Heads, You Win
By The Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, November 24, 2019
Reading: John 18:33-37
Today is Christ the King Sunday, as you can probably tell by all the majestic language of our prayers and hymns. It’s the end of the Christian liturgical year and next year we begin a new year with the first Sunday of Advent. While the liturgical calendar begins with the advent of Jesus’ birth, the year ends today with the triumphant celebration of Jesus as the true king of the universe who has conquered evil, sin and death. Christ the King Sunday is a day of celebration!
I think Christ the King Sunday gets lost in our anticipation of Advent and the Christmas season; but I also wonder if it gets overlooked because our understanding of Christ as King is similar to our understanding of Elizabeth the Queen.
As the ruler of our land, as the leader of the commonwealth, it is customary that all of our Canadian coins have Queen Elizabeth’s head on them, but in practicality it seems like it’s really just a gesture of honour – that she’s a figurehead, nothing more. We don’t really think of Queen Elizabeth as having any real authority over our lives, especially not our day-to-day lives. We barely have any sense of her having authority over our country or our society.
Honestly, do we even pay any attention at all to what it means to have the queen’s image on our currency? Probably the only time we really notice it is when we have a coin toss. Heads, you win; tails, you lose. Decisions that affect our lives are more likely to be made by the picture of the queen than by the queen herself.
While the Queen is the Queen of Canada, and she does have some legal authority over the land – mainly to protect our system of government and defend the Canadian people from abuses of power – in reality it is as Senator Lowell Murray wrote in 2003, that "The Crown has become irrelevant to most Canadians' understanding of our system of Government."
In his memoirs, Straight From the Heart, Jean Chretien writes of the British North American Act of 1867, and how Britain’s authority over Canada had diminished over time with this document in place, even as Canada legally continued to be a colony of Great Britain.
In the early 1980s, as Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Chretien oversaw the work of patriating the constitution and introducing a Charter of Rights for our country. He had the legal option of going straight to Britain on behalf of the federal government and just making it happen, but instead he spent many months, working hard, travelling back and forth across the country, talking to the premiers of all the provinces, trying to balance the needs of Quebec – which was still sensitive after the referendum on separation – with the needs of the West Coast, the Prairies, the Maritimes, women’s groups, indigenous rights groups, business leaders, as well as federal needs, to make sure that he could bring home a constitution that everyone could be happy with.
Once he reached an agreement with all parties, he went to London to get royal approval. Their meeting lasted a mere hour – compared to the months he had spent meeting with all the Canadian leaders – and the Queen chose to have the meeting in French, which pleased him. When he went to explain the matter at hand, he found she was already “up to speed,” so to speak, and he really didn’t need to explain much. He describes this part of the process as though it were simply a “Rubber stamp.” They chatted, he left; shortly afterwards she signed the document, as did Chretien and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The real work was done and getting the Queen’s blessing for what had already been decided was the pleasant conclusion to the process. Everyone was happy.
While that is a smart approach to governing a country, isn’t it similar to how we live our lives as Christians and to how we see Jesus’ authority in our lives? We know he has authority, technically. He’s king of the universe; but we don’t actually think of him as having any authority over our day-to-day decisions. We respect him and are fond of him, but he’s really kind of a figurehead in our lives. We work out what we want for our lives and then maybe go to him for a blessing if we think of it. It’s all very pleasant; but we don’t consider that he might have anything to say about the decisions we make for our lives.
When Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews” he did not have a figurehead understanding of what a king was. Really, knowing what kings were like in that time, the fact that he even asked Jesus this question was laughable, and he probably knew it. You can almost hear it when you read those verses: “Are you the supposed king that your people have handed over to me?”
In that time there was a very clear understanding of the role of a king, and Jesus knew what Pilate meant. In that time, a king had absolute authority in the land. What he said was law, no questions asked, and it could have a very negative impact on the lives of the people. Kings in those days ruled according to their personal wishes and whims, and they could change their minds on a moment’s notice, and everyone below him was expected to adjust quickly and fall into line. A king could have people killed for any reason or no reason at all, just as King Herod did with John the Baptist. And often their proclamations and decisions were to benefit themselves and their friends, at the expense of everyone else.
How one became a king was very clear to Pilate as well. The crown was typically passed down from father to eldest son, or to a brother or nephew if there were no eligible son. As far as Pilate could see, Jesus was not the son of a king; he was the son of Joseph the carpenter. He was a nobody.
If anyone wanted the crown who was not in the line of succession, they would have to take it by force, and this happened often. Second-born sons would kill their older brother, or some political figure would muster their own army and try to overthrow the reigning king’s army and take control. But Jesus was not defending himself let alone exerting force to the end of usurping the crown. Some of his followers were actually expecting that’s what he would do if he really was the Messiah, as they believed he was.
Pilate could not recognize kingship in Jesus according to any framework that he understood; his job was to prevent revolutions and extinguish any possible threats to overthrow the Roman leadership and take control of the land through force, and he was not about to take any chances.
Kings did things very differently from most kings and queens in our day. Oh, there are still some kings in the world who rule by whim and force, but for the most part kings and queens live and work within a carefully constructed framework. They are not “absolute” monarchs, as in the day of Jesus and Pilate. They can influence politics; they can let their preferences be known, discreetly. But if they try to go beyond subtle influence or persuasion, if they begin to exhibit even the slightest bit of autocratic behaviour the people won’t stand for it. Queen Elizabeth may have her head on the coins as a symbol of authority, but she can only exercise any authority within very careful limits.
