He recognized the true king. Not the jackbooted thugs in charge. But the resurrected rabbi from Nazareth, who loves his fellow Jews. Theatre doesn’t look heroic or brave. But actually, theatre can save a culture, heal a world.
Now, celebrating such witnesses costs us little because they had the same enemies we remember—the Nazis. I think we bring up the Nazis so often because they make us feel morally good. It’s a low bar y’all. Indiana Jones said it best, “Nazis. I hate these guys.” Morally it’s too easy. But one brave Brit, bishop George Bell, criticized his own government’s wartime policy of bombing German civilian centres. Bell was accused of being an enemy sympathizer. ‘Don’t you remember what they did to our cities?’ ‘Yes, but I thought we English were better than that. And as a Christian, mercy is stronger than revenge.’ Not a very popular thing to say, in England in early 1945, but a Christ the King sort of thing to say.
There are lots of military examples today. But Jesus disqualifies our ways of violence. “My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus says. “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would fight, to keep me from being handed over.” NT Wright, the greatest biblical scholar alive, says this—if Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world, it certainly is for this world. Christianity is not otherworldly. It’s a different way of being worldly. Christ is king of this world now. Most people don’t see it. But sometimes, some do.
For example, the Church of Sudan suffered like the rest of what’s now South Sudan in an overlooked genocide, millions dead under Omar Al Bashir. And when the Anglican Church of Sudan asked Duke University for help rebuilding, the first things they asked for were public health and agriculture resources. Not surprising. Then they asked for biblical languages. Hebrew and Greek. How does that help? They said, well, we’ve only had access to the Bible in English and Arabic—both languages of our colonizers. But we Sudanese want to hear from God in our language. So, Duke sent agriculture and public health people and biblical nerds to rebuild after a genocide. I asked a friend there what it means to be Christian. He said, all of us Sudanese suffered here, Christian and Muslim. Some only know how to get angry in response. I am trying to show forgiveness is more powerful than revenge. Now, that’s not other-worldly—that’s a different way of being worldly, of building a world. Somewhere Christ’s crown gleamed just a little.
I mentioned before Frederick Buechner. I’m not sure why great writers rise with barbaric political times. Buechner was exploring Christian faith, wandered into a church in New York City almost as magnificent as ours. It was around the time of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, and the preacher said this:
The coronation of Jesus took place among confession and tears and then, as God was and is my witness, great laughter. Jesus is crowned amidst great laughter, and at the phrase great laughter, for reasons that I have never satisfactorily understood, the great wall of China crumbled and Atlantis rose up out of the sea, and on Madison Avenue, at 73rd Street, tears leapt from my eyes as though I had been struck across the face.
Christ is crowned with great laughter, and the delight of that phrase made Christ king in Buechner’s life. Now careful—plenty of people are glad to speak of Jesus as king of their hearts while murderous political regimes rule from their capitals. But if more of us recognize the way Christ reigns, we’ll be better able to stop and see the wrong way. The more we watch our monarch rule, the less comfortable we’ll feel when governments scapegoat people, or launch wars of choice, or take from the poor and give to the rich. More of Jesus’ rule is our best hope against demonic rule.
One of the most astonishing events in my lifetime was the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of eastern European communism. No one saw this coming about peacefully. But it happened. One reason was a prayer meeting. At a grungy, nondescript church in Leipzig East Germany a group started meeting on Monday nights to pray for peace. They’d read the Bible, light candles, and talk about non-violence. That started in 1980 with a few hardy folks. By the end of the 1980s the group had grown to several hundred. By the summer of 1989, 4000 were gathering. By October 1989 it was 6000 inside the church. Another 65,000 outside. This church’s example encouraged other protests across East Germany. And a little unimportant prayer meeting helped overthrow a totalitarian power. One leader said the state was ready for violent insurrection. But they were not ready for candles or prayers. Candles and prayers look weak, right? They’re not. Tanks look strong right? They’re not. You’re starting to get this Christ the King thing.
Candles and prayers are what we have here this morning. They’re pretty but they don’t look powerful. But the light of Christ overthrows tyranny and signals a new dawn coming. I hope you notice something else. In these Christ the king examples, most Christians rushed the wrong way. Supported tyrannical governments. I can name you a few who didn’t because there haven’t been very many. And who can blame them? Pilate looks really strong. Jesus looks really weak. Looks can deceive. Jesus is all the power there is. Pilate’s power is passing away, that’s why it thrashes about so violently. Hail king, Jesus. Come soon and make your reign complete. Amen.