“Contrasting Kingdoms”

“Contrasting Kingdoms”
John 18:33-37
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
November 21, 2021 

Two Virginians and an immigrant walk into a room
Diametrically opposed
Foes
They emerge with a compromise
Having opened doors that were previously closed
Bros
The immigrant emerges with unprecedented financial power
A system he can shape however he wants
The Virginians emerge with the nation’s capital
And here’s the pièce de résistance
No one else was in the room where it happened
The room where it happened
The room where it happened 

You all recognize that one? “The Room Where it Happened” is from the Tony award-winning musical Hamilton, which tells the story of Alexander Hamilton and our nation’s birth through the Revolutionary War. This particular song is talking about how some of the most powerful men of that time, including Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson, they found ways to move the country forward – and while yes there were committees and votes and all that, the way the ball really moved forward on why our nation’s capital is in Washington DC and our financial system began is it did…that was behind the scenes in ‘Room where it happened” among the most powerful, the most influential. 

The song goes on…
No one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens
But no one else is in the room where it happens 

“Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate, this Governor of the Roman Empire, is asking Jesus. “Are you a ‘room where it happens guy?’” 

Pilate could care less if Jesus is a religious person and that the powerful people in Jesus’s own religious community do not like him. That’s not a concern for Pilate. What is a concern is if Jesus is a king. A room where it happens, person. A person who has political power – military power, financial power, influential power, perhaps power to blackmail others. Power to get things done, power to change things. That kind of person would worry Pilate – the Roman Empire will not stand for a political threat. 

“Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 

It’s a strange response. It’s neither a yes nor a no but rather a somewhat surprising and confusing question. Perhaps because the honest answer to Pilate’s question is surprising and confusing…Jesus is a king but also not at all in the way Pilate imagines. 

Pilate replies in a way that tries to just get to the point:I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” (And again, implied – is anything you have done kingly? Room where it happens kind of power, leverage, ability?) 

My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 

Jesus is clear that, yes, he has a kingdom. So, ‘king’ works. 

But also no, he is not a king in the way we normally think about power. The kings Pilate has in mind use force to get their way. They use military, they use money, they use most any means to ensure things go as desired… 

“My kingdom is not from this world.” So you are a king?” Pilate is still trying to pin down a clear answer, and quite frankly so are we at this point, I think. “So if Jesus, you are not leading a kingdom that operates in the same way as all the governments and powers and presidents and senators and political folks… 

  • What does your kingdom look like?
  • Where is it?
  • How does its power work?” 

Jesus answered, You say that I am a king. For this, I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 

“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” And finally, we get a glimpse of where and how Jesus’s kingdom unfolds on earth. Everyone who listens to Jesus – which means everyone who hears his voice and acts on that voice – that is where his kingdom unfolds. If you want to see Jesus’s kingdom, look for those who are listening to him. If you want to understand the way his kingdom works, look for those who listen to him. 

Perhaps Pilate would have been wise to ask Jesus to share a few of Jesus’ teachings so that Pilate might better appreciate just what kind of words his followers are hearing and enacting so that Pilate could better appreciate this kingdom he is up against. Pilate does not ask that question. But we can. 

“Jesus, remind us again, what are the words of yours that we are to hear and obey? The words that when heard and enacted…show forth your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?” What your words again? Help us hear your voice.” 

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. 

Love your enemies. And pray for those who persecute you. 

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant…For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 

If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. 

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. 

Do to others what you would have them do to you. 

He has anointed me to set the oppressed free. 

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. 

What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 

Blessed are the merciful. They shall be shown mercy. 

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 

This is a kingdom where poor, the meek, the children, the sinner, the oppressed, the forgiving and the humble of every stripe are the locus of a resurrection power stronger than death itself. This is to say, this is not a “Room where it happens” kingdom where the levers are pulled by the ones with the strongest weapons, the most money, the most influence. 

It is worth noting here that as Presbyterians we have long understood that Jesus’s response to Pilate is not Jesus saying, “My kingdom is an interior spiritual kingdom and your kingdom is an exterior political kingdom and the two are separate and distinct.” 

The Barmen Declaration in our Presbyterian Book of Confessions states quite clearly: “We reject the false doctrine that there could be areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords, areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.” 

Or, put positively, The Confession of 1967 reads as follows: 

“The church, in its own life, is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace. But they have to fight against pretensions and injustices when these same powers endanger human welfare. Their strength is in their confidence that Gods purpose rather than human schemes will finally prevail.” 

Or once more from the Confession of 1967: “The church is called to bring all people to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights.” In all realms of life – we follow, commend, put into practice Jesus’ words… 

Of course, in our times, given where things are, especially in the realm of Pilates near and far today – this all just sounds incredibly naive, doesn’t it? 

That song, The Room Where it Happened, has a few lines that talk about the nature of the “room where it happens…” 

The art of the trade 

How the sausage gets made. 

It’s an image that makes quite clear that to get the things we want, there is much that must happen behind the scenes that is unseemly. Jesus (in our passage) may say his followers do not fight to defend him, do not sling mud or get violent…but look, you want the sausage in our system if you want a candidate who will get that sausage then… It’s not gonna be pretty. 

Later in the song, the lyrics speak again about the room where it happens… 

“The art of the compromise 

Hold your nose and close your eyes.” 

How in the world do we bear witness to Jesus’ words, kingdom values in the political or business or cultural realms of life – where it’s really just not practical if you want to get anything done? Or keep your position or…? 

