Last Sunday of the Church Year
Text: John 18:33-37
It is a timely reminder for us, hard on the heels of an intense election season, that our Lord’s Kingdom is not of this world. “My kingdom is not of this world,” says Jesus to Pilate, as He endures this trial before the Roman governor of Judea which will lead to His crucifixion. “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36; ESV). Oh, Jesus rules the world, to be sure. Make no mistake about that. In His Kingdom of Power, He is the King of everything, on earth and in heaven, visible and invisible. He’s God, after all. He rules all things and all creatures, even unbelievers, even the devil. In fact, He rules Pontius Pilate, there, at the trial in the Praetorium. He rules President Obama and the other leaders of the world, including wicked dictators who refuse to acknowledge Him. But His is not a worldly kingdom. His authority does not come from the world. And His servants will not fight for His Kingdom with worldly warfare. His servants fight for His Kingdom as He fought: by weakness, by suffering, by submission even to death. For at Pilate’s command, our Lord Jesus was lifted high upon a cross. There, gripping the spikes that fasten Him to His wooden throne, crowned with thorns, the official Roman proclamation preaches the truth to all: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (19:19).
Our King Jesus does not come to establish an earthly Kingdom of Israel, something even His disciples were confused about until the Holy Spirit enlightened them at Pentecost. We, too, have to get rid of our false notions of some sort of worldly reign of Christ. America, God love her, is not the Kingdom of God. Republicans won’t usher in the Kingdom. Democrats won’t bring it, either. You can’t legislate God’s Kingdom upon people, nor can you make them citizens of heaven at the point of a sword. That’s not how the Kingdom works. That’s not how Jesus works. Because this is a different kind of Kingdom than the kingdoms of the earth. Our Lord’s is a Kingdom that comes about through His love poured out for sinners, His blood and death to free us from our sins (Rev. 1:6). He purchases us by His blood to be His own and live under Him in His Kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. He gains us for His Kingdom by painting us red with His blood, applying His blood and death to us with weak things like words and water and bread and wine. He gains us for His Kingdom by preaching us to death and back to life. It’s not how any other kingdom does it. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). That’s how the Lord Jesus wins His Kingdom. By His Spirit, active in words, words of death and life, gracious words of peace that reconcile us to the Father, who has cancelled our debt of sin by nailing it to the cross.
So what does this mean for the life of the Church in the world? The Church on earth will always appear to be weak. She will always appear to be dying. She will suffer. The world will mock her and disdain her and persecute her. In other words, the life of the Church on earth will look pretty much like our Lord’s earthly life. The unbelieving world will hate us on account of Christ and because of our proclamation of His Gospel. The devil will relentlessly pursue us and aim his fiery darts at us, seeking to deceive us and mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. That’s why the Church on earth is called the Church Militant. Her enemies are relentless in the fight against her. It will always appear to earthly eyes as if the devil and the unbelieving world are winning, as if the Church is doomed to defeat. But Jesus reigns. He is risen from the dead. He sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. He’s the King. And we have His sure and certain promise regarding the Church, that the gates of hell shall not prevail against her (Matt. 16:18).
That means that as bad as things look for the Church, there will always be a band of faithful believers in Jesus, a number known only to the Lord, all those who have not bowed the knee to Baal, nor kissed him. The Church’s hope is not for an earthly kingdom, a millennial age of peace, a utopia in this world. Our Kingdom is not of this world. Our Kingdom is Jesus Christ. “(O)ur citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20-21). Jesus is coming back to deliver us. When He comes again, visibly, to judge the living and the dead, He will not come in weakness and lowliness, as He came the first time. He will come with power and great glory, with the holy angels. Every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him. He will raise up all the dead. Everyone will know that Jesus is the King. The Church will be vindicated. Justice will be served. Those who believed in Jesus in their earthly lives will live forever with the Lord. Those who did not believe in Him will depart into everlasting death in hell with the devil and his evil angels. What we know now only by faith on that Day will be visible to the naked eye. Jesus is King. And the Church that was persecuted to death on earth will reign with Him in everlasting life in heaven, the Church Triumphant.
So the Lord Jesus has a claim upon you. He redeemed you by His innocent suffering and death. He purchased you to be His own. He calls you now to take up your cross and follow Him. That means repentance, a daily death to self, death to sin, death to the old man, the sinful flesh. That means a daily arising to new life in Christ, in His resurrection, by faith, in His Word. All of which is to say, daily living in your Baptism. And it means suffering in this life, at the hands of the devil to be sure, and at the hands of the world, whether it be a subtle persecution such as we suffer now in America, or full-fledged persecution such as the early Church suffered and such as many Christians suffer throughout the world today. Do not fear it. You belong to Jesus. God’s Name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is written upon you in Baptism. Do not fear those who can kill the body. They cannot kill the soul. And Jesus will raise you, body and soul on the Last Day. He won the victory by His cross. He is risen, and imparts His victory to you complete by His Word and Sacraments. Suffer joyfully. Rejoice and be glad. This earthly life is not all there is, and your physical death is not the end. You have eternal life now, already, hidden in your Baptism, and a glorious and eternal future in Christ. Live now in the reality of what will be made manifest on the Last Day. In other words, live to love and serve and give yourself up for your neighbor, knowing that Christ is coming to restore all things, including you, and that all things are yours in Christ Jesus.
As our Lord was led, bound and bleeding, to Golgotha, to be nailed to the cross and lifted up, the disciples thought all was lost. Jesus was condemned, dying, dead. The Jews thought they had won. Nothing would come of Jesus now. The Romans thought they were finished with this “pretender to the throne.” The devil and the demonic hoards rejoiced with every drop of blood and twinge of bitter pain. Mary wept as a sword pierced her own motherly soul. No one could have guessed that God was here doing a new thing, making all things new, bringing about the Kingdom by the death of His only-begotten Son. No one could have guessed that in this death there was victory, light, and life for the whole world. Then Jesus declared, “It is finished” (John 19:30), and it was: sin was finished, death was finished, hell was finished, the devil was finished. The thorn-crowned corpse on the cross had won the victory. “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Jesus of Nazareth, your King. If you don’t believe it, just look at the empty tomb. Christ is risen, and He lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. He’s coming back to get you, to raise you from the dead, and take you to be with Him and reign with Him. His Kingdom is not of this world, thank God. His Kingdom is eternal in the heavens, and He gives His Kingdom to you. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.