Let us pray: Holy and magnificent God, your ways are higher than our ways and your plans are more than we are able to comprehend. Your kingdom is not of this world and at the very same time your kingdom is everything that our senses perceive. Help us, in the midst of your kingdom here on earth, to see you, to pursue you, to serve you with all of the honor and glory, you our true king, deserves. O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable in your sight. For you, O LORD, are our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
At the age of 13, frustrated by the structure and authority of Catholic school and the lack of empathy from my father and step-mother, my younger sister decided to run away from home. Having an older brother as part of the San Antonio Police Department, she did not get too far. Along with being concerned for her well-being, I also remember feeling confused as to why she would run away in the first place. After all, she lived in a home with her two parents, married to one another, both of whom worked for the Federal government, so she had access to health care, and she attended private school. My dad and step-mom made decisions in their financial life in order to provide both my younger sister and younger brother with private educations through high school. There was no doubt in my mind that my sister had a home in which her parents cared deeply for her well-being, and yet, in her 13 year-old mind, my sister felt like she did not belong at all, like she had questions that people refused to acknowledge or answer, and like anything she had to contribute to her community whether at school or at home did not matter.
There was a time when a child threatened to run away, professionals would advise parents to acknowledge the pain or hurt that made the child want to run and then to probe the child with logical questions: “Where do you plan to go?” “With whom do you plan to live?” “How will you get food and water?” That line of advice has since been replaced with a much simpler, more straight forward response: “No.” “No, you will not run away because you feel hurt or mad or ignored and like you no longer belong.” “You will not run away because despite what you think and how you feel at this moment, you belong to this family and this family belongs to you, and no situation that we are currently facing or will face in the future changes the fact that we belong to one another.”
In our gospel narrative, we heard part of the discourse between Pontious Pilate and Jesus. This conversation takes place as part of the Passion Narrative in the gospel of John. Both Pilate and Jesus are talking about kingdoms and about where Jesus rules and consequently who are the subjects of Jesus’ kingdom. In other words, who belongs in Jesus’ kingdom? Pilate is clearly thinking in earthly, geographic terms. “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Are you the ruler of the people from Israel? Are you, in your authority as king, attempting to usurp the Roman government who is currently reigning over the Jewish people?” Jesus’ response is not about geography at all; it is about relationship. “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world…my kingdom isn’t from here (John 18:36 [CEB]). In other words, Jesus’ authority as a king does not originate from a place of power or dominance or coercion; rather, Jesus’ authority and all that Jesus has done in his life and ministry comes from God, comes from a place of love and mercy and justice, and just as God has freely given this authority, this kingdom to Jesus, so Jesus extends an invitation to all persons to experience this love of God through Jesus’ own love for them.
The question of belonging is not just one we have as youth, but it is a question we continue to experience throughout our adulthood. We test whether we belong in our relationships with our spouses and/or significant others. Before Nick and I dated for one week, I tested whether or not we belonged together. I had a major meltdown about how stressed I was over an upcoming New Testament exam, and as Nick walked away, I thought, “Well, that should scare him off for good.” A few hours later, Nick showed up at my apartment with a hot, large pizza from a local pizzeria and said, “I know you are really stressed out, so I wanted to make sure you had some dinner while you were studying.” In our relationships with others, we take a few hours or a few days to evaluate and reevaluate if we belong in the relationship. Sometimes, we even discern that the most gracious and just thing we can do is not to reconcile with one another.
We question whether or not we belong in this nation. Earlier this week as I was flipping between news stations on the radio, I caught a snippet of a news story in which an actress, following the 2016 presidential election, questioned whether or not she should send her child to Canada to be raised. W. Kamau Bell, the host of United Shades of America on CNN once traveled to Canada to see what might be appealing about belonging to Canada and also uncovered some of the harsh realities of belonging in the country to our north.
We question whether or not we belong to a particular community of faith. As both a member of a church and as a pastor, I have witnessed people who become upset and issue an ultimatum before stomping out of the church; I have witnessed people who have become upset and who just stop coming to church, waiting to see if anyone will even notice they are no longer present in the church community; I have had the experience of people coming to one of the people in leadership in a church and/or even coming directly to me to let me know that they are upset, and I have prayed while that person or those persons discerned whether or not they felt like they still belonged to that particular faith community. While I have never experienced first-hand, I have even heard stories of people questioning their citizenship within the space of a church sanctuary. Do you see the U.S. flag to my right? Many a pastor and many a congregation have had lots of discussion over whether the U.S. flag belongs in the sanctuary. Those who prefer not to have the flag in the sanctuary question who it is that is being worshiped in the sanctuary space: God or the USA? Those who support the presence of the flag in the sanctuary view the flag as a symbol reminding us to be grateful that we live in a land where our expression of religious beliefs—no matter what they may be—are protected, and for that we give thanks to God.
The difficulty and the reality in each of the ways we, as adults, discern if and how we belong is that ultimately in each one of the different scenarios I have just laid out, the decision of whether one belongs or not rests with the judgment of the individual. Jesus says to Pilate, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice” (18:37). Jesus’ kingdom is for the whole of humanity; every person has been born with the gift of grace from God, and all are invited into the kingdom over which Jesus has been granted authority through the love of God.
The audience who first heard these words from the gospel of John lived in a reality in which each person clearly saw him or herself as a part of a larger community. This audience lived in a reality in which there were expectations for each member of the community and in which each member of the community strived to meet those expectations.
As Jesus and Pilate dialogue, Jesus is striving to help Pilate understand that the authority Jesus has as a king has less to do with individual decisions and more to do with actively participating in a kingdom that is bigger than can be measured and mapped out. Jesus’ kingdom is present wherever Jesus is present. Jesus’ kingdom is present whenever we open our lives and our hearts to receive God’s loving acts of restoration and healing. Our belonging to the kingdom of God does not rest with us, but is made possible through the activity of a loving, just, merciful, and gracious God. It is God’s activity in our lives that joins us in communion with God and in communion with one another in this community of faith. This is the truth that Jesus proclaims to Pilate, a person, unable to hear it: Jesus proclaims the truth of a kingdom to which all have been invited, healed, and restored by the love of God offered to each one of us through God’s only Son, our Lord and King, Jesus. I offer this to you today in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.