Sam Rutigliano, one-time head coach of the Cleveland Browns and a Lutheran Christian, was scheduled to be the main speaker for a Lutheran banquet. Ed Markquart, then the senior pastor of a Lutheran congregation near Seattle, was going to the gathering, but didn’t want to go. Rutigliano would, Markquart was sure, give one of those “jock for Jesus” talks, the ones where athletes or coaches talk about all the victories Jesus has given them.
He was shocked then at the banquet, when Rutigliano spoke about his faith in Christ. As Rutigliano told it, “He and his wife were driving one evening with their two year old daughter in the back seat. Suddenly a car was upon them; there was an accident; their car rolled over; the child was thrown out; and when everything had stopped moving, their little girl was pinned underneath the car.”
Markquart waited for the standard “jock for Jesus” finish. But all Rutigliano said of his daughter was, “She was dead.”
His wife and he grieved, nothing seeming to bring comfort.
Time passed and they became pregnant again, an answer to prayer, it seemed.
The pregnancy was normal and the baby was delivered, stillborn. It was more than Sam Rutigliano and his wife could bear. Sam found himself trying to negotiate with God. “If You will do this, Lord, then I will do that.” Markquart writes that as Rutigliano prayed, “...a quiet voice spoke back to Sam’s inner spirit: ‘No deals, Sam. No deals. No manipulations. I rule over you in all times of your life.'” Even the bad ones.
Rutigliano concluded his speech: “God has called me to be his servant in my turf, the National Football League. He rules over all aspects of my life, when winning or losing, in triumphs and tragedies. How about you? Where is your turf? Does God rule you there in your turf, in your situation? Not just when you’re winning, but when you are losing. Not just during the triumphs but during the tragedies of your life? Does God rule you then?”
With those words, Sam Rutigliano sat down.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. And the question before us is this: Is Jesus Christ our king? Or do we serve other kings, like desire, success, security, popular acceptance, or, one of today’s favorites, tolerance, whose subjects believe in tolerating anyone except those who disagree with them.
Here’s what I’ve learned about the kings people choose to serve other than Jesus Christ: They’re not much good when you face adversities or griefs like the ones Sam Rutigliano experienced.
The king of desire, for example, will leave you to die when you’ve overdosed and let you fend for yourself when you learn that you have a sexually transmitted disease, or are pregnant.
The king of popularity or acceptance by others will give you a happy life so long as you live like a chameleon and go along to get along with the crowd. (Some of you young people know what I’m talking about!)
That king of popular acceptance, in fact, appears to be the king of choice even in our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America these days.
Our leaders and members put up with and even encourage pastors, bishops, and congregations who question or deny the virgin birth of Jesus, that Jesus physically rose from the dead , that Jesus is the only way to life with God, and the existence of hell.
To be acceptable to one Christian denomination, our ELCA has also effectively, given up on a central teaching of the Lutheran confessions that the written word of God in the Bible is the final authority over our life, faith, and practice and accepts instead that that other denomination’s bishops and human traditions have an authority equal to that of the Bible.
In obvious deference to being accepted by others, our ELCA has also said in its public documents that authority over Christian proclamation and practice stems not just from Scripture, but also our personal experiences. That contradicts what both the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions teach.
Denominational and synodical officials, say nothing while one of our ELCA congregations plays to the prevailing opinions of Americans people that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe it sincerely. At Ebenezer Church, an ELCA congregation in good standing, the Lord's Prayer or their version of it isn't offered to the God Who “is in heaven.” Instead, they pray to the deity “who is within us” and displace any mention of forgiving our trespasses as we forgive the trespasses of others. The so-called prayer is ended with: “You support us in our power and we act with courage. For you are the dwelling place within us, the empowerment around us and the celebration among us, now and forever. Amen.” The problem, of course, isn't that the words are wrong, but that the theology is more American and more Asian than it is Biblical. ELCA officials not only refuse undertake disciplinary action against this congregation, a high official of the ELCA, an aide to our presiding bishop, recently spoke and worshiped at a conference there, alongside a so-called “high priestess of the goddess Isis.”
In obvious deference to being accepted by others, our ELCA has also said in public documents that sources of authority over Christian sexual morality include not just Scripture, but also our personal experiences. That contradicts what both the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions teach.
The irony is that while our denomination sounds more and more like the rest of the world, the king of popularity has abandoned us. When the going gets tough, the kings of this world always abandon their subjects. But, like Sam Rutigliano, we know a King who “will never leave [us] nor forsake [us],” from whom not even death can separate us.
This morning we gather to worship and celebrate the only King worthy of our allegiance. We worship King Jesus Christ, the Lord of everything! Jesus is different from the other kings people serve.
We see how different in our gospel lesson, John 8:33-37. It’s part of John’s narrative about the trial of Jesus that will culminate in His death on a cross.
Verse 33: “Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again, called [other translations say, “summoned”] Jesus, and said to Him, ‘Are You the King of the Jews?’” Pilate has just come from a consultation with the leaders of the Jewish religion, whose country, Judea, was under the rule of the Roman Empire and of Pilate, the Roman governor. The leaders’ beef with Jesus is that He claimed to be God. They saw this as sacrilegious. But Romans called all sorts of people gods. So, in order to persuade Pilate that Jesus needed to be executed and gotten out of the way, they told Pilate that Jesus claimed to be King of the Jews. That got Pilate’s attention. He didn’t want any trouble from would-be kings. So, he asks Jesus, “Are You the King of the Jews?”
