Luke 23:33-43, John 6:24-35
Subjects, Fans, Followers
Today is the last Sunday of the church year. The church calendar - as in the church universal - begins a new year on the First Sunday of Advent, which is next week. Today, on the last Sunday of the church year, two special days are asking for our attention. First, it is Thanksgiving Sunday. Now, technically, that’s not a liturgical day - it’s not a specially marked day on the Church calendar. After all, it is only Thanksgiving in the United States this week, not around the world. But, of course, giving thanks is something we should excel at as people of faith, and certainly we know where to direct our thanks as worshipers. We give thanks to God, source of all our blessings.
Today is also Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday. It’s not a well-known day on the church calendar, and sometimes with Thanksgiving and the start of Advent, it is easy to let it get squashed out altogether. But it deserves our attention, because I think reign of Christ Sunday asks us to wrestle with some challenging questions. On this day we ask, “What does it mean that we call Jesus a King? What does it mean that we talk about Jesus as a ruler? How is Jesus like earthly kings, and how does he break the mold? What does it mean that in scripture and in Christian tradition you can find images of Jesus on a throne, in the judgment seat, with a crown? How is Jesus the ruler of of our lives? Is he the ruler or a ruler in our lives?” These are questions we wrestle with on this day in the church year, and maybe they don’t strike you at first as questions that are on your mind all the time, but I think in actuality the way we view Jesus, the role we put him in, the authority we give to him impacts our lives as Christians a great deal.
Originally I was going to title this sermon, “Who do you say that I am?” You might recognize that as a question that Jesus asks his disciples in the gospels, though not in our readings for today. In the gospels, Jesus had been hearing rumors that some of those who knew of the works of Jeus were saying he was the prophet Elijah, come again, as many believed Elijah would return some day, and others thought he was John the Baptist, and Jesus asks his disciples to give a report on what they’ve heard. And then Jesus asks the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responds boldly and clearly: Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one of God. It’s a title that had, till then, indicated a king. Kings were anointed. Of course, Jesus hasn’t done much that lines him up with the kings that have preceded him, so it is all the more meaningful that Peter gives him this title.
I wonder what kind of ruler we’re looking for Jesus to be in our lives, if in fact we are looking for a ruler. Do we want mighty warrior Jesus, who comes in to crush our enemies? Or are we ready to think about what kind of king, what kind of ruler, leader, savior, ends up executed, hanging on a cross alongside criminals, daring to suggest that we follow him?
But eventually I realized that the question nagging at me is not exactly who we say Jesus is, but instead it is who we want to be and who we are to be to Jesus because of who he is. I think one way or another, we might agree to call Jesus a king, a ruler, a prince of peace, the messiah - whatever label resonates. But what does that mean for us and our lives as those who call on his name? I think we’d call ourselves disciples. We want to be disciples, followers of Jesus. But are we? If Jesus is the authority in our lives, do our lives show evidence of that? Who do our lives say that Jesus is, beyond what our lips say?
As I read our gospel texts for today, I came up with a few possible answers: subjects, fans, and followers. Sometimes, I think we just want to be fans of Jesus. Think about who or what you’re a fan of. I’m a big fan of Tracy Chapman (She’s a folk singer, and even if you don’t know her, you probably know a few of her songs without knowing she wrote them.) - she’s my favorite musician. And my favorite movie star is Viggo Mortensen (he was in the Lord of the Rings movies) - I think he’s an excellent actor. I can tell you a bit about each of them. I have most of Tracy Chapman’s albums. I’ve seen most of Viggo Mortensen’s movies. I’ve read articles about them. I can tell you about awards Tracy Chapman has won. I can tell you about Viggo’s visits to his hometown Watertown, NY. But as much as I enjoy their work, beyond impacting what I watch, what I listen to - I can’t really say that my life has changed significantly because of being a fan. Their talents brings me joy, but I don’t have to adopt anything about the way they live to be even an avid, devoted fan. Because even if I’m their best fan, they have no authority over me. They don’t rule my life. They’re not my leader. I don’t put their hopes and vision above my own or any other vision that I find compelling.
