November 22 The Two Places

John 18:33-37   Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”  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?”  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.”  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.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

MESSAGE   ”In Which Place Do You Live?”    Rev. James R. Renfrew

Two places.  One there, and one there.  Jesus describes two places where a person can live, two places that a person can be, two places that a person can inhabit, two places where a person can dwell, and two places in which your heart can reside.

Two places.  One very familiar, and one hard to find.  One place has no surprises, and one place is difficult to imagine.  One place close enough to touch, and one place that seems to slip through our fingers.  One place often filled with fear, one place built on hope.   One place easy to see, and one place that is hard to see even when you’re looking right at it.  In which of these two places do you live?  In which of these places would you like to live?

Jesus refers to these two places as “kingdoms”, “the kingdom of this world, and the kingdom not of this world”.  I struggle with this terminology about kingdoms because in modern America we don’t live in a kingdom at all.  In Jesus’ time every place was a kingdom, kingdoms all across, Europe, Africa and Asia.  In America we haven’t had to deal with kings or queens since 1776, and in those countries that have kings and queens these days they are usually no more than figureheads, their former absolute powers reduced to a symbolic role.

So I’ve been trying to translate what Jesus says about kingdoms into words that may be easier for us to understand.  I thought about this a lot during the past week, and I finally decided to use the word “places” instead of “kingdoms”.  Two places, Jesus describes them to Pontius Pilate, Roman Emperor Caesar’s governor in Palestine, and Pilate just doesn’t get it.  He doesn’t get it at all.  Pilate can only understand, he can only see, he can only grasp one kingdom, and any other kingdom Jesus wants to describe Pilate considers to be only worthless fiction.

It’s easy to see why Pilate would have trouble seeing the place Jesus wants to teach him about, because Pilate thinks that there is only one place to live, a place occupied and dominated by the Roman Empire stretching from modern Scotland, to Spain, to Egypt and to Iran, with a powerful Emperor, large legions of Roman soldiers deployed everywhere, big fortresses, powerful weapons, huge wealth, and nearly unlimited power.  “Why would anyone want to live any other place”, Pilate wonders, “than here?”  There is no other place, certainly no better place, he is certain.

When Pilate asks with a sneer at the end of this reading, “what is truth?” he is demonstrating that his place is all about wealth, armaments  power, and fear.  He does not understand a different kind of power that is based upon love, sharing, hope and peace.  Pilate assumes that his kingdom will never fail, and that Jesus kingdom is pathetic and weak.

But Jesus won’t back down.  He won’t back down even though Pilate’s kind of kingdom is threatening to kill him and grind him into the dust.  Jesus holds on to a different place, “a kingdom not of this world”.  In the end, it is Jesus’ place that prevails.  That mighty empire of Rome, as with all empires cannot sustain itself.

Let’s think about this place that Jesus tries to get Pilate to see.  Let’s described this place.  What is it like?  There’s a big gap in my sermon notes, because this is where I want to turn to you to help draw a picture of the place where Jesus invites us to live, to dwell, to inhabit, and to enjoy.

Responses from the congregation:  where love knows no limit, where peace prevails, no pain, no illness, etc.

This reading from John’s Gospel is our transition into Advent, the new “church year” that begins next week.  So I want to in some way summarize what we have come to know about Jesus and his vision during the past year.  Can we sum up the essentials?  This is why what appears to be an Easter reading – Jesus’ interrogation by the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate – takes place at the end of November.  Pilate asks some questions that capture what Jesus is and what he is not.  Pilate doesn’t get it.  This reading is offered to make sure that we do.

But now we come to the key question, the critical question, a two-part question that can turn the world as we know it on its head:  “In which of the two places, Pilate’s place or Jesus’ place, do you live in right now?” And, “in which of these two places do you want to live?

I suspect that we are the kind of people who have a foot firmly planted in each of these two places, one foot in Pilate’s kingdom, and one foot in Jesus’ kingdom.  We try our best to straddle realism and idealism in the very same moment.   It doesn’t usually work very well.   The danger, of course, is that we get too firmly planted in Pilate’s world, and our desire for Jesus’ world gets put off to the indefinite future or lost altogether.

I learned a beautiful phrase when I was a student at Union Theological Seminary many years ago.  “Now and not yet”.  It is the answer to the question, “when will we come to live in the place Jesus intends for us, the kingdom not of this world?”  This new place, offered by Jesus, promised by Jesus, is already here, right now … but not yet.

We have had many experiences of the place Jesus promises, beautiful, profound, incredible moments when his kingdom, when his place, becomes very real.  Like when Isabella during a summer mission project got drawn into that place and loved it and couldn’t wait for more.  Like when Lily Stein points at the baptismal water and knows something wonderful is about to happen.  Like when Pam and the rest of us see how a little bit of food can go a long way in our community.  Like when Jordan discovers the joy of serving others, he can’t wait for the next time.  Like a door that opens, like a light that shines, like a blooming flower or a ripening fruit, like a song in the air, like a prayer that connects me to God like never before.  I live for those moments because they assure me that I don’t have to wait for a long time to get to that place, that God is already making it happen.  I just have to take one more step in that direction.

So, as I begin each day, I ask myself, “how can I live more in that kingdom, in that place Jesus invites us to live, the kingdom not of this world, that is very much in this world for those with the eyes to see it, the ears to hear it, the hands to grasp it, the hearts to hold it?

When I feel stuck in Pilate’s world, with bombings, refugees and war, with racism and intolerance, with fear and threats, I need to remember to ask that question to keep finding the resolve to move my feet from here to there.

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