What kind of king? What kind of people?

Notes for a sermon at Holy Trinity Anglican Church (Strathcona), Edmonton
Reign of Christ Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021
Texts: John 18:33-37; 2 Samuel 23:1-7; Revelation 1:4b-8

Are you the King of the Jews?” may at first seem like a straightforward yes/no question. The Jewish authorities have turned Jesus over to Pilate, demanding his death. At first glance, Pilate is just seeking a quick resolution to the charge. However, I find myself hearing Pilate’s question on another level. Jesus has been accused of claiming kingship, and Pilate can’t quite believe it.

Are you the King of the Jews?” “Really?”

Whatever answer Jesus may give, he does not present as any kind of king that Pilate can recognize. What does a king look like? Certainly nothing like a Galilean peasant. Pilate knew kings – people who lived in palaces, dressed richly, surrounded by servants. Most kings in the ancient world got their positions through force or violence, whether an ancestor’s or their own, and they held on to those positions through force. Pilate can see none of this in Jesus, who is no kind of king that Pilate (or almost anyone else) understands. “My kingdom is not of this world,” as Jesus says. Living under Jesus’ reign is different from living under the rule of an earthly king. So…

       What kind of king is he?
       What kind of kingdom does he reign over?
       What kind of people inhabit this kingdom?

The Bible is ambivalent about human government, especially kingship.[1] There are texts that affirm its positive value, others that caution about it, and still others that are profoundly negative. Our reading from 2 Samuel points to this tension: someone who rules over people should do so “in the fear of God,” meaning that the ruler’s purposes should be God’s purposes. History has too many examples of rulers whose purposes were not aimed at the good of God’s people, but rather driven by self-interest, aggrandizement, and aggression.

Moves to limit the power of kings play an important role in our history. In 1215, Magna Carta sought to protect the rights of the church and the barons, but real steps in establishing rights for the wider populace came later, notably with the British Bill of Rights Act of 1689. In Canada, human rights, as enshrined in the first section of our constitution in 1982, have become a major factor in our lives, notably as part of some rancorous disputes around pandemic protection.[2]

The language of human rights has become commonplace, even finding its way into church life. At General Synod in 1998, we were asked to vote on a declaration of human rights for the church. The measure was narrowly defeated, but I found the debate instructive. I particularly recall one of the bishops saying something like “Human rights are a good thing to promote, but we in the church should remember that this is not our ‘heart language.’ Our heart language as followers of Christ is the language of responsibility, which is found in the Baptismal Covenant.”[3]

That one short speech has stayed with me ever since.

We are celebrating baptism today, affirming with the candidate and her parents and sponsors our own commitment to following Jesus. We are declaring ourselves to be citizens of Jesus’ Kingdom. Following Jesus is never about asserting rights and privileges, but rather about acknowledging and accepting our responsibilities as Jesus’ people. One of those responsibilities is related to human rights – we pledge to respect the dignity of every human being, but that has little to do with our own rights. It’s more about acknowledging others’ equal standing in God’s eyes.

Jesus could have claimed kingship for himself, with all the rights and privileges pertaining to that office. As the incarnate Word of God – the Truth walking among us – he was certainly entitled to due respect. But he never claimed it.

Instead, as Paul wrote in Philippians 2:5-8

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.

Jesus’ kingship is not about him – not like Louis XIV of France, who famously said “L’état – c’est moi.” For Louis and many other monarchs, it is all about them. For Jesus, it is all about God and God’s people, and his self-giving love for all that led him to stand before Pilate, and soon after to die on the cross.

Christian life – the life expressed in promise form in the Baptismal Covenant – is not about us. It’s about our participation in the Reign of Christ, a Kingdom built on justice, mercy, and love.

Christian life is about us being and becoming a kingdom of “priests serving [Jesus’] God and Father.” We are not all priests in the ecclesiastical sense, but as a people we are called to “proclaim by word and example the good news of God,” presenting God to the world in all that we say and do – the essential nature of priestly ministry. This message will not always be received in joy by people, not least because it confronts all our self-driven agendas.

I once asked a young man who was considering Baptism as part of his preparation for marriage what he understood to be the purpose of life. His response startled me: “I guess to get power over other people,” a dramatic contrast to seeking others’ good, entailed in following Jesus. I don’t think he is unique – far from it! – but I had never heard this stance expressed quite so candidly.

Being part of the people of God can sometimes be difficult, as that conversation showed. But the good news is that we are not alone.

We stand with Jesus, who stands with us, together accepting and sharing all the risks of proclaiming the Truth in a world that sometimes seems to despise it.

We are empowered by the Holy Spirit, who moves in our midst and in our hearts, driving out fear, and sowing within us the seeds of love.

We are all children of God, who created us in love, calls us to live in love, and welcomes us into the Kingdom in love.

Thanks be to God!

[1]Excursus: Biblical Ambivalence to Government”, in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Abingdon 2003, p.407

[2] A considerable body of jurisprudence has emerged in Canada, using the principle of “reasonable accommodation” in cases of competing rights.

[3] Book of Alternative Services, Anglican Church of Canada, 1985, p. 158

Moving along…

It’s been a while since I posted on this blog. The whole season of Advent and the twelve days of Christmas have come and gone. Advent has been a struggle for me for some years, and this year was no different. But here we are in the season of Epiphany, and I’m feeling more positive, and vastly more energized for the months ahead.