I recently caught an interview with Dr. Esau McCaulley. Dr. McCaulley is an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton whose work focuses on the intersection of race, Christian identity, and the pursuit of justice. And he said this about Christians and the Kingdom of God and how it intersects with, informs, the political realm. And at one point he said this: “I really wish that more Christians would run and lose…We keep having these ideas that if are not in control then somebody bad is going to get in control and they are going to do these horrible things. So we are always going to make whatever compromises we have to make in order to keep whatever small amount of power we have. Because the alternative is always worse. But the problem is this – we are not actually in control. God is.” 

That is a striking statement and one that may not sit well with us. There are just too many important issues affecting too many lives to not be willing to do whatever it takes to be part of the power that turns the ship. But here is where McCaulley is going… 

“Christianity is not fundamentally about pragmatism….it is not that the ends justify the means. That is a sub-Christian idea. The cross is both a means and the ends. In Christianity, the way that you get something is just as important as the fact that you get it…..Christians are not allowed to put aside the means to get the ends…If I lose. I lose. If I sacrifice my ethics to get what I want, then even the getting of it is going to sour…” 

Or as Jesus put it, “What is it to gain the whole world and lose your soul?” 

In this kingdom, premised upon hearing and heeding Jesus’s word…the truly stunning implication, according to McCaulley, is that you are willing to lose (see the cross). Willing to fail for having walked with integrity. No wonder Pilate does not seem terribly threatened! And yet even in the possibility of losing, always trusting…that in this kingdom, dying in the way of love always, always, always…becomes a resurrection far more powerful than anything the kingdoms have. Dare we trust ourselves to the kingdom of God? In both our ends and our means? Not just in our politics but our family life, our church life. 

Near the end of Dr. McCaulley’s interview, he admits that he is neither a politician nor a policy-maker and so knows his guidance surely has blind spots and limitations, but he offers this. “All I am saying as we think about being Kingdom of God people in the political realm….all I am saying is that we Christians should always be asking this question: “Where is the cross in our posture?” 

Others may bring to the table different questions, different values, different levers altogether…but the people who confess Jesus as King of all of the Kings and Lord of all of the Lords… 

  • where is the cross?
  • where is sacrificial love?
  • where is humbleness?
  • where is an ache for justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation? 

How are these in our posture as we engage the challenges and dynamics before us? 

On Thursday, a few of the staff from FPC went and toured Community First! In Austin. As some of you know, Community First! is master-planned development that provides affordable, permanent housing and a supportive community for people coming out of chronic homelessness. And essentially, it’s a small town of tiny homes where these folks live. 

And at one point I am walking alongside Dustin Hite who is one of the Mission Residents there and helping provide us with a tour of the place. And he says, “a lot of folks in a lot of places have built mixed-income housing or built tiny home communities or tried any number of housing solutions to homelessness. And we certainly have done that here. But the thing that makes this really work here is the emphasis on community. People who live here really care about knowing one another, listening to another.” 

He was quick to add that not everyone who shows up wants that or trusts that… “but it is always offered to everyone. You are loved, you are known.” 

And just at that moment we are passing by this beautiful, stone fire pit in one of the common areas, and Dustin goes, “That was not inexpensive to install…” And then next to that is this organic community garden that the residents maintain. And he adds, “And that is not at all a cost-efficient way to use that portion of land nor is it the most cost-effective way to supply food for the community but both of those are examples of what it means to invest in community as a priority.” And then the next thing we pass in the common area is this beautiful, stone columbarium. “A lot of folks who live here don’t have any family…or they are estranged.” 

And I thought to myself, “There is the cross in their posture. There is sacrificial love. There is an ache for reconciliation…right now to how the spending priorities go in ways that may not make good ‘business sense’ but abundant in the Kingdom shaped by the voice who declares, “Blessed are the poor for they shall receive the kingdom of heaven.” 

To be sure, this particular community does not appear all that politically potent or culturally or financially potent. It does not appear to have any leverage over the big issues of our day and those like Pilate would likely care less about the comings or goings of it…the thing is this: The Roman Empire came and went. So too does every Empire, every nation, every Pilate. 

What has endured for 2000 years is this kingdom – even amid all of the church’s deep imperfections and failing, still in every generation this kingdom always raises up from the unlikely, the least, the failed, the broken, even the dead. Dare we trust our lives afresh to this king? His voice? His kingdom? 

The truth is many of us spend an awful lot of time worrying about who is in the Room where it happens and seeing we can’t get in there, too, to ensure our way. We can name senators, the justice, the presidents, the governors, the business tycoons, the cultural influencers and all the rest who are in the rooms where it happens. We can often tell you what they said yesterday and ten years ago and twenty years ago…and how they voted and how they acted…and sometimes we can drive ourselves almost crazy with worry about some of them and therefore how we others need to get into the room and do whatever it takes to make the sausage we that need… 

And it is absolutely right and good to be attentive and informed about such dynamics – at the local and national level alike. But…. “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews (they’d play “the room where it happens” games).” 

What if we traded some of the time we spend wondering about and worrying about the room where it happens hearing Jesus’ word to “Seek first the Kingdom of God?” 

I’m not saying be less engaged in matters that affect all of us, but rather in that engagement, what if we sought first the means and ends that fell in accordance with the voice of Jesus no matter where the chips may fall? Because the truth is even the best of election results, the verdicts, the decisions, the actions and inactions born of the Room where it happens will continue to fail and frustrate us…there is only one Kingdom which endures from generation to generation. One kingdom where even in failure, especially in failure…there is a rising. And thanks be to God that by the grace of Jesus Christ all of us have been made citizens of that kingdom. 

May our citizenship be evident in our words and actions. Amen. 

About Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert