Sunday, 22 November 2015

Not from Here (John 18:33-37)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Sunday Worship on Nov 22, 2015, Christ the King Sunday)


When Jesus Was Lynched in Georgia

Many of you know that before I saw the light and became a Christian…I was a Baptist. I don’t know what you’ve heard about the Baptists. I’d be afraid to ask, actually, because most of the time when you read about the Baptists in the news, it’s less than favorable coverage.

But today I’d like to share a redeeming story from my Baptist heritage. A story about a Baptist saint (if that’s not a complete oxymoron), Clarence Jordan. Born in 1912, Clarence grew up in small town Georgia. From an early age, he sensed a deep hypocrisy: the same people who went to church on Sunday and embraced Jesus also comfortably embraced segregation and racism. This unease plagued Clarence until finally, after completing his doctorate in Louisville, he returned to Georgia and started Koinonia Farm, an interracial farming community. But as you might guess, not too long after the farm began, the KKK made his acquaintance. The story goes that they came strolling through the neighborhood one day with this threat, “We don’t let the sun set on people like you around here.” And in Clarence’s own words: “I gave ‘em my broadest smile and said, ‘Pleased to meet you, gentlemen. I’ve been waiting all my life to meet someone who could make the sun stand still. ’”[1]

Clarence may have been living in small town Georgia, thousands of years and miles away from Christ, but he had eyes to see an eerie parallel between the trials of Koinonia Farm, which was repeatedly threatened and bombed, and Christ’s trial before Pilate and the empire of Rome. The struggle for truth in Georgia was little different than the struggle for truth in Judea. In the United States as in Rome, the imperial powers-that-be felt threatened by the kingdom of God. Remember, it was 1942, before desegregation, before the Civil Rights Movement. Koinonia Farm was in the heart of the Jim Crow South. The truth that they were living—the truth that all humanity bears the blessing and divine image of God—was not a truth that the ruling powers of racism and segregation were ready to accept.

The distance between Christ’s encounter with the empire of Rome and Clarence’s experience in Georgia is very little. Rome had merely relocated to the Potomac, where its threat of sword and spear was just as real for anyone who challenged the conventions of the land.[2] Anyone promoting racial equality would have incurred the suspicion of others at best, a lynching at worst. So it is that Clarence, who famously retranslated the New Testament into southern idiom, put it this way: “They crucified [Jesus] in Judea”—“and they strung him up in Georgia, with a noose tied to a pine tree.”[3]

Not from the World, but for the World

As far as I’m aware, Clarence never stood trial before an official United States court. But he did endure trials and hardship at the hands of the powers-that-be in rural Georgia. And if he had ever been called to answer for what he had done, I imagine he would respond much like Jesus. “My kingdom is not from this world. If [it] were…my followers would be fighting…. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (18:36). Koinonia Farm was ushering God’s kingdom into rural Georgia just as Jesus was ushering it into Judea—fearlessly and without fighting. Koinonia Farm was not a part of the American kingdom. It was not part of a kingdom that secures peace and peace-of-mind through sword and spear. It was part of God’s kingdom, where peace is not an objective achieved through the way of violence, but is the way itself. 

Koinonia farm gives us a glimpse of the kingdom of God, a kingdom unlike any we know, a kingdom that does not police its own borders, a kingdom whose king welcomed even the one who would betray him to his table, welcomed even his kiss. The kingdom of God takes risks, makes itself vulnerable, exposes itself to the hooded threats and hateful bombs of this world—all in the name of love, a love that knows no fear, a love that, as John writes, “drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). The kingdom of God is not from this world, but that’s not to say that it is against this world; it is steadfastly for this world.[4] It is a dreamy kingdom hoping to come true, not through fighting and force, which would negate the dream, which would turn the dream into a nightmare, but through love.

A Foolish Kingdom

I am convinced that God’s kingdom is the steepest challenge I will ever face in my life. Because I am part of an empire. And I still live much of my life as a follower of a kingdom of this world. The kingdoms of this world make more sense to me than the kingdom of God. The kingdoms of this world are reasonable. They know that strangers pose a risk, that outsiders may be hospitable or hostile. They know that sometimes closing the door and locking it is the surest way of protecting our own lives, that taking up sword and spear is sometimes the only way to guarantee our safety. That’s just common sense.

The way of Christ, the way of the cross, the dream of God’s kingdom—is madness. Or as Paul says, foolishness (1 Cor 1:18-23). It proclaims that I find life only when I risk it, only when I lose it,[5] only when I turn it inside-out and allow the outsiders in.[6]

For Clarence as for Christ, the kingdom of God is not from this world, but it is for this world. Which means that rather than taking up arms against the threat of the outsider, it takes the outsider into its arms, into an embrace of love—even as that embrace may be its last. “Love,” Clarence wrote, “makes itself available.” And if he were around today, I imagine he might add: “to hurting people from every corner of the world.” Love, Clarence wrote, “makes itself expendable.” And today, perhaps, he would add: “expendable even to our enemies who need no second invitation.” “Love,” declared Clarence, “doesn’t quit or give up on a [person] whether [they] be a Communist or a Kluxer,” and today, I imagine, he might add a few more names to the list. “Christ,” Clarence insists, “showed us how far love would go when he prayed for those who were driving nails into his hands and said, ‘Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re up to.’”[7]

Long Live the King

Please don’t mistake any of this for veiled political counsel. As today’s passage makes clear to me, Jesus is not party to party politics. He is not party to a politics that operates by force and domination, where kingdom stands against kingdom, where people dream of power over others, where followers fight to make their point. 

The scene of Jesus before Pilate—which is ultimately a scene of the kingdom of God before the empire of Rome—should haunt us all the same, one side of today’s debates just as much as the other, because it reminds us all of the cost of love. Jesus before Pilate echoes the madness of a man who proclaimed a non-existent kingdom, who pledged allegiance to a kingdom that never will exist as long as the world chooses security over vulnerability. Jesus before Pilate echoes the foolishness of a fool who rushed into this world and died as a victim of his love for it. Jesus before Pilate echoes the dream that this not-from-here love—which is selfless and sacrificial and a stranger to the empires and kingdoms of this world—may one day transform this world.

Long may the foolish dream of our wounded king haunt us. Long may it grow like the tender shoots at Koinonia farm, sprouting up in the cracks and crevices of our worldly logic. Long may it drive out fear and lure us to love.

Long live our king and the kingdom of his dreams. Amen. 


[1] Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “Clarence Jordan and God’s Movement Today.” Accessed Nov 17, 2015. 

[2] I’m mindful of the fact that Clarence did not confront the “empire” of America in quite the same way as Jesus. His interracial farming community was not illegal and did not confront the United States in the same way that Jesus confronted Rome. Even so, I do interpret his experience as a confrontation between truth and empire inasmuch as the legal statues of segregation embodied an implicit racism, one that becomes all the more explicit when one recalls that the KKK included among its membership a number of men involved in the government and ruling businesses of the time. 

[3] Clarence Jordan, Cotton Patch Gospel: Matthew and John (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2004), xviii. 

[4] Cf. N. T. Wright, John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21 (Westminster John Knox, 2004), 114-115. 

[5] Cf. Matt 10:39; Mark 8:36; Luke 17:33; John 12:25. 

[6] Cf. Matt 25:34-40; Heb 13:2. 

[7] Clarence Jordan, The Substance of Faith: And Other Cotton Patch Sermons (ed. Dallas Lee; Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2005), 176.

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