Things are developing. I am feeling very much at home as a member of the Holy Trinity Choir. At the same time, my status as clergy is becoming clearer. I was invited to preach on Jan. 5, my first opportunity to be present to the congregation in a vocational fashion. Things went well, and some more permanent relationship seems to be a real possibility. That would be good.

I have taken the liberty of posting my sermon from that day here.

Three Kings-PattayaMagi and Mystery

Texts:  Matthew 2:1-12; Ephesians 3:1-12; 

Contrary to popular notions, we are still in the season of Christmas, on the last of the “Twelve Days.” The celebration of the Lord’s Nativity ends with Epiphany, officially tomorrow, January 6, but also observed here as in many places on the Sunday before. The focus of the day is the visit of the Magi, recounted in Matthew, one of the stories unique to this Gospel. It is a story shrouded in mystery, a story which has acquired many layers of oral and written tradition.

The Rector observed on Christmas Eve that the Nativity story from Luke is notable for what it doesn’t include: there are details “missing”, which church and other traditions have inserted through song, story, and art. The story of the Magi is much the same. There are a myriad of embellishments to the story. A good example is the carol “We Three Kings,” which would be well-named, except that the visitors were probably not kings, and there may or may not have been three of them.

The account in Matthew is maddeningly sparse. The visitors were wise men or “magioi” (a Greek word translating a Persian one, from which arose eventually our word “magic”) who came to Jerusalem seeking the new-born King of the Jews, bringing gifts fit for a king. The text gives them no names and no place of origin except “the East.” They make the obvious mistake of going to the king in power to find the child. Herod may have been in power, albeit under Roman backing, but in no way was he or any child of his the rightful King of the Jews.

The Magi get scripturally-based directions from the religious authorities, and then make the short journey to Bethlehem—it’s only about 8 miles as the crow flies.[i] After paying homage to the child presenting their gifts, they leave by another route, prudently ignoring Herod’s wish that they bring the news back to him.

That’s all. They ride into the story, becoming the first people in Matthew to greet the Christ child—and then they ride out. They are never mentioned again, and there are no other references to Magi in the New Testament.


  1. Who were they? (Names? Number?)
  2. Where did they come from? (Persia the best guess…)
  3. What was the star they saw “at its rising” which led them to Bethlehem? (A UFO?)
  4. Why were these people even interested in the King of the Jews?

We might have other questions to ask the text, but let’s leave it at that: there are no fully satisfactory answers to these ones. If Matthew was interested in these details, perhaps he might have included them—but he didn’t, leaving us with a bare-bones story of great mystery. Apparently he saw no need to add anything other material. That’s frustrating, isn’t it? Why didn’t he fill in the blanks? Matthew wasn’t writing for a modern mindset which tends to be fixated on details and facts, and thereby misses the big picture—and the truth!

I would suggest that the story’s mysterious nature is integral to the truth that Matthew is seeking to convey. Think about it: the first people to greet the Christ, the one born King of the Jews, are mysterious people from far beyond the bounds of the Jews and their beliefs about God’s covenant with them.

In this one astonishing and mysterious event, the bounds of God’s covenant people are pushed back, even shattered. Salvation is not just for Jews, but comes through the Jews to all humankind. The great mystery of God—the depths and riches of the Gospel—to which Paul refers in Ephesians, is now revealed to all people.

The key word here is “revealed.” This is not something that happened because people figured it out, or because someone decided it was going to happen. It is not a question of human agency, but rather divine.

The various interpretations and embellishments of the story of the Magi underline our human need to avoid or to solve mysteries. We tend not to like loose ends or unfilled blanks. We want to know the answers and the details, perhaps more so in this “scientistic”[ii] post-Enlightenment age than ever before in human history. We tend to believe that everything has an answer, that everything can be solved and tied up into neat little packages.

I used to believe that. When I was in my twenties, I resolutely upheld the power of reason, logic, and objective analysis, and rejected many of the things of faith. I made my own limited intellect the measure of all truth. (Oh, the arrogance of youth!)

But something happened, something not of my own reasoning or volition, something that could only be the action of God in my life. I’m still working at it, sure in the knowledge that the mystery will remain just that—a mystery—as long as I am on this side of the veil. But that’s the beauty and wonder of the life of discipleship: there are few if any quick and easy answers, only a lifetime of living in the wonder of a relationship with God through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

It’s the mystery that keeps me going—and indeed the whole church, as Paul reminds us. We live out our lives as Christ’s disciples in faith.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Heb 11:1)

To live into the holy mysteries of God means to be always prepared to accept partial or hidden or even seemingly-contradictory truths. It also means to be prepared to receive revelation—the Word of God for us—wherever and whenever God chooses to give it. God speaks in many varied ways, often unexpected and surprising.

Surprise! God spoke through foreign magicians.

Surprise! God spoke through the birth of a child to Palestinian peasants.

Surprise! God has spoken to people throughout the ages—the poor and the rich, the learned and the simple, the old, the young, far and near.

Surprise! God is not finished with us, but invites us daily to live into the mystery of his riches, revealed through the child of Bethlehem, announced by a star, and proclaimed through the lives and witness of those who have heard the call.

Let us continue to live the mystery, to follow the star, and to seek Christ in all his glory at all times and in all places.

The Rev’d Robin Walker
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton
January 5, 2013

[i] About 18 km by the shortest route today, subject to check-points and security barriers.

[ii] sci·en·tism n.
1. The collection of attitudes and practices considered typical of scientists.
2. The belief that the investigative methods of the physical sciences are applicable or justifiable in all fields of inquiry.                http://www.thefreedictionary.com/scientistic