Jesus, this poor carpenter, already bruised and battered from the mistreatment He’s received since His arrest, shows Pilate Who’s really in charge of this interview by asking Pilate a question: “Are you speaking for yourself about this, or did others tell you this concerning Me?”
In essence, Jesus is asking Pilate the same question He asked His own disciples in Matthew 16:15: “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus Himself is unambiguous in identifying Who He is.
Go to John 14:9. Jesus tells Philip: “...He who has seen Me has seen the Father...”
Look at John 10:30 Jesus says, “I and My Father are one.”
Or look at John 8:58. Jesus tells His fellow Jews who want to make Him a king on their own terms: “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” (I AM--Yahweh--in the Old Testament was the Name by which God identified Himself to Moses at a burning bush some 1500 years earlier.)
Jesus isn’t one of the bitty kings people follow in this world, not the little gods of various worldly religious systems. He is the King of all creation, the One with power over life and death.
As Jesus puts it in John 11:25: “I am the resurrection and the life. [All who believe] in Me, though [they] die...shall live.”
Back in our lesson, Pilate sees himself as too important to deal with the squabbles of a conquered people. He asks Jesus in John 18:35: “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you to me. What have you done?”
But Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” We must be careful here. In saying that His kingdom is not of this world, Jesus isn’t saying that His kingdom is not for this world.
If His kingdom weren’t for this world, Jesus wouldn’t have taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
When Jesus says that His kingdom is not of this world, He’s saying that it’s not from this world. He is, after all, God the Word made flesh.
Jesus is not from the world, but through His death and resurrection He conquers this world and when He returns one day to bring this world to an end, He will bring the new heavens and the new earth for all who believe in Him to reign over with Him.
Jesus goes on to tell Pilate in our Gospel lesson: “If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight...”
Jesus is saying, “If I were an ordinary king, I’d have my own army that would fight for Me. I’d have my own political platform that My followers would fight for in the counsels of government. But My kingdom is bigger than all that. “My kingdom,” Jesus says at the end of verse 36, “is not from here.”
Pilate has seen bands of rebels undertake their little wars on Rome before. He looks at the carpenter standing before him and, probably with sarcasm, asks in verse 37, “Are You a king then?” “You say rightly that I am a king,” Jesus tells Pilate in verse 37. “For this cause [the cause of bringing God’s kingdom into this sinful, dying world] I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth [everyone, in other words, who hasn’t given their allegiance to one of the puny, dying kings of this world] hears My voice.”
This echoes what Jesus says elsewhere: His sheep know His voice and will respond to no other.
Is Jesus the only voice to which you’re listening today? Is Jesus your only King?
If you can answer yes to those questions this morning, you have reason to be grateful and glad!
But let’s be clear: It’s not an easy time to be a follower of Jesus. It’s not politically correct to proclaim, as Jesus has told us, that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” that Jesus is the only King of the universe, the only way to life with God.
Popular culture is aligned against the followers of Jesus Christ. But this is no time to change kings. This is no time to cave into the culture of the world, of our country, or even of our denomination.
Dietrich Offeldt lived in post-World War II eastern Germany. It was clear that the people were going to trade the terrors of living under Hitler for the terrors of life under Soviet Communism, in which official atheism told the people to have no king but the state. Dietrich Offeldt was a Christian. “Leave East Germany,” his friends told him.
But he refused, explaining later: “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior. He is the ruler of my life, and he can dispose of my life in any way he chooses. I have found that every Christian finds himself or herself in a particular circumstance, a particular time, a particular place in which they live out their discipleship. My circumstance is communism; my time is the Cold War; and my place is East Berlin. I chose to be a disciple here.”
God has given you the task of being a subject of King Jesus in this town, in this time, in this place, and, as a member of a Lutheran congregation, a member of a denomination that grows bolder each day in repudiating the teachings of the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions we say are the bedrock of our faith, that subtly denies the kingship of Jesus in favor of getting along with a pluralistic world.
You and I could choose to avoid trouble with neighbors and friends by keeping our traps shut about Jesus, our king.
If we do that long enough, Jesus will no longer be our king. We’ll be subjects of the dying world’s two favorite kings, Safety and Security, which are only aliases of Satan, ticketed for death along with every other king but the risen Jesus.
Better to take the choice made by Dietrich Offeldt. He chose, he said, “to raise my flag and show my colors, to let those around me know for sure that I am a Christian, that Christ rules my life.”
On this Christ the King Sunday, I ask you (I ask myself): “Whose colors will you fly, those of the kings of the world? Or will you fly those of the King of all kings, the Lord of all lords, the conqueror of sin and death, the One Who is with us always, even to the close of the age, and the One Who promises to one day embrace us with those nail-scarred arms as He welcomes us, scarred ourselves by all we have faithfully endured in this world as we’ve followed Him, into eternity?”
Never be ashamed of Christ the King!
Never be ashamed of the king's book, the Bible!
Let Jesus be your King now and always. Amen
[This was prepared to be shared with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, during worship at both 8:30 and 10:15 this morning.]
 The PDF document cited here, by Pastor Mark Chavez, a former ELCA pastor, now general secretary of the North American Lutheran Church, addresses all of the problem areas mentioned above. It's well worth taking the time to read it.