Because of the understanding of kingdoms that we are accustomed to, it’s easy for us to see Jesus almost as a constitutional monarch, like Queen Elizabeth. In the Christian church, we call Jesus “Lord” and “King”; his picture is displayed prominently in our stained-glass windows; but does he have any authority over our day to day lives? In church we pray every week, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” as though he were a king whose wish is our command; but how much time do we spend seeking to know his wish, and do we really see it as our command, or more as a suggestion? Or a nice idea? Or as a hint to bygone eras, but not really relevant to our lives today?
If he were a king like the ones Pilate knew, we wouldn’t have to wonder what His will was and we wouldn’t have to pray for it to happen…His will would be implemented through power and force. It would be known, and we would have to obey it. If we didn’t, we could be punished, even by death.
Jesus is a different kind of king, though. He’s a king who doesn’t force obedience to His will, even though His will is perfect; His will is truth; His will is loving and beautiful. It is the way, the truth, and the life. His will is not imposed on us by force, but if we seek it, He will give it to us. If we obey it, we will have abundant life. Because it’s not forced, it seems like obedience to Jesus our King is not important, but when we dismiss any sense of obedience to Christ we risk slipping into an attitude toward Jesus that sees him more like the head on a coin.
The concept of “obedience” to anyone is not a popular one in our time, not even when it comes to God. Obedience smacks of subservience and weakness. If we ascribe authority over our lives to anyone other than ourselves – even to God – it feels like autocracy to us, and we don’t want to have anything to do with it. It feels like we’re being “Lorded over” and that we’ll lose our freedom, our dreams, our self-determination. There’s a sense that if Jesus is really a king he will behave like an earthly king if left unchecked. We don’t want a God in our lives who behaves like a despot, so we keep him at arm’s length.
And so, just like Chretien did with the constitution, we make our decisions, we sweat out the details, we work really hard, and only then do we go to God in prayer and ask Him to bless what we have already decided we’re going to do.
I’ll be the first to admit that I do this myself, more often than I would like. I know that God’s will is perfect, and decisions made by God’s leading are the best decisions. But it’s a common practice among Christians, and even for whole churches as they make their plans and goals for the future. We make business decisions, decisions about jobs, about schools, about moves, about marriages or divorces, or affairs, about projects and plans and purchases, without taking the time to quiet ourselves and ask God what He would have us do, what He wants for our lives. In a sense, we’re like Pilate, asking, “Are you a king?” But we’re not serious. We think we know what a king is; but Jesus has a very revealing answer to that question.
Jesus says to Pilate: “My kingdom is not from this world.” Of course, it can’t be… according to the Gospel of John, “this world” is the source of darkness and rebellion against God. If his kingdom was from this world, he says, “My followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” Some of his contemporaries – like the zealots – and even some of his own followers assumed that Jesus would use force to establish himself as the Messiah, the long-awaited King of the Jews, and they were prepared to fight for him. Peter even drew his sword when they tried to arrest Jesus. But Jesus showed throughout his ministry that that kind of leadership is not His way. That’s not God’s way. His Kingdom is not from this world. And although His kingdom is not from this world, it is FOR this world.
We know now what Pilate did not know; that Jesus did receive His crown according to the line of succession…He is the Son of the true King of the Universe; and from the time He walked the earth Jesus understood His Kingship, not constitutionally – like Queen Elizabeth – and not tyrannically, like Herod, but functionally. Jesus wants to be the functional king of our lives, and he rules by love. His kingdom is for this world; it’s for us.
This was made clear earlier in the Gospel of John, in Chapter 14, where Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments and I will ask the Father and He will send another advocate who will be with you forever.” In the Bible, we read of His commandments and we are instructed in the way to live our lives, and by the power of the Holy Spirit we learn that His commandment and His life are our way to abundant life.
We are the ones who benefit from His kingship… but it’s up to us to make that choice; to make obedience to Jesus Christ our way of life. When we go to Him first, seeking His direction and guidance for our decisions and choices, it is to our own benefit.
In the last few years as I have matured in my faith I have really tried to make it a priority to seek God’s will before I have to make important decisions, through listening prayer and Scripture reading and seeking wise counsel from other Christians. Sometimes I have been led by God to try something that I never would have thought possible and have experienced great joy and success! Other times I have gone to God in prayer, asking what to do and I have sensed God leading me to NOT do something that I thought was a good idea, and as a result I saved myself a lot of time and headaches!
When we don’t seek to know the will of God before making important decisions, we may as well be flipping a coin …it’s really 50/50 whether our plans will be successful or not; but plans we make without seeking God first will never lead us to abundant life.
Here’s something interesting I have learned: mathematician Persi Diaconis did extensive research and discovered that even a coin toss is not really about probability at all. There’s nothing 50/50 about a coin toss. It’s all about physics, about the coin, and about how the “tosser” is actually throwing it. The majority of times, if a coin is heads-up when it is flipped, it will remain heads-up when it lands. With practice, Diaconis was able to control the toss so that it would land head’s up 10 times out of 10.
The same is true of Christ’s kingship in our lives. If we start by seeking His will for our lives, going to God in prayer before we make our decisions, things will land right side up every time. It’s not a game of chance…it’s about truth, God, and our relationship with Him.
If Jesus is the true sovereign of our lives, then when we start out by praying and seeking God’s will before we make our plans, before we start our day, before we make decisions, the more likely we are land in the centre of God’s will for our lives, and that is the best place to be. Thanks be to God.