Christ the King B: “You’re Gonna Have to Serve Somebody”

The lessons for Christ the King, year B, are:

Old Testament       Daniel 7:9–10, 13–14

Psalm                    Psalm 93

New Testament      Revelation 1:4b–8

Gospel                   John 18:33–37

Bob Dylan published a song in 1979, during the peak years of his more religiously expressive period, that holds a crucial lesson for our times. The verses asserted that you may be of any sort of class or status, and then the refrain repeated this fundamental truth:

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

In today’s America a dominant refrain, spoken forcefully by the Republican Party and people like Green Bay Packer star Aaron Rogers, is “Nobody’s going to tell me what to do.” In other words, life is all about “bodily autonomy.”

But Dylan shares the insight, You aren’t as autonomous as you think. You are listening to someone. You choose to believe someone. You march to someone’s drum. So be aware—it makes all the difference whom it is you follow and serve, and sometimes your so-called autonomy is really just serving the devil in disguise.

The lessons for Christ the King Sunday are all about this choice, and who it is who truly makes the world go ‘round, who this world belongs to, and who is worthy of devotion,

One of my favorite Old Testament teachers used to talk about the arrogant usurpers of this world by asking, “Who died and left you in charge?”  Today, in America, the ones who want to step in for God and put themselves up as the next and best messiahs, are the ones who most often trumpet the cause of autonomy and personal freedom and rights. That is the Big Lie of today’s autocrats and potential autocrats. It is because they care so much for your freedom that they then brook no criticism, respect the humanity of no one who gets in their way, and allow no true discussion of solutions.

It is instructive to consider that each of our readings for this Sunday come from a time when despots were on the ascent. For Daniel it was Antiochus IV who wanted to be called Epiphanes, or god made manifest. This king of the second century Seleucid empire took his humiliation by the Romans out on the Judeans, and reacted to their resistance by suppressing the Temple cult in Jerusalem.

For Jesus it was both Pilate and the Empire he represented, and the chief priests who had that Empire as both overlord and grand manipulator.

For John, the author of Revelation, it was again the Empire that ruled the Mediterranean world through ruthless military might, economic oppression, and a system that depended on slavery and coercion.

Each of the readings has something to say about who has both the might and the right to rule this world. But the one to focus on here is that first chapter of Revelation.

John’s purpose in writing his letters and his visions for the churches of western Asia Minor was to encourage them not to cave in to the pressures to assimilate to such an arrogant and oppressive regime and its beast of an autocratic regime. Of course the Caesar and his minions promoted their own version of the Big Lie by swearing that they cared only for the people, and that they were the creators and protectors of the Pax Romana—the Roman peace. With their might, they said, they brought prosperity and security, even as they enslaved millions.

But, John writes, believers must choose a better King to serve. John points out that Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth [who is worthy of being served because he] “freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” This is the One who has both the might and the right to be served—to receive “the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

So, there is no alternative. None of us truly have the option of  “bodily autonomy.” None of us can live long by championing nothing but our own personal rights. In the final analysis, none of us are entitled to anything. We all have to choose whom to follow and serve. And the One entitled to be served is the Christ who died to bring people together, not drive them apart.

Today we must renounce the Big Lie that America was built on nothing but personal freedom and individual rights and responsibilities. We must admit that this nation and all decent human life is built not on personal freedom or autonomy, but freedom from the sin of self-centeredness and for a culture of service of one another.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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