Sometimes, we call Jesus Messiah or King or Ruler, but we’re really just his fans. Our text from John today is actually the text assigned for Thanksgiving. Just before our reading begins is the story we know as the feeding of the 5000. John tells us that the crowds are following Jesus because of the healing Jesus had been doing. When the crowds arrive, Jesus insists on feeding them all. Starting with a little fish and bread, Jesus manages to feed everyone of the 5000+ gathered and still have leftovers. After they eat, people think about the signs Jesus has done, and they call him a prophet, and what’s more, John tells us that Jesus realizes they want to take him and make him king by force. A man who can feed crowds from practically nothing? They want this man to be in charge. This, of course, is not Jesus’ path, and he and the disciples head out on the boat to cross the sea. But, as today’s text tells us, the crowds simply follow Jesus across the water and find him again. Jesus tells them that he knows they’ve come after him because he fed them all, not for any deeper reason. They ask for signs that Jesus is someone they should believe in. When Jesus talks about bread from heaven, they want some. Jesus tells them he is the bread of heaven. Their conversation goes on long after today’s text ends, and once it is over, many of the crowd stop following Jesus, unhappy with what he has to say. I think they were fans, not followers. It’s like the crowd was coming for a good performance. The Jesus show was in town, and he dazzled, even providing an excellent meal. But when Jesus started talking about his will and God’s will and sharing in his very flesh, sharing in his body, they were out. Jesus seemed to expect something of them, more than they wanted to give. Fans, not followers.
Sometimes, I think we want to be subjects, like in an earthly kingdom, where a clear authority tells us what to do. We’re not responsible - the king is responsible, and in charge. The ruler has to fix things, and sure, we can complain when they do a bad job, but we still don’t want to be the ones in charge. We’re helpless, and maybe resent feeling helpless, but we’re happy to blame the ruler for what goes wrong.
Our second gospel lesson, this one from Luke, brings us to the scene of the crucifixion. Notice the inscription over Jesus’ head, the reason for his death sentence: “This is the King of the Jews.” The words are meant to be mocking, because everyone knew that no king would be hanging on a cross. Crucifixion was for criminals, for the lowly, for the weak. And listen to the words folks are saying in this passage: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah, the anointed one of God.” “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself, and save us!” Everyone there seems to have a clear understanding of what a king should be, and Jesus is not living up to expectations. A king could save himself. A king would have power, enough power to get himself out of such a mess. A king could save himself and those with him too while he was at it. A king would put himself first, for sure. And when Jesus fails to be this kind of ruler, but won’t just go away quietly, it seems the only remaining option is to silence him through death. Sometimes we just want to be subjects, following a Jesus who is powerful enough to not call on us to do anything. If Jesus is King, can’t he figure it all out? Fix everything for us? Put everyone else in their places and save us from our troubles while he’s at it? But a ruler who wants us to be part of the work? To serve alongside? What kind of ruler is that?
But of course, Jesus reigns not from a throne, but from the cross. Jesus is born not in a palace, but among animals. Jesus spends his time not in the halls of power, but on the margins, with the people. Jesus reigns. His authority repeatedly dazzles even those who wish they couldn’t see it in him. We see it too, or we wouldn’t be here. But the question is the one we asked at the start. What will we do about it? If Jesus reigns in our lives, how do we show it? We live not as subjects, not as fans, but as disciples, followers. Followers change their lives to go where their leader goes, to live like their leader lives. One of my ministry colleagues at a meeting yesterday said that we’re apprentices to a Master Teacher, the Expert, and our task as students, as learners, is to so carefully work as the Teacher has taught us that our work becomes indistinguishable from the Teacher’s. Jesus reigns, and does it by sharing power, inviting us to do everything he does. Nothing would please him more than if we were just like him.
Jesus isn’t really very excited about fans. They fall away when things get challenging. And he loves us too much to make us helpless subjects. But followers? Disciples? Jesus has a lot to teach some willing students. Come, let’s follow. Amen.